He was staggering, heart pounding, breath ragged, as close to exhaustion as he could remember when he reached the address he'd been given. One hundred ninety-two uphill blocks, lugging his suitcase, his duffel bag, and his typewriter. He looked at his watch. Four thirty AM. Across the street was a small park, with benches and streetlights. He unfolded the paper he'd carried in his wallet for four weeks, the address Amy had scribbled at the train station, her large blue eyes tearing as they said goodbye at the close of the Northwestern summer high school journalism institute. She was headed here, to her home, while he was off to four weeks of religious camp arranged by a friend of his parents back in California.
"See ya in a few," he'd called out jauntily as the train pulled away. Well, now he was keeping his promise.
He looked at the building's front door, which was ajar. The paper said 6-B. He could see no elevator. He blanched. Does that mean what I think it means?
Sighing, he once again hoisted his possessions and struggled up the stairs. When he reached the top he plopped his luggage down on the landing and leaned his head back against the wall. Shit! Slow down, my galloping heart! He imagined he'd just run a marathon and they were calling him for a second one. Sorry, Mr. Thorpe! Didn't we tell you? That was just a heat!
Two doors, on opposite sides of the landing. Fair enough. He started to press the buzzer by the door marked B and balked, losing courage. He lay the side of his head against the door, an ear-to-the-ground Tonto in an old Lone Ranger episode.
"No hear hoofbeats, Lone Ranger," he whispered. "White girl asleep."
He backed away, bit his lower lip, tapped his foot softly, made a face to no one in particular.
"I can't. I just can't."
He struggled down the stairs, across the street, into the park, luggage in tow. He would wait until a decent hour. Seven o'clock? It was nearing five. Already the sky seemed lighter than a few minutes ago.
Wearily he stretched out along the bench, cracking his knuckles like a magician preparing to conjure a rabbit out of a hat. Always on stage, right, Thorpe? He slid the Underwood beneath his feet, arranged the shoulder bag under his head as a pillow, and lay back with his right arm draped over the suitcase, which was resting on the grass. Then, deciding that the typewriter was the more likely target for a snatch and run, he switched it with the shoulder bag. Too uncomfortable. He switched again.
Are we ready, now, Thorpe, old buddy, old slug? Are we ready at last, you ninety-year old teenager, you adequate but not outstanding journalist, you walking passion play looking for the right stage to perform on? Are we ready at last for our midsummer night's dream?
Except now his brain remembered the six-hour ferry across Lake Michigan, his unease about it. As he did often enough to allay his anxiety, he concocted a newspaper story:
GERMAN U-BOAT SINKS FERRY
MUSKEGON, August 22, 1953 – A World War Two German submarine, unexpectedly surfacing eight years after the close of hostilities, torpedoed a Cliff Line Ferry last night on its regular run from Muskegon to Milwaukee. All passengers are feared dead, including 16-year old Jeremy Thorpe, a young journalist on his way back from the wilds of Michigan after four weeks of what he had earlier described as "the greatest confusion ever experienced by a youth in 20th century America."
Officials of the National High School Institute for Journalism (NHSIJ) at Northwestern University, where Thorpe had spent the five weeks prior to his Michigan jaunt, dubbed his early demise "a major tragedy, considering the impact young Thorpe was almost certain to exert on the world of letters." One Northwestern faculty member, who asked that his name be withheld, demurred.
Oh, I like it! Demurred! Jeremy paused to wiggle his shoulders into a more comfortable position and continued.
"Those so-called 'spokespeople' are a bunch of turkeys", he declared. "If he was such a blooming writer, wouldn't he have copped a prize? The only thing Thorpe won around here was a dance contest."
He yawned. Enough. Squirming one last time on the wooden slats, he fell asleep.
"HEY, YOU! KID!"
Jeremy's eyes shot open and he sat bolt upright, immediately grabbing for his neck, which felt as if an army had been marching over it for a week.
A policeman loomed above him, menacingly tapping his nightstick.
"What do you think you're doing there, young fella?"
Jeremy massaged his neck. "Sleeping?"
Maybe he was on a quiz show and this was a trick question.
"Public ordinance, sonny. No sleeping, smoking, toking, or shooting up in the park. You AWOL or sump'n? Let me see some eye-dee."
AWOL? A-FUCKING-WOL!! Jeremy suddenly felt flattered. He handed the officer his wallet, the recently obtained driver's license visible through the tiny plastic window.
"California, hey? What the hell you doing here? This is Milwaukee."
No shit, thought Jeremy. I was sure I was in Havana. He bit his lip to keep from saying it.
"Don't you know anybody here?"
He explained everything as best he could. As he came to the part about not wanting to wake people up, his explanation began to seem suspect even to him.
"Well, you can't sleep here, fella. You'll just have to wake them people after all."
Jeremy looked at his watch. Six-thirty. "I couldn't just… "
"At ease, buddy. Let me see you disappear into that doorway."
With a resigned wave of his hand, Jeremy hoisted his luggage and re-crossed the street. At the 6th-floor landing he rested on his bags, dozing, until he heard noises from the apartment. He rang the buzzer.
A redheaded woman, about 40 he guessed, appeared at the door, holding a cerise housecoat closed around her large bosom. She squinted as if she ought to be wearing glasses.
"Mrs. Herring? My name is Jeremy Thorpe. A friend of Amy's. From the journalism institute? Northwestern?"
"Oh! Jeremy! Of course. Come in. Amy's not here, but we can talk."
Past the tiny entryway she ushered him into a modest but crowded space strewn with colorful overlapping throw rugs, chairs of every description, and so many small tables it was hard not to trip over them. Each table had ormolu drawer pulls. Doilies and antimacassars covered every surface so completely it looked as if the apartment had been invaded by an upstart variety of English ivy. Glass and ceramic vases emerged like small bushes from their midst. Framed prints of ponds and lakes adorned the walls, against a background of busy flowered wallpaper, and from each corner jutted mahogany shelves that knickknacks covered like mushrooms. Mrs. Herring took the shoulder bag from him in a gesture that seemed aimed not so much to lighten his burden as to prevent his knocking something over.
"Here, set them down in that hallway," she whispered breathily. Jeremy could not help noticing that her efforts to keep her robe closed met with conspicuous failure. It appeared that Mrs. Herring slept in the raw.
"Well, what a treat!" she said at last. "Sit here on the couch, next to me. Can I get you something? A cup of coffee, perhaps?"
He nodded, while his mind raced like an out-of-control jig-saw, not knowing which way to cut. He was perplexed, disappointed and aroused, all at once. He had never seen a woman's breasts before, except in pictures, and now he was being confronted with glimpses of Mrs. Herring's nipples! Were they supposed to be that big? He'd heard them described as buttons, but buttons on an overcoat? Of course, her breasts themselves were so . . . well . . . compared to . . . Just exactly what part did genetics play, anyway? But through his libidinous fog a distressingly consequential thought kept surfacing. Amy wasn't here.
Five hours of risking a watery grave, one hundred ninety-two blocks of uphill struggle with a shitload of luggage, almost arrested for vagrancy, and Amy wasn't here?
"It's so nice to have her friends drop by," Mrs. Herring called from the kitchen as she fussed with an assemblage of china cups and saucers. Her kitchen looked as if she had bought out the Wedgewood factory.
"Her roommate, Jean McIntyre, stayed with us a couple of days right after the Institute, and then her friend William came later for a visit."
When she returned she bent low to set his cup on a nearby table. She needed both hands to clear a place, and the effort made her breasts spill forward and jiggle within the loosely sashed wrapper. This close to Jeremy, she smelled of sleep, and the odor made him dizzy. An invented story rescued him:
TEENAGER RAVAGED BY 'MOM'
IN GIRLFRIEND'S APARTMENT
screamed the headline. And the words tumbled forth,
MILWAUKEE, AUG., 1953 – An unsuspecting California lad on his way home from religious camp was sexually attacked in a sixth-floor Happy Heights apartment by his girlfriend's mother yesterday amid a cascade of smashed furniture and broken china. The girlfriend, Amy Herring of 614 192nd Street, was unavailable for questioning …
"So. Jeremy, is it?"
"Terrific! So, where have you been keeping yourself these past few weeks?"
Jeremy sighed. "I've just come from a religious camp my parents sent me to. But excuse me, Mrs. Herring. Where, exactly, is Amy?"
"Oh, didn't I say? Well, I'm afraid she's away for the weekend. She's entering the Miss Milwaukee beauty contest in the fall – I think you know she was homecoming queen as a junior last year – and some 'friends of the contest' have developed a sort of training weekend where they prepare the contestants. To tell them what to expect and all."
Jeremy thought Amy was lovely, but a beauty queen? For one thing, she was only five-two and, unlike her mother, rather modestly built. But since surprise seemed an inappropriate response, he tried to recompose his features, which succeeded only in making his cheek muscles twitch.
What was Mrs. Herring thinking as she stared at him so appreciatively over her morning coffee?
"So, Jeremy. How well did you know Amy, then?"
"You mean . . . she never mentioned me?"
This time he was unable to keep surprise from showing, not to mention hurt. He felt flat-out wounded.
"Oh, she must have, I'm sure. I've probably forgotten. Did you know her well, then?"
"We . . ." Something else was bothering him. He decided to risk it.
"You mentioned that Jeannie McIntrye, her roommate, had been by and then . . . 'her friend William,' I think you said?"
"Why, yes. William from Pennsylvania. Birdsboro, I believe. Apparently she and William had a little thing while at the Institute. You know, one of those summer infatuations. You've probably had them yourself, no?"
His ears were burning.
Bill? His own sweet, shy, freckle-faced Amy and Birdsboro Bill?
"We went dancing together at the Avalon Ballroom!" he blurted out, his voice cracking in the process.
"Oh, of course! Now, I remember! The 'Dancing in the Dark' fellow. A gifted ballroom dancer, I think she said."
Birdsboro Bill and Amy?
"You don't look well, Jeremy. Would you like to lie down for a minute? How much time do you have to visit?"
He took a swallow of coffee and tried to calm his nerves.
"My train leaves at 3:30 in the afternoon, connecting to the California Zephyr in Chicago . . . Actually, I should probably be on my way. I've obviously caught you at a bad time . . ."
"What nonsense! Why don't we have a nice long visit and I'll drive you to the train station. Amy will be disappointed that she wasn't here to see you, but it's the least I can do to entertain you."
She stood up.
"You said you've just come from a religious camp?"
She made him breakfast, becoming all bustle and efficiency, and then excused herself to get dressed.
When she emerged from her room, in a light beige suit with a vibrantly colored scarf around her neck, Mrs. Herring had become crisp and professional, no trace of the seductress he had conjured up. She wore glasses with the new plastic lenses. She looked at Jeremy thoughtfully all the while she fastened on a pair of fabric earrings whose color matched her suit. He had not stopped talking of the religious camp. He was deliberately fighting a story coming on. At last she circled behind his chair and put a hand on his shoulder.
"It all sounds so terribly lonely," she said. "Aren't you anxious to get back home?"
To his bible-quoting mother and her secret nips at the Thunderbird under the kitchen sink? To his father, with his crossed arms and formidable silences? To where his ranch foreman father made him work harder than anyone else – after school, weekends, holidays – to prove he was not being accorded special treatment?
He shrugged and slowly shook his head.
"Oh, Jeremy, really? Two months you've been gone and you're not homesick? What a boy you are! You're either terribly mature for your age or else . . . ." She let the sentence trail off. "I'm not sure. What do you think?"
He knitted his brow. Any desire to treat the question with his usual dismissive sarcasm had fled. Suddenly, he put his head down on the table and began to sob, gripping its edges as if they were a lifeline.
She reached down, tucked a wad of paper napkins underneath one clenched fist.
"It's okay, Jeremy. I know you're tired and eager to get back to a more familiar environment. When was the last time you slept, for Heaven's sake? Just think, you'll be home soon."
Jim Story is the author of the short story collection, Love and Other Terminal Diseases, and two novels, Wounded by History, which National Book Critics Circle Award Winner Ben Fountain called "swift, profound, and engaging," and, most recently, to be published in early in 2015, Problems of Translation: Charlie's Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness. Jim's writing has appeared in Confrontation, The Same, Karamu, Folio, Pindeldyboz, Helicon, Aspen Anthology, Berkeley Poetry Review, Steelhead Review, Now, Paper Boat, Hyn Poetry Anthology, Poets, Big City Lit, Long Island University Magazine, And Then, and Home Planet News. http://www.jimcstory.com