Michael Campagnoli has worked as a waiter, fisherman, journalist, painter, short-order cook, and taught literature and writing while studying for a PhD. His work has appeared in New Letters, Nimrod, Rattle, Rosebud, the Southern Humanities Review, Descant, and elsewhere. He’s published four chapbooks and appeared in numerous anthologies. He can be seen most mornings running somewhere along the coast of Maine with his mongrel dog, Yogi, and Anthony, his equally mongrel son.
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
Whalen was doing an experiment up front. He was wearing goggles and an oversized lab coat. The white coat dragged along the floor as he walked. He was maybe five-three, five-four. “Big Eddy,” we called him. He had to stand on a step-stoop just to reach the Bunsen Burner. Tight, wavy, dark, electric-spiked hair and bugged out eyes. He peered over the rim of a beaker of blue chemical stew. He looked like a midget scientist in one of those cheesy black and white Sci-Fi’s from the 50’s. The beaker bubbled and popped. Whalen smiled. When the beaker began to overflow, he registered alarm, then panic. He turned his back to the room and flailed frenetically to minimize the harm. A few cackles turned in raucous cheers.
It was then that Dorey Tatum dug his fingers into the muscles of my neck. The trapezius, I guess, you call them. Anyway, I was sitting down. Dorey was standing behind me. It gave him leverage. So he leaned into it and I felt the spaghetti‑like sinew separate as each finger dug deeper and deeper. He didn’t say anything. Didn’t have to. The message was clear. As designated “new kid” I’d heard it before. But there was a difference this time and the difference was Dorey Tatum, himself.
Wherever you go, there are always Dorey Tatums, long lines of them, willing and able, just waiting to make life miserable. They step forward with a kind of pustulant pride. Anxious. Eager. Whatever you do. A fundamental question of turf. And we did a lot of moving in those days, my mother and I, so many that I forget the count. Or, perhaps, I choose to forget.
Mostly on the run from my father. From Bayonne to Jersey City to Newark and back. Hiding out. Telling no one. Just leaving. It didn’t do much good. Sooner or later, he’d find us and when he did, he’d bully or sweet‑talk her back. For a month or two, we’d live on promises, a tight little jar where you can’t breathe, and then it would start all over again. The fights.
When they got going good, you could hear them a block away. My old man bellowing: not so much words or even syllables, but eructing a kind of fierce wounded animal rage. And my mother (shrill and cat‑like) taunting him: egging him on, holding her ground, never letting go. “Voice like a banshee,” he’d say. And he was right. But it was him, him that I feared. When he exploded, no one was safe. More than once I saw him put his fists through sheet‑rock walls. Even solid doors. He could drive hardwood kitchen cabinets into splinters. I’m not kidding. A man of tremendous leverage. Big shoulders, a bull neck, “Mr. Hudson County.” When he was young, he boxed. So he soaked his fists in brine. Even when he winged you, it hurt.
The thing is (and this is the point): I think they really loved each other. Wanted to at least. But something inside them just wouldn’t let it work. They’d try hard. Act in deference. Be on good behavior. But the strain was terrible. You’d see it on their faces, as if an invisible cord drew tighter and tighter until it was taut. Things would just go to pieces. Bust up. For no real reason, really.
To me, the solution was simple: Just stop—then everything would be all right. But they couldn’t stop. They couldn’t let go. Even in the midst of their rage, they hated it, and hated themselves for it, but couldn’t do otherwise. Not a question of choice. Reason was irrelevant. They were compelled by some vague biological imperative, some strange secret of the blood. Not a secret “between” them, but the same secret held separately, so horrible that the truth could not be uttered nor suppressed. Sudden dislocation I came to comprehend, but the world of adults, I thought, would remain a mystery forever.
So she would run.
One day, I’d come home from school to find somebody’s borrowed truck parked in the street in front of our apartment house. And I’d know.
Usually it meant two‑room apartments, paper-thin walls, cracked linoleum, stained porcelain, everything covered by successive generations of nacreous crud, a rubberized dirt layered so thick scrubbing was superfluous. Places where you didn’t want to breathe deep or eat—much less live.
But our move to Stockbridge was different.
It was out, away from the cities. A small town. With a real Main Street, like in the movies. Pre‑war architecture, Colonial flourishes, copper cornices, leaded windows, an amphora frieze above Woolworth’s 5‑&‑Dime. Neat and clean, white‑washed brick and clapboard, old and comfortable, shaded by tree‑lined streets. A village. Quaint. Honest‑to‑God America. Bordered by the Watchungs on the north and Danforth’s Corner Store & Luncheonette on the south, Stockbridge had the look of a place where no one ever argued, cursed, got drunk, where everybody dressed up and went to church on Sunday.
It looked like that. But, of course, it wasn’t like that.
All you had to do was travel south on Main Street. Just a few blocks beyond Danforth’s. Danforth’s, where you got huge sulking hamburgers for 20¢, cherry coke for a nickel, fudge sundaes for 35¢, as well as sneak quick nervous glances at Coronet and later Playboy, served as a borderline. South of Danforth’s was what was called “Potters.”
“Potters” is where we moved.
If you were polite, you said it was where the “Negroes” lived. At the time, that was the word to use. Naturally, there were other words. My mother was polite. We moved in June. Just after school got out. To a house on Glover. A duplex we shared with a family by the name of Johnson.
I opened my eyes that first morning to see a stocky, bespectacled black kid, approximately my age, lounged upon a desk, his back propped against a bureau, sitting across the room from me.
“Jesus,” he said, “I thought you’d never wake up.”
He was thumbing through an issue of Sports Illustrated. Held up a picture of Mickey Mantle slamming a homer and slapped it shut.
“What?” he asked.
We’d met briefly the day before.
My mother and I were unloading our things when he walked up.
“Hi, my name is Dennis,” he said, “but everyone calls me DJ.”
That’s was the start. What followed was non-stop chatter: up the walk, into the house, through every room. It didn’t end until his mother called him home for dinner.
“Coming Ma,” he answered and went on talking.
She called again.
This time her voice had a metallic resonance. Not a woman it looked wise to defy.
“Catch you later,” DJ said.
The next morning, he helped me unpack.
“You won’t need this,” he told me, tossing a stick of crew-cut goo into a garbage can. Holding up a pair of underwear, he was suitably impressed. “No skid marks. Pretty good.” My record collection elicited a less enthusiastic response. “This will definitely have to go, not bad, not bad, really bad, better, better.” Then came, “Barf‑barf‑barf‑barf‑barf,” all in a row. “You really are white,” he said. At the bottom of another box, he uncovered a rebel flag my father brought back from South Carolina when he was in the Marines. “You got to be kidding. We won’t even discuss this. You better get rid of it.”
He followed me into the bathroom.
I washed, dressed, and brushed my teeth. He handed me a towel, toothpaste, a comb, selected a shirt. As I dressed, he looked at his watch. “Shit, I gotta go!” He scooted out the window, then ducked back in. “There’s a pick-up game around two. Down at the field.” He disappeared, then popped back in again. “Really, get rid of that flag.”
Acceptance came gradually.
Fear is fundamental; a primary survival skill. A necessity. Time helped. And Dennis Johnson. Through him I became fast friends with his cousin Reggie, our next-door neighbor, Sam, the McDuffy brothers, Lonnie Younger, and Frank McElrath. DJ’s father was cautionary (“Someday, he’ll call you nigger. Mark my words.”), but DJ just laughed. What did grown-ups know? Broken down old men with broken dreams. We were a new generation. We were going to end that crap. No African-American could afford to be “color blind,” but DJ was one of those rare human beings without an obvious sign of prejudice. Later in the decade, in the uproar and passion of the time, he would be unfairly denounced as an “Uncle Tom” because he resisted the simpleminded dichotomy of black and white. That’s not to say we didn’t have issues. But we found ways. Avenues. One was sport. It was the grammar, the rhetoric of our friendship.
Glover Street dead‑ended in a wood. In that wood was a clearing where, in the appropriate season, baseball and football were played. There, on that ground, on that rock‑filled playing field, shut off from the rest of the world, we pretended to be heroes, comrades for a day. And sometimes the days seemed to last forever.
Occasionally, we made the hike across town to Roosevelt Park. Acres and acres of green grass, playgrounds, baseball and softball fields, a lake for ice-skating and a football stadium where Stockbridge played St. Peters on Thanksgiving Day. It was good there, on real grass, on a real diamond, with a bases and a backstop. The sun beat down and baked our bodies and DJ would say, “It’s not the heat, but the hoo‑midity.” And we’d play all day, five or six on a side, no hitting to right field, and lose ourselves in the rhythm and grace and the sweat of the game. It was good. The clear blue sky, the sun‑parched air, the cushioned, resilient earth. The elegance of a double play neatly turned. The pure, clean crack of the bat, the solid feel of the ball on wood, and the ball in flight. It was the leap and stretch, the bounce and roll. All within time. Within time. Not behind, not before, but supremely in the moment. Within time, itself—unselfconscious, uninhibited—just body, mind, and muscle pushing against the ground, the sky, the wind, against gravity, itself. Taking the full measure of the world and meeting that measure.
On the way home, we’d stop at Carvel’s. Get ice‑cold orange sodas in long‑necked bottles. It could not be better: the near‑frozen Nehi beaded with sweat. Precious. Money for just one a‑piece. Frozen nectar, juice of the gods, sucked from narrow necks, over swollen tongues and dust‑scorched palettes. And when it was done, there was the clean good fatigue that comes from driving yourself to the limit, and beyond, out in the fresh, open air. And it was good.
That’s where I got my nickname.
One day in late June, after school let out, a bunch of kids from South Plainfield challenged us to a pick-up game. They carried Louisville Sluggers and well-oiled Rawlings gloves. First time up, I put a fastball over the centerfielder’s head. Next time, it was high and outside, so I drove it over the right fielder’s head. My last up, I pulled a low inside pitch to left. A towering drive that won us the game 5-3. The pitcher threw his glove down. “Jesus Christ,” he cried, “inside, outside, wherever I put ‘em.” DJ laughed and laughed, followed me around the bases, screaming and yelling, doing somersaults, leaping high in the air. “Did you see that shot,” he cried, falling down, jumping up, rolling on the ground. “Did you SEE it! They’ll need a satellite to track that fucker. Amazing. Three-in-a-row. Killebrew! That’s who you are. Harmon Killebrew. The Brew! Harmon Killebrew.” Killebrew was a white slugger on the Twins. I was thinking more along the lines of Ruth or Mantle, maybe DiMaggio, Rocky Colavito at least, but from then on, I was “the Brew,” like it or not.
DJ was Emersonian. The namer of things. Reggie was “The Blade”; Sam “Lightfoot”; Darnell “The Lizard.” It went on and on. Not just names. He quoted statistics on anything: batting averages, ERA’s, won‑lost percentages. He knew how far the right field fence was in Cleveland or St. Louis, the capacity crowd in Philadelphia or LA. We argued and marveled over Mickey Mantle (“Did you see the size of his forearms?”), Joe Adcock, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays. We were in the centerfield bleachers of Yankee Stadium the day Rocky Colavito hit four homers in a doubleheader. There was the crack of the bat. The crowd on its feet. DJ yelling, “No way! No way!” the entire flight of the ball, punching, hugging, mugging, hysterical with delight. We narrowly missed recovering one. Thwarted by a knife‑wielding Puerto Rican kid in a white T‑shirt and blue jeans, a black derby hat and plaid vest. It was Sam Pierson who saved us, brandishing the sharpened end of a pennant stick.
“Shit, those guys are crazy,” DJ said.
Chunky, short‑sighted, forever pushing his glasses up, he had a tendency to stutter. A stocky little guy full of enthusiasm and chatter. In the currency of the day, I was his natural superior: tall, athletic, and white. To my shame and undying regret, I accepted those values without question.
Then there were girls.
Playboy not withstanding, it was an era of puritanical restraint. Our natural curiosity and unrepentant hormones put us in conflict with the prohibitions of the time. But, by any standard, we were square. “Square” was the word you used. And we were SQUARE. Perhaps by lack of opportunity and knowledge, but SQUARE. Completely innocent in matters sexual and romantic.
That’s not to say there weren’t unending discussions.
One time we were back in the woods.
There was a picnic table dragged to a small clearing that was surrounded by a circle of boulders. A place where we could escape the heat of the day. Talk without fear of detection or the scrutiny of adults. To a city kid, the woods were exotic. Fearful and liberating. Full of secrets, mystery, the unspeakable. Priapus and Lotus. Spirits who danced in the night. One late afternoon, Sam recounted the time he found a Playboy centerfold in a public garbage can. He was describing the glossy, airbrushed results when Robert McDuffy barged in.
“Nothing like the real thing,” he said
“Like you know,” Lonnie snorted.
“Shut up, Robert,” James told him.
James was Robert’s older brother, the biggest, strongest kid in the neighborhood. Famous for his temper. Once he threw a pitchfork at Robert and just missed. He gave Robert the eye. But Robert couldn’t resist.
“Do to,” he said.
Lonnie looked at James. Then he looked at Robert.
“Y-e-a-h?” he said.
“Yeah!” Robert answered.
“Ah-moan kill you!” James said.
“Tell us! Tell us!” DJ cried.
“Last summer,” Robert continued, keeping an eye on James and talking fast. “You remember Henry’s Cousin Julia up from Atlanta?”
“Remember,” DJ said. “I still have wet dreams.”
“We were back here.”
“Who’s we?” Lonnie asked.
“Me and James and Julia.”
“So what happened?”
“Robert!” James said again and came toward him.
“We was just talking.” Robert kept the picnic table between them. “And Julia said to James, ‘You want to see something?’”
“Then she unbuttoned her blouse.”
“What did James do?”
“He stood there like he is now with that dumb look on his face.”
James smiled. He didn’t smile very often.
“Where was I?” DJ asked.
“You were home.”
“We axed you to come but you wanted to watch the Yankees.”
“What she do?”
“She showed him!”
“You shittin’ me?”
“Did you see ‘em?”
“Got a glimpse.”
“Boogers,” DJ said. He turned to me. “You shoulda’ seen this girl. Legs, tits, ass. She was beautiful. Smooth skin. Tiny little body. Everything in the right place. You know, one of those tiny Southern girls. Oh God, she was beautiful. I just love those tiny Southern girls.” For years afterward, DJ rued the day he chose to watch the Yankees. “Probably lost anyway,” he grumbled.
“They were right over there by that big oak tree,” Robert said and pointed.
It was then that we discovered Robert and James’s 10-year-old sister Violet (whom DJ called “Top Soil”) had been spying on us. She was peeking around the tree. When Robert pointed, her eyes got the size of saucers. She slipped and fell.
“O-o-ops!” she cried and popped up with a big smile.
“I’m tellin’ Momma!” she squealed. “I’m tellin’ Momma!”
She took off running and giggling in her calico dress.
“Violet!” James yelled.
“I’m going to kick your ass,” he said to Robert and gave him a punch when he went by. Robert fell down.
“Violet! Violet!” James called. “Violet!”
“I’m tellin’ Momma!” she screamed as they ran up the hill, “I’m tellin’ Momma!” Peals of girlish laughter echoed behind her in the mirrored light and we all sat in wonder in the sultry summer twilight.
“No decent girl would ever show you her tits,” DJ said, another time. “You’d have to talk her into it. Even after you’re married.”
“What?” James said.
“Good girls don’t think about sex,” DJ told him.
“You got to be crazy,” James said.
“They don’t, do they Brew?”
“I don’t think they like it much. They just do it for us.”
“You are fools,” James told DJ. “Both of you. 100-percent fools. Women gonna eat you up.”
“I ain’t no fool,” DJ said.
“You are a fool,” James said. “No question about it.”
But we didn’t change our minds.
For me, there was only one girl.
Her name was Sylvia Durham. Long golden hair, bright blue eyes, soft smooth skin. Perfect. Absolutely ideal.
The first time I saw her was one of those August days when the dust rises and turns to mud in your throat. We were all trying out for football (DJ, Reggie, Sam and the rest), rumbling around the hard clay practice field, grunting and sweating, trying to prove. A small crowd gathered to watch. On one play I was knocked out of bounds along the sidelines. Bowled over and a little woozy, I rolled on my back and the first thing I saw when I looked up was Sylvia.
The red-setting sun was directly behind her, bursting round like the nimbus of a saint. She looked radiant, hair flowing, feathered ringlets in the shimmering light. Venus rising in the slot of a thousand suns risen. She looked down at me and smiled. Smiled. No guile, no cynicism, no ironic smirk. A smile like the inflection of light on water; the brief shadow of a bird’s wing. We looked at each other in silence —me in awe, shaken by her beauty—unable to look away. The moment lingered. Her girlfriends began to giggle and nudge. Sylvia looked down and blushed. Blushed. Wasn’t that something?
The whistle blew. The guys huddled-up. But I hadn’t moved.
“You all right, son?” one of the fathers asked.
“Fine,” I answered, but I was not fine.
I was stricken, smitten. Would never be the same. Forever remembering that fragrant, burnished body, that creature created in pure white fire. She could never be, no one could ever be (or had ever been), quite so beautiful, mystical, fertile, so disarmingly vulnerable as she was at that precise moment.
It was a question of fate.
She was everything I was not. A prominent family, honor roll, respected by teachers, cheerleader, Queen of the Prom, an early acceptance to Cornell. She lived in a big stone house on Dover Road. Out among the wide lawns, the overarching oaks and elms. Out among the safe and protected, the rich and prosperous, the chosen. Their big well-curtained windows surveyed the evening sun as it sank beneath the Watchung Hills. They owned the sunset. They owned the future. What could I offer? What kind of future did I have to give? The hapless son of a brawling ex-boxer? Hopeless. Unobtainable. She was out of reach and for that reason, the only girl I could ever love.
My heart ached. I limped from dreary day to dreary day. Carried an invisible wound. Just the sight of her, a brief glimpse as she passed in the hall or as she drove by in a car, brought pain and ecstasy. What hope did I have? Locked out of her perfect life. Stolen glances, imagined moments. That was it.
“Look, you really like her?” DJ said.
“More than like.”
“Then ask her out.”
“Can’t do it.”
He handed me the phone.
“Here’s her number.” (I already had it memorized.) “Dial. I bet she’s waiting for you to call.”
“Can’t do it.”
“Can’t, that’s all.”
“How do you know until you try?”
My love for Sylvia, shared only with DJ (and he never betrayed the confidence), was just one thing more that made us deeper and better friends. We were inseparable.
It was that friendship that galled Dorey Tatum all the more. His fingers dug deep and I thought, “Here we go again.” But this wasn’t just a local guy staking out territory, testing the new kid. This time, there was a special kind of vehemence, a special kind of hate: Dorey’s mother was white, his absent father black,
Dorey could pass for white. He sometimes did. His skin was light, tannish-sallow, hair tight and kinky but brown. His nose broad. It flared above buckteeth that his tongue and wide lips continually explored. He could pass for white, but he wasn’t white, and wasn’t accepted by the whites. But neither was he black. The subject came up only once.
Sam Pierson and I were alone in the Laundromat next to Grant’s, drinking cokes on the way home from football practice.
“I don’t understand,” Sam said. He wrinkled his brow and stared down at the stained, slightly warped linoleum. Then, in a matter-of-fact tone, he said, “Dorey’s mother is white, you know.”
Not malicious, nor an invitation to be malicious. He was looking for answers, didn’t know what to make of Dorey. None of us did. For the whites, an anathema. For the blacks, a perplexity. He just didn’t fit. The quintessential outsider and my acceptance was another painful reminder of his predicament.
The fingers that dug in brought an extra intensity, a lifelong frustration and rage. This was no empty ritual. In Dorey’s cosmology, I was a threat to be obliterated. In the tangled maze of his life, I offered clarity. An accessible target. A “them.” Imagine the atavistic rush, the adrenaline surge. I had no intention of facing that. And I bore him no ill will. I’d been an outsider my whole life, too. I was closer than he knew. If anything, I felt sorry for him. But he despised sympathy, welcomed hate. I disliked him, but didn’t feel the need to crash my knuckles into those hard buckteeth. To be honest, I was afraid.
So there we were in 5th period Chemistry, locked in absurd embrace.
Dorey worked his lips and dug deeper and deeper. I gripped his hands at the wrists and pushed up like a military press. He wouldn’t quit. Our four hands, locked together, shook violently, only inches above my shoulders. He pushed harder and squeezed.
I had to do something.
So I stood up, abruptly driving my chair into his gut. He stumbled back into a row of tables and chairs.
“Knock it off!” Whalen cried.
Dorey stepped toward me with menace, worked his mouth and clenched his fists.
“Sit Down,” Whalen commanded.
Dorey ignored him.
“You want detention?”
Whalen was a head shorter than both of us. A bloodless face, frightened little eyes, ears red with panic. Feeling the pressure. Respect on the line.
“OVER THERE,” he said to Dorey and pointed to a chair across the room.
We all waited.
Dorey looked at him. Looked at me.
“Later,” he said to me and nodded.
He sauntered across the room. As he sat down, he grabbed another chair and launched it at me. I knocked it away and we went for each other.
This time Whalen hurled himself between us.
He was maybe five-three or -four, a body clearly unintended for conflict, a deterrent value that was purely symbolic. He cranked his neck like an ostrich and looked up into our faces.
“Okay, you both got detention!”
Dorey peered down with contempt.
“I didn’t do nothin’,” he said. His long, almost feminine, lashes blinked once, twice, over his large brown eyes. His lips worked vigorously over those troubling teeth. He took a deep breath. “This sucks,” he said and kicked a chair against the wall.
The room decompressed.
Dorey sat down and stared at me. When the bell rang, he shoved past the other kids, reached over little Mary Rosetti, and grabbed my shirt.
“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he said.
He followed me into the hall.
“ME and YOU are gonna take care of this after school.”
Now that he had an audience, he grabbed another handful of shirt.
“You hear me, PUNK?”
The crowd hushed.
I didn’t say anything, just stared.
Then, from the back, came the low honk of a male teenage voice. “Whoa. . .” it said, derisively. A fat-legged girl smirked. Hair teased high in a beehive, black stockings and a short black skirt. The stockings stretched and frayed by the sheer volume of her thighs. They waited for something to happen. That’s when the bell rang.
Dorey lowered his voice. His eyes narrowed.
“I’m gonna kick your head in.”
He shoved me away and strode off, flushed with pride, the adrenalin of self.
Disappointed, the crowd drifted off to class to the echo of the fat girl’s laughter.
Same old thing.
After all the moves, wherever we went, the same old thing.
My life was a series of shoving matches. Playground dramatics. Bloodying each other’s noses with lucky swings. “Had enough?” “You had enough?” Pathetic. But no matter how many times, the first full nausea of threat churned my stomach, pounded my heart, made me feel absolutely alone. I never got used to it: the enmity of strangers. The hostility you provoke simply by being alive.
I never liked violence. The idea of losing control. An inheritance, I suppose, from my parents late night fights. The wall-banging, the cabinet and door punching, the chest pounding absurdity of self-asseveration, brought back too many memories. General and unspecific. An atmosphere of dread. Inspired in me the need to hide, the instinct to run. It never solved anything. All the blood-pulsing, testosterone-pumping pompous posturing and threat. It brought only heartache. What was the point? Other people might think I was a coward, but I wasn’t. At least I didn’t think so. I wasn’t afraid to fight, if there was a good reason. But there were so few of them. And when we moved, it was always the same nonsense about turf and pecking order. So what? Who cared?
“You got to stand up to him,” James McDuffy told me. “You’ll lose face.”
“So, I’ll lose face.”
“You can’t let somebody push you around.”
“What difference does it make?”
James shook his head. “Don’t you have no pride?”
“I guess not.”
“You can beat him. You’re twice as strong.”
“What’s the point?”
“You could look in the mirror and not be ashamed.”
“At the expense of pounding him senseless? Or worse, him pounding me senseless?”
“Sooner or later, like it or not, there comes a time when you gotta fight.”
What was I supposed to do?
I didn’t want to be like my old man. Forever alert to threats, imagined and real. Squandering time and energy defending some vague concept of honor. We’d be driving somewhere on a hot summer night with the windows rolled down and another driver would cut him off. My father would scream, yell, honk the horn, ride his bumper, chase the guy for miles, passing on the left and right, forcing other cars off the road, terrorizing pedestrians, then yank the poor guy out of his car and beat his brains out. And what happens when you can’t beat the other guy? Even if you’re right? Isn’t that why civilization was invented? Isn’t it supposed to be something more than an endless blood feud?
A waste of life.
The goal of living, I read somewhere, was not to conquer fools but get away from them. That made sense. The gene for aggression, had skipped a generation. Absent in me. Bluffing usually worked and when it didn’t, I simply refused to fight. I remained silent. I just stared. Not submissive or fearful. A conscientious objector. A 4-F. A non-participant in the idiocies of life. I remember the exact moment I discovered this strategy.
It’s not a memory like other memories. More like a dream. Memories rise up from deep inside, but this memory comes at me from the outside, like I’m in a darkened theater. All alone. A single sliver of light stabs the air, the film rolls up, the nightmare begins . . .
There is no sound. The film is grainy. In black and white
and all manner of greys. Slightly out of focus. The camera handheld.
It jostles, shifts suddenly. There are quick, abrupt movements. Thenstasis. I can’t make it out. The film’s too fast. Too slow. The camera
pulls back and I see I’m in a basement, a cellar. Oh, yes, I remember
now, the house on Avenue C. A figure emerges from the murky
darkness as if from a tunnel.
He looms, larger, closer, larger, until he fills the screen. It’s
my old man, my father, eyes in a fine-frenzy rolling, sweat drenching
his face. Stringy strands of curly wet black hair drip down the side
of his forehead. His eyes have no color; they are fiery black coals
reflected in the light of a single naked bulb. He comes closer, closer,
closer. Menaces. Threatens. A thick, heavy hand crashes down at me.
The camera jostles, loses focus; all I see is the cement basement
floor. I hear myself cry, “Papa, Papa.” The camera moves clumsily,
awkward jolts: the floor, the ceiling, and then it’s righted again and
I see him coming at me. He has a thick, shop extension cord doubled
in his hands. It cracks across my shoulder and collarbone. I scream.
I raise my arms and the wire crashes against my hips. He’s a
madman, shouting, screaming, working into a greater fury with each
blow. But now the film is slowing down and his shouts are protracted,
potent, primitive, indistinguishable blurbs. The cord cracks and cracks
and cracks. I scream. I grovel. I beg like a coward.
And now it comes back to me. And now it is a part of memory. I
remember. I’m ashamed, but I bellow. I answer each snap of the cord
with a prolonged, grotesque, inhuman howl. It rises from my bowels,
shakes every part of me. With each scream, he strikes harder and
harder; again and again and again. He does not stop. He will not stop.
“Papa!” I yell, “Papa!” But he’s a man possessed. A stranger. A
creature of insatiable fury. And I, too, taste my own strangeness, my
own aloneness, with each crack of the cord. It’s incomprehensible,
pagan, brutal, the savagery that lurks in the hearts of wild men.
It’s at this precise moment that I discover silence as a weapon.
I catch the pain and fear in my chest. I will not let out a whimper. It
infuriates him. He grunts now with each methodical strike. Sweat drips
from his nose and forehead. It travels down his neck. His nostrils are
flared, his fists gripped tight, his breathing labored. He strikes and
watches, but I only stare. He strikes again. I stare. It’s a matter of
wills and for some reason I’m no longer afraid. I let go--free of
my body, my fear, my pain—and I discover my will as a source of value
in an otherwise meaningless universe. “Snap-thud,” the cord says, but
I’m silent. I stare into his blank eyes. “Snap-thud, snap-thud, snap-thud,”
but I grow stronger as he grows weak. The cracks come slower. . .
and slower. . .and slower. And then it’s over.
He stands before me exhausted, back and belly wet with sweat,
trembling, broken, his eyes cast down, and I only stare. I say nothing.
I stare but, for some reason, I do not hate.
And there the memory ends.
And so it was that I met Dorey’s rage with a cold, hard stare. It made him angry. He wanted, needed, demanded my fear. Desired it. He stomped down the hall, his thick-heeled boots striking the tiled floor.
McDuffy was right. The stare would not be enough. In the world of animals, as it is in the world of men, and boys, too, for that matter, threat must be countered with threat. Anything less is weakness. And weakness invites attack. You must show your teeth and snarl, jump up and down, show your ass. Two hundred and fifty millenniums, we’re still no more than this, picking fleas, howling like apes. I was tired of it. I was tired of fear.
I closed my locker and walked down the hall.
For the rest of the day, I tried to push it from my mind. But every time I did, there was always some pencil-necked, pimple-faced kid with glasses to remind me. Kids I’d never spoken to, complete strangers. “Hey,” they’d say, “I heard about you and Dorey. He stayed back twice, you know. He’s gonna kick your ass.”
Later, I passed Sylvia in the hall.
Now, more than ever, she seemed out of reach. Above and superior, existing in some ethereal haze, so far distant from the world of blood and sweat and smell that I inhabited. When our eyes met, in that terabyte of instant, something was communicated. A spark, a flicker of recognition, an invisible connection. I always imagined innuendo. But for that moment, I was certain she looked me in the eyes with unmistakable intent. A silent acknowledgment. Telepathic sympathy.
Had I imagined it? Was I kidding myself? Surely the gods would punish such conceit.
She glided by. In her wake, the redolence of endless promise. Who was I to aspire to such heights? A pathetic figure puffed up with wild imaginings. I knew then, and with a heaviness, that Sylvia Durham of the bright eyes and golden hair, the abundant life, the faculty teas, the honor societies, was supremely above the secret griefs and sordid sorrows of a nonentity like me.
Eighth Period went too slow, too fast. Dorey’s threats were never far away. What did I do to offend? Nothing personal ever transpired between us. I didn’t really know him. He didn’t know me. Until his fingers found the vulnerability of my neck, I’d never said more than two words to him. Could Race alone fuel such hate? It was a time of barely submerged hostility.
Most white people I knew preferred not to think of “Negroes.” Even the enlightened few were afflicted with a paralyzing ambivalence. A view of “them” that alternated between comic and threatening. Well‑scrubbed, docile exceptions were duly acknowledged (“A credit to their race”) but, in general, “Negroes” were perceived as dirty (“They smell different”), lazy, and irresponsible. In waking hours, Hollywood comforted us with images of the child‑like and moronic, but in the darkness of our hearts we knew otherwise. In that unexplored region between wake and sleep, we knew what we feared.
Superficially tame but potentially dangerous, “they” were no more than a short half‑step from a pagan tribal past, still retaining the collective memory of tooth and claw. God help us, our nightmares conveyed (but we never dared utter), if “they” ever developed a taste for white blood. I’m speaking here of the unconscious, the visceral, the primordial‑self. Driven by guilt, nurtured and reflected by the culture at large, our secret fears were transmuted into hate or distrust. Their presence disturbed us, so we chose to ignore them whenever possible.
This view of “Negroes” was inextricably tied to the perpetuation of larger American myths. We needed them to be inferior. No other scenario could support the facts. Like artificially prolonged and adolescently fraudulent innocence, we desperately clung to the celluloid illusion Hollywood sold. We Americans were guileless and untainted, virtuous and pure. But their existence (not to mention the plight of Native Americans) contradicted this sentimental and romantic view. False innocence was not enough to explain away the facts. If they were victims, then a major re‑adjustment of national identity was in order. If they were not victims, then it followed that they were inferior in some fundamental, perhaps genetically ordained, way. How could it be our fault if they couldn’t compete and succeed given the same opportunities? Luckily, the lives of most white people were so thoroughly divorced from black that “they” remained essentially invisible. It was never necessary to examine the simplistic presuppositions we held, presuppositions codified and mistaken for truth.
So we believed that there must be something fundamentally wrong with “them,” some fatal flaw, some secret biological defect that determines fate and proves that “they” are less competent than we. It’s not “our” problem, it’s “theirs.” A handy way to avoid compassion and guilt. Given the perceived threat of the Soviet Union, there was an overwhelming need to believe America was above question. We embraced the LIE. It simplified things. That’s why we loved it so. Facing complexity is exhausting. It’s easier to ignore it than live with its confusing clutter, the day-to-day uncertainty, night after night, year after year. “My family never owned slaves,” I’d hear them say, as if that somehow corrected or explained everything, erased centuries of bigotry, oppression, and hate.
But I’m not trying to point fingers. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Just trying to define context. Locate a collective point of view: Our conscious attitude, bred as we were on John Wayne and the pandering of shameful politicians, was that America had somehow conquered bigotry and prejudice simply by virtue of suffering and surviving a Great Depression, the devastation of two World Wars. After all, “WE” had made the world safe for democracy, saved it from economic collapse and the holocaust of barbarian dictators. In a grand exercise of national amnesia, historical myopia, and indulgent self‑pity, we were too full of complacent self‑congratulation to entertain criticism or doubt. If lingering inequities existed, it was exclusively and without exception “Down South,” which was, really, a whole other country. “WE,” meaning the quintessential America of small towns and collected neighborhoods (like a banal and aging later President) were colorblind. Let Martin Luther King and other radicals stir up communist‑inspired trouble, “WE” were purged and burnished, tempered by conflict and struggle. The signs of election were plentiful and obvious. “WE”—God’s neo‑Chosen People—were simply assuming our historical inheritance by virtue of. . .“virtue,” I guess. In the depths of our Calvinist souls, “we” believed we were better than “they” were, pure and simple. Everybody. “WE” were the “good guys.” And like that doddering, senile, pre-Alzheimer President decades later, we didn’t have a prejudiced bone in our bodies.
The bell finally rang.
There was the shuffle of feet, the hum of voices, the click and bang of locker doors. I watched for Dorey, waited for him, but he didn’t appear. The halls emptied. I made my way to the gym.
As I opened the locker room door, I heard someone call, “Luchessi, Luchessi!”
It was Richard Skelly.
I ignored him.
“Whatcha’ doing tonight?” he asked.
Skelly was the kind of guy coaches loved. A center on the football team. Played for the sheer joy of impact, the aphasic shock of being hit and hitting back. He careened around the field with the velocity of a murderous subatomic particle. Only one hundred-and-fifty pounds, he loved to risk his body. Flying downfield with lethal intent on kick-offs and punt returns was his specialty. He stared at me now with a lunatic smile.
“I know,” he said, eyes full of mayhem.
He derived pleasure from prolonging the moment.
“How ‘bout a party?”
“Guess whose house.”
“I don’t know.”
“One guess,” he pleaded.
“Naw, get serious.”
He had a habit of touching, standing too close. I withdrew my arm from his grasp.
“You tell me.”
“All right. McPeak’s?”
“Who’d want to go there?”
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“You’ll be very interested.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to guess.”
I ignored him.
“All right, all right, How about Sylvia Durham?” He pronounced both names separately, so the meaning would sink in.
“Are you crazy?”
“She’s got a crush on you.”
He leered at me as if I knew what that meant. I didn’t. All the way to the practice field, he kept it up, laughing wildly, his crew cut hair waxed straight. One front tooth was chipped. When he smiled, it gave him a slightly idiotic, maniacal look.
“Lives next door to me. Been friends since we were kids. We’re like that,” he said and held up two slightly deformed, vaguely soiled, crossed fingers. Then he got a crazy look in his eyes.
I walked away.
“You’re one lucky dog. Lucky. Lucky Luchessi. That’s it!” he said, eyes wide with discovery. “That’s it. . .Lucky Luchessi!” He bounced back and forth. “Lucky Luchessi,” and kept repeating it until we got to the field.
Friday practice was easy. A walk-through of the plays we’d use the next day. And that was lucky because I was in a trance. Who could believe it? Who could guess? That girl, that golden girl, that beautiful thing noticed me; me, Me, ME—Me, a nobody, a nothing, in baggy pants and hand-me-downs, preposterous white socks. Me, she noticed ME! How could it be? After the violent dislocation, the punched walls, the screams in the night, the shop extension cords doubled twice, after all the Dorey Tatums. Now this. THIS. A message: You are not alone. As if God, Himself, had opened the shining vault of heaven and winked in my direction. A cosmic nod, a small sign (but enough) glowing in the darkness of the theater: EXIT—This Way Out.
Don’t believe it when people tell you that children are resilient. I survived, adapted, but something in me receded with each disappointment; some vague, enchanted hope that I was special, that the world was a friendly place. I came to believe nothing, thought myself a transient, a displaced person. Reality was ugly and mechanistic, brutal and impersonal. I learned these things with each move we made and if I didn’t learn them well enough, there were always enough Dorey Tatums to drive the truth of it home.
But now this!
Too flattering sweet to be substantial.
I couldn’t wait to tell DJ.
When I passed the Majestic, there were three kids hanging around out front.
“Look,” the short one said, “It’s him!”
Skinny, mouthy guys. Hangers-on. Kids who had never been in a fight but took a sick thrill at seeing someone else squirm, a perverted energy off the sight of someone else’s blood. Parasites. They followed at a distance.
“Where you been?”“ the middle one shouted.
“Yeah, Dorey’s been lookin’ for you,” the short one called.
“Gonna chicken out?” the tallest added.
I ignored them.
“I bet he’s scared.”
“He should be. You shudda seen Schnatter.”
“It was gross.”
“You weren’t there.”
“But I heard.”
They kept a safe distance, picking at me until they smelled some kind of fear. They lived off other people’s fear. It made them less small. Their only hope.
“His head looked like a melon.”
“Dorey just kept kicking. You shudda seen it. Blood everywhere. Leo was spitting out teeth and puke.”
The small one pantomimed Leo’s vomit and the tall one choked him. They thought it was hysterical. Couldn’t stop laughing. They followed me all the way to Danforth’s. At the corner, they paused, looked down Main Street towards Potters, and thought better of it. They turned back.
“Maggots,” I said, “maggots.”
Down by Grant’s there’s a tall wood fence that separates the backs of stores from nearby houses. As I passed, I noticed some guys standing around the dumpsters behind the Safeway. White guys. Leather jackets, Elvis pompadours, black motorcycle boots. “Greasers,” we called them. “Newarkers.” They hung out with Dorey sometimes. It was already too late when I saw them.
Dorey had his back to me. He turned when they gestured and stepped forward.
“I been waitin’ for you,” he said.
I kept walking.
“Hey, asshole. I been waitin’ for you.” He moved to his left and blocked my path. He was wearing a long white apron, the kind butchers wear. “Where you been?”
He grabbed me by the jacket and jerked me around. My books were in one hand, a gym bag in the other. I launched the gym bag at Dorey’s head. He blocked it. Before anything else happened a short, stocky, meat-faced man stuck his head out the Safeway’s back door.
“Tatum!” he yelled.
Dorey froze. His eyes narrowed down on me.
“Your luck ain’t run out yet,” he said. “But I’ll get you. Don’t worry about it. I’ll get you.”
“I won’t lose sleep over it,” I told Dorey.
He turned around. Gave me his best stare.
“You’ll be sleepin’ a long time when I get done.”
The acolytes roared. Fell all over each other. Couldn’t believe what a funny guy Dorey was. A real comedian. They smirked and nudged. Dorey smiled, too.
“I ain’t payin’ you to goof off,” the meat-faced man yelled. “Get your ass in here.”
“YOU’RE LATE!” my mother said as I came in the door. “Practice was over an hour ago. Where you been?”
She had the soul of a precinct Captain. Original Sin wasn’t a concept for her; it was an a priori assumption.
“It’s quarter past five.”
She looked at the clock.
“Put your stuff away. Get the dishes done. Now!”
“Let me get in the door.”
“Don’t give me mouth! You won’t be playing football,” she snarled, “if you don’t get your work done!”
She hated football. Thought it a luxury. Her idea was that I should be working 20 hours a week not playing a “game.” That’s how she was raised. It was a point of contention. I promised to get a job when the season was over. It wasn’t enough.
I guess it reminded her of my father. He played semi-pro for the Stapleton Indians and the Newark Golden Bears. “You’re gonna be a bum just like him,” she’d tell me when she was mad.
“Do you hear me?” she asked.
“Then answer! Work my fingers to the bone. Like a jackass I work. This is the thanks I get?”
“I know. I know.”
She wanted a fight. I wouldn’t give her one.
“Get the dishes done and clean up your room.”
“I got to go back to work. This place better be clean when I come home.”
That’s how I knew she wasn’t mad at me.
Dennis came by as my mother was leaving.
He appeared at my bedroom door, face contorted in mock horror, closed the door with exaggerated care, tiptoed over, and plopped himself on my bed.
“What’sa-matter with your old lady?” he asked.
“Yeah, mine too. That time of the month.” He scrunched his upper lip and rolled his eyes. Such a goon.
“Where were you?”
“The dentist. It ran late. Was the coach pissed?”
“I miss anything?”
“You won’t believe it.”
“What, what? Tell me.”
I told him.
“A-l-l-right!” he said.
“Can you believe it?”
“Believe it? How long could she resist ‘the kid’? Tell me that. Just a matter of time. I knew it. Knew it all along. She could never resist the Brew.”
He was the best friend I ever had.
Later, he helped me dress. Picked out the clothes, offered critical judgment, and, finally, one of his shirts. “You better get going,” I told him. “It’s late.”
“I’m not going.”
“Yes you are.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“That neighborhood ain’t a place for me to be wandering around at night.”
“I’m not going without you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Come on, Brew.”
“You don’t go, I don’t go.”
The idea was growing on him.
“Those white girls do love my ass.”
He took the shortcut through my window.
DJ’s voice was tight with adrenalin.
“Think Dee Dee’ll be there? I bet she’ll be there. You think she’ll be there? Yeah, I think she’ll be there. She loves my ass. You know she loves my ass.”
It was the same before a game. Beating back the delight of fear, the rush of anticipation. He kept it up all the way to Sylvia’s, dancing along beside me, in front of me, behind me, feet moving in ratio to his mouth.
Each step we took, we moved deeper into unknown territory.
A land of sprawling houses. Quiet, broad lawns, tucked away amid green shadows, beneath tall big-waisted trees. We felt like spies. Two ghostlike figures in a foreign land.
But you didn’t have to be familiar with the “Heights” (as most people called it) to find Sylvia’s house that night. It was lit up like a great stone Christmas tree.
“Dis must be da place,” DJ said.
“Looks like a castle,” I told him.
“Looks like money,” he replied.
We paused at the long gravel drive, then started down.
The driveway was lined with cars. Furtive figures groped in the dark. DJ shadowboxed past them, bobbing and weaving, gearing himself up, while I fought the impulse to turn on my heels and run.
At the front door, a guy and girl stumbled out. The girl I recognized from school. She gave us a defiant look. The guy, who I didn’t recognize, had a beer in his hand. They lurched for a moment, looked at us, looked at each other, and laughed. Then continued to laugh as they weaved their way down the stone walk.
“Yup,” DJ said, “Dis be da place!”
We crossed the transom.
“BLARE- BLARE-BLARE!” the music said.
“Heruba-Heruba-Heruba,” from the crowd.
There was a long, carpeted hallway, polished wood floors, and a stairway that climbed to the second floor. Left and right were two large rooms. Kids were everywhere, down the hall, up and down the stairs. The noise was deafening. A shout or two. The laughter of girls. These were “collegiates.” Kids who wore madras shirts and Levis, Florshiem penny loafers and no socks. The ones with cars and Trust Funds. Acceptances from Amherst and Yale.
We stood a little stiffly, starting to lose nerve.
Then a bunch of guys from the football team piled in behind us. “Hey DJ! Tony!” they cried. They pushed us before them with their momentum, down the long hallway to a den where people played pool, talked, drank beer from a keg. The room was all mahogany. Warm reds and browns and yellows. A room where men smoked cigars, talked stocks and bonds, praised Andy Robustelli and Sam Huff.
I leaned against the bar, purely for support, and a beer was thrust in my hand. DJ knew everybody. A minor celebrity. He moved from group to group, maintaining a continuous chatter. For a while, I lost him. Then I saw him again, talking fast, pushing his glasses up, hands in constant movement. Once, when he was surrounded by four or five girls, he leaned back around big Jim Prehodka, looked at me, and mugged his face in joyous delight.
Later, I noticed Sylvia notice me.
She stood with a few friends. Talking and joking, little laughs, like they were used to each other and comfortable. She looked over but I pretended not to notice.
“Well?” DJ said.
“What?” I asked.
He nodded. “Get it over with.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“It don’t matter. They expect us to be jerks.”
Rich Skelly slipped up behind us.
“She’s waiting for you.”
He was wearing an oversized sweatshirt with skull and crossbones and the sleeves cut off. I ignored him.
“Can’t you see it?” he said, leaning, leering, hanging all over me. “It’s dripping down her legs!”
“Asshole,” I said and shoved him off.
I couldn’t figure him. One moment he refers to her with unashamed reverence, the next, the butt of a dirty joke. He squeezed his neck with both hands, strangling himself, smiled insanely from a red-purple face, and pulled himself away.
And then it was Sylvia standing beside me.
“DJ,” she said, “I’m really glad you came.” She took DJ by the arm and smiled at me. Then, Skelly barged in again, babbling, literally babbling. Vibrating his fingers up and down over his lips, “Itabiddle-itabiddle-itabiddle,” and put his gross arm around Sylvia. A proprietary gesture. A statement: “Listen pal, I’m still here and I’ll be here long after you’re gone.” It pissed me off.
“DJ tells me you’re going to be one of the Captains,” Sylvia said, but before I could answer, Skelly started shouting at someone in the hall, drowning us out. It was guys from the team. They pushed in, shoving and shouting. It got crazy.
“How you doin’?” Pete Colby yelled.
“What’s happening?” DJ answered.
Pete grabbed DJ and pulled him towards the kitchen. DJ looked back and smiled.
“Don’t worry,” Sylvia said, “DJ can take care of himself.”
Say something, I thought, say something. But what? I couldn’t think of a thing.
That’s when Peggy Bowdoin came over and whispered to Sylvia and pointed across the room and pulled Sylvia away. A little later, I saw Sylvia talking urgently to Skelly. She looked distraught. He propped both hands on her shoulders, as if giving advice or support. She was close to tears. The next thing I knew, she walked right up to me, took my hand, and led me to the living room.
The music played. People danced. Sylvia’s friends whispered and giggled. Sylvia looked up at me. She moved into my arms. Just the intoxication, the warm musk, the firm angles of her body in propinquity to mine, was enough. We danced every song. She made it easy. The touch of her fingers on my arm, the reassuring smile. And her laughter—it was, well, like birdsong. More than sex. I could die for that laugh.
At one point, during a lull in the music, Sylvia’s attention was taken by new arrivals. I wandered over to sit on the floor beneath an open window. The cool breeze blew in on me and I became peripherally aware of another presence. It was Skelly.
He was sitting in a corner by himself, a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. Between us was a long couch pushed out from the wall. We looked at each other as if through a tunnel.
“Twats,” he said, morosely. “They fart, they piss, they shit. They stink. Just like you and me. They’re not special!” His words were slurred, but he spoke deliberately, looked directly in my eyes. “What a sap,” he said and laughed. A few minutes later, he passed out in a fetal position, chin on his chest, clinging to the bottle for security.
When Sylvia returned, a fast song just ended and a slow one began.
Eyes half-closed, she moved close. Her hips pressed mine. She smiled. When the song ended, she took me by the hand, through the crowd, down the long hall, past the den, through the kitchen, and out the back door.
The lawn was blue in the moonlight, hedged by the shadows of black woods. We stood for a moment. The relief of stillness, the crisp autumn air, the pergola’s fading flower. Then, without a word, she led me to a small building twenty yards away. I hadn’t even noticed. A carriage house. Two stories high. The lower a garage. We went up a stairway on the outer side.
The second floor was a large, one-room furnished apartment. Plaited white curtains, weaved circular rug, a stove, refrigerator, and a bed, a large double bed. I closed the door behind us. She switched on a lamp. The radio played low.
She slowly disrobed.
Muscles smooth beneath the whiteness of her skin. A thoroughbred youthfulness, the pullulative promise of Spring, wordless and intolerable. And the element of shyness. A young girl’s impenetrable complexity, as if surprised by her beauty and not sure what to make of it. Who can guess at the depths of such profundity? The secret welter of life and blood? There’s no initiation into such mystery, only an answering voice. It wells up without warning or invitation from deep within the wildness of your heart. And for the time that you’re with her, you live in the midst of the incomprehensible.
Our bodies moved without volition. A fiery dance of dark and light. Grand, cabalistic rhythm, hard and soft, orifice to orifice. Rolling, rising and falling, deep and shallow, tender and hard.
When it was done, we laid on our sides. Languorous. Quiescent. My hand glided down her back, over her hip, her thighs. We began again. Gently. Then harder.
She rolled me on my back and began to rock. Easy, then faster and faster. I pushed up hard. Bridged. Rising to meet her. She rocked fiercely, rutting, gritting her teeth, nostrils flared. Straddling me, arms straight, elbows locked, she pushed against my chest and stomach. Faster. Faster. Harder. Harder. I thrust up savagely, slapped, groped her soft distended flesh, pinching her breasts, her nipples hard. Breathing fast, pounding, relinquishing control. A violent terror and delight. Arms and legs spastic. Wild. Trying to keep up. Sprinting wildly. Holding on for dear life. She gripped my throat, squeezed, riding, bucking, beyond time and self: making the beast with two backs.
We collapsed together on the bed.
Cupped in my body. I kissed her hair. Tried to gain her eyes. But she refused, clinging tightly. Weeping, though I didn’t know. She shivered. I pulled the sheet over us. So small she seemed, encircled by my arms. A liquid gem. My eyes filled with wonder. “I love you,” I said, believing it was true.
Her arms tensed.
She sat up.
The round cheeks, the earnest pout, a willful expression—almost comical: Shirley Temple, hurt little girl eyes, thick sensual lips, womanly nipples, stiffening on her small dilated breasts. Her eyes filled. I reached out, but she sprang from me, jumped from the bed, swooped up her clothes, and out the door.
Stunned, I sat in silence. I dressed and rushed back to the house.
DJ was in the living room.
“Brew!” he cried. The music blared.
“Have you seen Sylvia?” I asked.
“I thought she was with you.”
“I lost her.”
“How could you lose her?”
“I just did. Have you seen her?”
The stereo clicked, another record slipped down. Even louder.
“What?” DJ said, cupping one ear.
“HAVE. . .YOU. . .SEEN. . .HER?”
“No,” he said and shook his head. “Look in the bar?”
“I looked everywhere.”
“How ‘bout upstairs?”
I hadn’t thought of it. Naturally. The most logical place.
I started to pull away. DJ grabbed my arm.
“If you see her, tell me.”
I charged up the stairs, dodging and leaping over tangled bodies.
There were six rooms on the second floor adhering to an L-shaped hallway. The first was empty. The second, three girls sat in front of a mirror fixing their hair. The third, a male and female voice talked in low murmurs. The fourth was dark but the door was open a crack. I thought I heard weeping. I opened it.
“Sylvia,” I called.
After a pause, an agitated male voice answered.
“She ain’t here.”
The fifth door was closed. I listened. Nothing. I had to know. I took a deep breath and knocked. “Sylvia,” I called.
The room was empty.
As I got to the sixth door, a toilet flushed and it opened. Red-haired Eileen O’Doyle came sprawling out. Her eyes glazed, dress hiked up, one stocking gone. I caught her as she stumbled.
“Surprizzze!” she slurred through numb lips. She looked at me closely, made an effort to focus. “Tony!” she cried, “You little Devil.” I didn’t even know she knew my name.
I helped her gain footing. Propped against the wall, she put her arms around my neck and exhaled beer-breath deeply. Then she straightened up.
“What’rrre-you-look-ing—at?” she demanded, suddenly paranoid, then collapsed to the floor, laughing. “Don’t go away mad, doll,” she cried.
DJ was sitting in a chair-swing suspended from a branch of a tall willow tree.
“Did you find her?” he asked, sipping a beer.
We sat a while, saying nothing. I gave him the general outline. He listened and handed me the beer.
“Women are strange, Brew,” DJ said. “Women are strange.”
“But where did she go?”
“Who?” Neil Hall asked, coming up beside us.
“I just saw her. She was dancing with a guy from Kennedy. You know the tall one with acne?”
“Ten minutes ago. I pulled in behind him.. That black GTO with mags.”
DJ looked at me.
“I’m getting bored. Let’s get out of here,” he said
I got up and started walking toward the house.
“You don’t want to go in there, Brew,” he said. “To hell with her. Let’s get out of here.”
He could see it was no use.
Inside the house, Donna Muller told me, not without glee, “They just walked out towards the driveway.” Working the gravel drive from the house to the road, I searched each car methodically. I had to know.
Three quarters of the way up, I found the GTO.
I approached slowly.
Arms pumped full with adrenaline., chest swelled, outrage and self-loathing burned in my gut. I crouched low, stooped awkwardly, sprang up. Back, then front. Empty.
I leaned against the GTO.
Shameful. Sneaking in shadows. Creeping in the night. The absurd-seeker in the autumn moonlight. But I had to know. This one thing. This one fact. I had to know. I needed to see it with my own eyes.
I searched the remaining cars.
When I got to the end of the drive, I worked my way back toward the house.
Standing between the last car and the carriage house, I sat down on the front bumper.
This night will drop away, I told myself. The sun will rise. I’ll still be me. There’ll be an explanation. Simple and clear. And I will laugh at my own idiocy. But then, I looked up at the apartment and the poison began to drip. I tried to fight it, but it was no use. If I didn’t know, I was left with everything and nothing.
I climbed the stairs, swallowed deep, and opened the door.
The room was empty.
Soft light still played on the bed. The radio hummed. I held the loose doorknob feeling like a fool. What to believe? The whole night partook of dreams and madness.
I walked to the bed and sat down. Put my head in my hands. That’s when I found her ribbon. A shiny, pale, blue ribbon she’d worn in her hair. I picked it up, held it in my hand, a brute brought low by beauty, and carried it with me back down the stairs.
I couldn’t face the confusion of the house, so I returned to the bumper of the nearest car. The air was charged with the warmth of decay, the crisp cold sleep to come. You could almost smell the colors. One last furious dance before winter’s transposition. Resting my elbows on bended knees, I caught a whiff, a brief wisp of Sylvia. Luxurious, rich, mysterious. A baked, fecund, female odor. I rubbed my head. Took deep breaths. I shivered with the chill of dried sweat. Too much beer, too much intensity, too much emotion. Too much of everything. Enveloped by her odor, I could almost feel her body touch mine.
I drifted back.
Narcotic, lightheaded, floating. I’d never known such intensity. Overwhelmed, borne along upon the warp and woof of primordial imperative. Floating—floating—floating. Anaesthetized. Yet alive. Defeating time. The rapture of her inscrutable body. The complexity of co-mingled form. Not just glands, but love. LOVE. I knew it was LOVE. A stillness at the center. A momentary stay. A world charged with benevolence and meaning. And I knew I knew. And I knew that I had changed. Could never be the same again.
It was then, from the car in front of me, I heard a noise. Was it moaning? I held my breath. There it was again. I stared at the back window. A shadow rose up, a form, working, writhing, grinding. A face in the moonlight wearing the grimace of delight. It was Sylvia.
She raised up high. I could see her breasts. They floated rhythmically. An anonymous hand reached up and caressed one of them. She rested her elbows on the top of the back seat. When she lifted her head, she saw me. Startled at first, then gathered herself, stared right back, teeth clenched, grinding harder and harder, her eyes never leaving mine.
The impact was concussive.
I staggered backwards, lost breath, blindsided.
“No,” I cried, but the word went unuttered. I backed away. Shaken. But she continued to stare, holding me with her eyes, punishing me. I felt the impulse to run. But turned back once more. Just to make sure. She was staring straight at me. And she smiled. Smiled. I heard him moan, then she looked into my eyes. . .and smiled.
Then came the flux, the flux. The Alarum. I lost balance, stumbled, picked myself up and ran. Ran toward the darkness and away from the light.
Naked cowardice, running sightless from the light. Running—Running—Running. A dry hard ache, a hollow numbness, an unreal buoyancy. Running until I fell, knocked flat by an unseen limb, landing with a thud. Getting up and running once more. At a distance from the house, I stopped and looked back.
The music undulated to the opening and closing of exterior doors. And voices, drunk and vulgar. One in particular, a female voice, carried farther than most voices go, honked harshly, then subsided into peals of laughter. I wanted none of it. No part. No booze. No crowd. No conflicting emotion. No part of people drugged with youth, feeling the warm heaviness of their bodies. Laughing. Draped all over, fondling each other. Gasping, chanting, panting. I’d had enough of hands and mouths, the ruddy strife of lips and genitals—touching, pounding, screaming, yielding, paying dark tribute to the stench of orgasm, the choked screams of symbiosis. I wanted no part of their poisonous, greasy sweat. Their crude humor. Their obscene laughter. I wanted the old world back.
I sprinted for the road as fast as I could. Loping strides, almost leaping, legs light and elastic. Dogs barked. Lights clicked on. I kept running. Running past pale houses, purple trees, the blue lawns, ran until the sweat squeezed from my pores and I felt clean again.
DJ found me at the cemetery.
“Brew,” he called, “is that you? What’re you doing?”
I didn’t answer.
“I been looking all over.”
He sat down next to me.
“It’s freezing,” he said, “You gonna catch Pee-neumonia. We should go. No? OK, we’ll wait.”
We took the long way home.
DJ talked softly. The frenzied patter replaced by sober reflection. His voice calmed me. An anchor. We cut down Olive, picked up Main by the Majestic. It was dark, locked up tight. Danforth’s, too, had long since closed. The streets were empty. There was a great charm in the stillness. When DJ spoke in anything but a whisper, it carried far in the distance. The streetlamps glowed and the green grass glistened with dew.
We approached the tall clapboard fence behind the Safeway.
DJ saw them first.
“Ah shit,” he said.
It was Dorey and his buddies.
“Keep walking,” DJ whispered.
“Hey Johnson,” Dorey called, “is that the wop with you?”
I looked at Dorey.
“Ignore him,” DJ said.
“Hey wop!” Dorey shouted. He angled to cut us off. “We got business to finish.”
“This is stupid,” DJ said.
“Shut up, little man.”
“We never did nothing to you.”
“I’m talkin’ to the wop.”
“Not tonight,” I told him.
Dorey moved his lips over his teeth. Once, twice, then lunged and knocked me to the ground. He looped his left arm around my neck in a half-nelson.
DJ tried to pull Dorey off but the others grabbed him.
“Brew,” I heard him call, “Brew.” But it didn’t matter. None of it did.
Dorey wrenched me around, trying to gain leverage. He clamped down hard. My eyes watered. My breath came short. I could see DJ struggling, fear in his eyes. He was shouting. But it sounded muffled, far away. I remember feeling sorry for him. What was the Big Deal? Why so upset? I wasn’t afraid anymore, just weary with life. The insipid seedy joke of it. The peacock buffoonery, the senseless howling, the feral teeth-showing. The snort and stomp. Tired. Had a bellyful. There was no reason to panic. It was all so comical, really.
Dorey squeezed harder. He yanked my head. “Fight!” he cried, “Fight!” but I didn’t. Then he slapped me twice.
It was then that I felt anger.
It wasn’t the slap, but the look in his eyes. A look of ownership, conquest. Sexual somehow. And more. Like I was property. Not human at all. I didn’t resent him hurting me, killing me, even. That was my choice, not his. I chose to let this happen. Allowed it. But that look X-ed me out. Denied me choice, will, courage, identity. With nothing left but meaninglessness, the only thing I had was choice. To live or die. But it was my choice. Not his. I was not property.
I bridged my legs and rolled. He slipped around and got me in another chokehold. I arched my back and broke the hold. On my feet, I hit him once, twice, again and again. Blood spurted from his mouth and nose. He lunged. We grappled, bouncing on the pavement. “I’m gonna pull your tongue out,” I heard myself say. A voice I didn’t recognize. He wrenched free and got to his feet.
The big eyes and long lashes blinked. The lips worked over bloody teeth. He shook himself and came at me, throwing wild, reckless punches. I crouched and we went down, punching, sprawling, gouging. He rolled on top and brought down one fist, then the other. For the first time, I tasted my own blood. But felt no pain. I rolled him off.
He lunged, grabbing my shirt, and tried to drag me to the ground again. We jerked each other in circles. His hands slipped to my neck. He grunted. Blood and spit flew from his mouth. His grip tightened. I managed to get one leg behind his and pushed him down. We tumbled.
Memory lends order, a dignity it did not possess. It was clumsy and pitiful. But this I remember: after a certain point, I enjoyed it. At first, I just wanted him away. But now, I wanted not just to beat him, but to obliterate him. To pull his face apart. Rip flesh from bone.
At the end, I had him down and hit him one after the other.
“He’s had enough,” one of the sycophants said.
But it was not enough.
I dragged him to his feet. Snapped his head back with a punch. His eyes rolled. He fell to one knee. Then I hit him flush and felt his mouth separate beneath my fist. He pawed the air blindly spraying blood.
I stepped back.
I didn’t know who it was then, who grunted and growled, who hit for the joy of giving pain, for blood, for breaking skin and cartilage.
Dorey’s breathing labored. His lungs wheezed. His face a pulpy mess.
“Get up!” I yelled.
He tried to move.
The others stood silent.
I moved toward Dorey again.
“He’s had enough,” one of them said. “You won.”
“Get back,” I told him.
He looked to the others for help, but none would meet his glance.
Dorey just lay there. He rocked from side to side, then was still. I bent over, grabbed him by the collar. His head lolled. The big puffy eyes opened and closed. I lugged him to a nearby telephone pole.
“Look at me,” I said and pounded his head into the pole.
Then DJ was on my back.
“Brew, ” he cried. “You’re gonna kill him!”
But how could I kill him? Dorey was me. I flicked DJ off. Just as quick, he returned.
I threw him to the ground and grabbed him by the throat.
“Brew,” he said, pleading with his eyes.
“Get away!” I told him and pushed him off.
I turned to Dorey, but DJ was on my back. This time I shoved him. Not hard, but enough to keep him away. He wouldn’t stop.
“You’re gonna kill him, Brew!” he said
“Get back!” I warned.
“He isn’t worth it. You gotta stop!”
“I can’t.” He pulled my hands from Dorey’s neck.
This time I lifted him up and tossed him.
He sprang to his feet and came toward me again.
“Get back NIGGER!” I roared.
And then something did change. Really change. Forever.
I looked at Dorey leaning against the pole, looked to the others. There was silence. I turned to DJ. He looked away. In that moment, the last remaining thing that was kind and good and beautiful went out of life.
“DJ?” He refused. “DJ?” I whispered. He wouldn’t face me. The others separated. I staggered past, limped, began to run.
When I got to Glover, I looked back.
They hadn’t moved. Dorey was prone and inert. The others standing beneath the streetlamp, staring at me with disbelief.
I ran down Glover lugging my body, bleary, exhausted. Dragging myself past the impervious houses and into the black woods. The branches and underbrush seemed to reach out, grab for me, hold me back. I struggled, thrashed, bulled my way through, came crashing into the clearing with a thud, breathing hard, lightheaded, legs burning. I ran toward the big rock out beyond center field, and collapsed.
The moon was blue and drifted downward like snow, gave the woods, rocks, ground a milky and lifeless pallor. I could feel the dead planet spin beneath me, hurtling through space, and I longed to escape, take flight. Crouched behind the rock, holding my head in my hands, in the shadow of the moon, in the darkness of the rock, in the adytum of the wilderness, I knew. I knew something had changed. Changed forever. And I knew. And I would never forget.
The secret was out.
Dancing. . .and dancing.
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