The guys began drifting away from the corner as the sun went down behind the brick building of Twenty-First Street school. There were large patches where some bricks seemed newer and less dirty than the rest, and to Frank they made an interesting zigzag pattern. The sun was large and red, with distant clouds against it in black streaks making the red-and-black contrast of a checkerboard. It was time for supper.
Frank remembered when he was a little kid still in grade
school, when he went to a school like this one. He wasn't sure which one he was thinking of, there had been so many -- maybe it was the one on Wisconsin Avenue, near the apartment where he used to go out on the fire escape.
During the war his mother used to send him into the lobby there to scavenge cigaret butts from the sand in the ashtray, and on one warm day, VE Day, or
VJ Day -- he never figured out which -- when he was playing
outside near the street a man walking by gave him a quarter just
because the war was over.
He used to lean against that school with his cheek against
the bricks, looking up along the building to the roof where the
clouds moving past the edge made it seem as if the building
were falling over. He'd imagined the grim building -- wire
screening on the lower windows, the same as this school, to
protect them from baseballs -- crashing down in a heap of
rubble. It had been fun to think about, though he'd worried
whether he could keep out of the way.
His recollection of schools before that was spotty, though Hi-Mount
kindergarten stayed with him because when they took naps on their
blankets on the floor he sometimes looked up the skirt of the girl
whose feet were a few feet from his head. Somehow he knew he
wasn't supposed to see the thin legs and white panties and felt guilty,
but it didn't stop him. And his first day at kindergarten brought another
jolt. His grandmother had left him outside to mill around with the other
new kids outside the door and he told one of them his name was Frank.
"His name is Frank, too." Pointing to another kid nearby he didn't
know. It was a shock to him because up until now he had thought he
was the only Frank in the world. In fact, he thought everybody had
their own name by themselves. Maybe he never actually thought the
world revolved around himself, but he didn't like the idea of losing
something that at least set him apart.
The guys liked to spit a lot when they smoked, and Frank could spit
far out into the street from where he was sitting on the
playground steps with Dave and Donnie and Little Al. "Shit," he
said. He wasn't referring to anything in particular -- nothing had been
said for the past few minutes. There were only the four of
them left on the steps. Sometimes in the summer when they wore
older clothes they could be tempted to shimmy up backwards on
the polished circular chute inside the silo-like fire escape whose
hatch could be opened from the outside, and get to the roof.
But now they they just watched as the last three of the girls
who had been hanging out on the corner with them and the rest of
the guys left Mehl's Drugstore across the street.
"Hey Two-Scoops," Dave yelled to the girl named Sandy
who was walking with her car-coat off, showing prominent
breasts pointed like bullets under a tight green sweater. "You
comin' out tonight?" Dave was Frank's best buddy, and they
called him Baby-Face Olson sometimes because his face was
round and cute-looking -- they had all seen the Baby-Face
Nelson picture with Mickey Rooney at the Savoy one Friday
"You just never mind," Sandy answered from across the
street. She looked at her two girlfriends and said something,
then, smiling, added loudly: "Maybe!"
Frank felt guilty. Her friend Judy was walking away now
too, and he hadn't said anything to her. Did she expect him to?
Maybe she didn't really like him anyway. He forced himself to
"Hey -- Judy!"
She turned, walking backwards. She was short, with a
wide pretty face, large eyes and blonde hair. She did a lot
of roller-skating at the Riverside Rink and her calves were
muscular, though not too heavy. She was wearing a flaring
gray skirt with a bright-red wide plastic belt. "Me?" she asked.
Her face seemed carefully blank.
"Yeah, you -- I'll see you tonight, okay?"
"Well -- if my father'll let me out. 'Bye!" She turned away
suddenly and hurried off to catch up with her girlfriends.
The third girl, Mavis, was wearing a rather long, pleated
full skirt, and Little Al, tilting his head in the direction of her
hips, began to sing to the tune of "The Caissons Go Rolling
"You can tell, by the smell, that the girl ain't feeling well,
and the end of her monthly is near -- "
They all laughed, though not loudly because it was an old
joke -- if a chick had on a full skirt it was probably because
she was wearing the rag, they knew. "What a beast," Frank
"Oh, I don't know," said Little Al. "I guess I wouldn't kick
her outta bed, not with them knockers."
"Yeah you, ya little shit, you'd probably get down there and
lick her out, blood and all," said Frank.
"Mmm, ketchup," Little Al responded, grinning. He was
small, the youngest of the three, with a crew cut that made him
look younger. When the light hit his thin bristly black hair a
certain way the scalp showed through in dead-white patches.
"That's better than sucking cock like you do."
He stuck out his hand to mess up Frank's hair, dancing away
as Frank punched him on the arm. "Ah, eat me, will ya," said
Frank without much rancor. Little Al's short body was athletic
and tough, and Frank was afraid he might make him look pretty
bad in a real fight. But so far he didn't push Frank very hard.
"Yeah, I saw you blowing Wergin in his office -- how do
you think he gets them good marks?" Little Al asked, turning
Usually they liked to call the middle-aged principal Wergin the virgin,
though the irony didn't escape Frankie, at least.
Dave shrugged, not taking sides.
Frank sighed as if he were bored, straightening his coat and
sitting down again on the concrete. Then he said, "Man, Judy
looked pretty good today."
"Hey, man, you gonna go with her?" asked Dave.
"I dunno -- you know that Donna that hangs around Clarke
Street, I think I can get her over to the house when the old
lady's gone, she likes me -- "
"Hell, if she can at least get out at night -- Judy's hardly ever
out, 'n you can't bang her anyways, can ya?"
"Maybe -- shit, all it takes is time, if you tell them you
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Red Krumplitsch says he got that Donna at the drive-in.
That's what he says, anyways," said Little Al. "Christ, wait'll I
get a car. That's what you need, Frank -- then you'd get some
pussy. If you knew what to do with it," he added.
"Shit, I got lots better than that already. Hell, I fingered
Donna in the alley by the Social Center last Friday." He fell
silent, remembering how she felt up against the doorway of the
garage, his middle finger sliding in and out, the gritty feeling of
her hair around the edges of the soft sticky places. It was a lot
better than that time Donnie had admitted to with Sandy Honeck,
when he realized he only had his finger in the crease next to her
thigh, and she ended up laughing at him and told him, "Too bad,"
pushing him away. But Frank still worried if he had as much
hair as he should. Some of the guys in gym class used to laugh at
Then he thought suddenly: Christ, if Donna wasn't cherry she
might laugh at him if he didn't act like he knew what he was
doing. What was it really like, anyway? When he was younger
he tried wrapping his prick in toilet paper while sitting on the
toilet with some paperback, but though it throbbed a little
nothing happened, and he finally had to jag off. He knew now it
was more than that, you had to move, it was soft and wet like
jagging off with soap in your hand. Well, maybe he could make
it with Judy. She was nicer than Donna anyway, with her big
gray eyes and quiet face with nice full lips. For some reason
they just seemed so perfectly outlined. At least she liked the
way he necked, they all did. Maybe he did love her, or at least
he would if he could be sure of her.
"Well," he said, "I guess I gotta get goin' home." He slowly
got up from the steps. "Well, I'll see you around."
"Yeah, take it easy," said Little Al.
"Hey," said Dave, "You comin' out for sure?"
"Yeah, man," Phil said. "Hey -- maybe we can get some
beer -- let's bring some money. I hope Chuck comes around with
"Yeah, maybe he will," said Dave.
"See ya," Phil said. He walked to the corner and started on
the four blocks north to his house.
Little Al yelled after him: "Hey! Don't come over to my
house tonight -- my canary's gettin' bowlegged!"
"Fuck you," Phil called back. The warm spring weather left
him little energy for trading the old insults back and forth like
the guys always did. And the queer jokes were getting to be too
It was more fun to think about Judy. If Chuck came around
with the beat-up Olds convertible maybe they could get some
quarts of cheap beer someplace, some Stork Club -- if Chuck
didn't shave he looked old enough to buy it sometimes -- and he
could get Judy to go along and he could sit in the back seat with
her, if the other guys took chicks along. The last time they were
alone she let him feel her tits, and he played with her nipples.
He'd wanted to put his head down and suck on them, but he
didn't know if he should. She should like that, though, shouldn't
He shifted the books under his arm. Carrying books like that
all day gave him a cramp. He sighed and flipped his cigaret
away. To bad he couldn't use that briefcase the old lady bought
him one fall when he'd started high school. But shit -- none of
the guys had briefcases. She just didn't understand. Just like
she got mad when she heard him call her "the old lady," though
he didn't think of her as any particular age -- and in fact he was
born when she was only 19 -- just that most of the guys called
their parents the old man or old lady. So he tried to remember
to think of her as mother if he could.
A warm damp breeze blew on him. Christ, he thought, I can't
wait for summer. The mild air carried with it spatterings of
voices, like a bunch of kids at a playground or a pool, though
there were no pools around. Were there really more sounds
than in the winter, or didn't you relax and listen when you were
cold? Maybe the air was denser because of the higher humidity
and sound carried better. No, Mr. Doyle, his homeroom teacher
who also taught science and had amassed thousands of punch
cards with weather data to prove some eccentric theory of his
own had pointed out that was a myth. Humid air was actually
lighter, since water vapor was less dense than oxygen and even
baseballs actually traveled farther when it was damp out.
Mr. Doyle knew lots of weird shit like that. Once he had
the whole homeroom puzzling on how insurance companies
could stay in business, till he pointed out they were making out
like bandits because they collected premiums -- enough to cover
costs -- then invested in things like buildings, and collected interest
But he also liked to harass Frank in the hall, calling him
"Slipalong" because of the noisy sliding of his cleats on the
slick tile. Still, it seemed good-natured enough.
He began to walk faster, knowing he should have been home
sooner. The old lady wouldn't be home yet to make supper, and
he wasn't hungry anyway, since he'd had the usual Coke and
potato chips before Old Man Mehl chased them out of the
drugstore, but he wanted to get some homework done. He'd
stayed too long, hanging around and giving Mehl a hard time
with the rest of the guys until the old bastard had to threaten to
call the cops, then sitting on the steps. For a minute Frank
wondered about the little colored kid that had wandered in the
day before, looking lost, who stood quiet and scared while the
big guy called Cully pointed at him and started listing things
that made him different:
"Look at that head, it's like an ant's -- bug eyes. Black bug
eyes, and twice as thick lips as anybody needs. See, it's not
human -- that's not human hair, it'll probably scratch your skin
right off . . . Its skull is so thick it looks like it could break
boards . . ."
Frank had listened silently, sitting at the counter, hoping
Cully would stop.
". . . its nose, look, it's a jungle nose, you can tell it's not
human, it's like an ape's for breathin' that jungle air . . ."
Finally, as tears started trickling down the brown, staring
face from the big dark eyes a couple of the girls led the boy
away, one with an arm over his tiny shoulders, and gave him a
soda. He heard Sandy asking where he lived.
Frank hoped everything had turned out okay; he felt bad
about it . . .
But he had to get back tonight. It was warm out, and Chuck
might get the car, and there might be beer. And Judy. He was
thinking about buying her a ring, what they called a friendship
ring. But maybe she didn't want to go steady with him. She
didn't seem to like him as much when there were other people
around. Did she think he was a coward? But he wasn't the
weakest guy around -- it was just that he got cut down more than
the others because he couldn't act like a clown the way some of
the littler guys did, and didn't like sports much.
What could you do if one of the big guys decided he hated
your guts? He still felt sick remembering how Krumplitsch even
moved suddenly once to spit in his face, calling him Percy on
the sidewalk in front of the show. Then, when Frank stood there
stunned, without retaliating, starting to slap him in the face in front
of everybody standing around outside smoking, until he had to
turn away. He heard one kid he didn't know asking, "Don't you
like him?" as he headed impassively to the corner.
The answer was lost in the dimness behind him.
He had walked home through the dark with the marquee
lights shining on Sandy and Dave and everybody clustered in
front watching him as he turned the corner of the block to go
home to his room. Even though it was still early on a Friday
night there was no other place to go until the sting and shame
that almost made him cry wore off.
They thought he was girlish, a queer or something. But it was
funny, because he knew they were also jealous of him because
they thought he was getting a lot of ass, when he really wasn't.
That was the reason, for Christ's sake, why he was so careful
about how he looked, his hair and everything, because he wanted
to be good-looking to girls, not because he was queer.
He passed Koepsell's grocery store on the corner a block
from his house. It was a wooden building with living quarters
in the back, and there was a wooden door set at a low angle to
the sidewalk, reinforced with an angled wood slat, over steps
that led right to the basement for deliveries . . .
For a moment he was distracted by the drone of a low-flying
airplane. Ever since he was a kid drilled in school about the
importance of Milwaukee manufacturing, like A.O. Smith and
Allis-Chalmers, and how they would be targets for Russian
bombers, rare off-course and thundering loud planes got his
attention. He knew there were Nike nuclear missile bases
ringing the lake front to shoot them down, all the way to
Chicago. Still, considering how far inland the city was, he
could push any danger out of his mind . . .
He wondered if they could get the store's basement entrance
open and get some beer and cigarets some night. They might
even be able to sell what they didn't use. At the same time he
was thinking about the big guys -- the big guys were what they
called anybody in the gang that loitered around the playground
that was three or four or more years older than his own buddies
-- who pushed him around. Most of them had jobs, but they
were still too young to go to bars. The rumor was that during
the war, with few fathers left at home, guys like Cully and Hans
used to fight gang battles on the playground with chains and
clubs. Now that was tough.
Maybe it wasn't natural to be so self-conscious the way he
was. Everybody wanted to look good, but he was the only one,
usually, who got cut down for it. Except Dave -- one time they
held him down and cut his hair, led by a goddamn German
immigrant and now super-American named Pete Feierabend.
Most of the guys had long hair, but Dave's was a lot longer than
the rest, although the sideburns were more like strands of hair
combed down than the real thing.
But he liked the way he looked, right now there was nothing
much to worry about and he felt great with the warm spring
weather like a huge pool of liquid poured over the city through
which he moved dreamily yet feeling alive and tense, with a
power in his legs that seemed to come from pushing against the
ground. Even if he couldn't run far, for the same reason he had
been suspended earlier that year, smoking -- if something
happened he could imagine himself jumping into action, like a
football player smashing through a line.
But he never played football because he was too skinny and
short-winded. He walked steadily on, the ringing of his
horseshoe cleats on the concrete calling up another picture he
had of himself, as if he were floating above his head watching
himself: tough-looking and sharp in his skinny-legged chinos,
his iridescent black topcoat unbuttoned. He hoped black went
well with his brown-blond hair, which he wore brushed back at
the sides and pulled down over his forehead, wishing it was
curlier. And his favorite shirt, olive-green. He might never get
to college, the way he was going, but he sure dug Ivy League,
and all his shirts -- from Johnny Walker's downtown -- were
button-down. But always a few pimples, it seemed, even though
his skin wasn't really greasy.
His house, like all the other houses on the block, was set
back from the street on a slope, up one flight of concrete stairs
with a railing of iron pipe alongside. The landlord, who lived
downstairs, had painted the edge of each step with silver paint.
Frank looked up to the upper flat where he lived. The
overhanging porch was empty. The old lady probably wouldn't
be home yet from the restaurant where she made salads and
pastry, he figured, and he might still get some homework done
before supper. But he wasn't staying in tonight -- everybody
would be out, Judy might be out, he wasn't going to miss
He followed the narrow walk around the side of the house.
They had only a rear entrance, under a projecting gable. Next to
it was a small black mailbox. Frank seldom found anything
about the house worth noticing, except that one thing -- that there
was nothing worth noticing. In spite of such things as a different
color of siding-- his was fake brown brick -- or a different type
of front porch, all the houses were pretty much alike.
Queer queer queer -- now goddammit why did that have to
keep running through his mind? It was so fucking stupid -- what
he wanted was to fuck Judy. He imagined her standing in front
of him naked, maybe walking around the room after they'd done
it, and he could look at her, it would be the first time he'd
actually see a pussy in good light, when he could look all he
wanted to, and reach out and touch it all he wanted to.
Hell, he thought, if he wanted to look at guys he could look
at himself. But another image came to him at the same time, that
sometimes bothered him, though he didn't really feel guilty
because he wouldn't let himself feel guilty. But he was confused
at the feeling he'd had in gym class back in junior high where
there was a guy he'd sometimes see, in the showers or drying
himself with his red-and-white gym towel in front of his locker.
For some reason Frank used to look, though never for too
long, at the guy -- Eckmann, that was his name, a stupid jagoff --
at his prick and bails, which were -- Frank wouldn't let himself
think of a word to describe them and hurried over the thought --
but he could almost imagine himself touching them, if he blotted
out Eckmann's sort of stupid toothy face. And not only was
Eckmann stupid looking, the guy was kind of a bastard -- he
wasn't very popular, he got beat up a lot, but he was bigger than
Frank. And Frank remembered how that was when he first
started cracking his knuckles -- they were always sore because
of it -- and Eckmann, whom he'd see sometimes at the Social
Center at night in the room where the weights and the punching
bag were, knew it, and he would start to shake Phil's hand and
then squeeze the hell out of it, hurting the slightly puffy knuckles
The weight room itself discouraged Frank. When he first
moved to Auer Avenue in the third grade he wrestled around
some on the large mat, and punched the bag a little, but he wasn't
much good. He knew it wouldn't help him to lift the weights, not
for the little bit of time he could get his hands on them. Besides,
he was so damn skinny he even hated to take off his shirt.
Finally he stopped trying anything, it was all useless because
you had to have something before you could make yourself
better. He'd always held himself back from sports -- it seemed
that when he was younger he'd moved around so much, even
spending a year on a farm near Oconomowoc in a foster home -- so
he didn't have a chance to learn them naturally the way the other
guys did, and now he knew he would be bad at them.
But except for the foster family's teenage son -- who generally
ignored him -- there was only one other boy to play with. He had
been a little older, and seemed strange, even to the point of talking
Frank into his upper bunk bed and showing their tiny dicks. Frank
hadn't seen any point to it, but was obliging enough to get to the point
where he would sometimes recall later on thinking, It tastes like wax,
but getting bored quickly with the whole idea, even when Henry
pointed out the things the goats could be seen doing.
So there was no baseball or football-- and it was too late for him
to try. And instead of making a fool of himself while guys were
trying to bench-press bigger and bigger weights he spent more
time in the game room, where he played sheepshead or
checkers, and listened to the jukebox. First it was Doris Day
and Teresa Brewer, who he loved, but now they were getting
rock 'n' roll in, too.
At least he could keep clean that way, his shoes stayed
shined and his hair combed sharp, and he could make out with
the chicks there, try to get a piece of ass. He didn't like to be
sweaty and grimy. But dammit, he was usually so awkward
around girls, too, at least the ones he really liked.
He thought about sex more than ever now that it was spring,
it seemed. On warm nights everyone walked around in groups
on the playground, then into the darkness to sit smoking on
someone's porch, listening to portable radios. Or riding off
down Wisconsin Avenue or into the country, drinking beer, if
someone had a car. And some of the guys had girls and some
didn't, and he usually didn't -- though he had been maneuvered
into the back seat once with Mavis, who he didn't like.
Well now, man, he told himself, statistically speaking and
everything, there has to be a first time sometime. And he was
getting older, and there were the close times with Donna, and
with Judy on the roof of the school that time when she managed
to get up there with them, and almost didn't stop him from
unzipping her pants. But then, if Krumplitsch liked Donna, he
better leave her alone.
In the space between his house and the house next door
there was a broad low bush, now covered with buds -- he
didn't know what kind of bush it was, though he wondered.
By the door, looking gnarled and cramped from being between
the two houses, was a plum tree. He flipped his burnt-down
cigaret at it and opened the door. Goddamn shitty tree, he
thought. It was short and twisted, and even now almost bare, so
that the gray knotty branches stuck out like arms and fingers
asking to be covered because they were so ugly. The early green
fruit was used by the little kids of the neighborhood to pelt each
other with. The fruit that finally ripened dropped to the ground,
turned a dark purple and crusted with white crystals and rotten,
nothing like the big store-bought country plums they sometimes
had in the house.
Worse, there had been a summer in 1952 when about all he could
do was hang out in the yard because of the polio going around and
nobody was even close enough to peg the fruit at.
After climbing the stairs in the dull brown hallway he opened
the kitchen door, throwing his books on the table and heading for
the bathroom. Since the old lady wasn't home yet -- he looked
up at the blue and white plastic kitchen clock above the stove
-- he could wash up and change his shirt now and be ready to go
right after supper. He knew he had planned on homework, he
even had that College Outline trig book he'd gotten downtown
that he figured would help him, it had some good tables, but hell,
college didn't seem very important anyway, even if he could
ever afford --
"Hi, Frank," said a female voice. Startled, be looked up to
see her standing in the doorway to the living room. She was
cheerful enough -- too cheerful, he thought for some reason -- in
fact she was definitely irritating, he decided almost instantly.
Maybe because there was also a whine in her voice, and a hick
accent. She sounded as if she and Frank had something in
common and should be happy about it. And who the hell was
this broad who posed there, he realized, almost as if she were
But he dropped this last thought in the next moment when
he figured out who she was. He could see he was expected
to know her, and after a short silence it came to him. She
was a cousin, sort of, from up north near Marshfield -- she
was his stepfather's relation and he'd only seen her once before,
at his grandfather's funeral. Named Marceline, he remembered.
"Uh -- hi, what're you doin' here?" he answered finally. He
was embarrassed that he had been watched without his knowing
it -- and he knew she had been staring at him. And she still was.
"Well, didn't your mother tell you? I'm goin' to -- she's going
to let me stay here. I'm going to get a job in Milwaukee."
He took her in with a look as she leaned against the doorway,
and saw that she was ugly, and much older than him -- too old to
understand anything about him or the things he did.
"Yeah, I remember her saying something about it." A letter
that his mother had been reading from aloud months ago came
back to him now. He never paid any attention to stuff about the
family like that. Well, he supposed he'd have to be polite, but
he hated the idea of having a stranger around the house.
She smiled again at him as if he'd said something great, and
moved back into the other room and sat down on the blue couch.
The faint light from the sun glowed through the filmy white
curtains on the west windows. He sat down in the big blue
armchair under the tall lamp where he usually did his reading,
putting his feet on the hassock. He had a lot of things to do, and
he wanted to get away, but he figured he should talk to her until
the old lady came home. He couldn't very well ignore her.
But he didn't have to say much of anything; she started talking
and talked without stopping, about the train ride down, the lack
of jobs in her town since the canning factory closed, her brother
Glen who was so strong who just graduated and went in the
"You ought to be graduating soon from school, now won't
you?" ' she asked.
"Yeah, one more year after this one."
God, she looked square, he though. She seemed about
nineteen or twenty, too old to take him seriously if he were
interested, which he wasn't. Her hair was stringy and
mud-blonde, and her front teeth pushed her upper lip out:
fish-mouth, he called her to himself.
She went on and on in her whining voice. He tried to make
the conversation less one-sided, but he was never any good at
the small talk relatives always expected. But she didn't notice
his lack of interest -- or didn't care. She seemed to be
Bored, he spoke out on an impulse, using one of his old man's
tired old jokes: "Hey -- what color was General Grant's white
"Huh? Well -- now how would I know that, I guess I never
paid much attention to history books." She smiled at him. "I
know you read a lot of books, your mother always writes my ma
how smart you are in school. I guess I'm just a dummy, but I
can't sit around and read all day, I like to move, man -- dig?"
She snapped her fingers and moved her hand up and down as
if keeping time to music, though at the moment he could barely
hear Guy Mitchell on the kitchen radio, probably WRIT, on
top of the refrigerator.
"Do you have any records? You like Elvis?" She named
some records at least a year old.
He shrugged. "He's all right. Gene Vincent, too." He figured
that was someone she never heard of. Actually, Heartbreak
Hotel was one of his favorites; it was played on the radio more
than even Johnnie Ray had been the last few months, though
Ray had been making a comeback in spite of an earlier charge of
soliciting a vice squad cop and was probably queer. Still, he
could pack as much emotion into a few minutes as Elvis was
"You go to dances? I hope there's dances around here. I bet
you go to lots of dances -- I just bet all the girls want to dance
with you, too."
"Sometimes I go. I usually only dance when I'm drunk."
It was something he and the guys could usually pull off only
when they infiltrated each others' relatives weddings. So of
course, instead of going to the school dances on Friday nights
they usually went to the Savoy or the Zenith, where they tried
to neck with the girls. Sometimes he would leave still
smeared with lipstick, secretly hoping to be noticed.
Next week Judy would probably sit with him.
Marcy kept on talking, about how he was probably a
real heart-breaker, and about her ex-boyfriend who wanted her
to stay up north and marry him -- yeah, I bet, thought Frank -- but
she wanted to have some fun so she left him behind with his
cows, she heard there were a lot of places to go in the city -- "So
I told him don't get your underwear in a bundle" -- "So I said
don't get your bowels in an uproar" -- "So I told him it was
She stretched lazily on the couch. "So my Gawd I just have
to find a job here."
At the same time she was watching Frank in a way that made
him uncomfortable at first, but her eyes seemed bright as she
looked him over and he realized she was somehow impressed
by him. He relaxed, knowing he looked good and liking to be
looked at. Hell, let her look, the hick, he thought, lighting a
cigaret as casually as he could. Maybe she didn't realize how
young he was. He could believe that where she was from those
farm boys didn't graduate until their twenties, if they ever did.
She rambled on, talking about how she never got a driver's
license because she didn't need one driving around on the side
roads up north, and Holy Hannah what she did to her pa's car
spinning out on a dirt road, and her pa whaled the hell out of
her, but now that she was twenty-two and on her own she needed
a car to get around in and she supposed because she was in the
city she'd need a license --
"How old are you?" She might be good for something after
"Look," he said, hoping he could work it right. He
consciously tried to make his face good-looking, he knew it
worked sometimes. "You can buy beer then, can't you? I could
go for a couple of quarts."
He swore for the first time since she was there -- he didn't
do it around the family -- deciding to treat her as an equal:
"Shit, I'd buy it myself, but I have a hard time getting it
around here." Or anyplace else, he added silently.
"Well now, I just don't know about that."
"Hell, if the old -- if my mother comes home I can always
shove the bottles in my bedroom." He nodded at the room
behind the drapes that hung from brass rings on the polished
wood pole that crossed one side of the living room. Already he
accepted the fact that old as she was she was fascinated by him,
he could tell she felt he knew a lot and did a lot of crazy things
she'd like. Shit, she wasn't a real adult, just a square straight
from the farm.
"But sweetie, I could get into trouble, couldn't I? How old do
you have to be to buy beer here?"
She looked at him and shifted on the couch, re-crossing her
legs and arranging her skirt that he figured was calico or
something, red and white squares. For a moment he was
looking at her bare thighs. He felt the automatic impulse to
look away he always had when someone old or ugly showed
their body. But he looked at her calmly, deciding that her legs
weren't bad after all. But there were apparently no tits at all
beneath the sheer peach-colored blouse she wore, though he
could see a number of shoulder straps, which should mean she
was wearing a brassiere, as well as a slip.
"But I might, though," she went on. "Maybe we'll get along
He was trying to figure just what that meant exactly when she
asked, "Do you have a light, Frankie?"
He felt like laughing; he could picture her sitting in a bar trying
to make pick-ups like that because that was the way it was done
in magazines -- he had noticed the two Modern Romance
magazines she had left on the glass-topped coffee table. But at
the same time he was suddenly nervous and could feel her
hand trembling a little when he leaned over with the match.
In his cupped hand the flame was an almost colorless oval.
Her cigaret lit, she leaned back and patted the cushion in
the middle of the couch, next to where she was sitting. "Why
don't you sit over here?"
Yeah, why not, he thought. Why not, after all? With the
direct invitation he had no decision to make, and he moved next
to her, feeling sure of himself again. He knew, all right. The
way she was watching him tonight -- it was the way she looked
at him two years ago at his grandfather's house up in Friendship
after the funeral, when she had been sitting on what he realized
was the same blue couch -- his mother got it after his
grandmother died -- and she had been introduced to him as his
She had said something, something about how cute he was,
but he had ignored her. She was ugly, and farm-girl square, and
besides at fourteen he hadn't really known how to go about
things, he'd never kissed a girl, though he read things like Mickey
Spillane books to jag off to --
"Well?" she said. He realized his arm was around her and
she was waiting. He didn't know how to start. He knew what
he wanted, all right, but he figured he had to start by kissing
her, and he couldn't do it. She was just too damn ugly. He could
feel actual heat rising in the space between their bodies, as if he
were standing too close to the hot-water heater in the basement.
His heart was pounding loudly and he knew his face was red.
This could be it, finally, he thought. He pulled her close,
thinking, what the hell, like the guys always say, I'm not going to
do it to her face. But he couldn't bring himself to kiss her mouth
so he put his lips to her throat, where he sniffed some kind of
flower scent. It seemed very pale, for a farm girl, with a lot of
small brown spots. That seemed to satisfy her and he decided
not to waste any more time. She was holding him tightly,
clamping on as if he might try to get away, her hands making
circular movements around and around on his back in a way
that seemed somehow put on, it seemed to come from
movies she'd seen.
He wasn't completely sure yet that she wouldn't stop him,
he had been led on before -- he was probably the only guy from
the corner who was still cherry, he figured. But she didn't resist,
didn't even seem to notice anything at all as he slid a hand in
front to her tits. She seemed to take it for granted. He
remembered now another letter his mother had read from, where
her ma came right out and said she was good for nothing really
but to work in a whorehouse. He guessed it hadn't been just a
joke after all, and nothing was going to stop him now, this
He drew back so they could lie down, and they stretched out
crammed together on the narrow couch. He noticed dimly that
she had stopped touching him, but he went ahead to unbutton her
blouse as calmly as he could manage it, enjoying the feeling of
not having to fight over every move.
Her blouse open, he put his hand down over the thin slip,
feeling the slick material of the bra underneath. It had a frilly
edge that showed over the top of the slip, and underneath he
felt what seemed like a slight bag containing a watery substance.
He heard her say something. "What?" he asked, his voice
"I said, it's just a small handful, isn't it?"
He looked at her blankly. "What do you mean?" Christ,
what a time to start a conversation.
"That's what a lot of the fellas say -- it's only a small
handful," she repeated, her voice toneless.
"Oh," he said after a pause when he had looked down at
what was under his hand. Or wasn't. Baby, not even that much,
he said to himself.
"It, ah, doesn't bother me any -- " he fumbled -- "Marcy."
Suddenly feeling sorry for her he kissed her mouth, and she
responded fiercely, as if she were trying to gnaw her way
through to the back of his head, sort of mashing his teeth.
He knew it was getting late, and he pulled hard to break
away and glance at the electric clock on the top of the
television set. He hurried to the next step. Since she was
wearing a slip it seemed he could go no further on top unless
she helped more, so he pulled up the checkered skirt. She did
nothing to help; he guessed she wanted to keep on necking. But
she didn't stop him.
He put his hand under the elastic of her panties, having to turn
his wrist at an awkward angle to do it. She was completely
passive, and he moved his hand through the cunt hair. She didn't
seem to enjoy anything he did except kissing, and he thought,
hell, Judy knows more about making love than this broad. He
struggled to take off her clothes. It was like pulling pillow cases
from a bunch of pillows lying on a bed.
Finally he suggested, "Umm, why don't you take these off?"
His voice shook a little, but at the same time he felt detached
from everything, feeling curiosity more than anything else.
"Sure," she said, and stood up calmly to unbutton her skirt at
the side and drop it, and peel off the slip, and then the bra and
plain white panties. The dry-looking brownish cunt hair had
been pushed by her thighs into a funny ridge between her legs.
For a moment she turned her back and he found her ass to be
actually the most exciting thing about her.
He delayed undressing to finish after she did, but there was
nothing left to do now, and sooner than he wanted to he took
down his white Jockey's in front of her when she was on the
couch on her back again, looking up at him without any
expression as he stood there naked. A cold draft from nowhere
seemed to touch his ass and he realized he wasn't very hard at
all, he looked and saw it was just hanging there nestled against
his balls about half hard. It occurred to him that books never
mentioned just when you got your hard-on, but she didn't seem to
think anything was unusual, she just regarded at him silently.
He knew she must be waiting, he guessed that's the way
she always did it -- she seemed resigned to just having the
guy climb on. But he felt no excitement at all, after the
first minute there didn't even seem to be much point in
looking at her body.
Well, get going, he told himself. He sat next to her, the heat
from her hip even feeling warm and good against his thigh. The
prickly texture of the couch irritated his bare skin, and after a
moment he awkwardly lifted himself on top of her. For a
moment he enjoyed the warmth of the length of her body against
his, but she didn't move at all and his back felt cold.
He thought maybe he should kiss her again, but he didn't want
to, and he knew it would just take up time. He knew he had to
go ahead to the end. He was nervously aware that his prick
didn't seem to be doing anything all this time, and he kept his
hand rubbing around on her ass where he could get it between
her and the couch. Then he moved his hand around, squeezing
her little tits, touching her nipples. Finally he rubbed the tip of
his prick up and down between her legs, feeling the dry hair.
There was a slight tickling but that was all, and now he
actually felt smaller.
Desperately he lifted himself up on his knees, between her
legs spread limply apart as far as possible on the narrow couch,
and tried to shove in to what he hoped was the right spot -- he
thought he'd been able to find it with the end of his thumb. The
tip went in a bit, he could feel her cunt holding it like a hard dry
mouth, and he squeezed the base to force blood into the end to
make it harder, but there was really nothing behind it. It was as
small and limp as a dead caterpillar.
Wildly, he groped for something to say. He remembered
something he knew was true, and it seemed very important: "My
God, my mother'll be home any minute, we better wait -- "
"Oh," she said. "Nope, I was supposed to tell you -- she's not
goin' to be home till about nine, she said -- she said you should
get your own supper, somethin' about some pies in the
refrigerator, I didn't get exactly -- "
"Yeah, yeah," he said, going on very slowly as if explaining
something significant. "Pot pies. Turkey pot pies, in the
freezer. You know, frozen. I usually make 'em when she
isn't home." After a moment he added, "Well, how about that?"
Another silence. As a last resort he lifted up her body a little
and took her hand and clumsily moved it down between their
bodies. She resisted at first, then curled her fingers around him
loosely. He thought the feel of her hand on his prick would have
to stimulate him, but it only stirred a little. For a second it
seemed something was happening -- then nothing, and he thought
grimly that it seemed actually happy to rest limp and warm in
He knew she was wondering, now, and he felt as if all the
blood had been drained from his body, maybe his
downward-pointing toes had been chopped off and tubes put on
the stumps to chillingly suck out his blood, and that was why his
face felt like white plaster. He took her hand and guided it,
making her move it up and down, up and down on the loose skin.
"That's not good enough, is it?" he asked helplessly, cold and
warm at the same time.
She held him in her lax hand, as if wondering whether to buy
a cheap piece of meat in a supermarket. "Unh-unh. What's wrong,
"Ah, shit. Piss on it."
He wondered how he could ever have wanted to fuck, it was
impossible that he'd ever had a hard-on that he'd proudly thought
of as a steel rod he could almost punch right through his
mattress, or that he could have worn the skin off in sore raw
spots on his dick where his fingers held when he jacked off at
night looking at nudes in photography magazines and thinking
about girls at school . . . though sometimes he went to bed not
thinking about sex at all, just the face of the latest girl he had a
crush on -- starting with Barbara Firley who hung around the
Auer Avenue playground though she went to St. Leo's school --
seeming to float in the darkness while he kept her image close,
a vision he was content to cling to while he drifted off.
He looked down at Marceline underneath him. He stared at her
nipples. He began to study one, it fascinated him somehow. It
seemed so unsexy, a washed-out reddish spot the size of a
quarter topped with a smaller round meaty lump. So tiny and
insignificant, so useless, but at the same time as he looked
closely and intently he could see pits and bulges in it, it had
pockmarks like craters on the surface of the moon -- it seemed
to expand, to be a whole universe the way a speck of dirt
under a powerful microscope was seen to contain worlds.
She shifted under him, slightly lifting first one leg, then the
other, against his weight. "You know, you're getting pretty
heavy," she complained in her familiar whine. "Aren't you gonna
As if ordered to he pulled away from her, their bellies
sticking together with sweat for a second -- he thought of two
dead fish glued together washed up on a beach -- and got up.
He looked at her belly, the two slight rolls of fat divided by
the red line left from the elastic of her panties at the level of her
navel. He wanted to smash right down into her stomach with
his fist, bat her in her ugly fish-mouth face. If only he could like
her, he thought. Then he could tell her everything, and let
himself go, and kiss her all over. If she were Judy he'd want to
make her feel good.
She held on to his arm. "Up north, if we wanted to, umm, get
somebody excited, we used to French kiss. That might work,
wouldn't it?" She tried to pull him down.
The thought almost gagged him, and he resisted. He kept his
face impassive, knowing the best thing was to keep her on the
defensive, acting as if it were an ordinary thing, just temporary,
because he was tired or something -- maybe because it was her
fault, and she just wasn't any good. "Fuck what they do up north.
The hell with it."
He shrugged and started dressing. His clothes seemed stale,
not clean the way they were when he put them on that morning.
Walking through the doorway into the kitchen he turned and
looked back at her, still naked on the couch. She hadn't moved
and it was dark now and she was quiet in the shadows. Jesus
Christ, he thought, what does she think? She didn't really think,
of course, but she had, well, opinions about him, and he had to
He stood at the edge of the rug for a while, looking. "You
better get dressed," he said. "It's getting late." He stopped for a
moment but decided to skip the pot pies for now.
He went through the kitchen, focusing on how his shoes
crossed the complicated patterns in the blue linoleum, and out
into the hall, then onto the back porch overlooking the yard.
There was a moon, and he could see the garage in back, the
alley, other houses, other garages.
"Sonofabitch," he said softly. "Sonofabitch." He knew that
if it had been any of his buddies they'd have fucked her in no
time no matter what she looked like. That punk Little Al had
been in a gang bang on some young broad back in grade school
who read comic books while all of them got her. When they
were through one of the guys took a cold carrot from the
refrigerator and jammed it in her cunt. And he could hear Dave
say something like, Hell, put a flag over her face and fuck for
old glory, man.
Was he really queer? He didn't feel queer, dammit. He took
a deep breath. He realized he was almost crying. He knew it
would feel good to let it come, but he forced his face to stay
hard, though he felt soft twitchy lumps forming. What if it
happened with Judy? She was a virgin, she'd expect him to
know what he was doing. He'd have a hard time getting her to
do it, much less play with him or do anything to give him a
hard-on. With this bitch in the house maybe nobody would
know, but with anybody else it would get around in a minute.
Christ, he'd have to hide forever.
The wind blew a little harder, not really a wind but a slight
picking up in the steady all day, all night movement of spring air
across the city. It was still warm. He sat on the wooden railing.
Down in the yard he could see the crooked plum tree, its
grayish-black branches twisted. It looked sinister -- but then it
always looked sinister at night if you wanted to stop and study
it. He couldn't help noticing how it fitted his mood so perfectly
for looking and brooding, as if he were acting in a play. The
thought gave him no comfort, because he did hurt, and he
It seemed inevitable that when you were a wimpy girlish
punk that people liked to beat up, that couldn't even get a
hard-on, you ended up sitting on your porch in the dark. What
was funny, was that he'd always figured that once he'd done it
he'd know what he never knew before -- he'd be able to look at
all girls differently because he knew their secret, knew what they
had between their legs and what he could do to it. And here he
hated that bitch in the house, but because he hadn't done it he
couldn't even hate her -- maybe he should have been a farm boy
that started fucking early in the hay piles.
And they must have been busy at sex early on, he figured, back
on the farm where the son and his high school age sister once had
Frank and Henry strip naked and run around outside the white house
in the rain while they watched them circle through the big front
Now things seemed suspended -- he could almost imagine
himself on a ship, on a high deck with the grass for water -- as he
sat there on the porch feeling bad and hating himself for even
slightly enjoying the sadness he felt washing over him. The
moon glared steadily, though he could tell it had moved already
and nothing changed and the black mesh of the screen door
reminded him well enough that he wasn't on any ship.
Well, he didn't feel much like it, but if he were going out
tonight he better get going, there was nothing else to do. He
opened the door to go back in. The moonlight caught his hand
like a white running animal, and against the brown-painted
wooden frame of the screen door the hand seemed such a pale
weak thing he hated to feel it was his. He went into the house.
Before he went out that night he walked from his bedroom,
pulling the drapes shut behind him on what had once been a
dining room, to find Marceline standing in the living room
looking out at the street.
He stood silently behind her for a moment. Still quiet, he
moved very close. What the hell, he thought, and he decided to
test her. By that time his mother was home, but she was out of
the room now, and he put his arm around Marceline. This ought
to give her something to think about. He started to feel her
tits, then figured he might as well go all the way. Coldly, he
lifted her skirt from the rear and stuck his hand under her
panties. Her buttock was firm and cool when he squeezed it.
She was sure something, all right. All she did was crane her
head up with a kind of pleased smile, saying, "Why, Frankie --
later, your mother," in that same goddamn whining voice.
Surprisingly, he didn't want to let her go. He had an impulse
to move his hand around to the front, and he could feel his prick
swelling a little. But the old lady might come in -- and he knew
he couldn't be sure of himself, anyway.
"Yeah," he said. "Well, see you around." He left the room.
Stupid bitch, he thought. Well, she'd be around for a while --
it might be pretty interesting. And she could buy beer. But he
better not give her another chance to make a fool out of him. He
walked into the hallway, down the stairs and out the door onto the
sidewalk next to the plum tree, heading for the playground, trying
to forget the whole thing.
The cleats on his shoes, the special horseshoes that the guys
paid the shoemaker extra to have mounted on leather heels,
scraped loudly as he walked down the quiet street.