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June 1969

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Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories



Friday night, as I sat in the kitchen before going to bed, knocking down a liverwurst on whole wheat and drinking a glass of chocolate milk, the back door squeaked open and in breezed the old man, carrying his bowling bag. Friday night was his big night down at the Pin-Bowl. He was a fanatical bowler, and a good one, too. He slid the bag across the floor, pretending to lay one down the groove, his right arm held out in a graceful follow-through, right leg trailing in the classic bowling stance. "Right in the pocket," he said with satisfaction. "How'd you do tonight?" I asked. "Not bad. Had a two-oh-seven game. Damn near cracked six hundred." He opened the refrigerator and fished around for a beer, then sat down heavily, downed two thirds of the bottle in a mighty drag, burped loudly and said: "Well, tomorrow's the big day, ain't it?" "Yep," I answered. "Sure is." "You takin' Daphne Bigelow?" he asked. "Nah. Wanda Hickey." "Oh, yeah? Well, you can't win 'em all. Wanda's old man is some kind of a foreman at the mill or something, ain't he?" "I guess so." "He drives a Studebaker Champion, don't he? The green two-door with the whitewalls." The old man had a fine eye for cars. He judged all men by what they drove. Apparently, a guy who drove a two-door Studebaker was not absolutely beyond the pale. "Not a bad car. Except they burn oil after a while," he mused, omitting no aspects of the Studebaker. "They used to have a weak front end. Bad kingpins." He shook his head critically, opening another beer and reaching for the rye bread. I said nothing, lost in my own thoughts. My mother and kid brother had been in bed for an hour or so. We were, for all practical purposes, alone in the house. Next door, Mrs. Kissel threw out a pan of dishwater into the back yard with a swoosh. Her screen door slammed. "How ya fixed for tomorrow night?" the old man asked suddenly, swirling his beer bottle around to raise the head. "What do you mean?" "I mean, how are ya fixed?" My father never talked money to me. I got my allowance every Monday and that was that. "Well, I've got about ten bucks." "Hm." That was all he said. After sitting in silence for a minute or so, he said, "You know, I always wished I coulda gone to a prom." How can you answer something like that? He had barely gotten out of eighth grade when he had to go to work, and he never stopped for the rest of his life. "Oh, well, what the hell" He finally answered himself: He cut himself a couple of slices of boiled ham and made a sandwich. "I was really hot tonight. Got a string of six straight strikes in the second game. The old hook was movin', getting a lot of wood." He reached into his hip pocket, took out his wallet and said, "Look, don't tell Ma." He handed me a $20 bill. "I had a couple of bets going on the second game, and I'm a money bowler." He was that. No doubt of it. In his early teens, he had scrounged out a living as a pool shark, and he had never lost the touch. I took the $20, glommed onto it the way the proverbial drowning man grabs at a straw. I was so astounded at this unprecedented gesture that it never occurred to me to say thanks. He would have been embarrassed if I had. A miracle had come to pass. There was no doubt about it - the prom was going to be an unqualified blast. The next day dawned bright and sunny, as perfect as a June day can be - in a steel-mill town. Even the blast-furnace dust that drifted aimlessly through the soft air glowed with promise. I was out early, dusting off the car. It was going to be a top-down night. If there is anything more romantic than a convertible with the top down in June going to a prom, I'd like to hear about it. Cleopatra's barge couldn't have been much more seductive. My kid brother, his diminutive Flash Gordon T-shirt showing a great expanse of knobby backbone and skinny belly, yapped around me as I toiled over the Ford. "Look what you done to my T-shinl" he whined, his runny nose atrickle. He was in the midst of his annual spring cold, which would be superseded by his summer cold, which lasted nicely to the whopper he got in the fall, which, of course, was only a prelude to his winter-long monster cold. "Stay away from the fender. You're dripping on it!" I shouted angrily, shoving him away. "Flash Gordon's only about an inch high now!" I couldn't help laughing. It was true. Flash had shrunk, along with the shirt, which Randy had earned by doggedly eating three boxes of Wheaties, saving the box tops anel! mailing them in with 25 cents that he had, by dint of ferocious self-denial, saved from his 30-cent weekly allowance. "Look, I'll get you another Flash Gordon T-shirt." "You can't. They're not givin' 'em away no more. They're givin' away Donald Duck beanies with a propeller on top now." "Well, then, stretch the one you got now, stupid." "It won't stretch. It keeps getting littler." He bounced up and down on a clothes pole, joggling the clothesline and my mother's wash. Within three seconds, she was out on the back porch. "CUT IT OUT WITH THE CLOTHES POLE!" Sullenly, he slid off onto the ground. I went back to work, until the Ford gleamed like some rare jewel. Then I went into the house to begin the even more laborious process of getting myself in shape for the evening ahead. Locking the bathroom door, I took two showers, wearing a brand-new bar of Lifebuoy down to a nub. I knew what happened to people who didn't use it; every week, little comic strips underneath Moon Mullins told endless tales of disastrous proms due to dreaded b. o. It would not happen to me. I then shaved for the second time that week, using a new Gillette Blue Blade. As usual when an important shave was executed, I nicked myself nastily in several places. "Son of a bitch," I muttered, plastering the wounds with little pieces of toilet paper. Carefully, I went over every inch of my face, battling that age-old enemy, the blackhead, and polished off the job with a copious application of stinging Aqua Velva. Next, I attacked my hair, combing and recombing, getting just the right insouciant pitch to my pride and joy, my d. a. cut. Tonight, I would be a truly magnificent specimen of lusty manhood. Twilight was fast approaching when I emerged from the bathroom, redolent of rare aromas, pink and svelte. But the real battle had not yet begun. Laid out on my bed was my beautiful summer formal. AI was right: The elegant white coat truly gleamed in virginal splendor. Not a trace of the red stain nor the sinister hole could be detected. The coat was ready for another night of celebration, its lapels spotless, its sleeves smooth and uncreased. Carefully, I undid the pins that festooned my pleated Monte Carlo shirt. It was the damnedest thing I had ever seen, once I got it straightened out: long, trailing, gauzelike shirttails, a crinkly front that thrummed like sheet metal and a collar that seemed to be carved of white rock. I slipped it on. Panic! It had no buttons-just holes. Rummaging around frantically in the box the tux came in, I found a cellophane bag containing little round black things. Ripping the bag open, I poured them out; there were five of them, two of which immediately darted under the bed. From the looks of the remaining three, they certainly weren't buttons; but they'd have to do. Although I didn't know it at the time, I had observed a classic maneuver executed by at least one stud out of every set ever rented with a tux. Down on my hands and knees, already beginning to lose my Lifebuoy sheen, sweat popping out here and there, I scrambled around for the missing culprits. The ordeal was well under way. Seven o'clock was approaching with such rapidity as to be almost unbelievable. Schwartz, Clara Mae and Wanda would already be waiting for me, and here I was in my drawers, crawling around on my hands and knees. Finally, amid the dust and dead spiders under my bed, I found the two studs cowering together behind a hardball I'd lost three months earlier. Back before the mirror, I struggled to get them in place between the concrete slits. Sweat was beginning to show under my arms. I got two in over my breastbone and then I tried to get the one at the collar over my Adam's apple. It was impossible! I could feel from deep within me several sobs beginning to form. The more I struggled, the more ham-fisted I became. Oh, no! Two blackish thumb smudges appeared on my snow-white collar. "MA!" I screamed, "LOOK AT MY SHIRT!" She rushed in from the kitchen, carrying a paring knife and a pan of apples. "What's the matter?" "Look!" I pointed at me telltale prints. My kid brother cackled in delight when he saw the trouble I was in. "Don't touch it," she barked, taking control immediately. Dirty collars were her metier. She had fought them all her life. She darted out of the room and returned instantly with an artgum eraser. "Now, hold still." I obeyed as she carefully worked the stud in place and then artistically erased the two monstrous thumbprints. Never in my life had I experienced a collar remotely like the one that now clamped its iron grasp around my windpipe. Hard and unyielding, it dug mercilessly into my throat-a mere sample of what was to come. "Where's your tie?" she asked. I had forgotten about that detail. "It ... ack ... must be ... in the box," I managed to gasp out. The collar had almost paralyzed my voice box. She rummaged around and came up with the bow tie. It was black and it had two metal clips. She snapped it onto the wing collar and stood back. "Now, look at yourself in the mirror." I didn't recognize myself. She picked up the midnight-blue trousers and held them open, so that I could slip into them without bending over. True to his word, AI had, indeed, taken in the seat. The pants clamped me in a viselike grip that was to damn near emasculate me before the evening was out. I sucked in my stomach, buttoned the waistband tight, zippered up the fly and stood straight as a ramrod before the mirror. I had no other choice. "Gimme your foot." My mother was down on all fours, pulling the silky black socks onto my feet. Then, out of a box on the bed, she removed the gleaming pair of patent-leather dancing pumps, grabbed my right foot and shoved it into one of them, using her finger as a shoehorn. I tromped down. She squealed in pain. "I can 't get my finger out!" I hobbled around, taking her finger with me. "STAND STILL!" she screamed. I stood like a crane, one foot in the air, with her finger jammed deep into the heel. "RANDY! COME HERE!" she yelled. My kid brother, who was sulking under the day bed, ran into the room. "PULL HIS SHOE OFF, RANDY!" She was frantic. "What for?" he asked sullenly. "DON'T ASK STUPID QUESTIONS. JUST DO WHAT I SAY!" I was getting an enormous cramp in my right buttock. "STAND STILL!" she yelled. "YOU'RE BREAKING MY FINGER!" Randy looked on impassively, observing a scene that he was later to weave into a family legend, embroidering it more and more as the years went by - making himself the hero, of course. "RANDY! TAKE OFF HIS SHOE!" Her voice quavered with pain and exasperation. "He squirted my T-shirt." "If you don't take off his shoe this instant, you're gonna regret it." This time, her voice was low and menacing. We both knew the tone. It was the end of the line. Randy bent over and tugged off the shoe. My mother toppled backward in relief, rubbing her index finger, which was already blue. "Go back under the day bed," she snapped. He scurried out of the room. I straightened out my leg - the cramp subsiding like a volcano in the marrow of my bones - and the gleaming pumps were put in place without further incident. I stood encased as in armor. "What's this thing?" she asked from behind me. I executed a careful 180-degree turn. "Oh, that's my cummerbund." Her face lit up like an Italian sunrise. "A cummerbund!" She had seen Fred Astaire in many a cummerbund while he spun down marble staircases with Ginger Rogers in his arms, but it was the first actual specimen she had ever been close to. She picked it up reverently, its paisley brilliance lighting up the room like an iridescent jewel. "How does it work?" she asked, examining it closely. Before I could answer, she said, "Oh, I see. It has snaps on the back. Hold still." Around my waist it went. She drew it tight. The snaps clicked into place. It rode snugly halfway up my chest. She picked up the snowy coat and held it out. I lowered my arms into it, straightened up and there I stood-Adonis! Posing before the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, I noted the rich accent of my velvet stripes, the gleam of my pumps, the magnificent dash and sparkle of my high-fashion cummerbund. What a sight! What a feeling! This is the way life should be. This is what it's all about. I heard my mother call out from the next room: "Hey, what's this thing?" She came out holding a cellophane bag containing a maroon object. "Oh, that's my boutonniere." "Your what?" "It's a thing for the lapel. Like a fake flower." It was the work of an instant to install my elegant wool carnation. It was the crowning touch. I was so overwhelmed that I didn't care about the fact that it didn't match my black tie, as Al had promised. With the cummerbund I was wearing, no one would notice, anyway. Taking my leave as Cary Grant would have done, I sauntered out the front door, turned to give my mother a jaunty wave - just in time for her to call me back to pick up Wanda's corsage, which I'd left on the front-hall table. Slipping carefully into the front seat with the celluloid-topped box safely beside me, I leaned forward slightly, to avoid wrinkling the back of my coat, started the motor up and shoved off into the warm spring night. A soft June moon hung overhead, and the Ford purred like a kitten. When I pulled up before Wanda's house, it was lit up from top to bottom. Even before my brakes had stopped squealing, she was out on the porch, her mother fluttering about her, her father lurking in the background, beaming. With stately tread, I moved up the walk; my pants were so tight that if I'd taken one false step, God knows what would have happened. In my sweaty, Aqua Velva-scented palm, I clutched the ritual largess in its shiny box. Wanda wore a long turquoise taffeta gown, her milky skin and golden hair radiating in tile glow of the porch light. This was not the old Wanda. For one thing, she didn't have her glasses on, and her eyes were unnaturally large and liquid, the way the true myopia victim's always are. "Gee, thanks for the orchid," she whispered. Her voice sounded strained. In accordance with the tribal custom, she, too, was being mercilessly clamped by straps and girdles. Her mother, an almost exact copy of Wanda, only slightly puffy here and there, said, "You'll take care of her now, won't you?" "Now, Emily, don't start yapping," her old man muttered in the darkness. "They're not kids anymore." They stood in the doorway as we drove off through the soft night toward Schwartz' house, our conversation stilted, our excitement almost at the boiling point. Schwartz rushed out of his house, his white coat like a ghost in the blackness, his hair agleam with Brylcreem, and surrounded by a palpable aura of Lifebuoy. Five minutes later, Clara Mae piled into the back seat beside him, carefully holding up her daffodil-yellow skirts, her long slender neck arched. She, too, wasn't wearing her glasses. I had never realized that a good speller could be so pretty. Schwartz, a good half head shorter, laughed nervously as we tooled on toward the Cherrywood Country Club. From all over town , other cars, polished and waxed, carried the rest of the junior class to their great trial by fire. The club nestled amid the rolling hills, where the Sinclair oil aroma was only barely detectable. Parking the car in the lot, we threaded our way through the starched and crinolined crowd - the girls' girdles creaking in unison - to the grand ballroom. Japanese lanterns danced in the breeze through the open doors to the garden, bathing the dance floor in a fairy-tale glow. I found myself saying things like, "Why, hello there, Albert, how are you?" And, "Yes, I believe the weather is perfect." Only Flick, the unregenerate Philistine, failed to rise to the occasion. Already rumpled in his summer formal, he made a few tasteless wisecracks as Mickey Iseley and his Magic Music Makers struck up the sultry sounds that had made them famous in every steel-mill town that ringed Lake Michigan. Dark and sensuous, the dance floor engulfed us all. I felt tall, slim and beautiful, not realizing at the time that everybody feels that way wearing a rented white coat and black pants. I could see myself standing on a mysterious balcony, a lonely, elegant figure, looking out over the lights of some exotic city, a scene of sophisticated gaiety behind me. There was a hushed moment when Mickey Iseley stood in the baby spot, his wavy hair shining. before a microphone shaped like a chromium bullet. "All right, boys and girls." The metallic ring of feedback framed his words in an echoing nimbus. "And now, something really romantic. A request: When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano. We're going to turn the lights down for this one." Oh, wow! The lights faded even lower. Only the Japanese lanterns glowed dimly - red, green, yellow and blue - in the enchanted darkness. It was unquestionably the high point of my existence. Wanda and I began to maneuver around the floor. My experience in dancing had been gained almost entirely from reading Arthur Murray ads and practicing with a pillow for a partner behind the locked door of the bathroom. As we shuffled across the floor, I could see the black footprints before my eyes, marching on a white page: 1-2-3; then the white one that said, "Pause." Back and forth, up and down, we moved metronomically. My box step was so square that I went in little right angles for weeks afterward. The wool carnation rode high up on my lapel and was beginning to scratch my cheek, and an insistent itch began to nag at my right shoulder. There was some kind of wire or horsehair or something in the shoulder pad that was beginning to bore its way into my flesh. By now, my dashing concrete collar, far from having wilted, had set into the consistency of Carborundum, and its incessant abrasive action had removed a wide strip of skin encircling my neck. As for my voice - due to the manic strangulation of the collar, it was now little more than a hoarse croak. "When the swallows ... come baaaaaaaack to Capistraaaaaaaano ..." mooed the drummer, who doubled as the band's romantic vocalist. I began to notice Wanda's orchid leering up at me from her shoulder. It was the most repulsive flower I had ever seen. At least 14 inches across, it looked like some kind of overgrown Venus fly trap waiting for the right moment to strike. Deep purple, with an obscene yellow tongue that stuck straight out of it, and greenish knobs on the end, it clashed almost audibly with her turquoise dress. It looked like it was breathing, and it clung to her shoulder as if with claws. As I glided back and forth in my graceful box step, my left shoulder began to develop an itch that helped take my mind off of the insane itch in my right shoulder, which was beginning to feel like an army of hungry soldier ants on the march. The contortions I made to relieve the agony were camouflaged nicely by a short sneezing fit brought on by the orchid, which was exhaling directly into my face. So was Wanda, with a heady essence of Smith Brothers cough drops and sauerkraut. "When the deeeep purpullllll fallllllis... Over sleeeeepy gaaardennnn wallllls..." warbled the vocalist into his microphone, with which he seemed to be dancing the tango. The loud-speakers rattled in three-quarter time as Wanda started to sweat through her taffeta. I felt it running down her back. My own back was already so wet you could read the label on my undershirt right through the dinner jacket. Back and forth we trudged doggedly across the crowded floor. Another Arthur Murray ad man, Schwartz was doing exactly the same step with Clara Mae directly behind me. We were all in a four-part lock step. As I hit the lower left-hand footprint in my square - the one marked "Pause" - he was hitting the upper right-hand corner of his square. Each time we did that, our elbows dug smartly into each other's ribs. The jungle fragrance of the orchid was getting riper by the minute and the sweat, which had now saturated my Jockey shorts, was pouring down my legs in rivulets. My soaked cummerbund had turned two shades darker. So that she shouldn't notice, I pulled Wanda closer to me. Sighing, she hugged me back. Wanda was the vaguely chubby type of girl that was so popular at the time. Like Judy Garland, by whom she was heavily .influenced, she strongly resembled a pink beach ball-but a cute beach ball, soft and rubbery. I felt bumpy things under her taffeta gown, with little hooks and knobs. Schwartz caught me a nasty shot in the rib cage just as I bent over to kiss her lightly on the bridge of her nose. It tasted salty. She looked up at me, her great liquid myopic eyes catching the reflection of the red and green lanterns overhead. During a brief intermission, Schwartz and I carried paper cups dripping syrupy punch back to the girls, who had just spent some time in the ladies' room struggling unsuccessfully to repair the damage of tile first half. As we were sipping, a face from my dim past floated by from out of nowhere - haughty, alabaster, green-eyed, dangerous. "Hi, Daph," I muttered, spilling a little punch on my gleaming pumps, which had turned during the past hour into a pair of iron maidens. "Oh, Howard." She spoke in the breathy, sexy way that such girls always have at proms. ''I'd like you to meet Budge. Budge Cameron. He's at Princeton." A languid figure, probably born in a summer formal, loomed overhead. "Budge, this is Howard." "Hiya, fella." It was the first time I had heard the tight, nasal, swinging-jaw accent of the true Princetonian. It was not to be the last. They were gone. Funny, I couldn't even remember actually dating her, I reflected, as the lights dimmed once again. We swung back into action. They opened with Sleepy Lagoon. l-2-3-pause ... 1-23-pause. It was certain now. I had broken out in a raging rash. I felt it spreading like lava across my shoulder blades, lashed on by the sweat. The horsehair, meanwhile, had penetrated my chest cavity and was working its way toward a vital organ. Trying manfully to ignore it, I stared fixedly at the tiny turquoise ribbon that held Wanda's golden ponytail in place. With troubles of her own, she looked with an equally level gaze at my maroon-wool carnation, which by this time had wilted into a clump of lint. All of a sudden, it was over. The band played Good Night, Sweetheart and we were out - into a driving rain. A violent cloudburst had begun just as we reached the door. My poor little car, the pride and joy of my life, was outside in the lot. With the top down. None of us, of course, had an umbrella. We stood under the canopy as the roaring thunderstorm raged on. It wasn't going to stop. "You guys stay here. I'll get the car," I said finally. After all, I was in charge. Plunging into the downpour, I sloshed through the puddles and finally reached the Ford. She must have had at least a foot of water in her already. Hair streaming down over my eyes, soaked to the skin and muddied to the knees, I bailed it out with a coffee can from the trunk, slid behind the wheel and pressed the automatic-top lever. Smooth as silk, it began to lift-and stuck halfway up. As the rain poured down in sheets and the lightning flashed, I pounded on the relays, furiously switched the lever off and on. I could see the country club dimly through the downpour. Finally, the top groaned and flapped into place. I threw down tile snaps, rolled up the windows and turned on the ignition; the battery was dead. The strain of hoisting that goddamn top had drained it dry. I yelled out the window at a passing car. It was Flick in his Chevy. "GIMME A PUSH! MY BATTERY'S DEAD!" This had never, to my knowledge, happened to Fred Astaire. Flick expertly swung his Chevy around and slammed into my trunk as I eased her into gear, and when she started to roll, the Ford shuddered and caught. Flick backed up and was gone, hollering out the window: "SEE YOU AT THE ROOSTER." Wanda, Schwartz and Clara Mae piled in on the damp, soggy seats and we took off. Do you know what happens to a maroon-wool carnation on a white-serge lapel in a heavy June downpour in the Midwest, where it rains not water but carbolic acid from the steel-mill fallout? I had a dark, wide, spreading maroon stripe that went all tile way down to the bottom of my white coat. My French cuffs were covered with grease from fighting the top, and I had cracked a nail, which was beginning to throb. Undaunted, we slogged intrepidly through the rain toward the Red Rooster. Wedged against my side, Wanda looked up at me-oblivious to the elements - with luminous love eyes. She was truly an incurable romantic. Schwartz wisecracked in the back seat and Clara giggled from time to time. The savage tribal rite was nearing its final and most vicious phase. We arrived at the Red Rooster, already crowded with other candidates for adulthood. A giant red neon rooster with a blue neon tail that flicked up and down in the rain set the tone for this glamorous establishment. An aura of undefined sin was always connected with the name Red Rooster. Sly winks, nudging and adolescent cacklings about what purportedly went on at the Rooster made it the "in" spot for such a momentous revel. Its waiters were rumored really to be secret henchmen of the Mafia. But the only thing we knew for sure about the Rooster was that anybody on the far side of seven years old could procure any known drink without question. The decor ran heavily to red-checkered-oilcloth table covers and plastic violets, and the musical background was provided by a legendary jukebox that stood a full seven feet high, featuring red and blue cascading waterfalls that gushed endlessly through its voluptuous facade. In full 200-watt operation, it could be felt, if not clearly heard, as far north as Gary and as far south as Kankakee. A triumph of American aesthetics. Surging with anticipation, I guided Wanda through the uproarious throng of my peers. Schwartz and Clara Mae trailed behind, exchanging ribald remarks with the gang. We occupied the only remaining table. Immediately, a beady-eyed waiter sidled over and hovered like a vulture. Distributing the famous Red Rooster Ala Carte Deluxe Menu, he stood back, smirking, and waited for us to impress our dates. "Can I bring you anything to drink, gentlemen?" he said, heavily accenting the gentlemen. My first impulse was to order my favorite drink of the period, a bottled chocolate concoction called Kayo, the Wonder Drink; but remembering that better things 'were expected of me on prom night, I said, in my deepest voice, "Uh ... make mine bourbon." Schwartz grunted in admiration. "Wanda ogled me with great, swimming, lovesick eyes. Bourbon was the only drink that I had actually heard of. My old man ordered it often down at the Bluebird Tavern. I had always wondered what it tasted like. I was soon to find out. "How will you have it, sir?" "Well, in a glass, I guess." I had failed to grasp the subtlety of his question, but the waiter snorted in appreciation of my humorous sally. "Rocks?" he continued. Rocks? I had heard about getting your rocks, but never in a restaurant. Oh, well, what the hell. "Sure," I said. "Why not?" All around me, the merrymaking throng was swinging into high gear. Carried away by it all, I added a phrase I had heard my old man use often: "And make it a triple." I had some vague idea that this was a brand or something. "A triple? Yes, sir." His eyes snapped wide-in respect, I gathered. He knew he was in the presence of a serious drinker. The waiter turned his gaze in Schwartz' direction. "And you, sir?" "Make it the same." Schwartz had never been a leader. The die was cast. Pink ladies, at the waiter's suggestion, were ordered for the girls, and we then proceeded to scan the immense menu with feigned disinterest. When the waiter returned with our drinks, I ordered-for reasons that even today I am unable to explain - French lamb chops, turnips, mashed potatoes and gravy, a side dish of the famous Red Rooster Roquefort Italian Cole Slaw and strawberry shortcake. The others wisely decided to stick with their drinks. Munching bread sticks, Wanda, Clara, Schwartz and I engaged in sophisticated post prom repartee. Moment by moment, I felt my strength and maturity, my dashing bonhomie, my clean-cut handsomeness enveloping my friends in its benevolent warmth. Schwartz, too, seemed to scintillate as never before. Clara giggled and 'Wanda sighed, overcome by the romance of it all. Even when Flick, sitting three tables away, clipped Schwartz behind the left ear with a poppy-seed roll, our urbanity remained unruffled. Before me reposed a sparkling tumbler of beautiful amber liquid, ice cubes bobbing merrily on its surface, a swizzle stick sporting an enormous red rooster sticking out at a jaunty angle. Schwartz was similarly equipped. And the fluffy pink ladies looked lovely in the reflected light of the pulsating jukebox. I had seen my old man deal with just this sort of situation. Raising my beaded glass, I looked around at my companions and said suavely, "Well, here's mud in yer eye." Clara giggled; Wanda sighed dreamily, now totally in love with this man of the world who sat across from her on this, our finest night. "Yep," Schwartz parried wittily, hoisting his glass high and slopping a little bourbon on his pants as he did so. Swiftly, I brought the bourbon to my lips, intending to down it in a single devil-may-care draught, the way Gary Cooper used to do in the Silver Dollar Saloon. I did, and Schwartz followed suit. Down it went - a screaming 100 proof rocket searing savagely down my gullet. For an instant, I sat stunned, unable to comprehend what had happened. Eyes watering copiously, I had a brief urge to sneeze, but my throat seemed to be paralyzed. Wanda and Clara Mae swam before my misted vision; and Schwartz seemed to have disappeared under the table. He popped up again - face beet red, eyes bugging, jaw slack, tongue lolling. "Isn't this romantic? Isn't this the most wonderful night in all our lives? I will forever treasure the memories of this wonderful night." From far off, echoing as from some subterranean tunnel, I heard Wanda speaking. Deep down in the pit of my stomach, I felt crackling flames licking at my innards. I struggled to reply, to maintain my elan, my fabled savoir-faire. "Urk... Urk... Yeah," I finally managed with superhuman effort. Wanda swam hazily into focus. She was gazing across the table at me with adoring eyes. "Another, gents?" The waiter was back, still smirking. Schwartz nodded dumbly. I just sat there, afraid to move. An instant later, two more triple bourbons materialized in front of us. Clara raised her pink lady high and said reverently, "Let's drink to the happiest night of our lives." There was no turning back. Another screamer rocketed down the hatch. For an instant, it seemed as though this one wasn't going to be as lethal as the first, but then the room suddenly tilted sideways. I felt torrents of cold sweat pouring from my forehead. Clinging to the edge of the table, I watched as Schwartz gagged across from me. Flick, I noticed, had just chugalugged his third rum and Coke and was eating a cheeseburger. The conflagration deep inside me was now clearly out of control. My feet were smoking; my diaphragm heaved convulsively, jiggling my cummerbund; and Schwartz began to shrink, his face alternating between purple-red and chalk-white, his eyes black holes staring fixedly at the ketchup bottle. He sat stock-still. Wanda, meanwhile, cooed on ecstatically - but I was beyond understanding what she was saying. Faster and faster, in ever-widening circles, the room, the jukebox, the crowd swirled dizzily about me. In all the excitement of preparations for the prom, I realized that I hadn't eaten a single thing all day. Out of the maelstrom, a plate mysteriously appeared before me: paper-pan tied lamb chops hissing in bubbling grease, piled yellow turnips, gray mashed potatoes awash in rich brown gravy. Maybe this would help, I thought incoherently. Grasping my knife and fork as firmly as I could, I poised to whack off a piece of meat. Suddenly, the landscape listed 45 degrees to starboard and the chop I was about to attack skidded off my plate plowing a swath through the mashed potatoes - and right into the aisle. Pretending not to notice, I addressed myself to the remaining chop, which slid around, eluding my grasp, until I managed to skewer it with my fork. Hacking off a chunk, I jammed it fiercely mouth-ward, missing my target completely. Still impaled on my fork, the chop slithered over my cheekbone, spraying gravy as it went, all over my white lapels. On the next try, I had better luck and finally I managed to get the whole chop down. To my surprise, I didn't feel any better. Maybe the turnips will help, I thought. Lowering my head to within an inch of the plate, to prevent embarrassing mishaps, I shoveled them in - but the flames within only fanned higher and higher. I tried the potatoes and gravy. My legs began to turn cold. I wolfed down the Red Rooster Roquefort Italian Cole Slaw. My stomach began to rise like a helium balloon, bobbing slowly up the alimentary canal. My nose low over the heaping dish of strawberry shortcake, piled high with whipped cream and running with juice, I knew at last for a dead certainty what I had to do before it happened right there in front of everybody. I struggled to my feet. A strange rubbery numbness had struck my extremities. I tottered from chair to chair, grasping for the wall. Twenty seconds later, I was on my knees, gripping the bowl of the john like a life preserver in pitching seas. Schwartz, imitating me as usual, lay almost prostrate on the tiles beside me, his body wracked with heaving sobs. Lamb chop, bourbon, turnips, mashed potatoes, cole slaw - all of it came rushing out of me in a great roaring torrent, out of my mouth, my nose, my ears, my very soul. Then Schwartz opened up, and we took turns retching and shuddering. A head thrust itself between us directly into the pot. It was Flick, moaning wretchedly. Up .came the cheeseburger, the rum and Cokes, pretzels, potato chips, punch, gumdrops, a corned-beef sandwich, a fingernail or two - everything he'd eaten for the past week. For long minutes, the three of us lay there limp and quivering, smelling to high heaven, too weak to get up. It was the absolute high point of the junior prom; the rest was anticlimax. Finally, we returned to the table, ashen-faced and shaking. Schwartz, his coat stained and rumpled, sat zombie-like across from me. The girls didn't say much. Pink ladies just aren't straight bourbon. But our little group played the scene out bravely to the end. My dinner jacket was now even more redolent and disreputable than when I'd first seen it on the hanger at AI's. And my bow tie, which had hung for a while by one clip, had somehow disappeared completely, perhaps flushed into eternity with all the rest. But as time wore on, my hearing and eyesight began slowly to return, my legs began to lose their rubberiness and the room slowly resumed its even keel - at least even enough to consider getting up and leaving. The waiter seemed to know. He returned as if on cue, bearing a slip of paper. "The damages, gentlemen." Taking the old man's $20 out of my wallet, I handed it to him with as much of a flourish as I could muster. There wouldn't have been any point in looking over the check; I wouldn't have been able to read it, anyway. In one last attempt to recoup my cosmopolitan image, I said offhandedly, "Keep the change." Wanda beamed in unconcealed ecstasy. The drive home in the damp car was not quite the same as the one that had begun the evening so many weeks earlier. Our rapidly fermenting coats made the enclosed air rich and gamy, and Schwartz, who had stopped belching, sat with head pulled low between his shoulder blades, staring straight ahead. Only the girls preserved the joyousness of the occasion. Women always survive. In a daze, I dropped off Schwartz and Clara Mae and drove in silence toward Wanda 's home, the faint light of dawn beginning to show in the east. We stood on her porch for the last ritual encounter. A chill dawn wind rustled the lilac bushes. ''This was the most wonderful, wonderful night of my whole life. I always dreamed the prom would be like this," breathed Wanda, gazing passionately up into my watering eyes. "Me, too," was all I could manage. I knew what was expected of me now. Her eyes closed dreamily. Swaying slightly, I leaned forward - and the faint odor of sauerkraut from her parted lips coiled slowly up to my nostrils. This was not in the script. I knew I had better get off that porch fast, or else. Backpedaling desperately down the stairs, I blurted, "Byel" and-fighting down my rising gorge - clamped my mouth tight, leaped into the Ford, burned rubber and tore off into the dawn. Two blocks away, I squealed to a stop alongside a vacant lot containing only a huge Sherwin Williams paint sign. WE COVER THE EARTH, it aptly read. In the blessed darkness behind the sign, concealed from prying eyes, I completed the final rite of the tribal ceremony. The sun was just rising as I swung the car up the driveway and eased myself quietly into the kitchen. The old man, who was going fishing that morning, sat at the enamel table sipping black coffee. He looked up as I came in. "You look like you had a hell of a prom," was all he said. "I sure did." The yellow kitchen light glared harshly on my muddy pants, my maroon-streaked, vomit-stained white coat, my cracked fingernail, my greasy shirt. "You want anything to eat?" he asked sardonically. At the word "eat," my stomach heaved convulsively. I shook my head numbly. "That's what I thought," he said. "Get some sleep. You'll feel better in a couple of days, when your head stops banging." He went back to reading his paper. I staggered into my bedroom, dropping bits of clothing as I went. My soggy Hollywood paisley cummerbund, the veteran of another gala night, was flung beneath my dresser as I toppled into bed. My brother muttered in his sleep across the room. He was still a kid. But his time would come.


Additional Comments:
This story was reprinted in the book "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories And Other Disasters", was used in the PBS movie "Phantom Of The Open Hearth" and was Slice 2 of his taped collection "Shepherd's Pie" It was also re-printed in Plaboy Magazine in the January 1989 35th anniversary issue


Copyright: 1969 Playboy Magazine

Where Shep Made Reference To This Subject
Photos:


June 1969
Playboy - Cover


June 1969
Playboy - Illus


June 1969
Playboy - Pic


June 1969
Playboy - Playbill



Playboy Annual Award