Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
“When we get there,” my helpful brother warns, “I don’t want you hanging around, asking stupid questions. Stand with the kids from your class, near the piano. And I don’t want you talking to any of the girls I dance with––or talking to yourself. Got it?”
I nod my head as Howard and I rush through the park, around the lagoon, up the hill to the Pavilion and Mr. Longview’s Saturday Night Dance Lessons. Most kids have been going for over a year but this is the first time my parents would let me, and only if I promise to stay near Howard. Which, of course, he does not agree to after we’ve escaped the house.
“But do I look okay?” I ask. I’m wearing a pink shirt, a charcoal sport coat with flecks, and a really thin tie (Uncle Charlie gave it to Dad, who wouldn’t wear it). Howard rolls his eyes.
“What, is my tie crooked?”
“No. It’s just...it’s dumb,” he smirks. Then he adds, “Aw, shut up, you look fine. No one’s going to pay any attention to you, anyway.”
We get to the Pavilion faster than ever and everyone in the world’s already there: the Drexels, the Trainor Twins, Bubbles Feiffer and his brother Chris, all the popular guys and the baseball team––even Jules Steinberg––and who’d have thought his parents would let him, what with his asthma? And there are girls. Girls with pony-tails or hair down to the waist; with poodle-cuts and dresses to match; girls in bobby socks and hoop skirts; girls holding on to each other, giggling, or standing in groups, whispering behind cupped hands. Or most pitiful of all, standing alone but smiling: Judy Forneau. Finally, in the far corner, a group of extra neat girls go through a stack of 45 rpm records; they’re wearing make-up, tight skirts and pearl necklaces, Rose Anne Jankowski in the center, looking best of all. Colored lanterns are draped from the ceiling, kids are drinking Cokes, there’s music and noise and laughter. I’m confused but excited and suddenly I realize: life starts here. But before I can get my bearings, the teacher and his wife glide into the center of the shining, waxed floor.
“Tonight,” he announces, “is made for the Cha-cha!” Some guys in the back yell: “We wanna jitter-bug!” The teacher holds up his hand for silence, but the guys continue yelling so he pulls up his sleeve and stares at his watch, eyebrows arched. “We can wait all night if necessary,” he says, tapping his foot. The noise continues until my brother barks, “Shut-up, guys!” Then the teacher huffs, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Omaha. We were in Denver last week and there the Cha-cha is the thing! Isn’t that right, Mrs. Longview?” He turns to his wife, who nods her pretty (if tiny) head in agreement.
And the lesson starts. “Left foot over, right foot back,” the teacher commands and soon everyone is practicing the steps of the Cha-cha to Tea for Two. Then he cries out, “Couples!” and everyone grabs a partner. Even Judy gets one. But I look around and there's no one left, so I just stand there, next to the record player; no one notices, not even Mr. Longview––and shouldn't he be watching out for this kind of thing? But after what seems like hours, Mr. Longview finally announces, “Intermission, fifteen minutes, then back for the Free-Style Contest with prizes!”
And everyone files out, into the dark summer night waiting for us beneath the streetlights. Guys form groups on the sidewalk, girls talk on the porch. Me, I’ve had to promise to stay away from Howard's group and Dwayne-Bob's already standing with them, so I duck under the main steps, behind the spruce trees, and practice the cha-cha in the dark––until a couple hoodlum types slip in to have a cigarette, giving me bad looks as a warning me not to turn them in.
Intermission lasts forever.
* * *
Free-style means dancing any way you want and everyone seems to do just that the rest of the night. Some do the slow-dance no matter the beat and others swing each other hard––which Mr. Longview tries to stop. No one does the cha-cha. I start to ask Joyce Pritchard but Eddy Palmer gets there first, so I just stand by the piano and watch the others: like Rose Anne Jankowski, who never misses a dance and seems to have a different partner for every record; and surprisingly, Judy Forneau, who is suddenly dancing every dance with a high-schooler. But then the rear door (next to me) opens a crack and in sneaks Molly, who puts her hand on my shoulder and whispers, “Wanna dance?” She touches my arm and explains, “I didn’t have the dollar to come through the front.” We dance together the rest of the evening and she doesn’t seem to mind that I’m not very good and she never makes fun of me when I step on her feet and she never catches me looking over her shoulder searching for Rose Anne.
Which means the evening is turning out alright, after all––until the contest starts. Then it goes wrong and it’s Howard's fault: for the contest he chooses Rose Anne as his partner and she accepts! Mr. Longview puts on High School Confidential and Howard and Rose Anne start doing the Dirty Chicken––they rock back and forth on their heels, hands on their hips, and peck at each other. People form a circle, clap and cheer, and Howard goes wild. At one point he throws off his sport coat and tears off his tie; sweat’s flying from his forehead and his shirt’s sopping wet! Howard’s my brother but I didn’t know he could dance like this. Or would. Their dancing wins them first prize and Howard walks away with a portable radio and Rose Anne gets a tiara. She looks really dumb in it.
After the dance, Molly’s picked up by her brothers and the thug who drove the black Chevy convertible to the Talent Show. As it speeds away, she turns and waves good-bye. She looks so small in the backseat, surrounded by those big, tough, older guys. But mainly I’m thinking about my brother: how’d he get Rose Anne to dance with him?
* * *
So as we approach our house, I hurry ahead and announce, “Howard won a radio for doing the Dirty Chicken!”
“What?” my mother asks, as she dries her hands on a dishtowel. Howard follows me through the door and gives me a look. But Mom has a way of ignoring things she doesn’t want to hear. “You won a radio! Wonderful, let me see.” Howard holds up his prize. “Coral! That’s a lovely color. Turn it on, let’s hear.”
“It’s a really cheap radio and the batteries don’t even come with it,” I interrupt, before Howard can say anything.
“Let your brother talk,” my mom warns. “Howard, who was your dance partner?”
“Just this girl I know, Rose Anne.” I look at him, hate in my heart. “She’s the one that asked me to C.Y.O.”
“The Catholic Youth Organization?”
“I told her I couldn’t go.”
Mom smiles. “Well, would you two like some ice cream to celebrate?”
“Can we have fruit cocktail in it?” Howard asks.
Mom takes a can from the cupboard. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she says, pulling an envelope from her apron pocket. “Howard’s not the only winner in this family tonight.” She hands it to me. “Sorry I opened it. I didn’t notice it was for you.”
The return address leaps out at me: Mayflower Cleaners.
“Did I win the bike?” I ask. “Really?” I tear the letter from the already-opened envelope but Howard pulls it out of my hand.
“You won a bike? For that stupid coloring contest?”
“It wasn’t for coloring,” I complain. “That was just the first part.”
Mom gets dry-cleaning done at The Mayflower––they use cardboard stiffeners to back the shirts they clean. One day Dad threw me one of the stiffeners and it had a line drawing printed on it you were supposed to color. It was a cinch! I became one of twenty-five winners, each of which won ten dollars worth of dry-cleaning, plus a chance for an even bigger prize: an English racer. To win, you had to create a picture from scratch, illustrating the theme, Cleanliness in America.
“I drew a picture of George Washington helping his mom clean cherry stains out of his shirt,” I tell Howard, feeling exceptionally good about telling him. “And no matter what you might think I deserve, I’ve won.” I pull my letter from his hands and read it. “Dang! You gotta go to South Omaha to get the bike. How do I get way over there?”
“Your dad’ll drive you,” my mother says. “We’ll all go together.”
“I’m not going,” Howard grouches, and he gets up, noisily throwing his dish into the sink. “Everyone thinks you’re such a great artist,” he grumbles, as he grabs his radio and leaves for his room. Then he adds, quietly, so Mom can’t hear, “But I’d like to know what they’d think of your drawings if they talked to Jeremy Steel’s mom!”
* * *
I get into bed, pull down my shorts and I’m touching myself, thinking I should be happy, I just won an English racer! But seeing Howard with Rose Anne has ruined that. I’m also worried about him bringing up Mrs. Steel in front of Mom. But I guess nothing's ever easy, certainly not girls, and not even drawing.
There’s nothing I like better than drawing––three-eyed cars, pretend maps, mazes, anything––because when I draw, people pay attention. I’ve appeared in Highlights, I've done the class mural, and I get extra credit in science because I make the best drawings of drosophilae. But sometimes drawing has gotten me in trouble. Even when I wasn’t the one who’d actually done them. Take Mrs. Steel.
Me, I can draw from scratch better than my brother Cliff, but he could always trace better. One of the things he could trace was girls’ bodies. He’d use the comics: Wolf Gal from L’il Abner or any girl from Terry and the Pirates. Placing a piece of Dad’s drafting tissue on top, he’d copy them––minus the clothes. Anyway, I told Jeremy Steel and some other guys about the drawings, acting as if I’d done them, and they said they wanted some. I was only seven and I don’t know how I got Cliff to give them to me, but I did. I took them over to Jeremy’s house and thought: I’m gonna be so popular! And I was. At first. But a couple days later, the guys said they couldn’t play with me because Jeremy’s mother had found the drawings and said I was nasty. “We don’t like that kind of stuff,” Jeremy said. And all his friends, standing behind him, agreed. I said, “But you asked for them!” I couldn’t admit I hadn’t actually drawn the pictures because earlier I’d lied. I turned and walked home, worrying first what would happen if Mrs. Steel told my parents and after that, that I was going to be alone the rest of my life.
Because this was not the first time this kind of thing had happened.
The first was a long time ago but I’ll never ever be able to forget it. It was when Dad sent me to live with my grandparents in the country, after Clarence got polio. I was only five. On the farm there was no one to play with except Grandma and Grandpa and the animals, and I was scared of the animals. I was so lonely. I missed Mom and Dad, I even missed my brothers. Some days Grandpa would take me to his job in the cemetery and while he dug graves or mowed the grass he’d let me climb on the windmill. “Better to play there than in the grass,” he’d say, “too many snakes.” Then he’d chuckle. So I’d stay by the windmill because it had a concrete base where no snakes could hide. Some days I’d climb it. I wouldn’t climb that high, except once when I climbed almost to the top and tried to see all the way home, to my brothers and parents back in Omaha. Which was impossible, of course––Omaha was a hundred miles away.
But what's important is, there was no one to play with at my grandparents’ house.
Except two girls down the road: the Courbeilles. Marie and Francine.
I didn’t know them at first, because at first I stayed on the front porch, swinging. Until the wasp stung me. Then I started playing further out, for safety, in the front yard. Eventually I worked my way down to the fence that divided our farm from theirs and they saw me and said why don’t you come over and play? And even though I was kind of shy, I ducked under the fence and went into their yard where they had a sandbox, and on that day, small sheets of paper on which they were drawing.
“You draw, too,” Francine told me, and she and her sister started laughing. That’s when they showed me their drawings. Which even then I knew were immoral. They were of a man and woman, naked, and the woman was lying down and the man was standing on top of her, peeing into her mouth. I didn’t understand why someone would want to do that. Anyway, they wanted me to draw pictures like that, too, but I wouldn’t. Suddenly a storm came up and they said, “Come into the barn and we’ll pull down our panties if you will.” And when we got there and they’d pulled down theirs, the thunder clapped and the rain began to fall, and I turned and ran. And I hadn’t pulled down my pants. Not one inch. But I kept thinking about it the rest of the day and all through the night, until the next morning, when I walked over to play with them again.
Mrs. Courbeille was in the backyard, hanging clothes. When she saw me, she went over to a coffee can sitting on the steps by the back door and pulled out the drawings. They were pockmarked with rain, the lines had run and there was sand on them. She marched over to me with an angry look on her face and screamed, “You drew these dirty pictures! Don’t you ever come back here. I should tell your grandpa, I should tell your grandma!” I wanted to argue but couldn’t because I was little, and just then I heard Francine and Marie and looked up at their bedroom window on the second floor to find them jumping up and down with no underpants on, laughing and making faces. But their mother didn’t see them, she was busy breaking a branch off a bush, and she chased me off their property, swinging it like a switch.
So I didn’t go back. Instead, I played by myself. And hated Mrs. Courbeille. I kept thinking: “It’s not fair!” And in my head I kept telling her, “I didn’t do anything. Marie and Francine did.” I even thought about telling her: “Marie and Francine pulled down their underpants.” But I knew she wouldn’t believe me.
Time went by and I was lonely and the girls were still the only ones near enough to play with. So one day, though it scared me, I approached the fence. I could see them playing in their backyard and they waved and soon I was with them, playing again, and their mother came out to get something and saw me and she didn’t do anything so I figured I was safe. And I was. As far as Mrs. Courbeille was concerned.
A couple days later, Marie and I were playing in the backyard. Marie got an idea to make me into a swami and wound me up in a blanket and put a towel on my head and I walked around like a Hindoo. When Francine came out, Marie told her I was Michael’s twin, a real swami visiting from India! And though Francine should’ve known it was me, I was such a good actor I fooled her and that scared her because she decided the real Michael had been kidnapped. We were trying to calm her down when Mrs. Courbeille came flying out the back door. She was crying, yelling, and she ordered Marie and Francine into the car. She rolled down the window and screamed at me: “Go home, get out of here!” Then she slammed the car door and sped away.
I stood there, towel around my head, blanket over my shoulders.
Then the back door opened and out lunged Mr. Courbeille. He smelled like beer and he was staggering. He clomped over close and almost fell on top of me. He was an ogre of a man, a giant, one-hundred feet tall. He glowered and snarled, “Who are you and why are you dressed like that and why are you always playing with my girls? You ought to be playing with boys!”
I tried to answer. I whispered, “My name’s Michael Drew Pozner and there are no boys anywhere near, just your girls to play with.” But he paid no attention. Instead, he leaned over, almost fell again, and grabbed me. Then he picked me up.
“Mikey-Mikey-Mikey,” he growled, “you are a little boy, aren’t you?” He said it scary-like, as though he thought I was lying. His eyes were huge and rolling and wild and I thought he was going to pull my pants down. I don’t know why I thought that, I just did. Then he dropped, or threw me––I don’t know which––onto the gravel driveway and it really hurt and I tried to escape but couldn’t because I was tangled up in the blanket. Above me, Mr. Courbeille fumbled and swayed, finally falling and rolling onto his side, grabbing at me, cussing, sputtering, saying all sorts of things I didn’t understand.
And then, I don’t know exactly how, I escaped. I can still see myself flying from him, across the yard, under the fence, and I didn’t stop till I was inside my grandparent’s house, in the dark of their cellar. For a long time I lay on the cold dirt floor, catching my breath, and when I finally dared to move, I crawled to a pile of potatoes and hid behind it. I was so afraid he’d come after me. And get me. And do I-don’t-know-what. I curled into a ball, scared to death, and waited.
After a long time, my grandparents came home. “What are you doing in the basement?” Grandma wanted to know. I came up but never told them (or anyone else) what had happened. And I never went back to the Courbeille's. I just hated and hated them. Soon after, Mom and Howard showed up in the car and took me home and later I heard Grandma say the Courbeilles had divorced and moved away. But I can never forget them. Mrs. Courbeille is the person I most hate in this world and Mr. Courbeille makes me feel the most frightened. Whenever I think about him, I hear him clomping down the staircase to get me in the basement. It’s a horrible noise, impossible to stop. I have to shake myself, wake myself, even when I’m not sleeping.
* * *
“Well,” Dad says about the new bike, “it sure is pretty.”
We’re standing out front of the house and our next-door neighbors have come to see.
"He won it, drawing,” my dad explains to them. “Go on, Michael, ride!”
Dad’s seems actually proud of me, so it’s too bad I embarrass him by falling down when I can’t figure out how to use the gears. By time I get it right, no one’s watching. I hear Mom say, “I like it but I wish it were a regular bike like other people’s.” And Dad says, “I don’t know there’s any real need for gears on a bike, but you gotta admit, it’s different!” Luckily, Mom’s iced tea lures them into the cool of the house, where the fans are turned on high. And I am left alone. With my shiny new prize.
So I take off! Into the warm evening, with the sun setting, down the Boulevard and into the park, curving past the lagoon, beneath the weeping willows. I race up and down hills, through swarms of mosquitoes, swerve around sprinklers and fly across golf greens. Fishermen stop to stare as I sail by (they're jealous!) and as I circle the dance pavilion, the moon rises and I stop to place the generator against the tire so I can ride with the lights on. Lights powered by a generator! Then, as I ride through the dark, I look down upon the glistening headlamp, glowing red fenders, the sparkling chrome spokes, and I see how beautiful it all is. So beautiful I just have to draw it.