As I turned right from Route 59 onto College Road, I realized that this might be the last time in Rockland County for a while. I’m not sure why but it looks like my first year of college may very well be my last. For now. I’m forcing myself to believe the lie that I’ve heard others say. That I can always go back when I’m ready. But there is a problem. I didn’t like anything about college. I don’t play Hearts or Euchre. I never fit in with the lounge lizards. I was invisible when I walked through the room. Why go back? Now what?
The summer air was so hot that I could hear the tar bubbles on the asphalt pop under my bald tires. I looked down the road ahead. The heat hung over the road in waves. Walls of hot air seemed to disappear as I drove through them. Not much different from my life up to this point. It feels like my life is a labyrinth of walls that are endless. Things are never clear or never what they seem to be. Why did I give in? College was dad’s idea. Why am I trying to please my father? He doesn’t care.
The Yeshiva is up ahead. Notorious for kids hitchhiking on the Sabbath. RCC is coming up on the left.
I’m cautious about everything. My dreams are like clouds that change shape or disappear altogether. In the meanwhile, I’ll take life one cautious step at a time. I think I’m a loner. Not by choice, but I am. Loners are observers, not participants. That is how I know I’m a loner. I don’t have friends, just people I kind of know. My eyes are like cameras or tape recorders. Every blink is a snapshot and every thought or word is filed away for no reason. My dark blue ’53 Chevy is twelve years old. The passenger door is broken and is tied closed with rope. There is a gallon of engine oil and a few tools behind the driver’s seat. I pulled in slowly. My car creaks and moans going into a turn. No one behind me, so I came to a stop to look around. I didn’t want to be surprised. I don’t like surprises. Summer break. A few cars near Brucker Hall, but the parking lot was mostly empty.
I take everything just in case. In case of what? Not sure. Maybe that is the way I’m wired. We agreed to meet at “our” picnic table outside the Barn by the little tree. The Barn is a small outbuilding used for theater productions. Everyone knows Rhonda was into drama. I think about acting but wouldn’t dare say it out loud at home. My dad would have a fit. I pulled into a parking space. Not too close and not too far away. Safe choices are good.
I don’t see her car. It looks like I got here first. I think Rhonda said that Dan would be with her. Which way will they come in? Haven’t seen them since our first year let out. What did they do all summer? I’ll just sit a minute. Too hot to be outside. Too hot to sit in the car. Stupid flies aren’t on vacation!
I always have a book with me. And a steno pad. A line of a poem may flash through my brain. A fountain pen is my pen of choice. It is drug store pen with cartridges, but it works. Makes me feel more like a writer. The windows are down. But no breeze. I think I’ll take a seat at the table so I can see them coming. I bet they’ll be surprised when I tell them I’m not coming back to college. I bet they’ll fall over when I tell them I joined the Army.
I sat so I could see the rise on the lawn on the way to Academic I, the new classroom building. I took out the tobacco pouch in my back pocket and started to load my pipe. My only luxury. An English Blend with Latakia from a pipe shop on 59. I heard laughter and looked up. I can hear them, but can’t see them. It’s them. Walking toward me from Academic I. Why are they laughing? I lit my pipe and stood up in a big cloud of smoke. I waved. They waved their cigarettes back at me.
Since when do they hold hands? She never let me hold her hand. She calls me nicknames and treats me like a little brother. I’m the one you asked to drive you home when you got drunk, remember?
More laughter. Rhonda and Dan continued to hold hands and ran the rest of the way to the picnic table. We met here between classes. Or, whenever Rhonda needed to complain or cry on my shoulder. I didn’t mind. Listening is good.
She smiled, “Hi, little brother. Missed you all summer. We have so much to tell you.” Dan didn’t say hello. They sat down across from me.
Dan and I only had one class together. Mr. C for English at 8 a.m. The two of us sat alone in the front row right in front of Mr. C. The rest of the class filled the back row with empty rows in between. We hung on every word. Mr. C chain smoked Marlboro’s as he talked, thought, smoked, and talked some more. He’d stand the cigarettes up in a straight line on his desk. As the ash got close to the filter, he’d mash it into a fresh cigarette, puff hard until it was lit, then stand the smoldering filter in line.
I heard someone speaking. It was Rhonda. “Alan, Dan and I are getting married as soon as he finishes Air Force basic training.”
I looked at Dan then back to Rhonda. I puffed away. “Dan, you remember Mr. C? Air Force? Why the Air Force?”
When did this happen? They keep on touching each other. I’m sick.
Rhonda answered for him. Dan is too busy poking her in the side and arm. “Dan, stop that! I’m going with him to Idaho. He enlisted for that. They promised him so he won’t have to go to Vietnam.”
Well, if you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.
I shrugged. “Vietnam. What about Vietnam? If the President says I have to go, I have to go.” I focused on tamping my pipe and lighted it.
Dan laughed, “Mr. C was fantastic. Haven’t seen him in a while now. Haven’t you heard about Vietnam?”
Of course, I’ve heard of Vietnam. But I’m a poet, not a hero. I’m the one who’s seen every John Wayne movie. Every Aldo Ray Korean War movie, too. I’m the one with a Springfield ’03A3 rifle at home.
“Sure, but I worked all summer. I don’t have a TV. I don’t buy newspapers. You know I don’t like newsprint on my hands. So, when do you leave?”
Don’t you remember? You asked me to take you out on Valentine’s Day because you had a fight with some guy. Was he your boyfriend? We danced. You drank. You cried. I drove you home. I watched you undress and tucked you in bed. I turned out the lights and left quietly. Life isn’t fair. Wait! I didn’t tell you about my plans.
They said a few things to each other punctuated by the “dear” and “sweetie.” Rhonda got up, “Dan leaves next week. We’ve got lots to do.” Dan got up.
I groaned silently inside. I hate surprises. I smiled and burned my tongue off trying to light the ash left in my pipe.
“Congrats. Take care. Stay in touch.”
I bet I don’t ever hear from them again. Rhonda and Dan disappeared in the direction of Academic I. I took out my pipe tool in shock. I cleaned my pipe and knocked the ash onto the lawn. I smelled the fresh tobacco in the pouch, rolled it up, and put it back in my left rear pocket behind my handkerchief. I headed toward my car.
Melancholy set in. I feel like swearing but I won’t. “Cripes!”
Is “cripes” the best I can do? Mom always says, “Cripes!” Am I getting more like her? I bet mom can hear me. She always knows. Four letter words don’t work for me. I don’t think that way. No time for that. I wonder, did Edna St. Vincent Millay or John Dickson Carr swear? She probably did. Did he? I don’t know.
As I mulled over the events of the day, I drove out of the parking lot with windows down and no radio. The heat waves still hung above the street.
I have just enough time to go home, clean up, and get to my evening job at the BBQ joint on Route 59 grilling hot dogs and burgers. Not the best job in the world, but it did guarantee me one meal a day all through school. Hot dogs are a staple. Besides, my rented room didn’t come with a kitchen or kitchen privileges. I already quit my other job at the Grand Union to prepare for what’s ahead. I’ll be moving back home to Pompton Lakes next week. Never easy. It will be harder this time.
Oh well, I guess Dan and Rhonda will never know. I got my physical notice while I worked in Massachusetts for the summer. I had to enlist in the Army to beat the draft. I signed up to study a foreign language but have to take a language test in Newark to get it. If I pass it, I’ll be in the Army Security Agency (ASA) for four years. If I fail it, I’ll be in the Army for four years doing only God knows what. If I have to go to Vietnam, I will, but Europe sounds good right now. How am I going to tell my mom and dad? In their world, good Jewish boys don’t enlist. College wasn’t for me. Maybe some other time.
I called them “Ski.” Their name ended in “ski.” I couldn’t pronounce the jumble of consonants before the “ski.” The whole time I rented, Mr. Ski continued to build out the first floor rooms off of the kitchen. The cement mixer was in the unfinished garage, with Mr. Ski’s car parked in front of the unpainted garage door. I stayed in a small bedroom on the second floor of their split-level home. My room and the bathroom were the only two rooms finished on this floor. I had privacy, quiet, and heat in the winter. No kitchen privileges, and I never ate with the family. I didn’t have phone privileges either.
The next few weeks passed by quickly. I managed to fit all my belongings in my car. Mr. and Mrs. Ski and their children were in the driveway waving goodbye as I pulled out of their steep driveway. The Ski’s moved here to escape from the Communists and pogroms against Jews from somewhere in Eastern Europe.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them that there are Communists in the US who are capitalists with a small “c.” American communists and socialists may hate America, but they wouldn’t dare leave because it is the very system they hate that gives them the freedom to complain and hate openly. If these over educated idiots lived in Russia or China, they would be jailed for what they say here, maybe even shot. Oh, and the Ski’s will find prejudice here for free. I don’t understand; why are Jews hated no matter where they come from or where they are? The other thing I don’t understand is why Jews in America are so liberal or left-wing. They support the very people who will kill them someday. Such a deal!
As I drove out of the subdivision onto the main road, I continued to think about hatred and Jews. I laughed as I remembered my Aunt Sel. She is one of my mom’s mahjong regulars at the apartment. The girls, as mom called them, gather for mahjong, gossip, and a drink every few weeks. One night I was in the living room watching TV while they played mahjong at a folding card table. I was on the sofa. The theme from the World War II drama, “Combat” played while the squad of Hollywood stars advanced. My Aunt Sel was watching and playing mahjong at the same time. An enemy soldier appeared.
Aunt Sel yelled at the TV, “Get those Nazi’s!” She called them “NAT-zee’s.” Like “gnats.” The girls laughed. I know who is going to get killed. It’s going to be the unknown actor, the green new squad member. Not the guest star. I wish I had an M-1 rifle. That .30 caliber carbine the lieutenant carries is worthless!
Aunt Sel made a fist and shook it at the TV. The sleeve on her left forearm dropped toward her elbow. I stared at her arm. My brother sat near him but didn’t notice her arm.
Now I know why you are so loud and so funny, Aunt Sel. I see the numbers. I see the tattoo on your arm. You were in Auschwitz! I’m glad I joined the Army. No matter what my father says. They will never put me in a concentration camp. I swear to God.
As I continued to Route 59 in Spring Valley, there was one more stop he had to make before he headed home out of Suffern on Route 202 to Pompton Lakes. I have to see Michelle. Her boyfriend was a good man. He had a future in insurance or maybe it was real estate. My future was uncertain. I thought about it when Michelle and I talked last week. I think I helped her make up her mind. We were on a smoke break at the Grand Union where we worked.
“Alan, I got to tell you something. I like being with you but I got to tell you something. Marty and I were together all through high school and before.” I looked at her lips. They were full. Her lipstick was dark red. Her hair was thick and bounced here and there as she talked. “Alan, don’t look at me like that.”
She exhaled, flicked the end of the cigarette, took another puff, and smiled back, “You’re a great kisser.”
I couldn’t hold back a smile. No one ever told me that before. Of course, Michelle doesn’t know why. She’s my first kiss. One for one isn’t bad. I’ll take it.
“And I think I’m pregnant.”
I thought, “Way to go, Marty.”
Michelle got a serious look on her face and asked, “Are you joining the Army?” There was a pause. It seemed like we were both remembering our lunch together last Spring.
Michelle invited me home for lunch and to meet her mom. I parked on the road in front of their house, walked to the door, and rang the doorbell. Michelle answered the door. She sparkled as usual and asked me to come in. Michelle was wearing a kitchen apron over her jeans and short-sleeve red cotton top. She exuded something I couldn’t name, but I liked it whatever it was. The house was homey, clean, and had a well lived in look.
“Mom, this is Alan; Alan this is my mom.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Rosenberg.”
Michelle’s mom politely shook my extended hand. She was smiling, but her eyes gave me a look, like “if you touch my daughter, I’ll kill you.”
“Mom’s leaving for work,” Michelle said. With that, Mrs. Goldberg said, “Nice to meet you,” and walked out the door.
Michelle asked me to sit down so she could serve lunch. She opened the fridge and brought two small side dishes to the table.
“My mom made it. Cauliflower. I hope you like it. We’re having some of my mom’s great leftovers from last night. Chicken, mashed, and peas and carrots. She served everything and sat down at the table with me.
The chicken was superb. Michelle knew that I lived on hot dogs, so this was a real treat. I couldn’t ignore the mystery side dish any longer. I wanted to be polite. I put my fork into the side dish. It felt mushy. I smiled but hesitated. I took a taste. Michelle watched the fork the whole way to my mouth.
“Did you like?” Michelle smiled. He noticed a little lipstick on her front tooth.
“Not really, Michelle.”
“Well, I lied. It looks a little like cauliflower. But it isn’t. It’s a family favorite. Calves brains.”
Too late. I already swallowed. I felt like I was turning green. I fell to the living room floor grabbing my stomach moaning. Not little groans but big annoying Jewish moans. Michelle laughed.
She got down on the floor next to me and rubbed my tummy, half laughing, half crying.
“I feel better already.”
We kissed. And we kissed some more. That was my first kiss. Not one kiss all through high school. It was obviously not Michelle’s first kiss. She started to touch me. I felt uncomfortable but I didn’t know why. Not just because Mrs. Rosenberg could come through the front door any minute. Michelle touched me again. I was aroused and didn’t know what to do about it. So, I stood up, then helped Michelle up. We giggled, straightened our clothes, then finished lunch.
My mind returned to the present. It seems that our long pause and smoke break were about over. I could tell we both thought about the lunch. Michelle was still smoking, but there were tears in her eyes. She hit me in the shoulder and said, “Well, Mr. Calves Brains, are you joining the Army?”
“Yes, Michelle, I’m joining the Army. I’ll miss you.”
“Will they send you to Vietnam?”
“The recruiter told me that I might not have to go. I don’t know for sure.” There was another long pause.
Oh no! Michelle, wait. Don’t choose. Our kisses are the sweetest.
“Alan, Marty and I are going to get married.”
She chose. She did what she had to do.
“Will you write me? So I know you’re okay? Marty knows you’re a friend. I’ll send you one of my famous red velvet cakes if you go to Vietnam.”
I want to kiss you so bad. But it will never be the same. I guess I’ll never know. Michelle, I love you. Well, I think I do. It doesn’t matter now.
She lit up another cigarette.
“Just don’t send me any calves brains.”
She laughed, cried, threw her cigarette down, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me long and hard.
Oh, Michelle, are you sure?
“Michelle, I’m driving back home next Tuesday. I’ll stop by here and see you on the way.”
“Okay.” She smiled up into his eyes. She still had tears in her eyes and brushed his cheek with her hand. She turned and walked back into the store.
That was last week. Maybe Michelle will kiss me goodbye. I don’t have to park in the back; I don’t work here anymore! I pulled into a parking space near the front door. I hope I don’t run into Gus. I just want to see Michelle. Maybe she changed her mind. It was early afternoon. The Grand Union didn’t look busy. I walked inside quickly.
“Hi, Gus. Great to see you! Michelle here?”
“I thought you joined the Army! Want your old job back?” Gus laughed as he looked at his clipboard.
It feels different in the store not working here. No more unloading trucks for Gus and that crazy Irishman! Maybe Gus meant well, or maybe he thought he was doing me a favor, but my second week here, even before I knew Michelle, he sent me out back alone to work with the Irishman to unload his truck. The Irishman was bigger and stronger than I was. The Irishman threw those boxes off the truck quicker than I could take them off of the track and stack them. That is when I got on the list to become a cashier. Stock work was killing me. When I became a cashier, I met Michelle.
“I’m going home today, Gus. I thought Michelle worked today.”
“She does. But she called in sick. Sorry kid. Take care of yourself.”
“Thanks, Gus.” I walked back out to my car.
So, Gus is human after all. I’d be surprised if she is ill; she just didn’t want to see me. I guess last week was the last kiss. Or maybe she didn’t come in because she wants to see me. Oh well, my dumb luck.
I got back on the road and headed toward Suffern. I can make it home for dinner. I slowed and looked down College Road as I passed it. Rhonda’s house is about ten minutes away. I wondered if I should try to say goodbye to Rhonda or her parents. I stepped on the accelerator and didn’t turn.
I took Route 202 out of Suffern headed toward Pompton Lakes. Traffic was lighter than I expected. The early evening air was getting a little cooler. Fall weather was on the way. I’ll be freezing my butt off at Ft. Dix before I know it. I rolled down my window and reached over to crack open the other side without going off the road. I love this area of 202 where the road curves a lot. Pretty brook on the right. And there is that private road and bridge. Lovely setting.
I slowed down as I drove through Oakland. The last thing I need is a speeding ticket just before I join. I go right at the next stop street, but I remembered Charles, who lived to the left. My mom and dad had to be nuts. They invited Charles over for dinner. What was the real reason? They said he was a cool English teacher. A bachelor. A funny guy. Entertaining. And they liked his company. He made them laugh. He didn’t make me laugh. A few weeks later, he invited me over to his place; I don’t even know why I went. He asked me to sit down on his bed. After some small talk, he touched me. I didn’t know that I was capable of such anger. I hate my dad’s temper. If this means I have a temper, I don’t want it. The last thing I want is to have a temper like him. Why did he do that? Why me? Gives me the creeps just thinking about it. I’ll never tell mom, dad, or anyone about that.
I need to let it go and look for my next turn. Before I knew it, the Hamburg Turnpike was just ahead. Almost home. The garden apartments were a few blocks up. Our apartment is on the second floor of the first unit. I pulled in and found a parking space. I got out and stretched my legs.
My mom’s car is here. My dad’s car is not. My brother is probably there; it’s almost time for dinner. I’ll tell them I joined the Army if the topic comes up, but I rather wait a few days. No point in ruining my first night back home. I bet dad won’t wait. I’ll bet he’ll start right in on me about school. O well. I don’t think he’ll get physical, just yell a lot, and call me stupid as usual. Here I go.
I better see where mom wants me to put things first. So, I’ll take a few small things from the car. I made my way up the stairs and said, “Hi, I’m home. Anybody home?”
As I reached the top of the stairs and turned left toward the living room, mom came out of the kitchen to meet me. Mom was wearing an apron over one of her office-type dresses. She wore flats. She didn’t like high heels. We hugged. She smiled. “Dinner will be ready in about a half an hour. Your father is on the way. And your brother? Only God knows. Hungry?”
“Yep, I sure am. Fish? Spaghetti?”
It’s Tuesday. Meatloaf night if I remember correctly. I was hoping for spaghetti, but not tonight.
She must be working again.
“My son, the genius. You know it is Tuesday, and your father doesn’t like fish. And, smarty pants, I have to cook bland since his heart attack. Yes, not yep. Meatloaf.”
“Mom, just a little salad for me. I’m not crazy about salad.”
“Salad is good for you. You’ll eat what I give you. Welcome home, my big son. They took me back at Allstate; I started last week.”
“Mom, did you have to go back to work? Do I have time to unload the car? Where?”
“It is for the best. Your father wants to start a new business. Your room! I don’t want to see anything in the living room.”
“Yes, mother.” I made a few trips and piled everything in my old room. I’ll unpack and arrange it after dinner. I wouldn’t dare ask about the new business. The entry door slammed. The sound of someone running up the stairs.
That would be my brother. My dad doesn’t run.
“Hey, you’re home. Hi, mom. I smell meatloaf. Smells great! I’ll wash up.” My brother disappeared into his room. Mom smiled. She loved having us both home.
The entry door opened a second time. Mom scurried into the kitchen. I took a seat in the living room and picked up a magazine. Those heavy steps pushing up the stairs mean my father is home. He’s probably tired as usual. Nothing on TV. I’ll read. Mom’s in the kitchen. My brother is in his room. It is just me.
“Son, you’re home. How long can you stay before the next term starts?”
I froze. Dad took his thermos into the kitchen. I could only see the kitchen table from the living room, not into the kitchen. I was glad I couldn’t see them. Never a loving kiss on the lips. Just a brushing kiss on the cheek. Possibly for show. I heard the strike of a match and saw the smoke. Their mutual dislike for each other floated above them lost in the cigarette smoke.
He lit an English Oval. Not as bad as Gauloises, but I can smell it from here. Maybe he’ll forget his question and wait until after dinner.
Mom appeared bringing dinner to the table, “Michael, dinner! Your father is home.”
Dad took his seat at the table. He’s got his beer and glass. Cigarette dangling. Getting ready to turn the volume up and pounce on me I’d guess.
I took my usual seat at the table as mom served the salad. She refused to serve the main meal until everyone finished their salad.
Dad looked up for the first time since he sat at the dinner table. Michael slithered into his seat. “Hi Dad.”
“Hi, my number two son.”
Dad never calls me “my number one son.” Dad got that line from the Chinese detective movie series, Charlie Chan. I think Dad’s message is clear. He treats the number two son like a number one son. He dismisses the number one son. I don’t count at all. Dad put his cigarette out in an ashtray. I stared at my salad.
Oh no. It looks like one of those sweet dressings. I hate sweet. Lord, get me through this salad. Okay, dad’s eating, not talking or staring at me.
Dad looked up. “Alan.”
“Finish your salad, so your mother can serve dinner.”
First night back home and they’re waiting for me. Nothing has changed. Cripes.
“Yes, Dad.” As I finished my salad, I could hear a familiar sound. The sound of impatience. The sound of my mother’s long, hard, immaculately polished fingernails tapping on the dinner table. I’m back home. Army or home, Army or home? No contest.