It was about a month after everything got all messed up, that I took Iris for Italian ices on a squinty sun-bleached late August day, and she broke down finally and told me: “Leigh did not exactly quit the summer camp upstate, okay? She got kicked out. But don’t tell her I said so, please, she’ll kill me.”
“Kicked out?” I sprung off the pavement, heard cheers echoing, and pictured sinking the tournament-winning jump shot. “For what?”
“Can’t tell you, she made me swear. It was bad, though. Real bad.”
“Okay, just nod, then,” I said. “It had to do with some boy, right?”
Before all the guessing games with these two, before Leigh put her spell on me, it was a normal enough summer in the borough of Brooklyn, each day the same pretty much, except for Mom landing a job at the Unemployment Office downtown by Schermerhorn Street, and this perforated ulcer Pop got going bankrupt. I put in a few days packing, lugging bulky boxes all over Jersey with him and my kid brother Joey tagging along before that creep landlord Haney padlocked his shop but, besides that, everything was a bowl of cherries: long swims in the ocean, full court basketball, paddleball, miniature golf, layup drills, and driving hard to the hoop. Hanging loose with my boys by the Brighton Beach Baths, captain of our team, high scorer, not sweating much till the week I turned fifteen and my knee got wrenched out of its socket so bad on a rebound Dr. Paskoff had to wrap it in an Ace bandage.
A few days later, the swelling came down some, and I hobbled out at the crack of dawn, the bright idea being to check my moves to the hole before the bees started buzzing around, getting in my way, asking, How’s it going, Shoes? Doing all right? Except, dragging a game leg across the court, nothing would drop, so I didn’t sing hallelujah banking one measly fall away in on about the millionth try, nor did I dig some screechy little shrimp, sneaking up behind me, chirping, “Yay! Great shot!”
“Hey, great breakfast,” I said, pointing to the half-melted fudge pop she stood licking. “Way to go, Goldilocks, real healthy.”
“That’s not my name.” She held it out to me. “Want a taste, honey child?”
“Honey, what?” I pivoted to the hoop, and launched an air ball so feeble I actually blew my cool.
“Jesus Christ, almighty!” I said. “Damn it all!”
“Nice try,” she said, clapping her buns off. “You can do it!”
I got in position to heave up another brick, but guess who barged right between me and the bucket.
“So, you wouldn’t be the Steven Schuman?” the imp asked, in this slow motion drawl, stretching each obnoxious syllable out.
“Who wants to know?”
“My friend Iris told me you were tall. And had cute blue eyes. You realize you’re limping?”
“Ooh, weally? I’m wimping? It’s cause I got twipped,” I said, mimicking her singsong babyish lisp, “you little pest, you. Gwabbing a webound. Twisted my knee, got a boo-boo.”
“Very funny,” she said. She turned sideways to finish her pop, but a big glop dropped splat on the court.
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked her. “What the heck are you doing out so early?”
“Well, today is my first day at The Baths ever. So, you could act a little more friendlier, Senor Groucho.” She offered me her paw. “I’m Leigh.”
“That’s a boy’s name,” I said.
“No! But take a guess what my Spanish teacher calls me.”
“What, Chiquita Banana?”
“Lo-lita,” she said, like that was supposed to knock me out.
“Look,” I said. “I’m practicing my shots, you mind? So, good riddance, you little screwball.”
She snapped her fingers up near my eyes, pulled a rubber band out and let a head full of shiny honey-colored hair fall loose to her shoulders. “In case you’re ignorant, it’s a free country,” she said, then did an about face and sashayed away, wiggling like some pint-size Jayne Mansfield.
“Thanks for the hot news,” I told her. “Talk to me when you grow up.”
After another hour of atrocious shots I fled in disgust to the cafeteria, where who’d I see but my boy Bobby the Zee, bouncing out of his chair like a jumping bean. “Heard you met the new piece, Leigh,” he said. “With the Southern accent? Gonna try and make it with her?”
“Oh, yeah, right away.” I stared. “What would I want with that puny runt?”
“Kay, don’t bite my head off, Shoes, I’m just checking. Cause I’m going to definitely try then.”
“Be my guest, banana nose.”
“Check that rack on her? Babe’s drop dead gorgeous!”
Zee flinched when I reached to feel his forehead temperature, so I pinched his cheek, hard enough that he yelped. “What are you, losing it?” I asked him. “Sure you’re all right?”
I split to blast some serves off the wall, pissed the damn swelling blew back up and, after I’d had it, I headed back to my locker but before I got there I caught the Zee man side by side with Lolita, sprawled on recliners. Only the little spitfire had slipped into some flowery lavender-colored two piece and presto change-o, applied shiny white lipstick and sky blue eye shade to her puss. I pointed, made the usual shooting sound, gave Zellman a double thumbs down, and called out to him, “Smooth move, Rock! Way to go.” Nothing doing nowhere, so hot it’s ludicrous, and I hobbled off early to go ice the knee.
Next morning, soggy as hell, I’m jogging slow motion, bouncing the basketball when I spied her, eyes closed, on another lounge chair, soaking some rays up next to this disaster of a girl whose puffy marshmallow-white face and garish green eye makeup rang a bell, even if her actual name escaped me. So, I dribbled over, to see what their story was.
The right side of Leigh’s mouth curled up like she had some secret information no one else did. Her tanned belly, glowing from whatever lotion she must’ve rubbed on, got me a little woozy, like there’s something out of whack here. The other one sat rummaging through the mess in her bag. She jerked out a spiral composition book, flipping pages, snapping gum meanwhile, nervous as a parakeet, adjusting her floppy yellow hat, same as a million fluttery faces you see on Brighton Beach Avenue day in and day out.
“Could you please not block my sun?” Leigh murmured, her lips barely moving.
“Scuse me,” I said, shifting back half a step. “So, where you from, little girl? With that accent and all.”
She rubbed her eyes. “You? Why should you care?” she said, in this fake booming voice, trying to sound like me, I guess, and the other one clapped twice, and began cackling, high pitched, like the Wicked Witch of the West. “Besides, I assure you, in case you need your eyes examined, I am no little girl.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re not a boy, are you? Despite the name. You from around here anywhere?”
The sidekick cracked up. “He wants to know where you’re from. Big dope.”
Leigh sat up, put her shades on and the words came dripping out like molasses. “I don’t believe the rules of this beach require me to tell every random Tom, Dick and Harry whereabouts I’m from, do they, Miss Iris? Maybe if certain individuals would learn to speak politely.”
“Forget it,” I said, “politely speaking,” and I bounced the ball hard, turning to head for the courts.
“Must be this dumb jockstrap’s retarded way of trying to get in good with us,” the fidgety ass friend said, chomp-chomp-chomp, blowing a bubble, then giggling so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Us?” I screeched to a halt. “Who in the heck’s talking to you? Laughing hyena. And, who you calling dumb, huh?”
She crossed her eyes, blew another pink bubble, and puckered her lips like she’d just sucked on a lemon.
“The two of you’s, you’re both obnoxious. But blondie, at least,” I said, sticking my finger at Leigh, still glaring at the girlfriend, “she ain’t strictly from hunger. At least she’s got potential.”
“Stop pointing,” Leigh said. “And don’t address either of us till you learn your manners.”
“Manners?” I scoffed. “Bite me.”
“That,” she said, smiling, “is utterly deplorable. You are just a dope. How dare you say that?”
“Hey, you obviously don’t know which end is up,” I said, “you don’t get it. Miss Bazooka Bubble Gum though, she’s been around, she knows exactly who’s who.”
Leigh stood up, all four feet ten inches, and whipped off her sunglasses. “Oh. Pardon me, I don’t know who you are. This must be the emperor of the beach, Iris,” she said, her eyes dancing, like it’s amusing. “Let’s not upset his Royal Highness. Because imagine what could happen. The supreme ruler might have us beheaded.”
“Okay,” I said, “if that’s your attitude. Fine.” I snatched the specs she’d left on the arm of her chair and trotted off, with her partner trailing me, gabbing she’ll report me to management, all the way from the pool to the Men’s lockers.
“Who do you think you are?” she hollered.
I just laughed, then handed them over, with my thumbprint on the lens, cause it was only just to get even.
So, the knee healed up, I roared back with a vengeance, five-on-five, six days a week, me and the boys went on an undefeated tear, but each time I sunk one I saw little Leigh’s neck twisted around, like she’s watching some fascinating spectacle in the opposite direction. Plus, she started flaunting around the beach in these microscopic bikinis, every day a different color, and her hair kept getting a little blonder, it was obvious.
Meanwhile, the more invisible Leigh pretended I was, the quicker she kept flitting from Zellman to the next putz and the next, practically one a day, like the vitamin pills. My whole team fell for her, wandering around dazed, one after another, and then she started bewitching all these roly-poly blobs that didn’t know a basketball from a pumpkin. My theory I came up with on that: Leigh’s running around with them all, trying to drive me bananas, so she’d hook me too, which, to be honest, was starting to happen.
Then, tossing in bed after a sweaty dream one night, this light bulb went off: play up to Schlep-Face. The friend. Turn the tables, make Leigh jealous.
Next morning, I found her hunched forward on a deck chair, scratching away in a notebook.
“Hey, Iris, go for a walk? Or, you busy?”
“Me?” she asked.
“No. Who else is here? Which other Iris?”
So, we got our wrists stamped, exited to the public beach and strolled down by the ocean, tiptoeing around all the leathery faced sun worshippers with their silver reflectors, guys drumming on bongos, and moms peeling oranges and such for their bratty kids. All the while Miss Motor Mouth 1964 keeps yapping nonstop how her heart bleeds for little Caroline Kennedy, how the poor girl must miss her Daddy, about this snooty jerk she has for English at Shell Bank Junior High, about the wonders of modern trick photography, the Patty Duke show, and blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. Over an hour, who knows what else, repeating herself, with me itching to ask: What’s with Leigh? What is she, so stuck up she won’t glance at me? but I couldn’t squeeze one word in, all the way there, all the way back.
“So, you wouldn’t believe, but my Tante Bluma, visiting from Toronto for the World’s Fair, the one I mentioned before, on my mother’s side? She makes this egg salad to die for, and guess___”
“Whoa, hold on,” I told her. “Meet me tomorrow. Ten o’clock, by the cafeteria door.”
“Me?” she said. “I mean, sure.”
Next morning, Hurricane Iris picked right up full steam ahead with the same gibberish, how she’s looking forward to high school, how everyone’s more mature there, et cetera. The non-stop patter was just as well, me being a person of few words, but everyone’s got a limit, and the first time she paused for air, more or less mid-sentence, I found myself blurting, “So, your little friend, Leigh, is she from down South really, or is she faking it? How come she showed up in the middle of summer? And, why do you think she hates me?”
“That,” Iris said, removing her glasses, freezing me in a twitchy stare, “might be the understatement of the year.”
“Granted. But why?”
“She just doesn’t like you,” she said. “Your behavior, that’s why. She can’t stand conceited show-offs. And once she makes her mind up, forget it, that’s it. Want to go shoot some miniature golf.”
“Know what?” I snapped my fingers. “Got to split to meet this friend, I just remembered. See you around, though. Later, okay?”
So, I’m hustling towards the exits when, lo and behold, what do I see, but Lolita tooda-looing my way in this shiny mini-bikini the color of aluminum foil, barefoot with no bathrobe, curves upon curves, hips swishing left to right. All by her lonesome, Boom-ba-ba-boom. Had this dreamy look, swinging her shoulders, arms flapping a little, hands dangling down. Floating. Sure enough though, the second the sexpot spots me, her little nose twists up, as if one glimpse will cause blindness.
“Hey, you,” I called out, “scuse me, how’s it going? Nice suit there, so bright and shiny. That’s a new color, right?”
“Oh?” she said, slowing her pace, “you noticed? Thought I’m beneath you. Just a dopey little nobody. Goldilocks.”
“Come on,” I said, blocking her path, “you can’t tell a joke when you hear one? I was just messing around. Hey, listen, we’re playing on the big courts later, two o’clock. How’s about you come cheer me on, then we go for a soda? My treat.”
“Hey, yourself. I happen to be previously occupied,” she said. “Besides which, I have no interest in conversing with you. We have nothing to talk about.”
“Really? Two can play that game,” I told her, as she bustled off. “And watch it, don’t stub your toe.”
Guess what though? Leigh came traipsing over right after tip off. I was deadly, slicing to the bucket, gliding around the dee, I bagged like 18, inside mostly, we annihilated those punks, a knife through butter, high fives all around, but then, get this, the chick vanished, arm in arm with this goof Stuie Gordon, about the last schmo our age besides me she hadn’t gone with yet.
“Jeez, will you look at that?” I told my bud Bobby Zee. “Holy moly!”
“Uh-oh,” he said, “keep your distance, Shoes. Chick’s got zero scruples, okay? You think you’re Superman? Get next to her, you’ll see: she’s Kryptonite.”
The rest of them meanwhile started carrying on with crap like, Who the hell does she think she is, She’s a Bee-Eye-Tee-Cee-Aitch on wheels, and, Hey, want to know what that flirt pulled on me?
“Know what your problem is?” I said. “You’re all immature. Grow up, okay?”
“You got no idea, baby,” Zellman said, grabbing my arm, “what you’re getting yourself into.”
“Got to know how to handle girls,” I said.
“Just warning you, slick.”
“Hey, call me stupid,” I told him, “or call me smart. Best believe though, I’ll take my chances.”
Two days later, there it is on a silver platter, Leigh reclining in the pool on a black rubber tube, waiting for the next sucker to appear, and I figure, Do or die, let’s go, Schuman! I scramble up the high diving board, give a rebel yell, hit like a cannonball, swim under water and break the surface right by her, not three feet away.
“Hey,” I said, shaking my head like a dog, “fancy meeting you here, sunshine.”
Opening her eyes she uttered a throw up sound. “What, are you still bothering me? Be gone.”
“Be what? I’m here to rescue you. From these turbulent, shark infested waters.”
With that I yanked Leigh off the tube and towed her under the chin, kicking all the way to the shallow end, thrashing like crazy, screaming, “Help! Help!” Except the useless lifeguard was slathering suntan lotion on his shoulders, and he couldn’t be bothered even tooting the whistle, so she piped down and just held on by the time we climbed out.
“Lousy bum, you,” she said, wringing water from her hair, “don’t you realize it’s just as easy for a person to act nice and considerate as it is to be vile, repulsive and loathsome?”
“A hundred per cent,” I said, breaking a Clark Bar I brought in two, handing her half. “Yeah, I get it. What’s that last word though?”
“It’s from the dictionary,” she said, crunching away. “Go look it up, if you ever learn to read.”
Five minutes and two most humble apologies later, splashing around like ten year olds, I give her a ride on my back, and her skin is so full of goose bumps after we get out, I wrap Leigh in my towel and pat her dry, head to toe. Courteous and polite, like you wouldn’t believe, a regular Gentleman Jack. Then I have to bolt, the old man is taking me along to some vulture liquidator to hopefully sell off the last of his merchandise.
“Tomorrow?” I asked her.
“Maybe,” she said. “Around twelve, I guess.”
So, next day I was pacing around, till at twenty after I gave the wall a good solid kick and stomped off to the paddleball courts, cursing Leigh out, slamming the ball extra hard against the wall. Saw some skinny merink hitting I challenged to a match. In the middle of which, her and Iris come waltzing by and, what do you know, they stop to whoop their lungs out on every point. By the time we split for the cafeteria I’m flanked by my new cheerleading squad, arms over both their shoulders.
“You creamed that high school kid,” Leigh said, patting my sweaty stomach. “How’d you learn to hit killers like that?”
“You think he’d even beat Senor Alvarez?” Iris asked.
“Es muy forte,” Leigh answers, with a lisp, and the two of them started giggling, then cracked up.
“Who’s this Alvarez?” I asked. “Bring on all comers.”
“Oy, es un hombre grande. Muy importante.”
“Pero, muy loco en la cabeza.”
Then they’re off to the races, goofing about this Spanish teacher, dropping weirdo names all through lunch till I stop paying attention: Mr. Planet, The Amazing Arnie, Solly Knish, et cetera, et cetera. Cause they keep jabbering in Spanish, which I never took, like a couple of real natives, making fun of me half the time, I think.
“Got to hit it now,” I finally said, searching Leigh’s gray cat eyes. “How’s about tomorrow? Catch you at ten?”
“Ten?” Iris said. “Definitely!”
I shot her this stare that could fry an egg, on the verge of saying, “Not you, dummy! Her!” but then I remembered, Oh yeah, it’s as easy to be nice, so I just forced a smile.
Next morning I get a late start and the queen bee already has an entourage of five admirers swarming around like mosquitos.
“Hey! Let’s go in the water,” one of them said. “We’ll do chicken fights.”
So, all of us march to the pool: me, Iris, Leigh, and this numb nuts quintet, including one dead fish Alan, got a Beatle haircut and sleazy goatee, looked kind of pseudo-intellectual. Whoop-de-doo, might even be in college already! Hanging around a 14 year old! Leigh dropped his slimy mitt just before we reached the water though, she turned to me and stuck her lower lip out.
“Suddenly, I don’t feel so hot, Steven,” she moaned, “I don’t want to go in.”
“So, don’t,” I said. “What’s the problem?”
“A little dizzy. Sick to my stomach. Think I could rest my head on your shoulder a second? Just till it passes?”
“Step this way,” I said, heading to a bench. “Be my guest.”
So, the rest of the retinue plunged in, they started horsing around in the pool, causing a commotion, Iris kept searching through her bag on the bench next to me, while Leigh tucked her head by my neck, pouting about some mystery ailment she supposedly has, trying to untangle her hair.
“Come on in,” one of the schmuck-faces shouted, waving. “Water’s perfect.”
Leigh blinks up with these tragic eyes, lifts her head and whispers, “Want me to?”
I squeezed her shoulder.
Then, what she does, her fingertips begin tickling the inside of my leg, by the bottom of the swim suit, hidden from view under a towel. I have to stretch my arms overhead and let off some steam, each touch a mild electric shock.
“Did you ever see such immature show offs?” Iris asked. “That Alan especially, he’s a little seedy, isn’t he? Skinny as a rail,” and she’s chirping away while Leigh takes an excursion down my inner thigh, curling hairs around, roaming through the underbrush, purring, to the point I’m leaping out of my skin. The five yutzes leave, single file, their heads hung when they see Leigh’s eyes closed. Iris meanwhile stops fumbling, and clams up to scribble in her notebook.
“Why’re you so squirmy?” Leigh whispers, pulsating with heat, tickling higher and higher. “Hmm? Why don’t you sit still, little boy?”
That goes on for a while till Leigh pops off the bench, throws her arms open, leans in, kisses the air, and grips ahold of my shoulders.
“Hope you don’t mind, but I’m a hugger. Kay, Mr. Basketball? See you in our dreams.”
I open my eyes, but no words come out.
“You’ll still adore me with eyeglasses, won’t you? That’s okay, just nod.”
“Hey,” I said to Iris, still in a fog when my boner finally shrinks. “Want to go play miniature golf?” Cause, for better or worse, these two are a package deal, they come together usually on the bus, and I’m thinking maybe I can pick some useful info up from Miss Flipside here.
I got tongue tied worse than ever though and for once in her life, so did she.
“So, what are you, in summer school?” I finally asked, tapping the notebook she always carried around on the walk over. “Got composition assignments?”
“Not compositions,” she said, “I’m writing stories.”
“Stories? About what?”
“Life,” she said. “Okay?”
“Hey, fine by me.”
“Oy!” she said, at the first hole, stamping her foot when she plunked the ball off the tee right into a sand trap. “I am such a klutz.”
“No sweat,” I told her, placing it back. “Go ahead, you get one do-over.”
She looked like Excedrin Headache Number Nine, and we ended up playing holes two through seven in stone silence. Scratching scores on the card, our only conversation, “Was that a three or a four?”
“So, by the way,” I finally asked, lining my putt up on eight, “does your friend Leigh go steady ever?”
“Ha,” she said. “All the time. She’s going steady now.”
“Excuse me?” I seized her wrist, then let it drop. “With who?”
“That’s whom,” she said. “Some counselor. From that camp she got kicked out of.”
“Is that right? So, where’s her i.d. bracelet?”
Iris started coughing, clearing her throat. “The guy can’t afford one.”
Outstanding, I was thinking, terrific, cause neither could I.
Me, I don’t worry much, because what good does it do? This particular night though I couldn’t sleep, reliving every second on that bench in slow motion, breathing in Leigh’s coconut suntan lotion, sweating, running to the toilet, half-delirious. Next day, I scour the beach, with no avail, and the whole game I just keep circling the court, like numb. Got doubled by a couple of real cheap shot artists, it’s a bloodbath, all elbows, and not one of my rolls drop, so I start to force it, trying to pop from out past the key. Scored ten at most, somehow we pulled it out, but it’s ugly and the boys were all over me.
The Zee is like, “Why don’t you pass the ball, huh? Chucker!”
“Screw you,” I shouted, stomping to the sideline. “Screw yuz all. Bunch of stiffs. Every game I got to carry you guys?”
I toweled off next to these deep tanned kibitzers that watched us like hawks, stinking the beach up, smoking cigars. Chick and Artie, fat and skinny.
Chick, the bald barrel-chested one with the white terry cloth robe and stained yacht cap, pointed to me, laughing. “Think this Schuman kid’s over-rated? Might be past his prime.”
“Nah, what are you talking, he’s a good looking kid here, this Stevie,” Artie said, fingering his pencil mustache, tapping his ash on the ground. “Very smooth with the moves. An off day, it happens to the best of us. Team still won, though. Wait till tournament time.”
“But the kid don’t put it in the hole no more,” Chick said, taking a puff, pulling a roll of twenties from his pocket like you see at a gas station, peeling two off, and stuffing them in Artie’s shirt pocket. “Looks soft to me, more like a lover than a fighter. No offense, kid.”
I turned red, but for once just kept it zipped cause I had something else on my mind.
Same story though, Sunday. Dismal, winds blasting off the ocean.
The bookworm found me launching shots in a high wobbly arc from the corner, then meandered over.
“So, Leigh’s off at the World’s Fair in Queens. With that Alan.”
“Yeah? Big whoop!”
“Oh? Like you don’t care?”
“Hope Ringo Starr and her have a real ball together. A ton of laughs.”
“What do you want with me, Iris?”
“So, what did you think, Leigh likes you, or something?” she asked.
“What am I, a mind-reader?”
“Well, don’t tell her I told you, but she mentioned about your eyes, how they’re cute, or something.” Then Iris raised her shoulder and marched off.
Cute? Welcome to The Twilight Zone.
Monday: a slow motion haze. The bearded wonder trudged by in a cloud himself, we nodded to each other, so I knew at least they weren’t together. Maybe Leigh’s steady quote unquote boyfriend returned from camp to reclaim her affections.
Tuesday I hunted Iris down at a cabana where she sat jotting away again in her book.
“How’s it going?” I asked her, grumpy.
“Just tell me,” she said, squinting up from the recliner. “The reason you’re bothering with me at all is because you like Leigh, right?”
“Not a hundred per cent.”
She shook her head, and turned back to scribbling.
“I did want to ask you something though. If you don’t mind.”
“About Leigh, right?”
“You positive she’s going steady?”
She slammed the book shut, looked up and shaded her eyes.
“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a little late for that. The secret’s out. What’s this kid’s name? Who is he?”
“I don’t know. Jimmy,” she said, trailing off. “I think.”
“All right, Jimmy.”
“Is he tough? What could you tell me about him?”
She just huffed a breath out through her mouth.
“What’s the matter?”
“You trying to give me a complex?”
“Sure, that’s my main point in life, to give you a complex.”
“Steven Schuman!” she said, like a curse. “I knew it!”
And then, holy smokes, did she start in. I mean, like cry me a river.
“Cool it, Iris. Hey, come on, want to go in the water with me? Take five, will you? Go fix yourself up. Hey, come here, nothing to cry about.”
I pulled her towards me, whispered, “I’m sorry, okay?” and that quieted her down.
She came back from the Girl’s room wearing too much make up, then we resumed our walk, with her yapping at the speed of light, bim-bim-bim and, just like that, she grabbed my hand. Which shook me up. Cause imagine if anyone saw?
“Iris! Iris!” I shouted her down. “Let’s sit on this bench awhile. So, what were you bawling for?”
“Why do you think?”
“I don’t read minds. That’s not my department.”
“Are you that dense?” And she pulled my left hand with both of hers.
“Hey, come on, Iris. What did I do?”
“You don’t think I’m pretty, do you?”
“Yeah,” I told her, “you’re pretty. I’m just, I’m a little diverted with a certain friend of yours at the moment. Cause I can’t figure out what’s going on with her.”
“Oh, you can’t? Really?”
“What’s the story with her boyfriend?”
“I hate you!” she said. “He’s going in The Navy. That’s all I know. He’s like super handsome, all right? And strong. With long wavy beach boy hair.”
Over lunch Iris told me Leigh’s father once owned a liquor store near Washington, her mother used to be an actress, she’s got two little sisters, et cetera, but her fork kept stabbing pineapple chunks and strawberries, shoveling them into her mouth full of cottage cheese, her cheeks all puffed, chewing while she blabbed, and the sight made me out and out gag, so I couldn’t concentrate and just excused myself to go for a swim.
“See you later,” she said, all blurry from the food.
So, I ran off, took some deep breaths of salt air, and went all the way out past the rocks. The Navy! Man alive, who ever heard anything like this?
“Fair?” Dad said. He rubbed his eyes and laughed. “Most things aren’t, nowadays.”
“Okay, but why can’t she make her mind up and stop flitting around?” I asked him. “Think it’s my fault?”
“Probably not. Must be in her nature. Look, the way things keep going in this world, with the means of production concentrated in the hands of so few,” and then he started to lose me, like always. No idea, for instance, what Leigh’s shenanigans had even remotely to do with the Gulf of Tonkin, Chiang-Kai-Shek, US Steel, or any Chinese warlords. Much less Jack Ruby.
“You don’t get it?” he said. “Remember this: a cat’s not a dog.”
Thank you. Whatever that meant.
Checking the clock ten times each day got me down in the mouth, until Thursday, when Leigh made her grand entrance, white framed eyeglasses and all. She strutted right over to the bench where I was laid out after a hard run on the Boardwalk.
“Check those big he-man muscles,” she said. “Whoa!”
“So where’d you disappear? Where’ve you been hiding?” I asked, gulping water, sitting up and trying to wipe the sweat off me.
“Why?” She gave me a wink. “Did you miss me?”
“Why?” I asked. “You didn’t miss me, did you?”
“I asked you first. You know, it’s not polite to answer a question with a question.”
“Okay, why don’t you and me take a little walk then,” I suggested, pointing, “and we could talk about it. And I could show you a few things. Nice and politely.”
“Any place special?” Her eyes widened.
“How’s about the Boardwalk? As in, underneath it.”
“Oooh,” she said, “I was warned never to ever go there. That evil deeds might occur, where no one could see.”
“What are you worried about?” I thumped my chest. “I’m here to protect you. The US Navy!”
Her head snapped back, she gave me a scrunchy look.
“That’s right,” I said, “I’ll keep the wolves at bay.”
What followed involved spreading a blanket out and rolling around where I suggested in an isolated spot for over an hour, with Leigh moaning what sounded to me like the word “love” a few times, but it’s so muffled,, and with the trance I fell in, I couldn’t be sure.
Gliding around the beach later, locking eyes, just her and me, two feet off the ground, long perfumed kisses on the neck and lips, thinking Yes! What’s cooler than this? I was in heaven, till the next morning when she gave me a big Howdy, batting her lashes, arm in arm with the bearded one, the two of them all lovey-dovey, with Iris and her notebook tagging behind for good measure!
The only explanation, this is Friday, and us going under the Boardwalk, that was Thursday.
I froze, stupefied, still as a statue, then stomped off cursing to shoot baskets. Minutes into my lay-up drill, grumbling what a stupid ass sucker I am, trying to shake everything off, who showed up but the three of them. So I raised the ball overhead, bounced it hard and stormed off the court.
“Wait, where you going?” Leigh asked. “We came to watch. The basketball star in action.”
“Taking off,” I said.
“Can you wait a minute, please? For me?” She stuck her lower lip out. “Pretty please?”
“All right,” I said. “But hurry it up.”
After a few words with Alan and Iris, she gave them both hugs, came over and said, “Okay, all yours. Let’s go.”
“Wherever.” She looked up, her eyes melting.
So we start walking, she grabs me around the waist, and rests her head on my shoulder.
“So what’s the deal? You like this Alan?”
“Pardon me?” She pulled away, giggling. “What kind of question is that?”
I couldn’t speak, just cleared my throat.
“You know,” she told me, “he asked the same about you.”
“What’d you tell him, only on Thursday? So, the two of you made out together? When you went to the World’s Fair?”
“No,” she said. “He might’ve tried to a little. I don’t recall. But, how’d you know we went there?”
“Think I’m stupid?” I said.
The longer we strolled, the slower, the more inter-twined, the wilder my imagination got. Alan? What am I worried about? She just put that dufus down. To be with me. What if I ask her to go steady now? Maybe she’ll ditch that sailor boy. Something gripped me though, how this wasn’t the time. Or was I just punking out? We walked to a bench facing the ocean, she plopped on my lap, nuzzled up, bouncing around, and whispering, “Are you mama’s little bee-bee?”
Saturday’s more of the same, me and her climbing all over each other’s legs and arms, the good ship Lollipop, in the water and out. Hate to admit, but I actually skipped a game so we could hang out more. Sunday thoug, Leigh had to visit Grandma, then Monday turned out it’s cold shoulder day, Iris told me she couldn’t say why, it was one more secret. She kept winking, hinting Leigh had to go to the doctor, but wouldn’t say what for. That’s when I took for ices and she told me about summer camp.
That Tuesday Leigh confessed she couldn’t sleep all night picturing my eyes, and everything went perfect, like in a slow motion dream, but then Wednesday Zellman told me he’d seen her draped all over some lifeguard, sitting up on his throne that morning, wearing his hat. By the time I ran to the pool though, she’d vanished. Thursday was a no show, Friday she sweared how I’m putting her in a very very very dangerous mood, but she had to split early. The weekend was just a empty wasteland and then Monday a complete freeze job.
Every time I’d get to the point I wished I’d never met her, Leigh would give me a sign it’s back on. In between, Iris kept whispering how Leigh’s decided to avoid me, how she’s hanging with some putz on the Lafayette Swim Team she’s all of a sudden “head over heels with,” how she promised to introduce her to Jimmy before he shipped out, et cetera, et cetera. So, it was a constant Doomsday until we’d go back to our spot under The Boardwalk, mess around, and that would obliterate everything else.
“Stop, Mr. Schuman,” she finally told me, walking back from one of our sessions. “Stop being so serious. About everything. You ask too many questions. And please, do not try and figure me out any more. You won’t be able to. You’re fifteen, I’m fourteen. That’s all you have to know. I like you a lot, but I’m not on trial, okay?”
“Right. No more questions,” I repeated, like a zombie. “Okay.”
“That a boy.” She squeezed my hand. “Arguing’s such a waste.”
Two days before Labor Day, me and Iris sat cross legged on her blanket, playing Casino and, don’t ask why, but I was like, “You want to read me one of your stories?”
Her eyes bugged out. “Really?” She cleared her throat, spit her gum in the sand and stood up.
I couldn’t follow it totally, but what I got was that the world changes for Leslie, a happy-go-lucky twelve year old, when the newspapers accuse her father of some crime. He goes into hiding, loses his store, a manhunt starts, and the girl doesn’t get why everyone’s after him, it seems so unfair, he didn’t hurt anybody, so she decides to hunt down the real criminal, but no matter how hard she investigates she isn’t able to. So, it ends with a question: maybe her father really did do it.
Iris teared up, she started sniffling, I put my arm around her, and patted her head.
“You wrote this?” I asked. “All yourself? You made it up?”
“Yeah,” she whispered, dabbing her eyes. “Pretty much from scratch.”
“Wow, you’ve got some vocabulary. Some imagination.”
Then back we went to the card game and right away she laid down the Good Ten.
Me and the boys meanwhile got bounced from the Tournament in the semi’s. By a bunch of hackers. The truth being, my shot disappeared after half-time and did not come back.
The big talkers, Chick and Artie, the cigar brothers, they must’ve cleaned up, cause they were slapping fives up, down, and around.
“Nice game,” Chick said to me, cracking up so bad he had a coughing fit, doubled over and started hawking phlegm up. “Told you,” he said to Artie, still laughing when he finally recovered, “didn’t I? Got their asses handed to them. Wasn’t even close.” Then, turning to me, he was like, “You guys got pushed around.”
“Hey, kid, don’t mind this yutz,” Artie said. “What does he know? Come here.”
While I was biting my tongue he slipped me a folded up ten.
“What’s this?” I asked, staring at the bill. I’d never held one in my hand before.
“That’s for trying,” he said. “Money cures all ills. Almost. Forget the game, go take some girl for a soda. Just remember your old friend Artie. Next summer. See you around, babes.”
So what? Turning away, I saw some real dejected looks, though. I guess a lot of people were disappointed.
“Tough game,” this handball ace Barry Simon said, shaking his head, like he had money on us and lost a bundle.
“The way the cookie crumbles,” I told him. “Win some, you lose some.” But I didn’t want to stick around and dwell on it, so I huddled the boys up.
“Hey, it’s no use looking back. Let’s face it: we gave it to them. And being the captain, it’s on me. Want to win, got to play better. Simple as that. Should’ve pushed us to all practice more.”
They were staring at their sneakers, kicking sand, waiting to hear something hopeful. For me to tie this insane summer up, being in the middle, trying to figure out what’s happening on the spot, it’s not easy. Maybe it would come later. I grabbed the basketball, and balanced it in my palm.
“See this? It’s round. It’s going to bounce, it’s going to roll. This court here, it’s no place for crybabies.”
I stuck my other hand out, they all followed suit. We touched fingertips, I was like, “See yuz,” then headed home.
“Shoes,” somebody called out, “hey, Shoes,” but I didn’t look back.
Next morning must’ve hit ninety.
“Doing okay?” I asked Iris, rubbing my knuckles on her cheek.
“Dying from this heat,” she said sticking her tongue out, beads of sweat dripping. “Plus, I’m bitten up all over.”
“Since when’d you grow your hair out?” A thick long strand like a horse’s tail dangled over her eye, so I smoothed it back onto her forehead. “Can’t believe I never noticed.”
“Well,” she said, “actually I got it trimmed last week. I just decided to stop with the perms. That gross chemical smell.”
“Nice,” I told her.
“Yeah?” She glanced up, brushing another strand back behind her ear and I moved a little closer.
“So, you see all the weight our friend’s gained the last couple weeks?”
Iris shrugged. “No comment,” she said.
“You sad vacation’s over?”
“Can’t wait to get back to school,” she said.
“Honestly, summer’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Crazy things happen.”
Guessing games, having Leigh lead me around, blowing the tournament everyone said we’re locks to win, nothing ever going the way it’s supposed to? I’m sorry, maybe this Iris is a little gabby, but she’s got a definite head on her shoulders.
Last day of the season: the Beauty Contest, Miss Brighton Beach Teen, Leigh struts around like the definite winner, but bam, she winds up sixth. Some skinny drip with long Olive Oyl legs named Marsha copped the trophy. Watching them all parade around in wobbly high heels, from the back row of seats, me and the boys couldn’t believe it.
“It’s a fix!” Zellman hollered. “Refund!”
“Maybe she shouldn’t have ate that last bag of Hershey Kisses all by herself,” I said, and we slapped fives all around. “She’s growing some belly.”
“No more bikinis for Lolita,” Zellman said. “Maybe she should’ve gave away some of her Yankee Doodles.”
“Yeah,” I said, unwrapping a Chunky. “Let me go console her.”
She’s standing off to the side of the bandstand after they finish snapping pictures, her shoulders rounded, looking down, like she has no idea which way to turn. This feeling overcomes me walking towards her that I’ll soon be entering the real world, we all will, I’ll have a job next summer, and the games are officially over. Leigh glances up, takes a deep breath, and her eyes freeze me in my tracks, even from a distance. How wounded they looked, how the sparkle is gone. I don’t know what to do, but I can’t take my eyes off her. She waves, turns around, and begins padding off by herself to the Girl’s lockers. Slowly, though. Very, very slowly.