Boys and Girls
We never suspected Penny Village wasn’t paradise until Johnny and Lenny’s parents swapped. Before then, living in the Village meant being kids thwacking wiffle balls and throwing footballs and looking for muskrats along Stony Run where in winter we skated around the jutting rocks too big to be encased in the ice. Paradise doesn’t topple like a tree, though; it’s more like leaves dropping in the fall; one day it’s just standing there, bare trunk and spindly limbs, not paradise anymore.
Johnny’s father moved into Raponikon with Lenny’s mother, taking Johnny with them. Meanwhile, Johnny’s mother moved in with Lenny’s father across Orchard Lane and Lenny stayed put. Losing Johnny was bad. In sports, he always was one of the captains. If he got to pick first, it almost wasn’t worth playing. We’d have to negotiate and even up sides. The kid picked last usually was Lenny, whiny and given to tripping people. Then there would be a fight. Even though Johnny might be Lenny’s teammate, he wouldn’t defend him. I’m not sure if they knew what was going on between their parents, but they didn’t like each other. Lenny would lose to whomever he provoked, and even though parents were not supposed to have speaking roles, Lenny’s mother often broke that rule, running outside and yelling, “Leave him alone!” and “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” She was a scrawny woman, black-haired the same as Lenny, and an unusual match for her husband, Lee, a bald, sad-faced, bystander kind of man. He had her name, Carla, tattooed on his right forearm, so he must have loved her. But the truth is our parents’ feelings were like the rocks that jutted through the ice on Stony Run. Until Johnny’s father took off with Carla, we skated around them.
Johnny’s father’s name was Glenn. He’d been in the Navy in WWII and had large biceps and forearms heavily tattooed with anchors, sea snakes, speed boats, and sharks. Now he worked for the Raponikon city government as a maintenance man. We thought of him as a larger version of Johnny with that round head, well-shaped nose, and easy smile. He wasn’t the most successful man in the village—Mr. McClure’s blue Chrysler Imperial made him tops—but he kicked us towering punts out in the street and did things for us in Johnny’s backyard because he was so handy. He built a basketball backboard and gravel court for us there, a PeeWee-scale football goal post, and a wood chip pole vaulting pit. All we needed to come up with was the poles. That was easy. We rode our bikes up Germantown Pike to a carpet store that let us have the bamboo around which the carpets were rolled. We then headed back to the Village, one guy on the lead bike, the other on the following bike, a pole carried in between, probably a wobble away from getting killed. Johnny’s father had set a box in the ground where we tried to stick the poles to launch ourselves, or chickened out, or got knocked backwards, or sometimes make it over the crossbar (another bamboo pole) before tumbling into the wood chips.
When Glenn and Carla took Johnny into Raponikon, Lenny stopped coming out to play even though it meant staying inside with Johnny’s mother, whom he didn’t like. We couldn’t see why. Her name was Janet. She had a big smile and was easy-going. Basically, she did all the things a mother would do if she were your real mother, including the wash, the housecleaning, and pulling her cart out of the Village and along Germantown Pike to do grocery shopping at Genuardi’s. Those shopping expeditions gave us time to knock on Lenny’s door and ask him to come out and be told no and then stand there on his porch until he let us in—he knew why we were there.
Lenny’s father Lee had been in the army in World War II and brought back photographs of female collaborators with shaved heads being jeered on the streets of Paris. These photographs were in the bottom drawer of the desk in the middle bedroom where Lee paid the bills.
“They helped the Nazis,” Lenny said the first time he showed them to us. “I heard my father tell my mother before she left.”
“What did your mother say?”
“She said he should get rid of them.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he was going to keep them because these women deserved it.”
We didn’t realize how long a man’s guts could boil after a war. Besides, we had our own boiling parts to deal with. These women were naked, and it wasn’t the same in 1962 as now. Women’s private parts were still private, not everywhere you looked.
At first Lenny teased us, flipping through the photos fast and putting them back in the drawer before we saw everything we wanted to see. He was acting as if he were the new Johnny, the kid in charge, but we weren’t going to let him get away with that. We wanted to know if his father showed the photographs to Johnny’s mother when she moved in. Lenny said he thought so because sometimes the pictures weren’t in the middle bedroom, they were in the drawer of his father’s bedside table. And every night he heard his father and Johnny’s mother going at it. She had this squeal like a creaking door and the headboard of their bed would knock against the wall until one of them stuffed a pillow there to stop it—he found the pillow there one morning.
We asked what his father told him about swapping spouses. He said it wasn’t Lee and Janet’s idea; that’s why they got to stay in the Village while the others had to go, which was fine with him. He hated his mother worse than he hated Janet. But they took Johnny with them, we protested. Lenny said the only one who missed Johnny was Janet because he sure didn’t. All right, we understood that, but we wanted to get back to the photographs, all of us except Terry McClure, whose family had the house with two extra bedrooms because they were Catholics with five kids. Terry got so upset about the photographs that he said he would have to confess. Otherwise, he’d suffer the punishments Sister Walberta described at St. Helena’s elementary. She would tell her classes about the torments of hell and how the damned would vomit and be forced to lick their vomit off the fiery coals with their tongues. She made all this up without even knowing about the pictures of the naked collaborators being spit at and hit and punched with nowhere to go because wherever they went, they’d still have bald heads. Everyone would know they had betrayed their neighbors to the Nazis.
The girls in the Village were not as real to us as the women in those photographs. They were like patches of fog that you could run through and didn’t count. The one girl who spent time with a boy was Janey Welles, but the boy was her brother, Stevie, who didn’t count either. She and Stevie often sat together on beach chairs outside their front door with a little table between them where their mother put a tray of cookies and two glasses of lemonade. Janey was our age, quiet, wore blue-framed glasses and always had her flute with her. Stevie always had his saxophone. He seldom blew into it, though. Mostly he touched the pearl inlaid keys and polished the brass with a little rag he kept in his pocket. He had a wine stain on his forehead and a chipmunk-like overbite and giggled a lot for no reason. For a while we thought he had been dropped out of a car when he was little, and it wasn’t his fault that he was the way he was, so we tried being nice sometimes, but Janey didn’t trust us to stay nice. Her trick was to get Stevie to ignore us by playing her flute. Automatically he would take up his saxophone and finger and polish and admire it and sometimes his eyes would flicker mysteriously at Janey as if he were judging when he should crash a saxophone blatt into the lilt of her flute. Eventually we decided he had not fallen out of a car. There were no scars on him and no places where his well-combed hair didn’t grow. He was retarded.
For a while the Kerrigan girls lived in a house at the second dip in Cottage Lane where we would start our sled runs on snowy days. The younger one, Lorna, played jacks, hopscotch, and jump rope on the sidewalk in front of the house all the time. Ellen, the older one with long silver blond hair, always kept an eye out the window to watch over Lorna, who had trouble with us running through her hopscotch chalk or snatching away the little pink ball she used to play jacks. On Halloween, the Kerrigan sisters had the most beautiful costumes; they dressed up as princesses and harlequins and ballerinas and witches. All the mothers in the Village liked to see what they were wearing, inviting them inside to show off their rhinestones and fancy stitching and beautiful fabrics. After they showed off and got their candy, Lorna might sit down, which you weren’t supposed to do. She was like someone’s cat who got into your house and made herself comfortable past when it was time to go. The mothers seemed to understand. They kept admiring Lorna while Ellen had a chance to work in that their mother hadn’t made the costumes, she had. We seldom saw their mother, but we weren’t looking. It seemed like Lorna and Ellen were the ones looking, deciding which of our mothers could be theirs.
The best girl in the neighborhood was a German shepherd named Deena. Robert Warren’s father worked at the Philadelphia airport and one day Deena arrived all the way from Germany and wasn’t claimed. Instead of calling the SPCA, Mr. Warren brought her home. From then on, she stuck with us even when we went into the woods and up to the railroad tracks. We felt safe because of her. If we ever ran into a real hobo along the tracks, Deena would tear him apart. She was the ideal girl. We loved her.
If we crossed Johnson Highway, Deena couldn’t come because we’d be leaving the township and going into Raponikon proper where she didn’t have a license. Sears was right there, so we might check out the bats and gloves and fishing rods. The other reason we’d ride our bikes into Raponikon would be to go to the zoo in Oakwood Park, where the major attraction was an American bison the other guys thought was a buffalo. I told them no, bison have humps and beards and short horns and the weepy-eyed old animal at the zoo had a hump and beard and short horns. I had looked this up in the school encyclopedia to be sure. That raggedy, sorrowful bison was powerful. When he was younger, he butted the green metal railing around his pen. You could see where he’d bent it. I’d run my hand along the railing and the bison would look at me, and there was something about me knowing he was a bison, not a buffalo, that brought us together. My desire to know things and bring them together eventually sent me biking deeper into Raponikon, looking for Johnny.
Raponikon was the county seat, so the court house was there along with the county government, the county jail, and the lawyers and bail bondsmen. Beneath the jail there was, strangely, a farmer’s market that sold Pennsylvania food the rest of the world wouldn’t touch like souse, scrapple, chow-chow, and shoofly pie. Then there was the county library, the county hospital, a railroad switching station for the coal and freight cars we saw rumbling through the township, the clothing stores and sandwich shops and movie theater along Main Street, and a place known as the state farm, which did grow produce but in fact was a mental hospital or, in those days, an insane asylum, the nut house.
We learned from a student teacher that the word Raponikon was Lenape for “a day’s walk” as nearby Conshohocken was “pleasant valley where the hills meet the river” and Perkiomen Creek was “where cranberries grow.” This raised the question, a day’s walk from where, or to where? Raponikon wasn’t a day’s walk across, but possibly it was a day’s walk from Philadelphia, twenty miles to the east, or Pottstown, twenty miles to the west, which had fought to be the county seat since it was a bustling mill town, and Raponikon was nothing and would remain nothing if it didn’t get the county government. Raponikon did get the county government, but even that didn’t save it. When we were born early in the 1950s, decay set in for two simple reasons: first, the new housing developments in the township and second, the suburban malls, the boomtowns of the gold rush when mass consumption needed better parking.
I had Johnny’s new address from Lenny (actually from Johnny’s mother) and rode my Schwinn beyond where I’d ever been on my own. My plan was to pass Sears and the zoo and cross West Main Street, angling toward the river. Right away I felt uneasy. Abandoned trolley tracks lacing the streets kept snatching at my front wheel while tree roots bursting through the sidewalks made biking on them impossible. Then there were the old houses with facades of what I thought of as gravestone (dressed gray granite); they didn’t improve my mood nor did watching them grow smaller and more dismal the deeper I rode into Raponikon. Eventually the houses were squeezed down to uniform brick slabs—no porch, only two steps—that stretched from one end of a block to the other with identical front doors every fifteen feet. Johnny lived in one of these row houses. He wasn’t glad to see me, but none of us were ever glad to see each other. As a rule, we barely said hello, just mixed in and caught on to whatever was happening. If a guy returned from being chewed up by lions in Africa, no one would ask about his trip.
When we sat down in the front room, Lenny’s scrawny mother Carla told us that was for company and to get out, so we went down into the basement where Johnny’s father had wedged a used pool table. Right away I wanted to tell him about the photos of the collaborators, but Johnny bested me by saying that he had gotten a look at Carla naked.
“How’d you do that?”
“I had to piss and didn’t know she was in the bathtub so I went in. There she was, shaving her pussy.”
“Why was she doing that?”
“She says its sanitary, and then she says, ‘Anyway, you’re in here, so let’s get this over with. Every woman’s the same. Have your look and don’t be sneaking around after more peeks.’”
“What about her tits?”
“That prick Lenny sucked them into little sacks.”
“Why’d your father go for her instead of your mother?”
Johnny said he had no idea but they were at it every night. I decided not to tell him his mother was doing it with Lenny’s father every night, too, so I said I never heard my parents at it. My father grabbed and hugged my mother sometimes and kissed her on top of the head and called her Digger instead of Deb. She put up with it for about two seconds and never kissed him back.
We were stroking balls. Johnny played so much that he knew all the dead spots on the rails and the bumps in the green baize. It wouldn’t matter if I knew the table or not. I stunk.
“Think she made Lenny shave his dick when she lived in the Village?” I asked him
“Lenny never had any hair on his dick to begin with.”
“Probably not. I’m getting it.”
“Mine’s all over the place.”
Johnny’s mother had overheard Lenny refusing to give me Johnny’s address, so that’s why she was the one who gave it to me. She also gave me something else.
“Your mother asked me to bring you a letter. Here.”
“I don’t want any letter from my mother.”
“What do you want me to do with it?”
He said he didn’t care. I put the letter away and tried to get him interested in the naked women in Paris again. He shrugged me off, saying, fuck that, the way fuck generally is said, not meaning fuck at all, like, what the fuck does that matter or I could give a fuck.
Carla called down to ask if we wanted cookies and milk like we were six years old. Johnny called back to say no, we were busy playing pool and couldn’t mess up the table. He sank so many balls that I rarely had a shot, but still, I sensed that he wasn’t the guy he used to be. He was less somehow.
We didn’t say goodbye the way we didn’t say hello. “I have to go” was all. At the door Carla said she appreciated my visiting as if I had been on a mercy mission because of my loyalty and friendship. I wasn’t sure why I’d come, but I knew it wasn’t that. My moral nature was a sense of doing wrong or being wronged, not doing good or being right. I was antsy, I guess. That’s why I came.
Four blocks from Johnny’s I heard a girl’s voice from a porch.
“Benjy, it’s me, Lorna!”
I might not have stopped as I wouldn’t have stopped passing Lorna Kerrigan’s house on Cottage Lane before she, too, moved into Raponikon except there was a timbre in her voice that didn’t belong to the little girl in the fancy Halloween costumes.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I moved away, remember?”
I pretended I didn’t remember or hadn’t noticed. “Why’d you do that?”
“My parents. Want to come in?”
I had never gone into the Kerrigan’s house in the Village, and I definitely did not want to go into this dark hulk in Raponikon. “Nah, gotta go.”
“Oh, come on. No one’s home. Just me and Ellen.”
“My sister! Look, she’s right there.”
Lorna gestured at a window where I could make out Ellen peering across the porch at me. A little bud of cigarette tip burned beside her face wreathed by that long spooky white hair of hers. She looked like she was still thin whereas Lorna had developed breasts the size of peaches and I noticed she had a rear end. Her hair was dirty blond and short, as before, but now she also had that voice, almost a woman’s, although she was around thirteen like me.
I carried my bike up the chipped marble steps to leave it on the porch and went into what would have been a rich person’s house a long time ago. To the left I saw a dining room with a Formica topped, steel-legged kitchen table and four matching chairs. To the right there was a parlor with a high ceiling and the window seat where Ellen sat smoking her cigarette.
Ellen said, “Hi, Benjy,” as if she had just seen me yesterday.
Lorna said, “We’re stuck here. This place was my grandmother’s. She’s dead.”
That made sense: the red velvet sofa patchy with wear and uncomfortable looking, the hook rug fuzzy and stained, the fireplace resembling a mausoleum entrance, the rocking chair missing half its caning, the glass-fronted cabinet full of ceramic animals, giraffes and pigs and turtles. My dead grandmother had lived in a second-floor apartment in Raponikon that was furnished the same way and smelled of perfume, mildew and rusty pipes.
“When did she die?”
Lorna said, “Last year. She put her head in the oven.”
I didn’t know what to say except no more about the grandmother. “Where’s your mother?”
Lorna turned to Ellen. “Where’s Mom?”
Ellen said, “Right, where’s Mom?”
I didn’t get the game they were playing, so I asked about their father. They said he was working at one of his shoe store jobs, Main Street during the day, the Plymouth Meeting Mall at night.
“Sunday is the only day he doesn’t work. Whoopee,” Lorna said. “What are you doing here?”
I told them. Ellen said she saw Johnny at the high school—they were in the same grade, ninth—but he pretended he didn’t recognize her. Lorna said if it was her she’d force him to recognize her. They laughed, as close to one another as an apple to its skin. Ellen lit another cigarette. She was almost too pretty to be real. Her skin was a little silvery like her hair, and her features were so delicate you’d think she might break if it got cold.
Lorna said, “I’m in seventh in the middle school, and there’s no one I know.”
I was in seventh at the junior high in the township, but I didn’t need to say that. Lorna and I had always been in the same grade. “How come your father has to work so hard?”
“Because he has to buy us Kotex every month,” Ellen said.
They giggled, pleased they’d embarrassed me.
“Why did Johnny move out of the Village?” Lorna asked.
“They were fucking each other’s wives?” Ellen said.
“Or their wives were fucking each other’s husbands,” Lorna said. “Why do guys always get to pick?”
Fuck, again. I had never heard a girl say fuck before, but then I had never heard girls talk about Kotex, or seen Ellen smoking and looking as if she were the younger sister not just because of Lorna’s tits.
“Who got blamed?” Ellen asked.
“Lenny’s mother and Johnny’s father were the ones who had to move. I guess they started it.”
“Johnny’s mother still lives there with Lenny’s father and no one says anything?” Ellen said.
“One time Mr. McClure pulled up in front of their house and yelled at her watering the flowers that she should move, she was a disgrace. We all saw it.”
“Was he drunk?” Lorna asked.
“He’s never drunk, he just st-st-st-stutters,” Ellen said, mimicking Mr. McClure perfectly. Then she got up and pretended to chip golf balls the way he did on his side lawn in the summer. They clicked like ball bearings on the face of his niblick and arced through the early fireflies to the foot of the maple tree he was aiming at. Finally, Ellen became Mrs. McClure, crossing her arms the way Mrs. McClure crossed her arms, black birds settling in her eyes, as she told him to come inside. Mrs. McClure hated Mr. McClure nipping at a glass of whiskey in public, which he always did, balancing it carefully in the grass so it wouldn’t tip when he was chipping. Done with the McClures, Ellen took after my folks. “Is your father bankrupt again?”
“No, he’s not bankrupt.”
“He lost his car business, didn’t he?”
“He’s in insurance now and never went bankrupt.” Because my mother wouldn’t let him since bankruptcy would humiliate her, too. All the cardboard boxes full of unpaid bills and back taxes in the attic were his problem, not hers.
“Where’s Johnny live?” Ellen asked.
“On Mercer Street. I was just there.”
“You already said that,” Ellen said.
“I rode my bike down,” I said, letting myself in for it again.
“Obviously,” Ellen said.
Lorna took my side for some reason. “Give him a break. He’s not old enough to have a license.”
“I will in a year and four months,” Ellen said, which seemed improbable.
“A learner’s permit if he’ll let you,” Lorna said.
“Your father?” I asked.
“Who else?” Ellen asked. “My mother?”
“Oh, sure,” Lorna said.
Ellen and Lorna liked making me guess what they meant, but if I did guess, I’d get it wrong, and they’d make fun of me. So I said I had to go because it would be dark soon. Lorna said she would go out to the porch with me. There was a vestibule between the inside and outside doors. She stopped me there.
“Remember when I first got my hair cut short, what you said?”
I had no idea. “You’ve always had short hair, haven’t you?”
“Come on, I had long hair until second grade like Ellen and then my mother cut it short, and I was out front, waiting for you to go by because I liked you. I wanted you to see.”
I said, “Okay,” not knowing until that moment that she had liked me.
“You were riding on your bike and you yelled, ‘You were brutalized!’”
“You know you did.”
I didn’t know that getting back at someone could be a form of intimacy. Boys got back at boys to get even and maintain their distance. But for girls, I discovered, revenge could be about removing distance, refusing to be ignored.
“And I still like you,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it just now when you came riding down the street.”
In my experience, you never admitted you liked any girl, possibly because you didn’t know or possibly because survival entailed ignoring large tracts of yourself and extended to ignoring almost everyone else.
“Do you want to kiss?” she asked.
She pushed her tongue into my mouth. I pulled away, alarmed as a tuning fork being tapped for the first time and discovering its inner nature. I knew this was Frenching, but I had never Frenched.
“No,” she said, pulling me back, strong for a girl.
Complicating things further, she took my hand and brought it to her breast.
“Like this,” she said, showing me how I should rub and kneed through her blue and white striped jersey. Then she began kissing me again. I let my tongue touch hers. Sort of.
She pulled away again. “You had Fritos at Johnny’s.”
“No, at home.”
“Let your tongue go. I want to taste more of the salt.”
It is seldom noted that tangled tongues have more inventiveness and subtleties than genitals. In the early stages of sexual experience, they can make the back of your neck prickle.
Ellen swung around the doorframe. “Why don’t you go upstairs and fuck?”
Lorna said, “Who did you ever fuck?”
“One of us has to get it over with, and he’s right here.”
“It’s not something you get over with.”
“I’ll bet when it’s done that’s what it feels like.”
Anyone could see from the way I shuffled to the door that I might be ready to fuck.
“Look, he can hardly move because of his boner,” Ellen said.
Why did Ellen have to keep calling me he? We were four feet away from one another.
“Will you shut up!” Lorna said.
“You should have fixed him,” Ellen said. “Or let me do it. What about a blow job, Benjy? Want one?”
Lorna tackled Ellen by the waist, football style, and pushed her back into the house. Ellen was laughing, trying to keep her cigarette out of the way.
In a flash, I was down on the sidewalk with my bike, awkwardly mounting it. “See you guys later.”
Lorna called something that sounded like, “Come back!” Come back right away or come back another day? I wasn’t sure. But strangely, after I’d gone a few blocks, Raponikon acquired a kind of familiarity. Like I knew the place.
A few days later, I went to see Johnny again. Carla came downstairs with Cokes and, unbelievably, a bowl of Fritos. I wanted the Fritos but said I’d skip them. Johnny asked me why I was so jumpy. Carla paused halfway up the stairs to hear what I’d say. I said I wasn’t jumpy. She asked if I had seen Lenny recently.
“At school,” I said.
“Not outside, playing?”
“He stays inside.”
“Have you mentioned you rode down here to see Johnny?”
Why would I do that? I stayed clear of Lenny now because if I didn’t and saw Johnny’s mother, she might ask me about how Johnny reacted to her letter. I had thrown the letter in a wastebasket on a street corner.
“No, I haven’t.”
“You should tell him I’m baking his favorite cupcakes every day now. Johnny loves them. I’ll bring some down.”
Cokes, Fritos, cupcakes…I noticed that Johnny was getting pudgy. “Does she fix you a lot of stuff?”
“All the time.”
“What’s it like having someone in your house who isn’t your mother?”
Johnny sized up a bank shot, sliding the cue back and forth between his left thumb and index finger. “If I told my father I saw her pussy, he’d clobber me. He’s always on her side now.”
He sank his shot and stood there considering his next. “Soon as I can, I’m going into the Navy.”
“You think I want to live in Raponikon all my life?”
“Why don’t you come see us in the Village?”
“I’m not going to the Village anymore.”
Game over. He broke the next rack. Game over again. I told him about the Kerrigan girls. He said Ellen had been in his class for years. Bean pole. I said she was still flat but like a fairy princess, you could pick her up with a finger. We could go over there if he wanted.
“I think both of them are ready,” I whispered.
Johnny slid his eyes my way without moving his head. “I’ve got someone else to fuck.”
“Neither of the Kerrigans.”
Carla brought us down two cupcakes each and said to me, again from the stairs on her way back up as if it had just occurred to her, “Did I hear something about the Kerrigans?”
“They live around here.”
She said to me as if I were her kid, “You stay away from them.”
“After they moved out of the Village, I didn’t know where they went.”
“Forget you found out.” She was like a summer storm that was just there all of a sudden, one lightning crack, then rain. “And whoever you think will give you something, keep it in your pants,” she said to Johnny. “If your father wouldn’t kill you, I would.”
Johnny said, “Yeah, I know,” but had no brazen note in his voice.
I rode over toward the Kerrigans by myself, thinking that if they were on the porch, they were there. And if not, I would keep going. But they were there on the porch, both of them, and said they were hoping I might come by.
Ellen said, “We have something we want to do, and we need your help.”
They said their mother was at the state farm and on Thursdays there was visiting. But it was four miles away and they didn’t have bikes. They wanted me to ride them over there, one on my rack in the back, the other on the tube between the seat and the handlebars.
As I have suggested, I was seldom inclined to help anyone do anything…especially involving the state farm. But this was their mother, Ellen said. They hadn’t seen her since she was committed this time.
“She cries,” Ellen said. “She throws things. She locks herself in her room. She won’t eat.”
“My father tries to bribe her with shoes,” Lorna said. “You should see them.”
I said my mother had a lot of shoes.
“A hundred pairs?” Ellen asked.
I gave in on one condition: “If we went there, I’d wait outside.”
“Benjy, it’s a room. That’s all it is,” Ellen said.
“Does it have bars on it?”
“What do you think being committed means?”
Lorna said, “All right, just ride us over there. You don’t have to go in.”
Lorna sat on the rear rack and put her arms around my waist and head in the middle of my back. Ellen balanced sidesaddle on the frame in front of me. The whole thing was funny. Lorna was soft back there. Ellen’s hair smelled good. To tease Lorna, she threatened to turn her head and kiss me. Lorna said she would make us crash if Ellen tried that. So, we were happy because there’s something special about the tail end of childhood. Time doesn’t come in teaspoons yet. It comes in gallon jugs. You’re still splashing in eternity, and it’s warm. That’s what enabled them to find a way, once we had reached the visitors building, to hold onto me, the three of us being all mixed up.
“You’ve got to come in,” Ellen said.
“We need you with us,” Lorna said.
They told the guard at the door I was their cousin. No one had any ID back then. When you said you were you, that’s who you were.
We entered a bare yellow room with little blue tables set between little blue benches. Other visits were going on. A man sitting across from a woman was sticking his tongue out over and over again. He had a long face and squarish eyes. Even if his tongue stayed put, you would know he was crazy. A woman was sitting across the table from another woman with her head cocked. She looked as if she might get furious if she didn’t hear what she wanted to hear, and so far she wasn’t hearing it.
Mrs. Kerrigan came in. She was a mother-aged woman in a gray and blue floral print dress wearing a man’s black cardigan, her hands jammed into the pockets and pulled together in front of her crotch. I had seen her before without realizing gravity had a loose grip on her and some breeze in her mind might float her away.
Lorna sat on the bench beside her. Ellen and I sat across from them.
“She’s drugged,” Lorna muttered. “Mom, what are they giving you?”
Her mother didn’t answer. She was preoccupied somehow. Then I felt Ellen’s elbow in my side and leaned back to see what was happening under the table—she was reaching up her skirt to extract a pack of Salems from her panties. Meanwhile her mother’s thin hand was fingering the air down there like a crab on its back. She touched me first. I pulled away. Ellen slid down in her seat to put the cigarettes in her mother’s hand.
Lorna began talking about her history class although her mother wasn’t interested. She rested her forehead on the tabletop to put a cigarette in her mouth and get it lit without being noticed by the fat female attendant across the room flipping through a magazine. Lorna kept on talking anyway. She said if they ever got a dog, she would name it Charlemagne and call it Charlie. Or Mangy, Ellen said.
“Charlie if it was good, Mangy if it was bad,” Lorna said.
Her mother asked from under the table, just barely audible, “What would be bad?”
Ellen said, “If it pooped inside.”
“Yuck,” Lorna said. “I meant barking too much or chewing things.”
“Like shoes?” Ellen said.
Lorna said, “Will you shut up?”
Her mother’s back swelled like a dolphin half cresting the water. This meant that she had her lungs full of smoke. She held it there, then released it. Her back dropped. The smoke drifted around the edges of the table. She pulled her head up while keeping her hands and the cigarette down under.
“I don’t think we have room for a dog,” she said.
Ellen said, “In the Village house we wouldn’t, but in the Raponikon house we would.”
Her mother placed her forehead on the tabletop. Her back swelled again. When it sank to normal, she raised just her face, otherwise remaining crouched. “I like the Village house better. I think we ought to stay there.”
Ellen said, using her father’s first name, “I’ll tell Vern for you.”
“He’ll listen to you. Never listens to me.”
Ellen said, “When you come home, that’s where we’ll be, in the Village.”
“We’ll tell Daddy,” Lorna said. “Just come home.”
Mrs. Kerrigan drew herself up completely. Her face was gray as gravel. “Who is this boy?”
Lorna said, “Benjy Shaeffer from up the street. You know him, Mom.”
Mrs. Kerrigan said, “Oh.” But she really didn’t know me. “Boys.”
By the way she spoke, boys meant something I didn’t get. Ellen explained. “My father calls shoes boys. It’s his sales trick, how he gets the women to buy them. ‘Slip these boys on.’”
“Then they walk all over him when they do,” Lorna said.
Mrs. Kerrigan turned to stare at Lorna face-to-face. The look didn’t say nice things. “He’s not your husband, what’s it to you?”
Lorna’s eyes were moist, but she wasn’t crying. She was mad. “Don’t you think it’s time for you to at least get a little better, Mom?”
Her mother flattened her forehead against the table again, her back rising and falling. Ellen said she needed a cigarette, too. Lorna told her to not even think about it. Ellen said to me that whatever was wrong with her mother her father made worse messing around with the women he sold shoes.
“She’s never going to be all right as long as he’s around.”
“She should get someone else,” Lorna said. “She’s sexy enough. She’s still got her figure.”
I gathered Ellen was sensitive about her own figure, being flat-chested, because she switched from talking about their mother to talking about Lorna. “What would really make you sexy is if you let your hair grow.”
“She cut it and I’m leaving it cut.”
“Maybe she would get better if you didn’t.”
“I could be bald and nobody would take me for a boy.”
They weren’t really fighting. It was more like deciding which of them would be the girl of their dreams since their mother definitely wasn’t. And it seemed like it would be Lorna because Lorna cared more and Ellen actually wanted it that way.
The fat attendant walked over and reached under the table to extract the cigarettes. Mrs. Kerrigan let go with a sad, wounded “Oh!” Then the attendant scolded Ellen for bringing cigarettes onto “the property” and warned her not to do that again or she’d be banned.
“You’re too young to be here without your father.”
“We brought our cousin,” Ellen said.
“He’s too young, too. Go on, now. Visit’s over.”
“We just got here!” Lorna protested.
“Can’t you see your mother’s tired?” the attendant asked. “Come on with me, dear. We’ll get you back to your building.” She put her arm over Mrs. Kerrigan’s shoulder and led her out of the room.
Lorna wanted to ride up front on the way home. That put her in my arms and Ellen right behind my ear, where she talked faster than I pedaled. She said Mrs. Kerrigan had gone away many times, not always to the state farm, sometimes somewhere in Philadelphia. Didn’t I know that? No, I didn’t. What I knew about trouble in the Kerrigan family was limited to a sequence of events in second grade when to stop Lorna’s constant talking Mrs. Burns tied a scarf under Lorna’s chin and over her head the way it used to be done for a toothache. Lorna pulled it off and ran out of the classroom and made it all the way to the Village. Then Mrs. Kerrigan dragged her back to school and she wouldn’t go into Mrs. Burns’ classroom. She fought like hell and tried to run again. The principal caught her in the hallway and put her in another classroom and then came back to stop Mrs. Kerrigan yelling at Mrs. Burns. And Lorna did have a thing about shoes, I remembered. She wore them all the way through the soles and insisted on patching them by putting shirt cardboards inside. It was something to look at, the holes in Lorna Kerrigan’s shoes despite her father being a shoe salesman.
Ellen wanted to be the one doing the talking while we were on the bike, but when we reached their house, she disappeared as Lorna took my hand and pulled me to the red velvet couch and said she wanted to run away. I said Johnny did, too. He was going into the Navy. She said that was Johnny and let’s stop talking, let’s kiss. She put her hands on my temples to set my mouth where she wanted and then she reached for my hand and drew it up under her blouse and bra so I could feel her nipple.
This led where things lead, especially the first time—the hot, awkward struggle to jump off a cliff. As we plummeted, Lorna was holding me hard, and she was crying.
Ellen appeared. She said her father would be home any minute, and I’d better go. Gently, she helped pry us apart, cooing stuff— “So you’re not a virgin anymore. Now it’s just me.”—and not rushing things. I pulled my underwear and jeans up off my ankles and didn’t know what to say. That hardly mattered. Just like the attendant at the state farm, Ellen was helping Lorna away with her arm over her shoulder. The last I saw of Lorna was her naked bottom. Despite what already had happened, that shocked me. I had never seen a teenage girl’s naked bottom before.
It was dark outside, and I didn’t know what to do except what I shouldn’t have done.
Lenny’s mother opened the front door and knew immediately what I had been up to. “What are you doing back here?”
“I got lost.”
“No, you didn’t.”
She pushed me into the front room reserved for holidays, not kids. I sat on the little sofa. She sat on a rocking chair. The only light came through the front window from a streetlight. Again, I tried the story I had worked out: I got lost and was hoping to spend the night with Johnny and ride home in the morning. Years ago, we had done that, spent the night at each other’s house.
Lenny’s mother didn’t want to hear it. “Oh, stop it. Do you think I was born yesterday? You were with those Kerrigan girls.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“He’s upstairs doing his homework where he’s supposed to be.” Her eyes, nostrils and mouth were what I could see best because they were the blackest parts of her. “So apparently you’re another one from the Village who misbehaves. It’s not just me.”
That jarred me, comparing us—when she was an adult, Lenny’s mother—and blaming the Village. All I could think was that if I could get back there, I’d be safe. Coming into Raponikon was my mistake.
I heard Johnny’s footsteps on the stairs. She heard them, too.
“Come hear what your friend’s been up to.”
Johnny said, “What friend?”
“Your Village friend.”
Johnny started back up the stairs. Lenny’s mother got up and rounded the doorway to shout at him. He came down, and she turned on the light in the parlor, and there we were, the three of us.
“This is exactly how it ends up,” she said. “He’s been messing with one of the Kerrigan girls and now he wants help.”
Johnny said, “What are you telling me for?”
“You know exactly what I’m telling you for. Who is the girl you think you can get to go down for you?”
“Those girls’ mother is the one who’s crazy. She’s at the state farm.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Me, either,” I said.
“You lived right up the street from her and didn’t know?”
She was asking both of us. Neither of us was answering. I knew Johnny was done with me. He didn’t live in the Village anymore, and he wasn’t paying for me getting caught having sex before he’d even had his chance.
She sent Johnny back upstairs and took her seat in the rocker again. A few minutes later Johnny’s father came in and heard Lenny’s mother go on about the Kerrigan girls. She said now he’d have to drive me to the Village and tell my parents. Then they’d be the ones with problems, see how they liked it.
Johnny’s father still had his jacket on. He even had the keys to his car in his hand. He tipped his head in the direction of the stairs. “Johnny wasn’t involved?”
Lenny’s mother said, “No, he wasn’t, but that’s it between the two of them, as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t want you seeing Lenny in the Village, either, understand?” she said to me.
I said, “Yes, ma’am,” barely.
Johnny’s father said, “Come on, Benjy. We’ll put your bike in my trunk.”
We rode in silence. As we were cutting through Oakwood Park, I pictured the bison with his bent railing in the zoo and remembered the day, some summer day, when we’d been down there looking at him trapped two thousand miles from where he belonged, and I insisted he wasn’t a buffalo, and everyone said how would I know from reading it in a book. Then came Sears, Johnson Highway, Germantown Pike, Genuardi’s, and Ridge Road into the Village.
I didn’t look when we passed Lenny’s house or Johnny’s old house. No need to. I could see them with my eyes closed. I didn’t have to look to know the car had come to a halt in front of my house, either. I dreaded Johnny’s father telling my parents.
But Johnny’s father didn’t tell them. We went around to the trunk, and he pulled my bike out and set it down for me. Watch out for yourself, he said. That’s all. Didn’t say another word. Then he got back in the car and drove down Cottage Lane. His taillights disappeared at the second dip where the Kerrigans used to live and on snowy days we would run as fast as we could and launch our sleds downhill.