|Evermore: Memoir of a South Shore Girl|
Evermore: Memoir of a South Shore Girl
© Sande Boritz Berger
I grew up in a town with fast cars and slow walking girls. But some people,
like Mother, act as if I'm still growing. She's oblivious
to the fact that I'm nearly eighteen. I would have hoped, by
now, she'd have dropped the young lady— a
prelude to everything she says to me. Doesn’t she realize I’ve
been through a lot this year— that my life will never be the same?
Oh, in a few more days, it won’t really matter. I’ll be hopping on a Greyhound, leaving these misty shores of Long Island, to begin freshman year at a teacher’s college upstate. My guidance counselor Mr. Jordan, obviously, had never read my brilliant column, Sunny’s Funnies in our school paper, when he praised teaching as the career one could always fall back on. When I corrected him, said my name was Sunny not one, he glared at me, his eyebrows forming tiny triangles above his gold-rimmed spectacles, before he called for the next fidgety junior sitting outside his office.
The decision about my college education was clinched in the time it
took Dad to mow our front lawn. I ran alongside him, perspiring, as the
dense crabgrass got its summer crew cut. With his eyes riveted to the
blades Dad said, “Okay Sunny, how about this? I buy ya yer very
own car and you live at home and go to Nassau Community.”
“See ya Dad, I’ll go fetch you some iced tea,” I yelled, over the stalled out motor. What I don’t think he heard was “you must have heat stroke if you think I can stick around this place after what’s happened.” I went inside crying and forgot about the tea.
Dad’s big on job security, which is why he did cartwheels over the idea of me, his only daughter, becoming a teacher. As long as I can remember, he’s been a Willie Loman kind of guy, working hard, peddling upholstery fabrics around the country. Just the sight of his bulging sample bags in the foyer makes me queasy because whenever he’s away for more than a week, Mother is capable of turning totally psycho. Her tolerance level for me and my younger brother Marky drops to nil. We are not allowed to talk back, but I’ll never understand this. Isn’t talking back the same as having a conversation? She has yanked my ponytail so many times that I think my eyes are beginning to slant.
One stuffy summer night, a couple months ago, Dad was off selling his rags somewhere in the Carolinas, and she practically shoved Marky and me into the car. I thought maybe she had a craving for her favorite T- bone at the pub down the road, which meant Marky and me would get a couple of thick juicy burgers. But instead, she drove to the old lumberyard near the docks, parked the car and turned off the ignition. She pointed to a towering, pine stockade fence. A shiver shot through my thighs into my gut as I recalled the films I’d seen in social studies, thinking what must have happened to poor Anne Frank.
Seconds later, Mother turned and screamed at Marky, those green eyes of hers bugging out, and her new “Jackie” wig totally lopsided.
“Here’s where bad boys, like you, are sent to live. This is your final warning!” I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing, but then I saw poor Marky turn as white as his Mouseketeer sweatshirt. I knew I was taking a chance, but as soon as Mother started up the car, I whispered that the “reform school” was where Dad had bought the wood for the fall-out shelter he built last summer.
When we got home, Mother made us grilled cheese sandwiches on spongy Wonder Bread. She cut them into triangles, threw in chips and dill pickles. I figured she was probably having one of her guilt attacks. Another reason for me to get as far away as possible.
It’s a clear as glass Friday afternoon, and I begin my farewell
journey with a cruise to the public beach. The top’s down on Mother’s
aqua and white Olds and the moist wind keeps whipping my hair across
my eyes, partially blocking my vision. But I know these roads like the
lifelines etched in my hands. I can drive them blindfolded. On days like
today, I feel part of the backdrop of a French painting with swirling
blue waters, and a crisp cloudless sky— like the Seurat prints that
hang above my bed. As I pass the almost barren parking lots where cars
align like dominoes, it’s hard to shrug off a familiar, nagging
sadness— the feeling I get at summer’s abrupt end. I continue
along the narrow strip passing all the surf clubs where friends, from
families, had taken me as their guest over so many summers: The Coral
Reef is where I learned the Cha Cha, taught in a small dining hall with
mildewed conch shell carpeting. I inhaled my first and last menthol Newport
in the dunes with a pimpled cabana boy from Club El Monaco, nearly gagging
when he plunged his dagger-like tongue in my throat.
I’ll miss the endless miles of shoreline and surrounding flatlands— once sprawling potato farms, when I’m climbing the steep, winding hills to make my next class. Instead of the salty aroma of the sea, my nostrils inhale the dung caked on the boots of local farm boys. The boy/ girl ratio is rumored to be one to twelve, insuring me I won’t ever find a boyfriend— not there, not anywhere, especially now since Paul’s gone.
He had written in my junior yearbook: “a tree will only grow moss if a rambling brook runs alongside... Evermore.” I could have counted on Paul, more than any of the others. Now as I drive up and down my neighborhood streets where he and the rest of the boys used to cruise in their souped up sports cars, a haunting silence trails me— makes me keep looking out the rear view mirror. Their cars were flashy Corvettes and MG’s with genuine leather interior. They called them their wheels, but they were truly their limbs. It’s what gave them power. The boys, all between the ages of 19 and 22 were the sons of prominent doctors, lawyers and businessman. Surprisingly, two had already dropped out of high school surviving on cash handed out by parents. One took night courses at the community college. None spoke of the future. Paul knew his destiny would be with his father, who owned a chain of bakeries supplying the public schools. Nicknamed Butter, he was a self- appointed Pied Piper who handed out cookies to the neighborhood kids. There was Ryan, the handsome son of a surgeon at the local hospital. Ryan lived in an old Tudor mansion only a few blocks away from our modest pink and white split-level.
Ryan was called Noodle referring to his brain because, supposedly, he was the smartest. There’s Gil, whose father worked in the garment center and traveled to the city with my Dad. He was dubbed The Fox, a name that fit him perfectly since he hardly spoke and could stare you down with his dark, ominous eyes. And last was Jack, labeled Stash because of his wealth, his parents’ wealth. Stash had attitude, shown in a haughty strut which gave the impression he was the leader.
Instead of shooting hoops in one of the school playgrounds, or life-guarding at the clubs, the boys occupied themselves by cruising the neighborhood streets, blasting their car radios, yelling strange salutations to passersby. They wore expensive white Ivy League shirts pulled out over dark trousers. Their faces were often shadowy and unshaven, and eyes hid behind blackened glasses. The boys were fixtures in this town, as imposing as the tarnished statues of statesmen on the library lawn.
I’d notice them double-parked on street corners, talking or using hand gestures like some secret language. They howled with laughter while playing poker, passing their cards through the car windows. And every day, without fail, they’d hang at Joe’s candy store where I’d go after school, for my daily dose of a pretzel and an eggcream. That’s where they’d first spotted me. But I’d seen them long, long before. I’d been warned to keep my distance, even though Mother often played bridge with Stash’s Mother, and reported how “the parents just let him run wild.” Stash, she said, hung out in the city, an exotic place called Spanish Harlem. He wouldn’t come home for days.
One night during our dinner conversation that excluded Marky and me, my parents used their typical sign language: a strange combination of German, Yiddish and eye rolling. I deciphered their signals to mean Stash had knocked up a girl forcing his father to cough up the dough to take care of things. One more thing to make the boys forbidden territory? and why they thoroughly enticed me.
They came into my life early last Spring: my sweet sixteen party quickly soured when a guy and girl while making out locked themselves in our fall-out shelter. A two- year supply of canned goods toppled off the shelves and Dad rushed to repairs with his toolbox. Mother, a flaming redhead that month, slithered down the steps with my birthday cake then planted herself on the staircase for the rest of the night. Humiliated by my suffocating family and childish friends, I hungered for change.
A few days later, I leaped off the school bus excited by the sight of all the flashy cars parked at the curb. Knees buckling, I pushed myself through the doors of Joe’s Candy Store, as if it were some saloon in a Hopalong Cassidy movie. Through a dense cloud of cigarette smoke, I saw them. They sat huddled together at a square table in the back of the store. The one called Fox peered over the top of a newspaper to look at me, while I shimmied myself up on a stool. There was a lot of whispering behind me which made the hairs on the back of my neck curl. I had on my pale pink angora sweater, buttoned down the back and a gray wool pleated skirt. I admit I thought I looked pretty damn cool, or I would never have sat so close to them, let alone walk into the place. Waking up with a pimple was enough to keep me barricaded in my room for days.
I sipped my egg-cream, sneaking a peek at them through the reflection in the mirror in front of me. Suddenly, the tall blonde called Butter, jumped up and walked over. Brushing my sleeve, he plopped down change on the counter.
“Hey Joe! This is for the doll... on me.” He said this using a funny accent, like that actor Mother likes, the one everyone calls Bogie.
I looked into Butter’s deep-set blue eyes; I became so nervous that my straw stuck to my tooth. “ Thank you, but you really don’t have to,” I said, trying to act cool, swiveling around on my stool.
“ I know, but I want to, besides we’re almost neighbors. Don’t you live on Bay Drive?”
“How’d you know that?” Before he answered, the others had formed a tight semi-circle behind me. I never felt so scared and safe all at the same time. They each introduced themselves while all I could do was nod back, nearly mute. They used their nicknames: Butter, Fox, Noodle and Stash. I couldn’t let on that I already knew their real names and nicknames or that I‘d heard they were big trouble.
The boys, especially Butter, looked at me like they really saw me. And they listened to what I had to say, as if my stories about my family and friends were things they had never heard about— never experienced. The attention made me so dizzy that I had to grip the sides of the stool for balance. These were not, at all, like the immature goofs I knew; the creeps who tried to grab your bosom any chance they got. These were real men.
I stayed in Joe’s that afternoon talking to them for hours, knowing Mother would be at bridge and Marky at a friend’s. I showed them my overstuffed wallet pointing out pictures of my best friends and old boyfriends. They laughed when they saw the little sayings I’d glued to the photos: song titles like Eddie My Love and Born Too Late. But then I noticed Stash acting nervous. He smoked one cigarette after the other. Grabbing a newspaper and pencil, Stash disappeared into the phone booth. When he came out he was sweaty and pale. He whispered something to Fox who, looking annoyed, reached into his wallet and handed Stash a one hundred-dollar bill. I was wondering if Stash had gotten another girl pregnant and if a hundred bucks covered an abortion. Butter and Noodle lost their concentration, as if a curtain had closed over their eyes. So I gathered my things and said a quick goodbye.
Just as I was walking out the door, it started to pour. Butter pushed through the door after me; behind him was Fox and Noodle.
“ Come on, let me give you a ride,” Butter said. Noodle winked at me, which made my heart feel like I’d danced ten Lindys without stopping. For a split second I wished he had asked me for the ride. What was happening to me? Could Mother be right? Maybe I was just another mixed- up fickle teenager.
“Ah, okay but you can drop me on the corner,” I said. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him my parents thought he and his friends were juvenile delinquents.
It was raining so hard, it was impossible to see the road ahead. Butter gripped the steering wheel with both hands. “ Don’t worry” he said, his eyes straight ahead. “ I promise I’ll drive slowly.” In the three minutes it took to get to my corner, I said nothing. My eyes were riveted to the windshield wipers, watching their frantic dance.
“Are you sure I can’t take you to your door?”
“No, thanks,” I shouted, jumping out of Butter’s car before it came to a full stop.
I ran up the street clutching my books to my chest while the cool rain beat against my face. Before running up my driveway, I turned around and saw Butter parked across the street in his blue Corvette. Directly behind him was Noodle and Fox in a red MG. Through the open car windows they waved at me, making a howling sound that reminded me of lonely wolves on a mountaintop: “Bye sunshine, see you tooo-mor-row!"
In the several weeks that followed, being with the boys became the measure of my day to day happiness. When the weather got warmer, I began to walk the two miles home instead of taking the bus. I made excuses to my friends about why I couldn’t come over after school. I started missing intramurals and newspaper meetings. I had become the boy’s secret mascot— their lifeline to the real world.
Some days just as I’d be crossing the railroad tracks, I’d hear the startling sound of their cars revving up behind me. Making sure no one I knew was watching, I’d slip down in the front seat like I was on some secret mission. But they’d never just take me home. They’d waited for me the entire day.
Once they drove to the beach, trespassing through a tall grassy area. They raced their cars along the shore; the wheels spinning and spitting sand in our faces. We laughed so hard our faces hurt. And there was always that pungent peppery smell filling the car, not the odor of Camels. My head would feel light, as if it might disconnect from my shoulders and float away.
They taught me how to play seven-card stud poker, but they would never take my money, saying they played only for the pleasure of my company. Whenever Butter had the day off, I’d choose to drive alone with him while the others followed close behind. I felt safest with him. Once I told him it was because he smelled from cookie dough reminding me of my grandmother. “Thanks a lot,” he said laughing.
He remembered me saying I loved horses. One day he surprised me, taking me to watch trotters practicing at a nearby racetrack. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I didn’t say I preferred horses that ran free in fields. Butter introduced me to a trainer, he knew, saying, “meet Sunny, my future wife.” I blushed so hard I couldn’t look at him for the rest of the afternoon. When he took me home, he leaned over me to open the car door. I held my breath, but he kissed my forehead, his face hot against my skin. Why didn’t he kiss me on my lips? I would have let him. I was ready for more, of what, I wasn’t sure.
After school let out for summer vacation, I took a job at a day camp
nearby. I also got my driver’s license and was grateful when Mother
agreed to loan me her car.
I’d stop in Joe’s late in the day, but there was something different in the way I was treated. I was uncomfortable with the way Noodle and Fox began to look at me.
One very hot and humid night, I got a call from Noodle inviting me to come over to his house for a pool party. I told Mother I was going to a friend’s for a few hours and she gave me one of those wide-eyed looks letting me know, she knew, something was up.
As I walked up the long driveway to Noodle’s pool house, I noticed that his was the only car parked there. I knocked several times until, finally, he slid open the door to reveal the room all hazy with smoke. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was his one and only guest. Noodle smiled, his face dripping with sweat, his eyes struggling to stay open. There were several pill bottles scattered on the floor; nearby lay a piece of thin rubber tubing and an empty syringe. I looked away. Just then, he leaned into me and began kissing my neck, his breath sour from liquor. I stood trembling, straining to hear Noodle’s muffled words, “Sunshine, you are my sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray...” He pulled the bobby pins out of my French twist, one by one, gently fluffing my long hair with his fingers. Somehow, I knew he was incapable of hurting me, of doing anything more than just holding on. We sat together on a wicker loveseat, and he rested his head in my lap until he fell asleep. His hands were cold, so I covered him with a bunch of beach towels. Grains of sand fell from the towels and covered his cheeks. I walked home feeling sadder than I could ever remember.
I stayed away from Joe’s for an entire week. When I finally stopped in on my way to work one morning, Noodle winked and smiled his bright boyish smile like nothing had ever happened. I had the feeling that Butter had no idea about Noodle’s little party, and I couldn’t help wondering about all the other secrets they kept from each other. They were beginning to look old, their eyes hollow. Every time I saw them, they were studying their picks of the day, newspapers and racing sheets spread out in front of them. I imagined them in college studying biology and chemistry with the same fierce anticipation.
Stash seemed to be organizing, jumping in and out of the phone booth. They spent the afternoons at Roosevelt Raceway, the nearby track, bragging loudly when they won. It seemed as though they never lost.
And then one morning I saw them all huddled around Stash. I was sitting at the counter, close enough to eavesdrop. They argued nervously, mumbling about some guy named Fats. I heard Stash say that they owed Fats over three G’s and would be “taken out” if they didn’t come up with “the bread” in twenty-four hours. Fox and Noodle said “no way” they were “ tapped out.” I was finally beginning to understand this language of theirs, and prayed that Butter was not part of this obvious mess.
All I could think about that day at camp was some guy named Fats and the danger the boys might be facing. Everything had finally caught up with them. And I realized I was no different. In order to save them, I would have to come clean, act fast. Mother and Dad would now know I was living a double life.
As soon as Dad walked in that evening from his trip, I sat them down in the living room far from Marky and the TV. There was a lot of ground to cover. While I talked fast, trying to avoid their piercing eyes, I could feel my thighs sticking to the plastic slipcovers. I figured it would be the next century before I’d ever borrow the car again. When I got to the part about Fats and the money, my father paced the room jiggling the change in his trousers. Mother must have said “oh my god” twenty times which made me start to sob. She tossed me a hankie from her apron before she and Dad went to their bedroom and slammed the door. There were muffled voices and I knew, just knew Dad was making a call.
The next morning, I was awakened by the screeching sound of brakes outside my window. I flew down the stairs and out the door to see Stash, Noodle, Fox and Butter marching up my driveway. Fox pinned me against the garage door while Stash screamed inches from my face, calling me a big mouth and troublemaker. To make his point, Stash punched his fist into the door real close to my head. Butter began pulling at Fox’s shirt.
“Leave her alone!” Butter yelled. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t scared.
“I didn’t want you to get taken out! I didn’t want you to die, any of you,” I cried.
My body slumped to the ground just as Dad rushed out zipping up his trousers. He yelled at them to get off his property or he’d call the cops. They backed off, got into their cars leaving rubber as they pulled away. I sat weeping on the cool concrete ignoring Dad’s pleas to come inside. Sure, I knew I had saved them, but in doing so, I had also lost them. No one would ever look at me the way the boys did. No one would ever care enough to hear what I had to say?
As always, it’s my last stop of the day. No flashy cars are parked
haphazardly at the curb. For a second I think I see them, all of them.
Then they disappear like white caps on a folding wave and the pleasant
daydream ends. And I remember— Butter is gone— killed this winter
when his car skidded across ice on the Southern State. He had worked
day, and fell asleep at the wheel. All I can think about is if I’d
been with him, if we’d been together like old times, maybe he’d
still be here.
Stash and his family sold their house and moved to Beverly Hills. He’s trying to get into the movies— tough guy roles. Fox takes the train now; he’s joined his father in the garment center. Dad sees him a lot, says he hardly ever speaks, just stares out the train window the whole ride home. And Noodle’s been gone for months. His Dad heard about some miraculous drug cure in Paris, and that’s where he sent him.
Joe smiles when I take my seat at the end of the long counter. But I see him shake his head when he starts mixing my eggcream. We don’t have a lot to talk about, these days, Joe and I. Two large pinball machines have taken the place of the table the boys had once called their own. I watch a couple of junior high boys wager a bet, playing for high score and another free game. Tattered schoolbooks lay at their feet: algebra, Spanish, American History.
Bells chime and clang loudly as the silver balls travel up and down the narrow channels, some emerging through countless obstacles while others quietly drop away.