Monday, July 13, 2009

Another Story

The Tell
The Boulevard was a dangerous street, dangerous for anyone, not just a 13 year old trying to cross its 9 lanes, all going 80 MPH in every direction at once. It’s supposed to have the highest rate of traffic accidents too, and that’s no surprise. But the public swimming pool on the other side of that street had a reputation for being a wild place, full of gangs who wouldn’t welcome kids from my side of the street. They were from the projects and the Catholic school, and they hated us, the Jewish kids from middle class row houses who got new shoes whenever we needed them and didn’t have to wear hand me down coats so ragged that the lining hung out at the bottom by the time they got to us.
The way things are where I live, in Northeast Philadelphia, is that there is a race war or a religious conflict or class warfare waiting to break out around every corner. You have to know what corners to turn if you want to stay in one piece, and what neighborhoods to stay out of. The Boulevard was probably one of those places.
But it had so many things that a kid like me craved. There was a really great miniature golf course, where the greens were kind of seedy and ripped, it’s true, but that was part of the fun. You had to get the ball into the mouth of a giraffe on one of them, hard enough to do. If you were that lucky, there were still three ways it could go: one would take the battered ball down this spiral shoot and put it way on the other side of a back passage, behind a pole, where you could never get it out. The second would put it to the left of the hole. But the third, the middle way, would end up PLOP—right where you wanted it, and earn you a free game. And all the holes were like this, oversized and imaginative. Sometimes you couldn’t even find the ball. Or it would end up entirely outside the concrete boundaries, and you had to ask what the rules said you could legally do about it, unless you just picked it up and chucked it onto the green, not caring what the rules said.
This course was part of a small but funky amusement park with a rollercoaster even I liked, though I was notorious for getting dizzy or nauseated in high places. All the rides were kind of miniature. There was a really fast caterpillar ride that went round and round faster and faster until your stomach almost flew out past your tongue, if you were dumb enough to open your mouth. And a Ferris wheel that looked out over the pool and the lanes and lanes of traffic and made you feel like God or something way up in the air, looking down.
And then there was the pool. We had our own pool of course, on the other side of the Boulevard. It was newer, and the dressing rooms were cleaner. The bathrooms worked too, unlike the ones over there. Those kids put cherry bombs in the toilets so often that the walls were plastered with traces of old turds, and a layer of green water puddled in the corners. But ours didn’t have the atmosphere this place did, with its turquoise, white, and gold mosaic designs on the sides, like something out of the Arabian Nights. And this pool was bigger. Plus, there were the boys, who were tall and blonde and dangerous looking, wearing tight jeans and tee shirts with packets of Marlboros tucked under the sleeve, not like the nebbishy boys from our side of the street, who wore braces, silver ID bracelets from Fleets menswear, button down shirts, and penny loafers.
It was Terri who introduced me to all the forbidden glories of the Boulevard. Only she, of all the kids I knew in my neighborhood, could guide me to this place and teach me its secrets. So when she said, “Let’s go to the Boulevard,” one boring Friday evening when I was spending the night at her house, my heart started to race because I knew that it was the one place I wasn’t allowed to go, and she knew that too.
Even though I really wanted to go to the pool, it took Terri a while to talk me into it. I don’t like lying to anyone, especially not to my parents. Lying makes my stomach feel funny, kind of tight. But in the end, I gave in. Terri could be pretty convincing. And plus she was bigger than me, and wouldn’t hesitate to lean on me, hard, if I gave her any trouble. I was more than a little afraid of her, too afraid to walk away.
So I repeated the words she mouthed as I told my parents I would be going swimming the next day, and would be home for supper tomorrow. My mother told me to come home now and pack, and pushed $2.00 and a bunch of change into my hand.
“Don’t forget to thank Terri’s mother for putting you up. And don’t give her any trouble!”
I could barely look at her. My stomach was getting that feeling, and I was afraid she would see right through me, tell me to stay home. In fact, I sort of wish she would have. I would have been grateful.
But she just turned back right away to putting away towels or cleaning out the fridge or whatever she was doing. My dad didn’t even look up when I said goodbye, just went on watching the television, a bleary old black and white with a screen shaped like a hot water bottle. At the same time as he watched the ballgame, he held a tiny transistor radio with an antenna twice as long as the radio itself to his ear. The ballgame boomed out there, right into his ear.
I used to ask him why he had to watch the game and listen to it at the same time. He looked at me like I didn’t know much, which in fact, I didn’t. “I don’t want to miss anything,” he said, and went back to the game.
I didn’t like spending the night at Terri’s much. It wasn’t her house or her family. She lived in the same kind of row home I did, but her house was much fancier than mine. The living room looked like a furniture showroom, with its heavy carved wooden chairs and plush recliners. The TV set had a dark wooden cabinet that took up half the room, and behind it stood a bookcase, full of encyclopedias and Reader’s Digest collections. The rest of the books really weren’t books at all, just pieces of cardboard made to look like books.
Terri’s bedroom was much bigger than mine, and so was her bed. The room was all color coordinated, and her shoes hung neatly on racks inside her closet door. Even her phone was the same blue of the curtains and the patterned coverlet on her bed. But all the same, being there made me uncomfortable, mostly because of the way Terri acted.
Sometimes she would wake me up in the middle of the night, at 1:00 or 2:00 AM, when the house felt as empty as the moon, and hand me the phone. “Call someone,” she said.
“What?” I would say. “Now? Who should I call anyhow?” “It doesn’t matter,” she said, her face like a mask in the half-light. “Just watch me; I’ll show you.” And she would dial a number and start talking. As I listened to one end of this conversation, Terri would confidently take on the tone of a teacher or police officer, and say, “Miss, I must inform you that a relative of yours has been in an accident,” or something of the sort. Sometimes she knew the people’s names, I never asked how. There were long silences. At times I could hear a person speak sharply, “WHO IS THIS?” or “STOP CALLING ME, YOU!” And sometimes she would just hang up. On some tries though, she would have the person on the other end of the phone crying, hysterical, believing everything she said. I watched her the way someone might watch an accident in the street, repelled, but frozen to the spot somehow, fascinated, like a mouse watching the snake that was about to swallow it.
Of course, she could never get me to make these kinds of calls. Sometimes though, I would make the kind of innocent but obnoxious phony phone calls every kid makes, asking the sleepy person on the other end of the line if his refrigerator was running, and then telling him to go and catch it, or just sitting silent on the other end of the line while the person yelled at me.
Somehow, I got back to sleep after this, and at 9 the next morning, we set out for the pool. Since we weren’t supposed to be going to the Boulevard, but to the regular pool, which was only a few blocks away, we had to walk, and it was a long way on a hot morning. Our shorts stuck to the back of our legs like the old wallpaper peeling off the wall in the spare room, and sweat rolled down our faces. By the time we got there to the pool, we’d be wet already. People sat out on their front stoops and stared at us as we walked by, but luckily, we didn’t know any of them, and they didn’t know us either. So when we walked right past our pool, and kept on going, there was nobody to tell us to go home where we belonged or even to know we were leaving our own territory, crossing the border to another world.
It was still pretty early, and there weren’t as many cars as I expected on the road. It gave us some time to rest on the traffic barriers in between lanes, with their patchy crabgrass and dog poop. The Fords and Buicks still whizzed by, though there were intervals between them that wouldn’t be there later, people with their windows down, with tinted glass, with every kind of music booming out as if it were some kind of war of sound.
Soon we were stepping out onto the other side of the Boulevard. The row houses were different here, sitting up much higher, staring us down like the people we’d seen on the way. No one sat on the stoops. While our houses were made of solid red brick and stone, these were clapboard and aluminum siding, painted a pale blue and white. Even though it was Saturday, lots of those people were probably at work at the Nabisco plant, where the air wafted out, smelling like Vanilla Wafers. Most of their kids had paper routes or stayed inside doing chores on the weekend, until they were released to run wild the rest of the day and evening. No ice cream trucks cruised the streets.
There was the tiny Ferris wheel and the roller coaster, the huge papier mache heads of the giraffe and clown at the miniature golf course, and then we stood at the entrance of the pool. I could still back out, go back across the street and go home, but the temptation drew me in, and
besides, I was afraid to walk home by myself.
We paid our .50, and I thought the gum-cracking clerk at the desk might have smirked a little at us, seeing we were not the usual types the pool attracted, in our modest summer sundresses, carrying brand new beach bags and towels.
The dressing rooms smelled awful, and I was afraid to put down my bag. The idea of getting undressed in here made me squirm. In the shower, big lazy flies buzzed around a pile of shit curled like a Mr. Softie frozen custard. But I tried to ignore it all and keep going, wiggling into my bright green bikini, with tiny tucks and buttons on the top. I liked the way it made my legs, short and stubby though they were, look long and lean.
Then the pool itself stood before us, the color of a summer sky, empty and waiting. I don’t know how to swim, though I’ve had swimming lessons. I just don’t like when water covers my head, and I panic, forgetting everything I know about how to float, how to paddle, how to kick.
Terri urged me on, splashing the cold water on my back and legs till I shrieked and laughed. There was no one else in the pool, but a few people were starting to come in on the other side, by the diving board. I paddled in the turquoise water, enjoying the cool. Soon Terri got tired of sitting by the edge and went off to the deep end. I knew there were boys there, and that she would probably bring them back where I was, but I just sat on the stairs at the side of the pool like a little kid, singing to myself, along with the mothers and small children, in their ballooning diapers, who were starting to step out slowly into the cool water, and hoped she would forget about me.
But she didn’t. Soon, two boys, one tall with dark curly hair and a torn pair of plaid trunks, the other short and with a white-blonde forelock that almost covered his bright green eyes, stood by me, trying to urge me out into the deeper water. I forgot where I was, and let them pull me out above my head. When I tried to touch the bottom with my toes, I felt a familiar sense of panic. Then they had me, trying to pull off my bathing suit bottom. The big one held me by the arm, at times pushing me under, while the smaller one dived down under me and crammed his whole hand inside my suit. I screamed and struggled, swallowing water. Terri just laughed and let them do it. In a haze of tears, I tried to remember the right way to float, to kick, to get away from their groping hands and fingers. I tried to scream for help, but nothing but inarticulate sounds would come out of my mouth.
Then the lifeguard was at the side of the pool, yelling at me and the others to cut it out and leave the pool, as if it was my idea of a good time. I kept quiet, too afraid and full of panic to tell him that these guys were trying to rape me. And then they were gone, on to other girls, who seemed to be enjoying their attentions.
“You baby!” Terri said in an exasperated voice. “I thought you wanted to meet boys!”
“I want to go home.” I said in a flat voice, not looking at her, walking fast toward the dressing room.
“You go yourself then,” she said. “I’m having a good time.” But she kept walking with me, probably afraid herself to be left alone.
As I walked out past the refreshment stand, I bought a paper cone of lemon Italian ice, and sat down in the sun for a few minutes to eat it, hoping my heart would slow a little, letting her think about whether she wanted to come home with me. When it was done, I changed my clothes and walked out the gate, hoping those boys wouldn’t follow. Terri did though, staying a few paces behind me.
We didn’t talk the whole way home, though it seemed to take forever. I didn’t notice the heat, just kept my eyes forward, moving fast. My face burned, though I hadn’t been out in the sun that long. Eventually, we reached my street. Standing outside the library at the other end of the block, I saw that my end of the street was blocked with half a dozen police cars, their lights flashing. Everyone stood out on the steps. As we came closer, they turned to look at us, their faces full of surprise and anticipation.
I felt again as if I were out in the deep water, my feet out of reach of the bottom. The police had stopped at MY house. It was MY mother standing there, crying, reaching out for me. The cops looked angry and serious.
“Where have you been, young lady?” one officer glowered at me and held my arm, reminding me of the boy in the pool.
“I went sw-swimming,” I stuttered, pointing back at Terri, “with her.”
I turned to my mother. “What happened, mom?”
She was still crying, but managed to tell me the story of how that morning, about the time we had set out for the pool from Terri’s house, the phone rang. My dad was not home. He was out taking the dog for a walk or something, so he couldn’t help her.
The man on the phone sounded official, like a police officer or the principal. She vaguely recognized something about his voice, though she couldn’t quite place it. He asked, “Do you know where your daughter is?”
She countered, “Of course. Well… not at this exact moment, I suppose. She went to the pool with her friend, but she may be on her way back home by now.” She looked at the clock’s abstract golden starburst, its rays extended toward the kitchen, the window, the living room.
There was an audible sneer at the other end of the line. “Are you so sure?” the voice asked. “I know where she is this moment because I have her and I’m going to kill her if you don’t do exactly what I say.”
My mother thought she must have heard wrong. “Wh…a…t?” she groaned, but the man on the other end of the line only laughed again, a rumbling and very unpleasant laugh, like a dentist’s drill.
“Yeah, you heard me.” And he went on to describe the clothes I had packed the day before, the yellow sun dress, the white sandals, the blue and white beach bag and matching towel.
All the time my mother was telling this story, Terri had stood silently, saying nothing, with no expression at all on her face. At some point, she had left, gone home probably, without even saying a word.
I felt like I had committed a murder. All of this from one lie.
“What happened next, mom?” I swallowed hard. On one hand, I didn’t really want to know. It was too hard not to burst out with the truth, and apologize a million times for what my mother had just gone through because of me. But the idea that some sick guy knew what I was wearing, knew that my mother wouldn’t know exactly where I was scared me even more.
My mother dabbed at her nose with a tissue. “So of course I asked him what he wanted me to do, so he would let you go. He said that I should close all the curtains and take all my clothes off, even my underwear, and stand in front of the window. I didn’t even think. I did what he said, told the man I had done it, as he went on saying horrible, filthy things into the phone, and then he hung up. I was afraid to call the police for about 10 minutes after that, but then your father came in, and asked me why I was standing naked in the dining room, why I was crying, and he called the police.”
I never did apologize, never told her where I really was. But I thought a lot about that telephone call, and how much it reminded me of the kind of calls Terri made. And I decided not to talk to Terri anymore, and didn’t, for a few months or maybe a year after that. I didn’t know exactly how she and the man on the telephone were connected, but I knew for sure that they were. But that wasn’t the end of Terri or of the Boulevard for me, though it should have been. I would keep going back till I got my fill, till I figured this all out, or till I died trying.


Lou said...

Wow, a sad and very disturbing story.

Robbi said...

There are more in this vein I will be telling sometime soon about this.