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 the largest cigaret butts from the
sand in the pedestaled ashtray, and on one warm day, V-E
Day, or V-J 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
"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
"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 call out:
"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. As long as the ankles weren't too
thick she seemed fine. She was wearing a
flaring gray skirt with a bright-red wide
"Me?" she asked. Her face seemed
"Yeah, you -- I'll see you tonight,
"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 Along":
"You can tell, by the smell, that the girl
ain't feeling well, and the time 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 said.
"Oh, I don't know," said Little Al. "I guess
I wouldn't kick her outta bed, not with them
"Yeah you, ya little shit, you'd probably get
down there and lick her out, blood and all," said
"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, so he added, "Make
like a moth and eat through the cloth."
"Yeah, I saw you blowing Wergin in his office --
how do you think he gets them good marks?" Little
Al asked, turning to Dave.
Usually they liked to call the middle-aged principal
Wergin the virgin, though the irony didn't escape
Frankie, at least, since if any of them were virgins --
and they probably were -- no one let on.
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
"Maybe -- shit, all it takes is time, if you tell them
you love 'em."
"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 once admitted to with Sandy Honeck, when
the dummy realized he only had his finger in the
crease next to her thigh, and she ended up
laughing when she saw it dawning on him and
told him, "Too bad," pushing him away. But
Frank himself still worried why he didn't have
as much pubic hair as he should. Some of the
guys in gym class used to laugh at him, like that
jerk named Eckmann.
Then he thought suddenly: Christ, if Donna
isn't cherry she might laugh at me if I don't act
like I know what I'm 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 sexy paperback like Mickey
Spillane, 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
almost doll-face, with nice full lips. For some reason
they just seemed so perfectly outlined that he just
wanted to keep looking at her. 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
"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 the car."
"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'
"Fuck you," Phil called back, automatically. The
warm spring weather left him little energy for
trading the old put-downs back and forth like the
guys always did. And the queer jokes were getting
to be too serious again.
It was more fun to think about Judy. If Chuck
came around with his pre-war Chevy sedan from his
old man that he could hardly keep running 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 she?
He shifted the books under his arm. Hauling books
like that all day gave him a cramp. He sighed and
flipped his cigaret away. Too 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
carried 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. Despite
what lots of people thought
Mr. Doyle knew lots of weird shit like that.
Once he had the whole homeroom puzzling on
how insurance companies could stay in business,
until 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 too, only paying out later when
they had to. But explaining the difference between
stock and mutual companies.
Sometimes he would even go off on one of his
tangents about how the city -- it had again elected a
Socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler -- had reined in the
worst of the big corporations and industrial polluters
since its beginnings by often Marxist German
immigrants from 1848 onward. Often with amenities
for the working-class like the many parks, not to
mention clean water and public works that earned
them the designation -- if sometimes derisive -- of
But the balding Doyle also liked to harass Frank
in the hallway, 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
with Donnie and the others, 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, though
his mother wouldn't approve. 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. And yet he was big enough
to make a respectable target.
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
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 up above, 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 growing drone
of a low-flying airplane. Ever since he was one of the
pupils who were all 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 lakefront to shoot them down, all the way to
Chicago. Still, considering how far inland the city was, he
should 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, and
the mothers working in factories, guys like Cully and
Hans -- at one time he thought it had to be spelled
Hunce -- 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 towards his
cheeks 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 a coarse, gritty surface
grooved with black channels to make fake brown bricks -- or
a different type of front porch, all the houses were pretty
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 and the round-faced,
pleasant Mrs. Zaicheck's class, 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 and get
down to the white T-shirt underneath.
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
boys did, and now he knew he would be bad at everything.
He could shoot baskets alone or in a game of horse on the
playground, but not much else except ice-skating when the
city flooded the playground's dirt field in the winter.
But except for the foster family's teenage son --
who generally ignored him, though once he let him
aim and fire a .22 rifle -- and miss -- at the ducks
among the cattails in the adjacent marsh -- 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 a wax
candle, but getting bored quickly with the whole idea,
even when Henry pointed out the things the goats
could be seen doing in their fenced-off pasture.
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 and ignored,
though her girlfriend had told him she liked him.
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 thought
they might be peonies. 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
distant step-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 round leather 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 tractor-driving 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 doing.
"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 'til 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 couldn't think of any way to suggest she use her mouth. So
far nobody ever had, though the guys always joked about blowjobs.
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. Even though they happened all the time
when his mind was on something completely
different, in study hall or any place. With this
bitch in the house maybe nobody would know,
but with anybody else it would get around in a
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 wasn't acting.
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 on in their hay piles.
Just as they must have been busy at sex as they
grew up, 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 pelted by fat rain drops 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 clattering
around the kitchen 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.