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by Devon Pitlor
I. Elderhostel...old people on a college campus Though getting on and off the bus wasn't always easy, and some of those shit-little colleges hadn't yet caught up with providing ramps in and out of all the buildings, the idea of college courses for seniors wasn't all that onerous for Gregory Tolmer and the nine or so other surviving husbands who all summer had been dragged around campuses by their wives amidst oblivious ranks of regular students who mostly ignored them as they hobbled and crutched in and out of dorms and classroom buildings. Some of the instructors had even taken the oldtimers seriously and attempted to teach them something without patronizing their age or revealing too obviously the fact that the small colleges generated much-needed revenue by welcoming such a twilight band to non-credit classes. Other assigned faculty came off only as clones of the solicitous activity directors working in senior citizen community centers, the kind who specialized in praising one's every geriatric belch and arthritic groan with the plastic enthusiasm reserved for the dying and near dead. Gregory Tolmer, 77, retired mortgage banker, exgolfer (his knees had finally given out one morning on a greasy fairway back in his home state) wanted a cigar. He always wanted a cigar, not the trendy icon of modern martini-sipping yuppies, but an honest and reasonably priced stogie from his own salad days. Of course, even the mention of smoking, let alone the actual
consumption of a foul, stinking object like a cigar, was expressly forbidden by the organizers of the campus tour. Although the elderly scholars always returned home fewer in number than they began, smoking was generally deemed the most blatantly deleterious habit possible. But Gregory, always observant when in unfamiliar places, had spotted a totally secluded bench in a grove of stunted pines at the current college and had more than once slipped off to light up the lingering cigar stub of a cheap White Owl, which he secreted in his trouser pockets in a plastic bag like a morsel of the most controlled substance ever introduced onto any campus. The creative writing instructor, a certain Miss Leonard, had rhapsodized about "summer loves" and the "hum of excitement in the sticky night air" and had sent the class off for two hours to compose a story about being young (or horny, Gregory had added mentally) in the summer. Miss Leonard, who was working on her dissertation, was to meet them back in Tasco Hall at 6:30, and they would each read aloud the fruit of their labors. Gregory's wife, Aileen, had suddenly developed a headache and had retired to the dorm room where they bunked. "I may get something down on paper," she said. "It'll be about you, I'm sure. You remember we met in the summer." As Gregory smoked his cigar alone on the secluded bench, he indeed remembered that he had met Aileen in the summer. He also knew that she would expect him to write something about her, something sweet and romantic, something suitable for a man of 77 in a group of his peers, something dignified and lofty perhaps, elevated in emotion, redolent of youth and vitality, but
nostalgically whimsical and not too deep. Not too many big words. Miss Leonard had warned about that. And Gregory was in fact composing this very minute in his head, musing over how he'd met Aileen some fifty-six summers ago at her parents' cottage on a lake in the woods which he hadn't seen for more than half a century, a lake he'd often tried to forget, though that had nothing to do with Aileen, and to be honest, he often forgot why himself. But this detail was just about coming clear to him once again when his solitude was interrupted by another old coot from the group named Randolph, an annoying sort who had been trying to sidle up to Gregory since they had boarded the first bus to the first college. "Evenin' pardner,"said Randolph with a chuckle. "Mind if I join you?" Gregory did, of course, mind, but was too polite to say it, and Randolph sat down next to him on the bench and immediately rewarded him with a full length cigar which he had hidden in a pocket of the jacket he wore despite the eighty degree heat of the late afternoon. "Wonder how many of these they'd find on us if they did a search?" said Randolph. "Bet they'd turn up all kinds of unexpected stuff. How are you going with the assignment? Myself, I can't think of a thing. In the Depression in Connecticut, we had to work in the summer just like in all other seasons. We picked tobacco, we did, the same tobacco they wrap these old stink bombs with, or at least used to. It's hard to say what they put 'em in now." Gregory nodded. Randolph, given the chance, would ramble on for hours. And it was mostly about the Depression, or playing cards on the back porch, hearts at a penny a point, which is what Randolph still would
have preferred to be doing instead of writing about romance in the summer on a campus where at best he, like Gregory, was only a curiosity. "Damn silly stuff," sniffed Gregory. "I only do this for Aileen. She likes to get out..." "Yeah, me too," interrupted Randolph. "I was only doing it for Carliss, that is, until she passed on last summer, and we already had paid for this year, so I figured it best not to waste..." Gregory cut him off with a rapid puff of exhaled smoke. "So what are you going to write? If anything." "Nothing," said Randolph. "I'm not going to write anything. That's how it works. You don't have to. I didn't write anything or take any tests last year or the year before either. Carliss did, but I didn't. They don't say anything. After all, we're old enough to be their great grandfathers. It's impossible to offend them. That Miss Leonard, for example, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. She's just turning an extra buck this summer teaching us. She really doesn't give a damn what we do, what we say or what we write. Besides, a few of the old gals will have written a whole week's worth in two hours. You wait and see. It'll be all flowery and full of love and such. The stories might even make some sense, and we'll all listen and clap. Those of us like you and me who have no stories to tell...” Gregory stared at Randolph quizzically. A thought, aged sixty-some years, was brightening in his mind like a penlight in a dark cave which just kept on illuminating as one's eyes adjusted, revealing more and more in
what had been absolute darkness. "I have a summer story to tell," he said with his eyes focused on no one in particular. "I have a story. I don't want to write it down, but I would tell it. " "No one's going to ask us to tell stories," said Randolph. "That's what old farts do. They want us to write and then read. That's what college students do." "Screw college students," snapped Gregory. "She wanted a summer romance story, and I've got one. Trouble is my wife Aileen isn't in it--and she'd expect to be." Gregory quickly lost steam with the realization that he couldn't tell his story to the class, at least not with Aileen present. Not at all. Whatever momentary thrust he had found dissipated, and he returned to his proper age and energy bracket. The penlight winked out. The cave was dark again. Randolph reached into another jacket pocket and produced and even bigger, unwrapped cigar which he brandished under Gregory's nose and tapped into the palm of his left hand. "Handmade, not even wrapped commercially. You know what that means and (producing a half pint flask of brandy) something to go with it. I don't mind stories at all. How about right here tonight after class?" He stared merrily at Gregory like a little boy proposing big trouble by moonlight. "Might can do," said Gregory, "but why would you want to hear my story?" "Because I know it's not boring. I saw something kind of fire up in you just then when you were thinking about telling it. It must be a boy's story, anyway,
something you don't want to share with the ladies. And then...." "Then what?" "Then you may not have another chance to tell it. And I may not have another chance to hear it. At least not on this side." The two old men agreed to meet after class. Gregory would give Aileen an excuse and simply "go walking," something he did occasionally anyway. And no one was alive to supervise Randolph. The plot had been laid. There was a narrator and an audience. Every important thing begins that way. Miss Leonard was five minutes late, and the allergies of the season had the whole room coughing and nose blowing. When she did arrive, she got right down to business and put on her effusive mantle. "A beauteous night!!! Mid-June, sultry, full of hidden love and perhaps lust if we dare mention it. Old loves come anew. Tales from a past era, like perennials blooming again, the balm of magnolia...." This was North Dakota and there wasn't a magnolia for at least a thousand miles south, but that didn't deter Miss Leonard. She was writing her own story in front of twenty elderly listeners, many of whom would not be around to know whether or not she ever became Doctor Leonard or even Mrs. Leonard-hyphen-Something. Nor would they care. A bus or maybe an ambulance would soon carry them away. Randolph poked Gregory's ribs and winked. Miss Leonard concluded with some remark about "aged wine in a shiny-bright goblet." Or maybe it
was “new wine in a chipped mug.” She then sat down and called for volunteers. As Randolph had predicted, a "summer story" came forth without Miss Leonard having to ask twice. A chatty old dame called Dorothy, who used a fold-up walker with squeaky wheels, plodded up with a pack of handwritten notes, sat down beside Miss Leonard at the front desk, riffled through her papers, and proceeded to read a labyrinthine tale about a babysitter's infatuation with a newsboy in Baltimore...in the Depression...in winter...oops! It was supposed to be a summer story. But Miss Leonard didn't care. The tale was "compelling and magnificent," It was "tragically poignant." The class clapped. Aileen clapped. A bald guy excused himself and clapped as he backed out the door toward the rest room. "Nothing summery about that," shouted Randolph. "The newsboy falls through the ice and drowns, and the baby is neglected by an open window and freezes to death. That's really uplifting. Can't beat January in Baltimore. I can hear the mayflies humming!" Gregory stifled a chuckle. There really was something to Randolph. He would enjoy having him for an audience. Miss Leonard, paying no attention to the remark, ceded the floor at once to another woman named Violet (none of the elders had last names). Violet read something short about an English flyer downed by the Luftwaffe in the summer of l940. The only thing summery about it was the time. It was something like he went up in his Spitfire, saw a German scout, was shot, crashed and died, giving no other details whatever. Miss Leonard loved it and was grieved that the Germans
won the war that summer. "Their music is so heavy and oppressive," she mused, "like magnolias." She had this thing about magnolias. Randolph quickly glanced at his watch. The evening was moving slowly. There was (unfortunately) time for one more story. A contagious fit of sneezing and coughing went through the room once again, and when it was done, Daisy, who weighed at least three hundred pounds, was up at the desk. "Lord have mercy," whispered Aileen, who knew her from the bus, "she'll never get through this. She can't even give me a recipe without sobbing over her dead husband." Daisy plumped down and started reading: "This is dedicated to Bernard who...." She began weeping and blubbering something about the "mistake of moving to Maryland" and couldn't go on. Miss Leonard took her hand and said, "We all understand Daisy...don't worry....just your name alone evokes summer....Daisy, a flower, like Violet...two flowers of summer one after another....it's poetry...." "It isn't poetry," grumbled Randolph audibly. "It's a couple of old spades on Geritol..." Miss Leonard looked in the other direction. She called for another volunteer and at least four desks moved at once. The winner of the contest was Rosa who read an absolutely incomprehensible story about a dog lost on a beach in Puerto Rico. The dog wandered and wandered and was finally swallowed by a giant clam. The dog's owner had something sad to say about that in Spanish, but since none of the seniors, save Rosa, spoke Spanish, no one understood, and a couple of old men laughed on obvious miscue. "Caramba!" said one looking around
for approval. Miss Leonard was, of course, ecstatic. She conceded that something may have been lost in the translation but that the story was "simply bathed in layers of symbolism," especially the giant clam. Rosa blushed and for some reason genuflected. Then the evening was over. Miss Leonard, in a final burst of nervous activity, decided that Leona, who was blind, would start out tomorrow's class with a story she had written at a previous college on the tour but had never read due to time constraints. Leona had written it on her Braille transcriber, and, according to Miss Leonard, it would be "exciting" to watch her fingers as she read. Tomorrow, therefore, promised to be an interesting class. Miss Leonard took leave, twittering something about "blazing embers on the hearth," and bustled out of the classroom well ahead of the cumbersome, shuffling seniors, whose progress was not only slowed by their age but by their desire to socialize. Rosa was attempting to explain her giant clam story once again by showing with her mouth how the clam swallowed, and Aileen told Gregory that she had overcome her headache and put a few things down on paper about how they met at the lake, hinting not too subtly that she would be pleased if Gregory did the same. "These summer stories are supposed to be romantic," she said. "I didn't hear anything romantic tonight. I think we can do better." As they ambled out, Violet was confiding to those next to her that there was actually more to her Luftwaffe story, but she didn't want to "bring all that up again" because the war was, in fact, over. "That's the trouble with these old dames," grunted
Randolph once he and Gregory were safely ensconced in their hiding place smoking cigars and drinking brandy. "They don't want to rehash the past. They only want to write about the good parts, what they remember as the romantic parts." He paused and puffed thoughtfully, then continued "Betcha that Aileen was a looker once, eh?" "Yes, she was," said Gregory thoughtfully. "Damn nice looking woman now at her age. Maybe better than I deserve...." Randolph shifted in his seat and began to protest, but Gregory silenced him with a sweep of the big cigar. "No, I mean it. Whether we like it or not, men and women sort out according to their looks. There are notable exceptions to this rule, but in general, it's looks pure and simple. A handsome boy marries a beautiful girl and sometimes spends the rest of his life regretting it, but he marries her none the less and would do it again if life replayed. If you don't believe that, you may not understand my story." For the first time Randolph said nothing. The warm North Dakota summer night buzzed around them, punctuated by the muffled conversations and sporadic laughter of a college campus at night. Somebody far off in a dorm was singing a long, repetitive song about pizza. The song had funny parts which elicited bursts of laughter, but neither of the old men could make them out. The siren of an ambulance whined in the distance. Some youthful voices just beyond the pine grove were discussing "creative finance." A large, blasé goose trudged by on his way to nearby pond. Gregory cranked up again, the way old men do as they recall the past: "Yeah, Aileen was pretty. Her folks
owned a cottage on a lake where I camped as a kid, but I never met her until I was 21. We were married when I was 24...had kids...built a house...had a good life, I suppose. She had lots of guys chasing her, especially in college, but I won out. Guess it was my charm, or something. Maybe the uniform." "Who knows what women go for?" Randolph broke in. "Some women go just for looks," said Gregory. "And some men, too. And boys, well, what else do boys think about, really? Our mothers and even our fathers tell us to find nice girls, but that's never what we're looking for---at least up to a certain point in life. Let me illustrate this with the story you wanted to hear. But I caution you, it's not very romantic." "Yes, the story! Give us the story." Randolph pulled off his shoes with some difficulty. "Isn't this what they do in college? Tell the story. I'm comfortable." II. The story opens "It was summer, a hot summer very much like this one. I was seventeen years old, a dangerous age to be sure. My cousin Lenny and I were camping on a lake, the same lake where I would later meet Aileen, but, as I told you, she's not a part of this story. We were just coming out of the Depression. I'm sure you remember. There was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp on the lake and a lot of young guys from the city were bunking there and working on various dam building and forest clearing projects. Make-work, they used to call it, Roosevelt's romper room. There were also a lot of
campers that year. The economy was opening up, and people had more free time to fish and barbecue or whatever. Most of the campers were young people like us. That summer it seemed like everyone I met was looking for sex. Does it surprise you that I said sex? We're not too old to talk about it, you know. You must have been there once or twice in your life as well--that anxious summer when getting laid was all that you could think about, and all the guys your age around you were thinking the same thing. Sure, Lenny and I fished, we swam, we hiked, we played tennis at the CCC camp, we shot our .22s, but mostly we searched for girls. And every guy we met was doing likewise. I guess that's why I'm glad I didn't know Aileen at the time. She's a little younger than me, though, and I suppose she would have been out of my range when I was 17. "Lenny was l9 that year and horny as hell. A year later he joined the Marines and was killed finally in the South Pacific on some godforsaken atoll where I was told he took about fifty Japs with him. He had always been rough and tough, an all-around boy's boy if you remember what I mean. This was before television and these infernal computers and electronic games that make kids slow and pudgy today. In those days boys played outside all day and, as in Lenny's case, all night. In those days boys were boys. "Anyway, I think that Lenny had played a little too hard once or twice. Rumor had it that he had killed a kid in a fight back in the city, and I knew for sure that he had put a couple of guys in the hospital. But he never got caught. What can I say? He was young, wiry, strong and liked to fight. There were a lot of guys like that back then. They'd win a fight or two on the street and get a
taste for violence. They used their fists or at worse something they picked up as a club. They rumbled. Do you remember the word? "Lenny was a rumbler, but he was also what we used to call a dame magnet. The two went together, I think. That rough, physical stuff is popular with the gals, whether they say so or not, and I bet more than one of those old biddies in the class used to get all gooey over a guy who rolled his sleeves up to his shoulders to show off tree trunk muscles and would knock the proverbial chip off any fellow's shoulder in a flash just to see who was strongest. Lenny was just naturally strong and just naturally handsome and just naturally horny. He had weird, lizard-like eyes, though, and strangely colored hair that glinted a peculiar color if you looked at him from the right angle. Anyway, he had the looks women like. Spending two weeks in a tent with a younger kid like me without having any girls around just wasn't going to cut it. He needed action. We both knew that. "So after the first night, we started exploring. When we got to the CCC camp, which was right adjacent to our campsite, there were tough young guys like Lenny hanging around everywhere. Whatever manual labor they did in the woods just made them stronger, and Lenny could sense a natural affinity with them, just as they could with him. He got with a few of them as they were picking up rocks to make an erosion barrier for the beach, and I fully expected a fight to break out at any minute. I always expected the worst with Lenny. But it didn't happen. I was standing at a distance, I suppose because I was younger, and I saw two of them point to a sandy spit of land just to the right of a boat launch. It
was a Friday. I remember that. And I clearly heard one of them say "Just wait till tonight. There'll be boats everywhere." The boys were telling him something else, too--something that I didn't understand. But it got his attention. "After a little more talk, he turned around abruptly and left the group, grabbed me and headed back toward our campsite. "Let's go fishing," he said. And we did. We had an old wooden canoe, some lines and bait, and we fished. Or at least I think we did. We didn't catch anything because Lenny kept paddling around looking at the sandy point by the CCC boat launch and slamming his fist against the bow of the canoe. All he told me was that we had a date over there that evening at dusk, but that we had to watch the place during the day. We, in fact, watched it all day, mostly from the canoe. The CCC guys came and went in and out of the buildings of their camp. It was clear that some of them were watching the point too. By mid-afternoon some other boats appeared on the lake and gravitated one by one over toward the point. In each boat were guys in their late teens or early twenties who were ostensibly fishing but were in fact eyeing the point, checking it, as it were. A few cars ambled down the dusty trail to the point as well. Young men would jump out of the cars, examine the point, examine the lake, examine the CCC camp and leave. Then another carful or truckful would arrive. The same drill. Something big was going down on the point that night." Gregory took a long drag on his cigar and swallowed a big mouthful of brandy.
His eyes got kind of fiery, and he grinned at Randolph. "Are you enjoying my story so far, Randy? That was your name once, wasn't it? No self-respecting kid named Randolph back then would ever call himself that. It would be Randy, right?” "Right, Greg!" smiled Randolph. "That's what your self-respecting name would have been, I presume." "Yeah, I'm Greg. Haven't been for years and won't be again, but yeah, I sure was Greg. And Greg was damn happy later in life that Aileen--Ally--wasn't around that summer. You know, if you stood on the sandy point and looked directly across the lake, which was about one mile in diameter, you could see her dad's cottage. But I've had almost sixty years to talk with her, and she doesn't know a damn thing about what I'm about to tell you. And for some reason--I'm not sure why--I want to keep it that way. "About five that afternoon, Lenny changed out of his shorts into a pair of tough canvas pants and pulled on a tight teeshirt. His big muscles bulged in all the right places, just as I'm sure he expected them to. He motioned for me to follow him, and we walked down to the beach in front of our tent. I guess he was tired of the canoe. From the beach we could see all of the CCC camp and the sandy point as well. Boats were still in the water out from the point, and knots of CCC boys were still eyeing the point and discussing it with one another as they went about their chores. Most of the muscular ones were dressed like Lenny, and a few were barechested, which in l939 was not as common as it is today. There was tension in the air, something you could feel, something that had to do with hormones,
virility. Then about 5:30, an old Ford truck with canvas stretched over the rails behind bounced into the parking space next to the point. "Attention perked up from the boats and CCC camp. This was apparently the truck they had been waiting for, rather than just more guys from God knows where coming to take a look. Two skinny young boys of about 8 and 10--no older--jumped out of the truck and pulled back the canvas cover under which other children varying in ages from toddlers to about six appeared; all in all, there were about five of them. They were nice looking kids but slightly undisciplined, and they jumped off the truck and started running and screaming down to the lake as children will. The older ones, however, looked after the younger ones, and the two skinny boys proceeded to pitch a tent against the truck using the canvas cover. They worked fast and appeared to have done all this before. When the tent was finished, they threw some blankets, cushions, pillows and other provisions into it from the back of the truck and went down to play with the other kids. "This activity, as I remember, happened so fast that I forgot to wonder who was driving the truck, and the glare of the sun directly on its windshield prevented me from seeing in. It was, of course, the driver, not the kids, who riveted the attention and anticipation of the young men present, young men who did nothing to hide their intense interest. Minutes after the completion of the tent the driver emerged." Gregory took the last swallow of brandy from the flask and bit down hard on the stub of cigar left in his mouth. Having gone through the Depression, he was
well aware of how to get the most from a cigar and left none of today's long butt as a waste product. Randolph, of course, knew he was being classically teased with this dramatic pause and played the audience role expected. "So? So, who was driving the famous truck, Greg? Let us know!" He blew heavy cigar smoke in all directions. III. A pause to reflect, then Alexandra Brangale "You, Randy, can't know. You're incapable of it, you old fart. And that's why this story falls flat and might as well be about a newsboy and a babysitter in Baltimore. “ How many years were you married to Carliss? 40? 50? Was she a beautiful woman? Of course she was, wasn't she? Just like Aileen was. Carliss was the mother of your children and grandmother of your grandchildren. How could she be anything but beautiful? And she grew more beautiful every year just like Aileen, didn't she? And now that she's gone to her reward, she's even more beautiful than ever!! That's the way we think, we old paunches. That's how we were trained to think as we became young, sensible men looking for the nice girls our parents told us to find. But that's not necessarily how we always thought. Go back to being a kid, before Carliss, before sex, before anything, the Depression, the goddamn war we're supposed to know so much about, go back and imagine the most sensual package of female delight your little feverish brain can cook up, the most dramatic nighttimefantasy-daydream-wetdream woman you ever conjured up out of your psyche, multiply her by fifty and you'll still be a thousand yards short of Alexandra Brangale.
For it was Alexandra Brangale, mother of seven, who emerged from the truck that sunny summer day in July of l939. It was Alexandra Brangale, who, despite our ages, our maturity, our lives, our loves, our goddamn incomes and retirements, pensions and our frigging impending deaths, was without peer on this planet in that time or any other in history. If it was Helen who launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium, then it was Alexandra who brought the fleet home and rebuilt the towers. Alexandra Brangale! A face and frame that brought at least fifty overcharged boys to a beach on a quiet lake in the north woods that day--and on others--for she had done all this before, perhaps all summer long, and for years!! There was a history here, a legend that I, at l7, was just beginning to learn. “The short version of the story was this: Alexandra Brangale, 28, daughter of the nearby town's only grocer, goddess of all earthly beauty, had been camping on the lake since she was l7. She was a small town girl of, how was it put in those days, somewhat questionable morality, but possessed of the looks she had and having a father who owned most of the real estate in the county and upon whose food credit books ninety percent of the region had survived the Depression, she made her own rules, determined her own moral code. "Under the watchful gaze of what I can't overestimate to have been at least fifty young men, Alexandra Brangale, clad in a tight one-piece swimsuit, daring for its day, alighted from her father's Ford delivery truck and sat down in front of her makeshift tent and calmly resumed reading a thick, hardbound book which she may have started days or even weeks before. She paid
little if any notice to her admirers, those on the water and on the land and of which Lenny and I were definitely now to be counted. Her children, and I later learned that they were indeed her children, played nonchalantly on the shore, the little ones throwing handfuls of sand at one another and splashing around in the water, the older boys wrestling and sparring back and forth. Lenny sucked in a deep breath and gazed intently. I could see an obsession setting in. "The strangest part of what I saw was that no one tried to approach Alexandra. It was like a rule or something. And at least an hour passed before anything happened. But when something did finally happen, it happened like this: IV. The action unfolds. "First, about ten of the CCC guys began dragging brush and logs into the center of a large cement-block circle where, using a can of gasoline, they lit an enormous bonfire. The bonfire was on a grassy area, about ten yards up from the beach, which lay between the CCC camp barracks and Alexandra's campsite. The light from the bonfire illuminated Alexandra's truck, tent and children, who continued to play well into the dusk and dark. CCC boys gathered nervously around the fire. Then some other vehicles drove in off the road, and in the shadows, more young men appeared, all congregating in loose fashion around the bonfire. Also, some of the boats which had been floating off the point where Alexandra camped came to shore, but not at the boat launch next to Alexandra's truck, but rather on the beach directly in front of the bonfire. Young men finally issued from these boats and joined the group at the
bonfire. There was little if any socializing, no greetings, no jokes, no humor, no friendship. Everyone kept his distance from everyone else and waited nervously for some sort of cue. "It was around this time that Lenny punched me lightly in the shoulder and said "Time to go, are you coming?" He seemed to assume that I knew what this was all about. And in a way I did. Together ( though I admit I trailed Lenny a bit) we approached the bonfire and drew the vulpine stares of other young men sitting or standing there. Eyes rolled, licked by the light of flames, back to Alexandra. Heads turned ever so slightly, with caution, daring a look, not daring to leave the group for too long. A sense of fear permeated the entire gathering. I, too, was afraid. But I didn't know of what exactly. “Finally I looked squarely at Alexandra, though I sensed it was dangerous to do so, especially for too long. Her children had disappeared. A blanket closed the entrance to her tent, although Alexandra remained sitting on the sand, cross-legged in front of the tent reading her book by the light of both the bonfire and a kerosene lantern she had by her side. "All at once she dropped the book and looked up. She produced a brush and began stroking her waistlength, straight black hair. Slowly she stroked, with deliberate sensuality. From the light of the bonfire I could see her face---and I see it still. I wake up next to Aileen at night seeing it, young and flawless as it was then, a face to die for, and I guess some did. I see her body in the swimsuit, and I think of all the useless Marilyn Monroes and Hedy Lamars of our times, the
starlets of today and yesterday, the faces and torsos of women on a million supermarket tabloid magazines, all paling in comparison. A lifetime of gorgeous American women I've lived through, just like you, Randy, and none, none ever came close.... “Then she dropped the brush on the sand. Chin pointed upward, head slightly tilted to one side, she stared at all of us for a minute, took as in as a group, examined us like a gallery of dry goods on a shelf. V. "Then someone kicked me in the face." The fight begins. "Then someone kicked me in the face. I fell like a rock, backward off the log I'd been sitting on. Boys began shouting and punching in all directions. Though dazed and stunned, I was aware of the melée around me. Fists and feet were flying. The dull thud of punches came from all sides, knuckles against skin. Some had weapons like clubs and sticks and were flailing away at one another. Some were retreating back to the cars, the boats, the barracks. Others were screaming obscenities, the obscenities of combat. Somewhere in the fray was Lenny. I was dimly aware of his voice, his howls, his aggression, his killer potential. A heel struck me a second time in the head, and I was out. I woke up on a mat next to our tent where Lenny had dropped me. It was daytime. I guess I was knocked cold all night. "No one won," he said through a badly swollen lip. "No one got her." Lenny was bruised and beaten almost beyond recognition, and during the course of what became the longest day I ever lived, I saw among the
guys at the CCC camp many similar casualties. The crowd had thinned out, and I suppose some guys were even taken away, perhaps dead, though I'll never know. Bloody cuts, bandages, splints and swollen faces were the rule in the camp. The number of floating boats off the point had diminished to two. Lenny nursed his wounds all day and cursed under his breath. The fight had sparked something in him, a predatory determination, something wild. Even his strangely shaded hair glinted brighter in the sun. “Night came finally and another bonfire was built. As before, it illuminated Alexandra and her children, who played rough games while their beautiful mother read her interminable hardback novel. At sunset Lenny limped wordlessly away from me over to the bonfire. He was expected, and somehow I knew I was not. So I followed the beach, with the intention of only being a spectator. In the shadows around me were others with a similar goal, young men who had apparently given up. When the fight began, it seemed more vicious than the night before, though fewer participated. In fact, it was the most vicious row I have ever seen in my life, and I remind you, Randy, I stormed the beach at Anzio. But those were just guns firing on us from a distance. This was classic hand to hand combat, bereft of weapons except clubs. I guess it was a rule. VI. Lenny "wins." “I watched in awe. And watching as well was, of course, Alexandra. I don't know exactly how it happened--because brawls are difficult to follow--but
Lenny emerged standing alone and apparently victorious. From my vantage point I could recognize him only by his hair which had that peculiar glint. He was barely upright, weaving and limping and bleeding from all sides. He pulled away from the fray, and somehow those left standing were conceding his supremacy in the contest. Taking a few loping, unsteady steps toward Alexandra's tent, he collapsed and then proceeded to crawl the remaining six or seven yards to her side. The last thing I remember was seeing him crawl into the tent with her. I have no idea what she'd done with the children. The bonfire revealed a trail of blood along the path he had crawled, Lenny's blood on the sand. "I was alone for the next two days and nights, frozen in fear most of the time. I thought Lenny was dead and became frantic about what my next move would be. I didn't even know who I could talk to. A horrible sense of chilling calm fell over the lake. The CCC guys had returned to whatever tasks occupied them before Alexandra's arrival and no boats floated near the point. Finally, after two and a half days Lenny showed up at the tent. He had bandages all over his body and his clothes were torn to shreds. Otherwise he seemed perfectly fine. I mean like he was in one piece and could walk. "I don't want to talk about it." was the first and only thing he said to me about the incident. "Let's go home." VII. Conclusion “We went home, and Lenny went into the Marines. Eventually, the war came, and, as I said, Lenny was killed, blown to shreds by a grenade. It was four years before I went back to the lake again. I was on a brief
leave from the service and I drove up in uniform with my younger brother. That's when I met Aileen, and I met her because we made a point of camping on her side of the lake, and one thing just led to another. I bumped into her hiking on a trail one day. She was, as you say, a looker. She invited me to lunch at her cabin. Sitting on the porch, I noticed a Ford truck directly across the lake with a canvas tent pitched up against it. Boats floated near the point, dots on the horizon. The CCC camp was gone. The boys had gone to war. The world had gone to war. Leaving the lake, my brother asked me if we could stop for a beer in town. It was wartime, and young men like him could have the occasional discreet drink. The only tavern was located in the back of Brangale’s Grocery. A pimply fat girl made her apologies mostly to my uniform for not coming out to serve us promptly. "You'll have to excuse me. I'm babysitting nine kids." And, in fact, she was. Nine handsome, though unruly, kids who were running around the little tavern oblivious to the drinkers. I asked the fat girl if they were hers, though I knew they weren't. "No, my cousin Alexandra's. She's only 33 and has nine kids and wants to have another. Just likes children, I guess. She's on vacation now. So I get stuck..." I remarked to myself that one boy of about three had something like Lenny's eyes and hair, unmistakable traits I thought at the time, but then again I don't know." Gregory spat out the wet end of the exhausted cigar and drained a final drop of brandy from the half-pint bottle. Randolph, looking older, stubbed his remaining cigar out as well and rose tiredly to his feet. "Well, Gregory, thank you. I enjoyed that. But now it's time for an old man to get to bed. You know we have class tomorrow. Aileen will probably expect you to have
written a little something...about her, I mean." "Okay, Randolph, thanks for listening. Maybe I will write about Aileen tomorrow. She was a real looker once, you know." Gregory Tolmer sat a while longer under the stars in his hidden nook of campus and wondered whether this summer's human breeding season had already begun. ____________________________________
Devon Pitlor February, 2009
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