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The Dance

            Joey wouldn’t have been allowed to go to the dance at all if it hadn’t been Sally that was getting married. Sally was Billy’s classmate and Billy was Joey’s older brother.

Sally might not have been the prettiest girl in high school, with her curly blond hair, round face and deep dimples in her pretty cheeks, her jiggly bosoms and wiggly hips, but she wasn’t far from it. And Billy would have felt pretty bad about her getting married to somebody besides himself, except that the guy she was marrying was twenty-five years old with a farm of his own, and how could he compete against someone like that? He was only eighteen himself and still living at home.

Besides, Sally had a sister two years younger who looked pretty good too, and considering the fact this younger sister had begun showing some interest in Billy over the past few weeks, her looks were probably improving proportionately, from Billy’s point of view.

            There weren’t all that many girls in Umbarger Public High to start with. Or boy’s either for that matter. Ninth through twelfth grades included twenty-four students in all, thirteen of which were girls. Billy was the only boy in his class of four, and had been the pet of the three girls. All through high school Billy thought he would have the pick of his three classmates, the way they doted and fawned over him, though there was never a doubt in his mind Sally would be the lucky one when the time came for him to make a choice.

So it came as a series of shocks to him when, one by one, each of the classmates choose someone else for a life mate without, really, ever giving Billy a chance. Sally was the first to actually take the plunge into matrimony, but by then the other two had also made it clear they were beyond Billy’s reach.

            And so there must have been several currents churning in Billy’s breast as the night of the wedding dance approached, and Joey knew it. The main one was, Joey would help his brother through the ordeal of appearing in public the clear loser, even though except for Joey, Billy was the only one in the world aware there had ever been a contest.

Joey was only fourteen, but he had a bad case of idolatry when it came to his brother. He would be more than happy to provide the audience and feedback necessary to salvage Billy’s self-respect, and thereby help Billy re-establish himself in his own mind as the cool, desirable dude he viewed himself to be. That view had been done considerable damage by Sally’s choice. So Billy very much wanted Joey to be at the dance.

            The campaign to get him there started at breakfast on the day of the dance. Their father had already left for town with a load of hogs and wouldn’t be home till after supper, way too late to have any say in the question.

“Aw c’mon mom,” Billy cajoled their mother, “he’s old enough. I was going to dances when I was twelve.”

            “Those were Sodality dances right there in Umbarger, and Father Matthews was there every minute keeping an eye on you kids. You know very well there’s a big difference between a Sodality dance at the Parish Hall under bright lights, and a public dance in a hotel in the middle of Amarillo, where who knows who’ll be there…”

            “Momfor Pete’s sake, it’s Sally getting married. You think Sally would have a bunch of perverts at her wedding? And I’ll be there – nothing’ll happen to Joey with me there. We’ll be home by one o’clock – make that two – one-thirty – and I promise…”

            “What about your baseball game?” she asked Joey. “I thought you had a chance to start tonight.”

            “Mom, there’s more to life than baseball.” Joey said, then cringed at how dumb it sounded. But he would rather have eaten a maggot than play baseball if there was a chance of going to a dance.

            “Well, I don’t know…”

            Billy jumped in again. “How you expect him to develop a normal social life, doing nothin’ but playin’ baseball every free minute he gets?”

            Billy never, ever came to bat for Joey like that. Up till then all efforts on that front were in the opposite direction. Joey knew his brother considered him a pain in the butt. Billy not only never made a secret of it, he complained to anybody who would listen, and he had lots of friends who listened.

Joey may have been only fourteen years old, but he was no fool. He knew darn well his brother didn’t want him to go to the dance with him because he liked his company, but that didn’t make any difference. What counted was, his brother wanted him to go, and in the end talked his mother into it. It was a big deal – a very big deal indeed, and Joey wouldn’t forget it any time soon. No sir-ee bob he wouldn’t.

            So they both quit work early that day. Joey had been on the L.A.I. Case pulling the one-way through the wheat stubble. His brother was taking down the electric fence that had been put up around the field after harvest a month ago so that the small herd of cattle their dad kept could get whatever grazing they could from the stubble before it was plowed under.

The sun was still high in the summer sky when Joey saw his brother walking toward him across the hundred-acre field, barebacked, wearing a straw hat on the back of his head and leather gloves for protection against the barbwire he had been rolling up.

Joey stopped the tractor. Billy unhooked the plow in one quick motion and climbed up behind Joey.

            “Let’s go,” Billy said.

            “It’s too early,” Joey said. “Dad’ll raise hell, quitting this early.”

            “He knows we got to stop early to get to the dance in time. I do it all the time.”

            That assertion didn’t jibe with Joey’s recollections, but why should he argue against such a welcome proposition as quitting early? If daddy wanted to raise hell, Joey would deal with it when it happened. Blame it on his brother.

He shoved the lever into road gear and released the clutch with a jerk. Billy nearly fell off.

            A tub bath with his brother hounding him to hurry it up; a white shirt that didn’t quite fit around the neck any more, making him have to twist and pinch to get the top button buttoned and finally having to ask his mom to help; hand-me-down slacks with cuffs, shoes it was too late to do anything with but brush the dust off of; a narrow tie he had to redo half a dozen times to get the length just right and then the knot wasn’t all that good; a dab, a pretty good-sized one, of Brylcream to hold his cowlick in place, vigorous brushing of teeth and a couple grains of Sen-Sen, a sport jacket whose arms were almost long enough, and he was ready, or thought he was.

            “Ain’t you gonna shave?” Billy asked.

            Him? Shave? Oh Lord…he felt like he had just hit a home run with the bases loaded.  His brother had a grin on his face, but…but that didn’t necessarily mean he was pulling his leg, did it?

“You – you think…?”

“Hell yes! Can’t tell what might happen. You don’t want to scratch anybody, do you? Girls don’t like scratchy faces.”

Oh god – did he mean it? Could it possibly…? “Aw hell, sum’bitch…” Embarrassed but beaming, Joey searched his image in the mirror. Didn’t look to him like he needed to do a helluva lot a worrying on that score, but still – he was wrong so damn often…

            The appearance of his brother, when he was ready, nearly depressed Joey to paralysis with envy, he was so damned good-looking. Strong, slender, redheaded with a free-wheeling wavy curl Joey would have given half the years of his life for, a great smile and a personality nobody but nobody could resist, he was, to Joey, the next thing to a god. And he never worshipped him more than right now.

            “Hey Joey, stick a couple bottles a pop in the car, will you?”

“Yeah, sure, but we can stop at the Pit for a coke if you want…”

“I got a bottle under the front seat and we can mix a drink soon’s we leave.”

            Bottle? Of whiskey? Wow! “Where’d you get…”

            “Sh-h – you want somebody to hear? Ike got it for me for the picnic two weeks ago. Cost me five bucks.” A huge grin. “My treat.”

How sweet this day was turning out to be, and it was just getting started!

Their two-tone green Chevy, a ’46 Customline with vacuum-assisted shifting that didn’t work half the time, was parked in its place beside the well house.

“Wanna drive?” Billy asked with a smile so bright it would have lit up a stadium.

Joey nearly swooned. He’d gotten his beginner’s license two months earlier and their daddy had bought the car for the both of them, but as a practical matter Joey could only drive it to the maize fields for duck hunting, and not even then when his brother was along. The chance to drive to Amarillo, at night, to a dance, with his brother a passenger, was enough to make him giddy. Damn right he wanted to drive! He was good at it, if he had to say so himself, and he wanted to show his brother just how good.

No sooner had they left the yard when Billy pulled a bottle of Jim Beam out from under the seat. He held it between his knees and opened a bottle of Coke. He rolled the window down and poured half the Coke out. Joey watched from the corner of his eye.

Carefully, spilling only a little because of the rough road on the way to the highway, Billy filled the half-emptied Coke bottle with whiskey. He took a long swig and handed it to Joey. Joey, more than ready to dive into this ocean of cool, accepted the bottle with one hand, keeping the other on the steering wheel and his eyes on the road, and took a man-sized swig. It had a delightful sweet, burning taste. He swallowed, took another.

“Whoa, easy does it – you wanna kill us both?”

Sheepish, his cheeks bulging with unswallowed whiskey and Coke, Joey handed the bottle back. He swallowed slowly, in small bits. Aw man, this was great – he was ready for…something. Anything. He searched his mind for what it might be and covered that whole place without success in not much over a minute. Then he went in and started mucking around in his store of feelings. That took longer and was a lot more interesting. There was a lot of new stuff in here, stuff he had never been aware of. Enticing stuff, stuff that had about it more than an air of danger. He didn’t know what to do with any of it but…so what? His brother would know, when the time came – if it came. His brother knew most everything there was to know about anything worth knowing.

The dance was in the ballroom of the Herring Hotel in downtown Amarillo. The area had grown seedy in recent years, but the hotel was making one last stab at viability, advertising its accommodations at deeply cut rates. That’s why Sally’s daddy hired the ballroom for his daughter’s wedding in the first place. It was an irresistible opportunity to impress his friends at a bargain price. Not for his daughter the blinding lights of St. Mary’s Parish Hall in Umbarger, where the new pastor had no idea of and even less respect for the culture and customs of his parishioners, and wouldn’t let anybody so much as take a nip anywhere near the place.

 The fact that the neighborhood where the hotel was located wasn’t pristine wouldn’t be important to the wedding guests. Compared to what Umbarger had to offer, anything in Amarillo was a step up. The guests were nearly all farmers and they knew what they liked – good food, lots of beer and whiskey, a spirited band with plenty of fiddles and gee-tars, a singer not a hell of a lot younger than most of them, and a slick dance floor big enough so you didn’t have to worry about crashing into your neighbor every time you swung your partner with a little too much gusto. So the guests ignored the wino slinking along across the street and the weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk and the streetlights that didn’t work.

Joey and his brother looked for a place to park where they wouldn’t have to plug a meter, but meters lined both sides of the street in both directions as far as they could see.

“We could park in the alley,” Joey said.

“No way. Dark as it is somebody would break in sure as shootin’. Hell, just park at a meter – see how long it says we can stay for a dime. You can come down and put in another dime once in a while, can’t you?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. Sure, I don’t mind.”

They found a place under a working streetlight three blocks from the hotel and were surprised to learn parking was free after 6:00 p.m. They parked, locked the car and rushed toward the hotel with the delicious feeling they had gotten away with something.

The ballroom was dark, except for the candles on tables and soft blue lights washing over the band. There was also a ball of some sort, hanging from the ceiling and spinning kind of slow, sprinkling hundreds of tiny lights all across the floor, the ceiling, walls, tables and everybody in the place.

Joey was enthralled. This was nothing like the Sodality dances in Umbarger where Fr. Matthews prowled through the hall turning the glaring florescent lights on double-bright to make it nearly impossible to commit a mortal sin.

This ballroom was just the opposite. It had every appearance of having been designed specifically for mortal sins.

“Let’s find a place while we can,” Billy said, walking through the ballroom ahead of Joey and looking from side to side. People were still arriving and the tables were filling up.

“Hey Billy – over here!”

It was Tommy Allison. Tommy had graduated last year and was now working at the smelter east of town, one of the few young men who left Umbarger for some kind of life other than farming.

Tommy was a quiet guy – tall, stoop-shouldered, and more muscular than average. He usually treated Joey pretty decently – not as an equal, exactly, being so much older, but not like an annoying little fart either. For that reason Joey liked him better than most of his brother’s friends.

“Hey Tommy – long time no see. Got a date?” Billy asked.

“Naw, hell, there ain’t no girls up here worth going with. How you doin’ Joey?”

“Uh, fine I guess…”

“Need a drink? C’mon, have a seat. Plenty a room. You guys got dates?”

Dates? Dates? Was Joey included in that question?

Tommy turned two plastic glasses over and poured a generous shot of vodka into each from a bottle in a brown paper bag. “Sally’s old man sprung for the set-ups and there’s three or four kegs over by the bar, but if you want a decent drink you have to have your own.”

Dates – he definitely said dates. The question could only mean Tommy considered Joey man enough to date, even if he didn’t have one.  Oh man, this was great!

“I got a bottle in the car…” Billy started.

“Forget it,” Tommy said. “We can get it later if we need it. What you want in it? I suggest grapefruit juice and a little salt. Makes a great drink. No hangover.”

He filled the glasses with juice.

“You want ice you gotta get it at the bar. It’s free.”

Joey didn’t need any ice. Neither did Tommy or Billy.

The tart drink went down smooth as pudding and almost as easily. Joey poured another.

A huge new world was opening up to him. He was watching, listening, trying to fit himself into it. He was restless, wanting to get on with whatever was in store, but at the same time a little daunted. But the daunted-ness  just served to shoot an extra dollop of adrenaline into his arteries.

“Seen ‘Celia?” Billy asked Tommy, looking around the room.

“Seen her? Christ, how could I miss? She’s a bridesmaid, and man, is she decked out. Looks better’n Sally, you ask me.”

“Yeah? Well, where is she?”

“Forget it. She’s got an escort. One of the groomsmen.”

“Don’t mean nothing,” Billy said. “I oughta be able to squeeze a dance or two out a her. That’s all I want.”

“You’ll want to squeeze a damn site more than that once you see her,” Tommy said. He laughed a manly laugh and winked at Joey.

Joey tried to grin a manly grin back, but was just the slightest bit embarrassed. He took another sip of the vodka and juice to hide it. Aw shit, this was…great. Just great.

“Easy does it,” Tommy said. “Keep on like that they’ll be carrying you outta here on a stretcher.”

Embarrassed a second time, Joey set the drink on the table.

“Saw Shirley too,” Tommy said to Joey. “Said she was looking for you.” Shirley was Joey’s classmate and Tommy’s cousin. “She’s over there with the rest of her family. Go on over and say hi.”

Oh god, this was terrible. Joey had had a thing for Shirley since first grade. She was an all-right looking girl whose chest had swollen wondrously in the past year. And she didn’t get too many pimples either, like a lot of girls did when that happened, but she did get tall. Lordy, did she get tall. Two inches taller than Joey, and at least five pounds heavier. Could probably pin him in a wrestling match.  Nearly grown, she was, and he, in spite of his brother’s stupid comments, was still stuck with fuzz on his cheeks and body hair so new it looked odd, when he dared look down there. Worse, he was about as uncool as it was possible to be, and he knew it.

Crap, he might have been able to wheedle his way over to her table if Tommy hadn’t said anything, but now that he had…oh man, it was impossible.

“There’s ‘Celia,” Tommy said.

Billy jerked his head around, set his drink on the table and immediately made his way over to her.

“You’re on your own,” Tommy said to Joey, his eyes narrowing and settling on a bouncy girl in a stiff dress across the room. “There’s Cindy. I’m gonna go see if I can make a little time. I’ll try to bring her back over here.”

Joey felt like everybody was looking at him, alone at a table big enough to seat eight or ten people and loaded with set-ups, plastic glasses and foil glitter.

One more small sip. Tommy was right – better be careful. It numbed his throat going down.

Holy crap but he felt good.

Hell with it. He’d go over and see if he could get a dance. If Shirley didn’t like it, tough.

“Hi Joey,” she said when Joey made his way over to her family’s table. She wasn’t at all shy.

“Hey Joey,” her father said in a voice a lot louder than it needed to be. He was hugely fat, wired with a love of life that spilled out of him like a gallon of wine poured into a three-quart jar. “Why ain’t you playing ball? Ain’t you got a game tonight? I thought you had a game. Don’t you know baseball’s a lot more important than chasing girls?” Matt was his name and Joey loved the guy. Always kidding around.

“Oh daddy,” Shirley’s mother said in a tone meant to sound reproachful. But she didn’t fool anybody. “Joey has a right to dance with the girls now and then too.” She turned to Joey. “Sit down and join us,” she said.

“I’d offer you a drink,” Matt said, “but I bet you done already had one or two, didn’t you? If not, here…”

Shirley was smiling at him, big as daylight and nearly as bright.

“Thanks, but I got one over there with Tommy. Hey Shirley, you wanna, uh, like – you wanna, uh…”

“Dance? You askin’ me to dance? Sure!” She came toward him, squeezing between her daddy’s chair and the neighboring table.

Damn! She was plumb anxious! Holy cow…!

Amazing how easy it was to do this rock n’ roll stuff. Nothin’ to it if you don’t mind acting totally nuts…

Without missing a beat, the band segued from Good Golly Miss Molly to A White Sport Coat, and first thing Joey knew, Shirley was offering herself up for a slow dance, which, thanks to noon hours at school too stormy for softball, he had learned to do, more or less. But at school a good six inches had always been kept between the dancers because of shyness, mostly, but also because Sister Dympna kept a hawk-eye on them and nobody dared cross Sister Dympna.

Shirley had taken off her shoes so she wouldn’t be all that much taller than Joey. She fit herself into his arms, or maybe his grip, and she felt pretty nice there. Better than pretty nice. Only thing was, she didn’t seem nearly as taken by the experience as he. Here he was, nearly blown away by the mix of all these fabulous sensations, not the least of which was a vat of brewing hormones set to stirring by the feel of her brand new trussed-up but still soft breasts pressing against his chest. But the girl owning the breasts was acting like the only thing she was interested in was the music.

Aw geez, here it comes again, that damn thing…he couldn’t control it. He had to twist a little sideways so she wouldn’t notice…oh God, if she knew…what if she felt it…oh shit, she’d slug him square in the face and leave him standing there in the middle of the dance floor like a ram in rut…

After a minute or two of his shuffling around jerking her hand up and down like an oil pump on amphetamine, she took over. First thing she did was to resist the nutty up-and-down movement of the hands, then she twisted him around to face her like a dancing partner was supposed to – oh no! – then she pulled him to her and forced him to keep proper time. He couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, keep his groin far enough away from her…oh man, he was done for…

But no, she didn’t mind – maybe she couldn’t feel it – no, there’s no way she couldn’t feel what was going on. But she didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Maybe she knew and was just ignoring it.

How was it possible? He was wound so tight his spring was about to snap and she just moved with the music, calm, smooth, dreamy…

That’s probably just the way it was with girls. They were just too dumb to know what happens to guys – hell, he barely knew himself. She probably thought he had something in his pocket – a good-sized pocket knife, maybe. But he didn’t have no pocket in the middle of his pants, and unless she was a lot dumber than he thought, she’d know it. As for the music and dancing, it was all old hat to her – fun, but at bottom, a big yawn. She was polite, and friendly, and pretty, and was obviously having a good time, but not nearly as swept away as he would have hoped, either by the music or – oh shit…

Still, breasts were breasts…

The dance ended. Escorting her back to her family he maneuvered so that the front of his pants was at least partially hidden by her skirt. He felt awkward as a calf caught in a squeeze chute, but it was better than letting everybody see his horribly embarrassing condition.

He thanked her politely, and headed back to Tommy and his brother Billy. By this time Cindy and Cecilia had joined them and were sipping their drinks. Probably nothing but juice or pop. That was another thing about girls – most of them didn’t drink very much.

He took a sip of his own drink, but it didn’t taste as good as it did before.

“Fill ‘er up?” Tommy asked.

“Huh? Naw – later maybe. Anybody see Betty?”

Betty was another classmate, at least half a head shorter than Shirley. Joey didn’t like her as much as he did Shirley because she tended to be snooty and moody, and took offense at imagined slights. Not nearly as easy-going as Shirley. On the other hand, she was shorter and a whole lot prettier.

“She’s here with Kenny,” Billy said, “but you oughta go over and beat his time. He’s a loser. She’d drop him in a minute if you showed any interest.”

Another rare compliment, but just as baseless. Betty and Kenny were about as exclusive as you could get, even though she was only fourteen and Kenny was eighteen. It was a scandal, is what it was. Joey couldn’t imagine their being like they were without committing a mortal sin every couple of minutes. He could understand Kenny though. Betty was as pretty as a girl could get – big eyes, flawless skin, short, curly black hair,  with a shape most girls would stab their grandmothers in the heart for.

He saw her approaching their table, on Kenny’s arm. God what a vision – a strapless gown, no less, the top half of her pretty little breasts pressed up like dough rising out of bread pans.

“Hey, mind if we join you?” Kenny asked.

“Why not,” Tommy answered. He didn’t sound too happy about it, and he didn’t offer them any vodka either. But that didn’t prevent Kenny from helping himself to a healthy dose.

Betty sat beside him with her arms crossed, her eyes drifting across the room, ignoring the others. Joey kept his eyes on her. A couple of times her eyes met his but immediately hers skipped away. He didn’t see much interest there, but what did he know? Maybe his brother was right in spite of the way she was acting. She didn’t look like she was having much fun. Maybe she really was ready to dump Kenny. Should he ask her to dance? He argued with himself about it for the next ten minutes.

“Well babe,” Kenny asked before Joey could answer his own question, “you ready to go?”

“Sure,” she shrugged. “Why not?”

“Didja see her?” his brother asked as they walked away, “didja see her?”

“See her? Yeah, I saw her … how could I not?”

“She was just begging for someone to take her away from that loser. Why didn’t you make a move? I was waiting for you to make a move, man, you coulda…”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Coulda what? No way he could make that girl happy.

Fact of the matter was, ‘Celia didn’t look all that happy either, and neither did Cindy. His brother and Tommy were having too much fun mixing drinks to suit the girls. At their urging they finally danced a set, but then it was right back to the table and the vodka.

Joey saw what was happening and thought, well, that’s the way it is with guys. Drinking is what we do, and if the girls didn’t like it, too bad. Eventually they’d have to come around. What choice did they have? Lookit Matt. Loud, laughing, acting stupid, his wife trying to restrain him – shoot, every man in the place was half drunk or worse, and…geez, it looked like a healthy percent of the women weren’t feeling a hell of a lot of pain either. Didn’t quite fit his theory about women and drinking, but…

Well, hell, he was a man too, wasn’t he? He’d sidle right up there and join the rest of them, except…well, except he wasn’t exactly feeling all that good. He’d have to fake it. It’d never do to let anybody know he wasn’t up to carrying his share of the load.

He got another glass and filled it with grapefruit juice.

“How about a little more a this here ‘tater water?” Tommy asked, seeing him pour.

“Sure thing,” he said, accepting the bottle of vodka. It was almost empty.

Tommy was watching the dancers and sipping his drink. It was easy pretending to pour some of the vodka into his glass without his noticing. But ‘Celia noticed. She elbowed Cindy. They grinned at him and ‘Celia winked.

“We’ll be right back,” Cindy said after a moment. “We’re going to powder our noses.”

“What’s wrong with peein’?” Tommy asked, a slur in his voice. “Why don’tcha just admit you gotta go pee?” He made a half-hearted effort to grab Cindy’s hand as she passed behind his chair, but she held it away from him.

Tommy’s mood immediately turned dark.

Joey watched in silence. His brother too had seen. He stopped his bantering for the first time that evening. The silence dragged on to the point it starting to be embarrassing. Billy got up.

“Where you goin’?” Tommy asked.

“I’m gonna go see if I can find ‘Celia – see if she wants to dance.”

The only two left at the table were Joey and Tommy.

“Fuck ‘em,” Tommy said. “That’s all they’re good for anyway. Nothin’ else you can do with a broad anyhow, so fuck ‘em all.”

The language shocked Joey to his shoes. It was uncouth, impolite, crude, and above all, totally and completely untrue. He thought of his mom and his little sister. If Tommy really felt that way, something must be deeply and profoundly wrong with him.

Still…

Well, so what? Everybody had something wrong with him. Didn’t mean somebody wasn’t any good. Besides, Cindy had insulted him, so maybe he was just letting off steam. Completely understandable, especially considering he’d been drinking a little too much. Didn’t mean anything.

“Hey Joey, wanna see if we can find some girls?”

“Whatdya mean? There’s lotsa girls here.”

“No, I mean some real girls. Girls who know how to have fun.”

He had no idea what Tommy was talking about, but sure, who wouldn’t like to have fun…

“It’ll cost you twenty bucks. You got twenty bucks?”

Prostitutes! He was talking about prostitutes! “No way man, I ain’t gonna do that…you gotta be crazy to even think I’d do that!”

“Hey, no  problem, you don’t have to do anything. You can just come with me till I find one, then leave.” He laughed. “Then you’ll at least know how to find one if you ever change your mind.”

“Don’t worry, I ain’t never gonna change my mind about that.”

“Well hell, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with talkin to a girl, is there? If I do the talkin’? You ain’t got nothin’ against me just talkin’ to a girl, do you?”

Well, no, he didn’t guess there was anything wrong with just talking to a girl, and he could probably go with him if that’s all he was gonna do, but he better not get him involved if he was gonna do anything more than talk. Did he promise not to get him involved in anything more than talk?

Yeah, yeah, don’t be such a wuss.

Okay okay.

He knew he shouldn’t, but, well, it was the chance to – what? A chance to leap-frog over his brother, who in his wildest dreams would never have dared approach a real live, honest-to-goodness no-foolin’ whore.

The thought nearly made him dizzy.

Well, something was making him dizzy.

Tommy pushed the elevator button. Joey was satisfied to watch and follow without question. The door opened. They got in. Tommy pushed the button for the top floor. The door closed. They rode to the top.

The door opened, Tommy pushed the button for the lobby and down they went, two floors. A heavy-set couple got on. Another floor, another couple. By the time they arrived at the lobby there were seven people getting off.

Tommy pushed the button for the top floor again. Another trip up and down much like the first, but this time when the door opened onto the lobby a tall female with carrot-colored hair got on. She looked like nothing Joey had ever seen, in a shiny red dress, if you want to call it dress, about to split its seams, if it had seams, and barely long enough to cover her butt.

She definitely had a butt.

The fragrance of cheap perfume flooded the elevator. Joey felt like he had fallen into a vat of it. Jangley bracelets clanked from her wrists, her lips were red as the blood of a fresh-killed hog, and gaudy red loop earrings big as saucers dangled from her ears. Her eyelashes were black as tar and a good inch long. She was a little too plump and had a soft, juicy look about her. Like a tomato too ripe to eat.

She had obviously been watching the elevator and the people riding it.

The door closed.

“How much?” Tommy asked.

The girl looked at Joey with kind of a startled look, like she hadn’t seen him when she got on. She looked at Tommy, then back to Joey. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know what I’m talking about. How much?”

She didn’t answer. Again she glanced at Tommy, and again at Joey. Joey felt like he was standing alone on a stage, naked as the day he came into the world. He tried not to look at her but could no more stop staring than he could stop his heart from beating, which, at that moment, it was doing way too fast.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” she said again, though her indecision was plain.

“Okay, have it your way.”

Tommy replaced his wallet. They rode to the top without stopping. The door opened, paused, and began to close. Tommy pressed the ballroom button.

“What about junior here?” the girl asked, stepping into the doorway to keep it open. Tommy leaned against the opposite edge. A buzzer began to sound.

“I got enough. What’s it gonna take?”

Her eyes were still on Joey.

 “C’mon,” Tommy said. “How much?” He was showing two twenty’s.

“What about him?” she insisted.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s cool.”

“I ain’t dating no babies.”

Dating?

“I got enough for him and me both, it come to that.”

“I said I ain’t gonna date no babies.”

Tommy dug deeper into his wallet and flashed everything he had – a fifty and three twenties. “You think I can’t pay? I can pay. Now dammit, let’s go.”

The girl was now looking only at Tommy. She pressed a button on the control panel behind her. In the distance an alarm bell sounded. She leaned against the inside of the elevator and folded her arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Tommy hesitated. He put his wallet back into his pocket.

“C’mon Joey, let’s get the hell out of here.”

He pulled Joey out of the elevator by the arm as the door slid shut. Immediately he punched the down button. Joey’s heart was clip-clopping like a horse trotting on an empty street. Tommy shifted his weight from one foot to the other, breathing quick and shallow. Joey’s eyes were glued to the numbers above the door. The numbers were changing, but slowly. Way too slowly.

A baby – she called him a baby!

And…and she was right. He wasn’t ready for this. Not by a long shot. He’d never be ready for this kind of thing. He felt dirty and nasty, like standing downwind from a rotting cow carcass.

The bell dinged. They got on the elevator and pressed the ballroom button. Two floors down the elevator stopped. A fat man in uniform with a gun and a billy on his hip got on. He chose a key from a ring containing what looked like dozens, and inserted it into the panel. The door closed but the elevator didn’t move.

“Some kind a trouble here?”

Joey had a sudden and all but uncontrollable urge to pee.

“Trouble? No trouble here, officer,” Tommy said, unable to keep a quiver out of his voice.

The man removed the billy from his belt and poked it in Tommy’s chest, not hard, but not gentle either. “ ’Cuz  if there’s any trouble, I’m here to stop it, right here, right now. You catch my drift?”

Tommy had the good sense to keep silent.

“Catch my drift?” the man said again, louder, more insistent.

“Yeah, I get your drift.”

There might have been a sliver of defiance there, but the man, after the slightest hesitation, let it go. He relaxed just enough to indicate the confrontation was ended.

The man replaced the billy. “We try to run a decent place here. We don’t want no trouble. You boys with the wedding party downstairs?”
            Tommy did what he could to wrest a piece of dignity out of the slack given him. “Yeah,” he said with a man-to-man grin, “a friend’s gettin’ married.”

The man wasn’t impressed. “Well, you boys go on back down there and behave yourselves. You try anything funny again you’ll have to deal with me.” He twisted the key again. The door opened and he got out.

Joey nearly exploded out of the elevator into the ballroom floor.

Tommy followed more slowly, trying his level best to salvage some cool.

Back at the table Joey’s brother and ‘Celia were by themselves, sipping Cokes.

“Where you been?” Billy asked, his face glowing with a pleasure that had nothing to do with where they had or hadn’t been.

“Outside – getting a breath of fresh air. Right Joey?”

Joey didn’t answer. He took a seat across from his brother where he could pretend to watch the dance floor. Shirley was dancing with Gene Stocker, another classmate who was taller than Joey and a lot better looking. Better dancer too, from the looks of it. Thirty minutes ago Joey would have been miserable with envy, but at the moment all he felt was immense relief.

He looked at his watch. Eleven-thirty. Two more long hours, at least. He knew by the blissful look on his brother’s face they’d be here till the last dog was hung.

Tommy poured the last of the vodka into his cup and looked around for another bottle. There were plenty to choose from, abandoned by revelers too far gone to keep track.

Kenny and Betty were on the dance floor, clinging to each other like they were…mating, f’r Pete’s sake.

Matt and his wife, Shirley – everybody was up to their necks in the party.

Everybody but Joey. Joey had somehow slipped out of the loop. Nothing going on here had anything whatsoever to do with him.

“I’m going to the car,” he said to his brother.

“Yeah, okay.”

Joey doubted the message even registered. He was a little hurt that his brother didn’t try to talk him into staying.

He tried again. “I’ll be there if you want me.”

“Okay.”

He took the stairway to the lobby rather than the elevator. It was broad, ornate, and covered with faded floral carpet, worn through to its stringy backing at the edge of the steps. The lobby was abandoned. A singer imitating Pat Boone crooning Love Letters in the Sand filtered down from the ballroom, but whatever magic the music had conjured earlier was gone.

The night air was cool and dry. The street was deserted.  Joey kicked at a sack with an empty wine bottle in it. It didn’t quite make it to the gutter. He kicked it again and sent it skittering to the middle of the street.

He unlocked the car and clamored into the back seat. He made a pillow of his coat and settled down to wait for his brother. His last conscious thought was wishing he had gone to the game.

Watching the Sky on a Cold Winter Night

You are God, the Only God, Whose thought became creation.
You are God of all the world – the far, the near, and all that fills between;
The light, the air, the highlands, hills and valleys;
The wind and waves, the sea and sand and shore,
The clouds that race across the winter sky
And build with summer thunder to the edge of space.
You, O God, are God of day’s bright hours,
Of nighttime lit by points of stars, of twilight born of dawn and dusk.
You, O God, are God of sight, of sound, of soft red evenings
Filled with longing, love and loosened cares,
And shining mornings full of hope.
You are God of work, of rest, reflection, sleep and dreams.
More perfectly than any glass, the universe reflects your image.
You numbered galaxies upon the reach of space
Like grains of sand across the desert,
And spread their light from end to end across the deep and endless space
At speeds that no one can imagine.
Tens are raised to powers of ten and raised again by tens of tens,
And still we can’t begin to count the particles of which it all is made,
Each composed of quark and color, spin or charm;
Quantum fluxing, spirits dancing, function waves of probability
Collapsing every time we turn to look, deciding which of endless worlds
Will be the one we live in, which the ones that pass untouched, unseen.
Each and every single one of them, designed and made to do your bidding
Just exactly so, reveals Your might and majesty, and how You live among us.
Of ancient spirits on the earth, and those aborning day to day,
Of single cells and DNA, of trees, of grass, of knowledge, truth and wonder,
Of effort, fortitude and every virtue, You are God.
Of song and dance, and literature, of study, learning, and of love,
Of every good thing that I know, of everything my heart does yearn for
For  those I love and those who love me, You are God.
And You, O God, are my God too, and I your humble creature.
Hear me when I pray to you, and answer me my prayers.
Naught I ask but this, O God, that I and Judy both keep faith,
That Marc and Spring be also touched, and with us hear your whisper;
Feel Your finger on their hearts, Your breath upon their faces.
Touch their minds, O God, and let them feel Your presence.
Show them what is meant by love, and bless them with its bounty.

Gerald Beckman — 1997

A Pear for Simon

                The door to the hostel was sandwiched between the two-star hotel entrance and a restaurant, on a street perpendicular to the beach. You could step out the narrow passageway, cross the street, and in ten running steps plunge into the surf. Simon sat at the small desk behind the service window planning to slip off and do just that over the lunch hour, but at five minutes before noon the outer door opened. It was too early for a customer, so it could only be the skinny American girl.

           Linda set the plastic bag of fruit on the floor beside the desk and gave Simon a proprietary kiss on the cheek. Her own cheeks were hollow, and paler than a week ago.
          “It’s a bitch out there,” she said, settling herself on the tatty couch across from the desk. “Can’t you turn on some heat?” 
          She pulled her sweater tight around her shoulders and pulled a hank of dirty blond hair behind her ear. It didn’t stay. She tried again and this time it stayed, but only for a moment. Without makeup, the lips on her bony face were thin and straight, and the eyebrows all but invisible. Her figure was hidden by baggy trousers and the gray Irish-wool sweater she had bragged about finding on sale half-price.     
            “No heat till the first.”
            “Shit,” she said, folding her arms and leaning back. She again brushed the hair from her face. She began rummaging through her sack. “Want a pear?”

            “You could’ve stayed at your place.”

            “No heat in that fleabag either.”

             “Why did you leave California if you don’t like the cold?”
              She looked up from rummaging in the sack and gazed at him with colorless gray eyes. “In ten minutes we could generate all the heat we need.”
             He looked away. “I had hoped to get in some surfing.”
            “In this weather? You must be –” she began again to search the bag. “Obviously you haven’t been out there yet. It must be in the forties, and with the wind…”
               “I got a wetsuit, and with weather like this nobody’ll be getting in my way. It’s perfect for surfing.”
            “For Eskimos maybe.” 
            The muscles in his jaw flexed. 
            She regrouped. “Still thinking about leaving?”
            “You’re right. It’ll soon be too cold for surfing.”
            She chose a pear and examined it. She took a bite. “That supposed to be an answer to my question?”
           “We’ve already been over this. When it gets too cold to surf I have to be moving on.”
          The room was cold and drab. The rain spit in angry spurts against the window. In silence and with small bites she ate the pear, swallowing the cool sweet flesh slowly, to ease the knot forming in the back of her throat. She blinked rapidly a few times to clear her vision.
          It was time the shitty weather broke. It had been dreary and rainy ever since she arrived nearly a month ago, at the beginning of August, anxious to explore this little resort on the west side of Ireland she had learned about from a travel brochure. Pictures showed the beach to be a broad strip of sand stretching graceful as a cat around a blue-water bay, reaching to bluffs on the far side. In her imaginings the beach had been warm, the surf gentle, and the full moon had been shedding its benediction over all the broad and peaceful world. 
          Of course she would find a lover. Not right away maybe, but soon. A quiet-spoken student on holiday, possibly, with a soft touch and playful sense of humor. From Dublin most likely, since half of Ireland’s population lived there, and Lahinch was as popular with Dublin beach-goers as it was unknown to Americans. She would meet him at a party on the beach perhaps, joking and laughing with witty friends around the flickering light of a driftwood campfire. Or maybe drinking Guinness in a dimly lit pub, singing ballads in an untrained tenor voice; or, most likely, at the workshop at the community center where she was enrolled to study authentic Irish Music. 
           After four sunless days she had decided to hell with it – she was going to explore the beach, rain or no rain. She had put on her walking shoes, her jacket and poncho, and hurried off with only an hour of daylight left. The tide had come in, reducing the beach to a narrow strip of soft deep sand near the dunes. In no time the chilly wet wind had worked its way under the poncho and jacket, and the sand into her boots.

           “Can’t you at least turn on the lights?” she asked. “The gloom depresses me.”

          “I was just going out.”

          “But I’m here now. Wouldn’t you rather…why don’t you let me fix you lunch?”
          “I just had a can of tuna. I don’t want to dirty up the kitchen before the hikers start coming.”

         Her light jacket had been no match for the increasing chill. Twilight was fading and the wind was picking up. Still, she hesitated, and in those few moments the thin cloud cover turned to fast-moving wisps that tumbled like oily rags across face of the rising moon. From below the horizon, the sun’s yellow-orange light still lit the western edge of the sky. Overhead, behind the speeding clouds, the brightest of the stars were becoming visible against the darkening purple backdrop. The stormy bluster was a long way from what she had imagined, and as the surf crashed and thundered onto the beach, she wondered how she could have allowed herself to be so misled by a stupid brochure. Still, except for the shivering, the sensation wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
         Just as she decided to head back to the hotel, a figure on a surfboard appeared in her line of vision. The figure slid gracefully on the shore side of a roller, adjusting his board just enough to stay clear of its breaking ridge. Curious, she walked farther along the water’s edge toward the figure until he was directly out from her. He saw her at the last minute before reaching shore and stepped upright off his board, catching it as the last of the wave tipped it up. He was small and slender under the tight-fitting wetsuit. With a prominent and angular chin, chiseled nose and cheekbones, high forehead with thick, black hair tumbling wild as seaweed every which way, and deep, flashing eyes, he was anything but gentle, was not a student, and was pathologically morose. But she fell like a fistful of filings toward a magnet. 
         “Nobody’s hiking in this weather,” she said, then added, as though to herself, “Anyway, I’m the one always cleans up.”
         He smiled thinly. “The tuna was plenty. But I will take that pear now, if you haven’t changed your mind.”
         “Why would I change my mind?” Again she rummaged through the sack, this time handing him a piece of the fruit and taking another for herself. She closed the bag and set it back on the floor. “You know, I’ve been thinking…”
         He took a bite and chewed silently. She waited. 
         “Don’t you want to know what I’ve been thinking?” she asked.
         He shrugged, swallowed, and took another bite. “Sure. What you been thinking?”
         “I got a little money, enough for a ticket…”
        “Forget it,” he said, assuming the mien of a man in pain. “I couldn’t let you do it.”
         “ ‘Let’ me? ‘Let’ me do what?”
         He floundered, but only a moment. “Abandon your music. I couldn’t let you give that up.”
         “Irish folk ditties? I’m tired of that stuff, the whole scene. You were right. Hear one piece, you’ve heard them all.”
         “You come all this way to study, then change your opinion in four short weeks?”
         “I could go with you. I really could.” She looked at him. 
         “Linda, I…”
         “Think about it. You’re always telling me how we’re a perfect match. I never make any demands. There is no downside, when you think about it.”
         He leveled a gaze at her, then lowered his eyes. “Nothing would make me happier, believe me.” He studied the window. Again he looked to his lap. He closed his eyes. The surf crashed with slow and endless repetition across the abandoned street.
         “You don’t want me, is that it?” she said.
         “It’s not that. Of course I want you.”
         “Well, then, you got me.”
         His eyes flickered up, then down again. “It’s not that easy.”
         “It is too that easy, unless you’re not telling me the truth. I can see it might not be so easy if you’re not telling me the truth, but if you are, then tell me, why isn’t it easy?”
         He spoke softly. “Lots of reasons.”
        “Well, come on, name them. Name one.”
         “If you were to stop studying music because of me…”
        “That’s bullshit. Try again.”
         He lit another of his countless cigarettes. He sucked in a lung full of smoke and exhaled through his nose. “I’ve been bouncing around the world for ten years and intend to do it for ten more. What kind of life it that?” Smoke tumbled out of his mouth in puffs with his words. 
        “So you like living like a gypsy. What makes you think I don’t? You must not have been listening when I told you what I’ve been doing since high school. Tell me another.”
        He raised his voice a notch, in pitch and volume. “I spend long stretches on crummy beaches when I can’t find a job that lets me surf. No tent, no hotel, no hostel, no room, nothing. Sometimes for weeks.”
       “I could earn money waiting tables. You could surf to your heart’s content.”
       “I could never let a woman support me. Never.” 
       She leaned back on the couch. She folded her arms and lowered her head. She squeezed her eyes shut. 
      “What kind of man would I be, to let a woman support me?”
       “Honor? You talking about honor?”
       “Nothing is more important.”
      “Oh my God…”
      “Men have died for it.”
      “You’d rather die than be with me?”
       “It’s what makes a man able to hold up his head.”
       “So you don’t want me along because I might earn money.”
       “You must see how it is. I wish you could come along. I really do, but it’s just not possible.”
       “I understand. Honor and dignity.”
        Simon shifted in his seat. “A man owes it to himself to live as he sees fit.”
       “But with honor.”
       “Yes. With honor.”
       She took another bite of the pear and chewed till it turned to paste. It was hard to swallow for the constriction in her throat. “What if I’m pregnant?”
       He turned still as stone. Blue smoke curled up from his cigarette. “But you’re not,” he said finally.
       “What if I am?”
       He flicked the ashes on the floor. With elaborate care he rubbed the glowing tip on the edge of his shoe sole. “That can be cured easier than a cold.”
      “What if I don’t have any money?”
      “There’s a doctor right here in Lahinch that will do it for a thousand punts, off the books. No one would ever know.”
      “I don’t have a thousand punts.”
      “You’ll have to call somebody. Your parents, maybe.”
      “What if you call yours?”
      He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t answer. 
     “What if I want to have it?”
       He looked at her then, eyes flashing. “What would you do with a baby?”
       She took a moment to answer, then shrugged. “What would anybody do with a baby?” She looked at her watch. “Almost one o’clock. Too late for surfing.”
       “Merde!” he said, “Shit shit shit shit!” He crushed his cigarette butt into an overflowing ashtray. Its smoke continued to rise in lazy curls from the ashes.
        Rain-laden wind was still hissing and spitting against the window. It sucked the warmth and softness from the air and leeched the color out of the streets and buildings and awnings, and what little clung to the drab furniture in the room. Huge rollers, cold and gray and streaked with foam, moved in from the sea in endless procession, rising higher and higher as they approached land to crash and boom against the shore with such power and fury she could feel them through the floor of the hostel. On and on they came, tireless and unceasing. She counted. One wave every eight seconds. Almost eight a minute. Jesus…

When Latin Lost its Relevance

     My second novel to be published is When Latin Lost its Relevance, and can now be pre-ordereed on Amazon.com. The official release date is August 13. Please check it out.

     It is a fictional memoir about 99,000 words long and deals with young boys growing up at the Josephinum, a Catholic seminary in central Ohio that I attended in the late 50s. The story is completely fictional, but it does reflect the kinds of relationships and foibles many of the students dealt with.

     It’s the story of fourteen year-old Paul Riddle who arrives at the Josephinum in August, 1961 and sees immediately that he will have a hard time adjusting to the rigors of the pre-Vatican II Catholic seminary. All he wants is to fit in and win his classmates’ respect, but being a new arrival, he finds acceptance illusive. Impossible schedules and curricula, draconian rules, absolute silence at night and during meals, kneeling for long stretches of time on concrete floors as punishment for minor infractions, class preference, cliques, and rivalries add to his misery, but worst of all is the unspoken and un-addressed, but ever-present specter of his evolving sexuality. The seminary has no systematic way to address the taboo subject, so Paul is left to deal in fear and ignorance with the strange developments his body undergoes. He believes he is in a perpetual state of mortal sin, and this belief drives him to near despair.

     For the first several weeks he flunks all his Latin assignments, but manages to pass the first quarter exams because a brainy classmate, Chuck Means, forms a small study group that meets in secret, at night, against the rules, to study. Chuck’s motive is not to help Paul, but to increase his control over the members of the group. He is already the most influential student in high school because he always seems to have cigarettes to sell to anyone who wants them. Of course smoking is strictly forbidden. No one knows that Chuck’s secret source for cigarettes is a gay classmate named Johnny Bronson, who buys them by the carton from the son of a neighbor who lives close to the campus.
     Paul grows to resent Chuck Means, and when tension develops between Chuck Means and Johnny Bronson, Paul, on a lark, decides to exploit the rift. He gets more deeply caught up in the quarrel than he intended. His attempts to cope with the consequences and at the same time deal with his over-active moral scruples has a destabilizing effect on his already unstable personality. His insecurity increases dramatically when a professor makes a homosexual pass at him.
     The quarrel between Chuck Means and Johnny Bronson finally results in Chuck shoving Johnny into the rain-swollen river bordering the property.  Everyone believes it was an accident, but Paul, who secretly observed the incident, believes he has witnessed murder. He can’t report the crime for fear he is too deeply involved, so he concocts a plan to punish Chuck himself. The plan is deeply entangled with the guilt and self-loathing he feels as a result of his disordered scruples and made worse by his failing to save Johnny from drowning. 
     When the time comes to execute his plan to punish Chuck, Paul realizes he is nowhere near capable of the murder he had planned, but that doesn’t prevent him inflicting a severe beating on Chuck. Bruised and bloodied, Chuck reveals for the first time the true history he has shared with Johnny, a history that reveals Paul’s attempt to avenge Johnny was tragically misdirected.      
Paul’s  violent confrontation with Chuck constitutes an epiphany. He has misjudged what he witnessed during the flood, he has misjudged Johnny, misjudged Chuck, and most of all, he has misjudged himself. He comes to realize that  judging the heart is an enterprise fraught with peril, even when the heart being judged is one’s own.

     Please see amazon.com for a sample of the novel.