Originally published in Grey Borders Magazine (Canada), April 2018 issue
Originally published in Grey Borders Magazine (Canada), April 2018 issue
Published in Grey Borders Magazine, April 2018 issue
We were good Catholic girls, never in trouble for anything more than doing a halfhearted job of washing the dinner dishes or taking out the trash cans for the Monday morning pickup. It was late August, and Suzanne, Maria and I were about to start our junior year at St. Mary’s. I had passed my driver’s test in June. Suze could drive too, but on this particular night, her parents had revoked her driving privileges for two more weeks for some minor infraction. Her father had been a military man, and he liked to run his family like it was the Army . School was starting in eleven days. I was determined to make the most of the summer’s end. I left my family’s station wagon parked in front of Suze’s house on Northwood Drive, wedging it between a couple of her neighbor’s cars. Suze grabbed her house key, called loudly to her mother who was ironing in the basement.
“Be back later, Ma,”
We walked out her kitchen door really fast, past the trash cans at the end of the cement walk, out the gate and down the alley route to Maria’s.
Mrs. Selig opened the door. Grey haired, stern, and a little hard of hearing, she never wore makeup. I guess she always made me feel a little on edge. My manners weren’t good enough for her. Today, she wore an apron spattered with shards of red and yellow fruit. The smell was sweet and fragrant, almost overpowering, though. But for a change, Mrs. Selig seemed happy to see us.
She even smiled a little as she poked her head into the dining room and said brightly, “I hope you like peaches, girls. Come on in—Maria and I are just getting them ready for freezing.”
In the small kitchen ripe, fragrant red-flecked golden peaches were piled up on the counter, the table, in plastic containers and china bowls, and on the floor in a half bushel basket. Maria was in shorts and a sleeveless blouse, her dirty blond hair pulled back into a ponytail that she’d pinned under so it looked like some kind of French hairdo but only half done up. For a few minutes we just stood there and watched her slice peaches for the freezer and put them into a square plastic container. A long, flat peach cake still in the pan cooled on a rack on the Formica table next to four or five large crockery bowls of the fruit. Mrs. Selig peeled fruit after fruit. After she skinned each one, she wiped her hands on her apron.
“I’ll finish up,” Maria said to her mother. She flashed and me a look, as if to say, I wish she would just leave. “Meg and Suze can help.”
Mrs. Selig managed to sound pleased and annoyed at the same time. She took off her apron and folded it carefully over the back of a chair. She rinsed her hands under the faucet and told Maria, “Just be sure you wipe off all those counters, hon, so I don’t feel anything sticky when I come in later on to make your father’s lunch for tomorrow.” She strode off towards the living room and we heard her switch on the tv.
“Did you bring the money?” Maria asked me.
“Right here,” I said. I patted the front pocket of my shorts.
“Fifty,” I said, reaching into my pocket and pulling out two twenties and a ten, and laying them on the table next to the peach cake. “Enough for all of us and more.”
“More is good,” said Suze. “We can always sell what we don’t want.”
“You want to walk down there or what?” Maria asked Suze and me.
“Let’s drive,” Suze said.
“No way.” I was always so paranoid about the car. “If anything ever happened to my dad’s car—that neighborhood –“
“So what are we gonna do, take the bus?” Suze asked. It was pretty obvious how stupid that idea was.
“Very funny, Miss Schmitter,” I said.
“Let’s call Bill Nash and make him take us,” said Maria.
“Right, sure, Mr. College Boy is gonna drive us down to Thirty-Third Street,” I said. “Like in what, his mother’s Dodge Dart with the push buttons?”
“Who cares? He’s cute,” Maria said. “Let’s call him.”
“Let’s walk,” said Suze, “Bill’s so boring.”
“You just hate him because he never asked you out,” I said. “Not that your mom would let you go out with a guy in a car.” He’d never asked me out either, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from giving Suze a hard time. She shot me a pissed off kind of look, but she didn’t say anything, probably because she knew I was right.
“How about we get your car, you drive us, you drop Maria and me off at Thirty-Third Street and you wait in the car for us?” Suze looked straight at me. “No big deal, Meggy. It would take about ten minutes.”
I hesitated. It was only seven, and it would be light for a while yet. Where we were headed wasn’t such a great neighborhood, especially after dark, but we had plenty of time to get down and back. And the last thing in the world I wanted to do was call Bill Nash for a ride anywhere. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I’d had a thing for him since the beginning of tenth grade, when I saw him play a small part in a Calvert Hall play. He was the guy constantly stumbling in drunk and falling down in “You Can’t Take It With You.” The play was stupid and I didn’t remember a thing except this tall boy with rosy cheeks and a shock of dark brown hair, crashing to the floor and causing waves of laughter from the audience, especially the girls. Since then I’d heard that he and his friends at St. Matthews had won a couple CYO drama contests, only for serious stuff. Now he was in college, and I wondered if he had a girlfriend. Probably some older girl—no way he’d be interested in a high school junior.
“Are we going or not?” Suze asked. “I need a smoke. Now.” Maria’s parents didn’t allow smoking in the house—at least not for kids. It was fine for them to smoke, of course.” Let’s get out of here,” Suze whined.
“Fine. I’ll drive,” I said. The fan in Maria’s kitchen was making a loud hum. It would be good to have some fun for a change. The whole summer had been nothing but boring—working at my father’s store, mowing the lawn, driving around at night with my girlfriends wishing we had someplace to go—a party, maybe to D.C. where it was legal to drink if you were eighteen, maybe hang out with some older guys. But all we had so far was the movies and if we were lucky, someone with a house on the shore invited us down overnight. Once Wanda Barber had us down to a cookout at her family’s summer place on the Severn, but we only put up with her because at school she kept trying to sit at our lunch table. Eventually, we just caved in and Wanda started thinking she was one of us. Needless to say, she wasn’t.
“I have to ask if I can go out tonight,” Maria said. She crossed her fingers and held them up. Suze tapped her foot loudly and sighed as Maria wiped her hands, threw the towel down onto the kitchen table, and walked into the living room.
“Let’s wait on the back steps,” Suze said. “I bet her mom says no way.” She pulled her cigarette pack out of her shorts pocket and tapped one out. “You want one?” She opened the door for me very quietly and we sat down on the concrete stoop.
I wasn’t a regular smoker but sometimes it just felt right to have one. Suze pulled out a silver lighter, lit my cigarette and then hers. She inhaled and started blowing smoke rings. Fully aware that I’d not yet mastered that skill, I took a long menthol-soaked drag and just blew it out slowly.
“Nice lighter,” I said. “Where’s it from?”
“I copped it from my sister,” Suze said. Her sister Catherine was in college. She had a summer job waitressing in Rehoboth and had left most of her good stuff at home in the room they shared. “I have to put it back before she gets home next week.”
“Don’t lose it or she’ll kill you,” I said. Catherine was a notorious bitch, and very particular about her possessions, especially the expensive gifts she got from boyfriends, of which she had many.
“Fat chance,” Suze answered. “I have the goods on her. She and her friends had a party when my parents went away that weekend and I helped her clean up—so now I can use all her stuff and she can’t stop me.”
Just then, Maria practically ran out her back door. She grabbed us by our wrists and pulled us down the narrow concrete walk through the back gate. Letting go of us for a moment, she swung the metal gate back hard behind her to close it tight. “She is so damned annoying,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. She’d unpinned her hair and it was loose now, falling down past her shoulders. Her tanned face was still wet from when she’d just washed it.
“Get a move on, you two!” she laughed, and she bumped her hip lightly, first against me, then against Suze. “I made parole, but the Queen says I have to be home by ten-thirty.”
“Poor kid,” I said. “My curfew’s midnight.”
We started singing together as we walked three abreast down the alley: “Nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide. Got nowhere to run, baby…I know you’re no good for me…” The singing ended abruptly as we dissolved into laughter, about, it seemed, nothing. Perspiration ran down my face and I could feel it drip right down into the front of my sleeveless top. My hair, which I had worked so hard at straightening that afternoon, was frizzing up. I pulled it back as flat as I could under my headband, trying to look as cool as I thought Maria did.
We cut through the end of the alleyway and onto Northwood Drive. As we walked, we saw kids everywhere, it seemed—little kids out with empty screw-top jars, holes carefully poked into the metal tops. They were running over front lawns, squealing and catching lightning bugs. Some girls were lining up at the curb by the white Good Humor truck, and the Good Humor man, a short, dark guy dressed all in whites with his change-maker at his belt, was pulling popsicles and rockets from the freezer of the truck, the dry ice making smoky looking stuff curl up, right out of the little open door at the back.
“Want a popsicle?” Suze said. “I might.”
“Get out, we have to go,” I said. “The guy told me he’d only be there till eight, and he might not stay that late.”
The guy was called Steve. A girl who lived down my block, Doris,, had told me about him. I used to ride bikes and play hopscotch with Doris when we were back in grade school, but now she went to the Vo-Tech and ran with a tougher crowd. At the bus stop, though, we would talk about boys, and makeup. She was going to be a beautician, and she always carried this weird shiny plastic case with all her supplies like curlers, end papers for perms, special equipment that hairdressers used. For several weeks while we waited for the bus, we talked about where it was easy to buy beer, how to get fake i.d.s, and where to find some diet pills and grass. She knew a lot about all this, and I knew practically nothing, but I figured I could get some good leads from her. One day she wrote down Steve’s phone number down for me on a scrap of paper torn from the top of a magazine–just his first name and a number. Then she gave me some advice.
“This is where you want to go if you want grass,” she whispered to me one afternoon as we both sat waiting for the bus to take us to work. “Down near the Waverly Theatre is where he hangs out. He’s not a sleaze, he won’t rat you out, and he’s nice. And sort of cute, for an older guy.”
Her express bus pulled up just then as she handed me the piece of paper, filled with her fat round handwriting, all its i’s dotted with circles. She stepped up to the token box, dropped in her fifteen cents, and looked back at me over her shoulder for a split second. Scaggy-looking, I had thought—she had white-blond teased hair, white lipstick, and too much black eyeliner. But on her, it looked cool. She was tall and thin and knew how to carry it off. She knew that everyone else knew it, too.
“Hey, daydreamer, I have dibs on the death seat,” Suze was saying. She opened the passenger door of my car and climbed in.
“Fine with me, age before beauty,” Maria said as she slid into the back seat. “Thirty-third and Greenmount, driver,” she said, giggling.
“Are we sure we want to do this?” I asked.
“Are you turning chicken on us?” Suze said.
“No way,” I said, as I turned the key and pulled out onto the street. Suze switched on the radio and started fooling with the dial.
The street was quiet when we arrived on the block where Steve had said to meet him. I had called him from a payphone earlier that day. “Bring cash, fifty bucks minimum,” he said when I phoned him. “You take my word on it. You don’t get to try the stuff first,” he told me. “And anyone asks, you don’t know me.”
“See if you can find number 505,” I asked Suze. She rolled down her window and peered out.
“This is the six hundred block. One more block west. You’re not getting weirded out, are you?”
I maneuvered the station wagon into a parking place, not a legal one, near a fire hydrant. “Should we get out and wait for this guy, or stay in the car?” Maria asked.
“Don’t be stupid. We stay here. This isn’t the best place to be, even in daylight,” Suze said.
“Looks fine to me,” Maria said.
“You are so damned naïve,” I said. “You two stay here. Let me check to see if this guy’s around.”
The front door of one of the houses flipped open fast, and out walked a guy, a lot older than us but not as old as our parents. I’d say he was maybe thirty. He had on jeans and a pocket t- shirt, really dark blue, with a pack of cigarettes in the pocket. Winstons, I think, or Marlboros, a red-and-white package.
“You Meg?” he called down to me from the doorway. He had short dirty blond hair and blue eyes, and very strange little teeth, pointy at the ends.
“You girls want to come in for a sec?” he asked.
I turned to Suze and Maria. Maria had a weird expression on her face, giving me a look as if to say, No way.
“Well,” I hesitated.
“Come on up. I need a few minutes to get it together for you is all.”
He seemed sincere enough, but I didn’t know if we should go in. I ticked off the pluses and minuses: bad neighborhood; a guy we didn’t really know; no information about who was in the apartment already. Plus, we were obviously about to engage in a criminal activity – buying drugs. “No, thanks,” I said, smiling weakly. “We’ll just wait here.”
“Have it your way, babe,” he said, and disappeared into the apartment.
“Hey, Meg, maybe we should go and buy some beer,” Suze said. She sounded nervous.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “At your age, sure. Good luck.”
“No, really, “ Suze was annoyed. She waved a card she had pulled out of her back pocket. It was a Delaware driver’s license. “I have I.D.”
This was something new. “From where?”
“Get out,” said Maria. “ What does it say?”
“Mary Ellen Steele, 4015 Walnut Avenue, Wilmington, Delaware,” Suze read. “One of my sister’s many fakes.”
“Suze, we don’t need beer,” Maria said. “What we came for is better. Anyway, we don’t need them both, that’s for sure.”
“Stay put, Suze,” I said. “ It’s my car. Wait right here.” I fixed my eyes on Steve’s front door.
“Hey! Get up here, Meg!” Steve was back at the screen door of his place, calling down to me. I could barely hear what he was saying.
“You coming up to do this or not? Who else is coming with you?” He smiled. I noticed for the first time that he had a dark green tattoo, maybe a gargoyle, on his forearm. His jeans were really tight, and kind of dirty, with thin lines of grime running horizontally across his thighs.
I glanced over at Suze and Maria. “Who’s going?” Neither of them said a thing. Suze jerked her chin up and over towards the porch where Steve was standing.
“OK,” I said, loud enough for him to hear me. “Lock all the doors,” I said. “No. You sit in the driver’s seat, Suze. Keep the keys in the ignition.” Suze got out of the car on the curb side, locked the door, then walked around to the driver’s side and slid in behind the wheel. She leaned over and rolled down the front passenger window, and I tossed in the keys. “Be right back,” I said.
I walked fast up the steps to the porch and stopped a couple of feet away from the front door. Steve had just lit a cigarette, and taking a long drag on it, he said quietly, ”How much money you girls bring?”
“Fifty,” I said.
“Lemme see it,” he said in a low voice.
“Where’s the stuff?” I asked.
“Don’t you worry about that, lemme see the money,” he replied. He started to move towards me a bit, letting the screen door smack shut behind him. From the inside of the house I could hear a radio playing music, country music.
“Okay.” I started to reach into my pocket. “Wait a second, Steve—-” I started to say.
“I ain’t Steve,” the man said quietly. “Come here now and give me that money.”
My heart began to beat faster now.” You’re not Steve?” I said. I felt my face flush. “Who are you, then?”
“Just give me the money, darlin’,” he said. “And get the hell out of here. Fast.”
My hand stayed jammed in my pocket, and I froze. He reached over and grabbed my elbow with one hand, squeezing it hard, while the other hand seemed to go into his back pocket. My heart started thumping faster, the noise rising in my throat first, and then in my head.
I jerked my elbow away, and surprisingly, he was so unsteady on his feet that I easily stepped backwards a few steps and started for the steps, while he stood there seeming a bit dazed. “Get up here!” he said in a flat voice, as I felt my foot touch the top step and I tried to propel myself down. “I got what you came for.” He started down the steps after me. I nearly tripped across the sidewalk, pounded on the passenger door window, until Suze leaned over and pulled up the door lock.
“Drive!” I screamed, as I got into the car. “Drive! He’s coming! Drive, you idiot!”
Suze started the engine and pulled out onto the street, tires squealing. We rode in silence—no radio, no talking, my heart still pounding. I wound down the window halfway and heard that strange whooshing sound as we quickly rode past parked cars, one after another.
“You okay, Meg?” said Maria quietly, from the back seat.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. And then I thought of something. “No, actually, I’m not.”
“What happened, he try something?” Suze asked.
“I don’t know what was going on. He didn’t have the stuff, I don’t think. God, he was disgusting—“
Maria lit a Newport, took a drag and handed it to me. “Here, you need this,” she said.
“Thanks,” I sucked in the mentholated smoke and exhaled slowly. “Maybe Doris Kozak set the whole thing up, that scag.”
“You should be more—we should be more careful,” Maria said. “If my mother knew I was down here—“
“Let’s leave your mother out of this,” I said.
“You really think she might have?” Suze said. “You’re okay, aren’t you? That guy was a jerk. How old you think he was, Meggy?”
“Ancient. Maybe thirty?”
We began to giggle and then we couldn’t stop. “Put on the radio,” I said, when we finally got quiet. Let’s go back to someone’s house and just watch tv.” Neither of them said a word. We drove on, past the stadium and onto the boulevard heading north.
A few blocks away from her house, Suze said, “I’d better pull over and let you take the wheel. My father will ground me for another month if he catches me driving.”
“We could drive by Bill Nash’s house,” Maria said. “His mother works nights.”
“What was that guy trying to do, anyway? Suze asked.
“I don’t know, take our money, I guess,” I said morosely. “Maybe something worse. Forget it, Suze. I don’t want to talk about it. Maria’s right, let’s go by Bill’s house.”
Suze parked the car as near to Bill’s house as she could, considering the cars were bumper to bumper all along his block. We rang the doorbell. Bill appeared, tall and smiling, wearing cut-off jeans and a t-shirt from his old high school. “Ladies,” he said, as though he’d been expecting us. “Come in. Nothing like company on a hot, humid night in the city. Mi casa es su casa, as they say. Please join me.”
He led us through the house, empty of adults and siblings, and out to his back stoop. We sat there for a couple hours drinking beer, smoking Marlboros, and listening to the Top Forty hits on the kitchen radio, which sat in the window facing out towards the fenced-in back yards. Suze and Maria sat on the lowest step, tilting back the cans of Bud into their mouths and looking up at the darkening sky. Clutching their jars of lightning bugs, the last of the children were called in when the streetlights switched on. Bill and I started to sing along to the radio, and he slipped his arm around my shoulder. The stars came out, and the cicadas began their rising song.
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The Color of Her Volkswagen
Atlas blue. First Bug I ever saw.
It showed up one day, a shiny little thing
in Miss Kay’s driveway two doors down.
Their old Dodge long gone.
People on our street drove Chevys or Fords,
nobody even knew how to say Volkswagen,
were skeptical about a foreign car, but
Miss Kay packed up picnic basket, playpen, her toddler son,
the baby, her Coppertone oil. There was room
for my sister and me. I rode in the front,
watched Miss Kay shift the gears, her pedicured feet
depressing the gas pedal, working the clutch
like an extension of her body. She tuned
the radio to WFBR, the Four Lads sang
Standin’ on the Corner Watchin’All the Girls.
She didn’t like rock n’ roll.
When we got to the swimming place, an old
quarry now flooded with water, now a club
where you bought a daily membership,
the loudspeaker blasted my kind of music—
repeated every hour. We ate peanut butter sandwiches,
Miss Kay plunged into the water from a dock.
She wore a green bikini, adjusted the top
over her small breasts when she emerged from the water.
I slathered on her suntan oil, bounced the baby.
Around us, teenaged girls mixed iodine and baby oil,
greased up their arms and legs and shoulders,
lit Newports and blew smoke rings.
I longed to be like them. Homeward, the blue VW
rolled up and down country roads back to the city,
steaming streets, dried little lawns.
[Reprinted from Maryland Writer’s Association magazine, Pen-in_Hand, January 2017]
Catherine Mumford Cave, Miss Kay in this poem, shuffled off this mortal coil on September 22, 2016. She was a kind and inspiring neighbor who shared her talents as a cook, gardener, seamstress, and all around cool adult with the neighborhood kids. She also gave me my first babysitting job. I wrote this poem last winter.