Rizzo shacked up with his new 16-year-old girl friend for three straight days. The military Greek chorus was surprisingly tolerant with him. I suspect this was because:
1. Rizzo was Rizzo, and 2. Rizzo was only 19 himself.
Rizzo was only 19 but looked older. Normally, looking older and having an affair with a 16-year-old would tend to make the situation worse, but the guys obviously didn’t think so.
My own friendship with Rizzo seemed based on athletic bonding. We were on so many teams together that people assumed we were buddies. The military, as I found out, is very much oriented toward the buddy system, even if you’re stationed at Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago, and living in off-base housing on the South Side near the University of Chicago. If people think you’re buddies, you’d better be constantly looking out for the welfare of your buddy.
Rizzo certainly kept up his end of the bargain. He referred to me as, “that academic who can play ball,” which was exactly the way I wanted to be regarded. As soon as we arrived for our assignment in Chicago, he found a headquarters basketball team that was vying for the league playoffs, but with two players who were about to be mustered out. He got us both on that team as replacements.
Basketball was not even one of his favorite sports. “I get around ten points a game,” he told me, “all on garbage around the basket.” I hit anywhere from 0 to 20 points a game, depending on whether the jump shot is on, and whether the opposing team looks at my academic demeanor and puts their worst defender on me.
Rizzo’s favorite sports were baseball, football, and boxing. He was graceful for a big man. He liked to talk about the time he got two doubles off Sandy Koufax in a Parade Grounds baseball game in Brooklyn. He was also a Golden Gloves boxer. My favorite sports were basketball, tennis, and softball. It was like blue-collar/white-collar athletics.
On the long train ride from New York to our new assignment at Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago, Rizzo seemed more intent on talking to me than to his buddy McNabb. This was ironic, because starting with that first night of basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, when Rizzo was piercing the darkness, stillness, and our collective apprehension by bellowing out elephant calls, I’d tried to and succeeded in totally avoiding him. On that first night, even before the chaos that occurred after lights out, one of the older recruits warned me to stay away from Rizzo; he was either nuts, or pretending to be nuts to get out of the Army on a Section 8 discharge. From what I could see, that was an accurate assessment.
But during that train ride Rizzo seemed surprisingly normal. We talked about family, athletics, and what this new assignment would be like. Our group was perfectly balanced according to formal education: two college graduates, two high-school graduates, and one guy with a year of community college. Rizzo mentioned he’d been an underachiever in high school.
“Well,” I observed, “you had to do pretty well on those army tests to get this assignment.”
Theoretically, the quality of the assignments correlated directly to your performance on a series of weekly tests in advanced Basic. Fifth Army Headquarters was considered a choice assignment, mainly because there was a rumor that there were no military barracks there. There was also a countervailing rumor that there were barracks there. As it turned out, both rumors were right. There were barracks, but, to our delight, no room for any new recruits.
“We did well on the tests,” Rizzo admitted, “because McNabb and I got to some kid in the education office. He gave us a copy of each test beforehand.”
John McNabb, one of our group of five, overheard him. “We would have aced those tests anyway,” he called out.
Rizzo ignored him. His expression darkened. “I’m not spending two years of my life in Fort Hellhole,” he muttered.
My own reaction to this admission again surprised me. I didn’t give a shit. Could the Army have done that to me in just four short months?
We’re walking up South Kenwood Avenue towards the park. It’s September, and you can feel the chill in the air. There’s a league touch-football game this evening. On offense, Rizzo plays the line and I play wide receiver. On defense, he’s a linebacker and I’m a defensive end. It’s only touch football, but the blocking can be fierce. Rizzo put the team together, and he’s gotten some pretty good players. Two of our linemen played college football at schools on the West Coast. He refers to them as “dumb jocks.” They don’t seem particularly dumb to me.
“Carol has a friend who wants to meet you,” he says as we approach the park. “This girl only goes out with college guys. You interested?”
I didn’t know he was still seeing Carol. She’s the 16-year-old. Rizzo makes no attempts to conceal his conquests. In addition to Carol, there’s a nice looking, single woman in her forties named Brenda who lives at our apartment hotel, two airline stewardesses from the hotel across the street, and our hotel maid. And we’ve only been there five months. Rizzo gives enough details to prevent you from simply dismissing these claims as male fantasy boasting.
“Thanks, Greg,” I reply, “but I’m not interested. I suspect she’s the same age as Carol. That’s jailbait.”
I await the lecture on my being too uptight, but it doesn’t happen. “I’ve heard that,” Rizzo says. “Just what does that mean?”
“It means that if you have sex with a girl under 18, it’s a felony offense. Called statutory rape. It doesn’t matter if it’s consensual or not. If you’re convicted, they can put you away for 20 years.”
Rizzo remains unperturbed. “You ever do that?” he asks.
“Once.” I start to say “that was different,” but I check myself. To be honest, maybe it wasn’t different.
“It sounds like one of those stupid laws that no one ever enforces,” Rizzo mutters. Then he shows his first sign of uncertainty. “Is that law ever enforced?”
“It depends. It depends on what state you live in, and how mad the girl’s father is at you.”
The football game is close, but we go down to defeat. There’s still a couple of hours left before we have to go to work. Rizzo and I have both just started working the third shift: 12 midnight to 8 A.M. In front of our apartment hotel, Rizzo stops and hands me small piece of paper.
“Her name’s Angie,” he says. “Here’s her number. If you change your mind, give her a call.”
I don’t give Angie a call. This assignment is the land of opportunity, and I don’t want to do anything to screw that up. It’s the land of opportunity not for accomplishment, but for just playing ball and goofing off. You’re always comparing it to the alternative of being called into combat and getting your head blown off.
We live in an area just north of the University of Chicago. There’s a whole slew of relatively inexpensive apartment hotels. The area is populated mostly by army guys from the Fifth Army, navy people from the Great Lakes Naval Basin, college students and professors, and commercial airlines stewardesses and pilots flying out of Midway.
Rizzo believes that the overwhelming majority of males have the exact same desires as he does. He’s just more candid about these desires, and consequently more effective at fulfilling them.
“When she sticks her left boob in your face,” he’ll say, “you’re not going to be thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”
It’s almost like we’ve got this down to a routine. “You’re right, Rizzo,” I’ll reply. “The whole concept of entropy depresses me.”
I should never have told him that joke. It’s not much of a joke, but I like it because my parents own an older home in Brooklyn. The whole infrastructure of that house is always falling apart. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is well known to all homeowners. Basically, it states that everything breaks down eventually.
Rizzo, McNabb, and I are sitting at a small table in the Hyde Park Soda Shoppe. It’s 11 A.M. The place is packed. We’re the only guys in uniform. We’ve just come back from one of those idiotic Saturday-morning inspections that periodically follow third shift. Normally, I get back to the apartment at about 8:30 A.M., have breakfast, and sleep for about four hours. I don’t feel like sleeping this morning.
To say we work an eight-hour shift is not quite accurate. We work at the Fifth Army Machine Records Unit on the South Side. It’s a huge open warehouse floor with a sea of desks and punched card machines. I work as a punched-card verifier. Rizzo wangled a job wiring program boards. I’m not sure what McNabb does. I can almost do my entire evening’s quota of cards in about three hours. Sometimes I even read the morning report data I’m verifying. The reports describe in detail the total inactivity of the Fifth Army. There might be a bit of fat in this peacetime army.
At 3 A.M. it’s nap time. There are khaki-clad sleeping bodies everywhere – on the desks, against the walls. It looks like our post has been overrun by the enemy. The back cushions of the colonel’s black couch go on the floor, and the couch is converted to two beds. Reveille is at 5:30 A.M.; one guy has the duty to go around and wake everyone up. First-shift people may be coming in early. We work like mad until 8 A.M. If there’s no morning inspection, the shift is over and it’s back to the apartment.
It’s a beautiful June day – the first warm day we’ve had. The airline stewardesses in their short shorts and skimpy tops are out in full force. There are plenty of them in the Hyde Park Soda Shoppe. They’re standing in the aisles between the tables, waiting for a table to become available.
“Look at this,” Rizzo says, turning around to face a pair of lavender-colored short shorts.
“Nice,” I say.
“Lots of shiksas,” McNabb observes.
McNabb’s been using a lot of Yiddish expressions lately. Usually he uses them incorrectly. This time he may be technically correct.
“I mean,” Rizzo says, “it’s all geared to giving us a big –“
“What?” Rizzo asks.
“Arousal. It’s all geared to mass male arousal.”
“Like a visual mating call,” McNabb chimes in.
McNabb has blond hair and rugged good looks. To my surprise, as soon as we arrived in Chicago he fell in love with a WAVE, and has taken himself out of the hunt. He still likes to serve as an advisor during Rizzo’s commentary.
Uh, oh. The visual is about to become tactile. The lavender shorts are encroaching on Rizzo’s airspace. The shorts belong a tall, slender woman with her back toward us. My initial reaction is that I could go for that. She’s talking to two friends: a shorter brunette, and a fortyish-looking male wearing tan Bermuda shorts. The guy has this frozen, bland-looking smile. I’m willing to bet he’s an airline pilot.
The reason Rizzo’s airspace is being invaded is simply because it’s crowded in here. A normal person would just move his chair over. Instead, Rizzo begins closely examining the short shorts as if he’s holding an imaginary magnifying glass. He then pretends to run his hands over the contours of the shorts.
McNabb finds this hilarious. I’m getting nervous. Although the woman has her back to us, and Rizzo hasn’t touched her yet, her two friends can see everything.
“Hey, we’ve got to get back to the apartment and change,” I announce. “We’re going to be late for the softball game.”
Rizzo ignores me. He moves his chair toward the edge of the table. He yawns, and prepares to rest his head on the lavender behind. I see the brunette nudge her male friend. The bland smile changes to a grimace.
This could be real trouble. If Rizzo gets into a brawl, while in uniform no less, he’ll end up in the stockade. Because I’ll go to help him, I’ll end up right there with him. Even if McNabb just sits there, he’ll get a lesser sentence. Under the buddy system, Leonard Larson and Henry Grant, the other two guys who came with us to Chicago from Fort Dix, and who aren’t even here, will get their off-base housing privileges revoked.
Suddenly, the lavender shorts whirl around. She’s very pretty. And not at all irate. There’s a look of recognition in her eyes.
“Jon, how are you?” she says effusively.
To my amazement, I realize that I’ve already gone for that. And not successfully. Her name is Jenna. She’s the tennis-playing airline stewardess I met at the Lake Shore Drive courts.
I realize her enthusiasm is mostly from a sense of relief. Yes, there is something going on behind my back, but I know one of those GIs. He’s a tennis player, and tennis players can’t be all that bad.
She leans across Rizzo and kisses me on the cheek. The lavender shorts are now across his lap. Rizzo raises his hands to indicate that there’s no way he’s going try any funny business with his buddy’s girl.
“Call me,” she says softly to me. “I mean it.”
“Hey,” I say, trying to extend the spirit of harmony, “why don’t you take our table? We were just about to leave.”
But Rizzo just sits there. He’s looking at me, absolutely beaming. McNabb is more suspicious, with good reason. But I don’t give a shit what McNabb thinks. Maybe the collaboration between Jenna and me to avoid disaster will break the ice between us. Besides, it’s a beautiful day, everything is in bloom, and our off-base housing privileges are still intact.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in July. We’re in the apartment I share with Leonard Larson. The apartments are not lavishly furnished. There’s a living room with a couch, a sofa bed, and easy chair; a small bedroom with a single bed; a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom. I get the bedroom on alternate months.
Rizzo, McNabb, and I are in the living room. We’re sitting around, just bullshitting. Rizzo and I are on the couch. McNabb is in the easy chair. Leonard Larson intermittently walks across the foyer into the kitchen, and then back to the bedroom. He’s still following the basic training admonition to avoid Rizzo at all costs.
Rizzo and McNabb have an apartment with a larger bedroom with two beds. Some apartments have two bedrooms. I wouldn’t mind having one of those, but we can’t afford it. Larson and I originally roomed with Henry Grant in an apartment on Dorchester, one block over. But Henry heard that the Kenwood Arms was the best hotel in the area, so he moved in with Rizzo and McNabb. When the next vacancy occurred, Larson and I switched over also.
“How are you doing with that airline stewardess,” Rizzo asks. “What’s her name?”
“She’s a real knockout. How are you doing?”
“Not well,” I say.
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s kind of puzzling. She’ll always go out with me, either on a Friday or a Saturday.”
“That doesn’t sound like a problem,” McNabb says. “Of course, it depends on where you have to take her.”
“We just go to a movie. But I’m not getting to first base. I’m not even getting out of the batter’s box.”
“That’s a problem,” Rizzo says.
“If I put my arm around her, she complains that I’m crushing her. I tell her it’s because I have a crush on her.”
McNabb smiles his approval on that one. “In a way I like going out with her,” I explain. “She confides in me. Like the other night, she told me how she hates her last name.”
“What is it?” McNabb asks.
“Whiting. What’s wrong with that?”
“Maggie Whiting, the singer,” Rizzo says.
“The thing I don’t like is that she spends a lot of time talking about the airline pilots and college professors she goes out with.”
Rizzo mulls this over. “She’s put you in a compartment.”
An unusual diagnosis. “She’s put you in a compartment,” Rizzo explains, “just like the ones in that serving cart she wheels down the aisles.”
“Right, Greg. I’m the chopped liver special.”
“It’s a good comparison,” McNabb says. “She’s got one guy for sex, one guy for career advancement, one guy for – you know – intellectual things.”
“Or,” Rizzo says, “she’s in love with some pilot who flies the New York to Outer Mongolia route, and she hardly ever sees him. Her idea of being faithful is to break the balls of the other guys she goes out with.”
I’m getting a little uneasy, partly because these guys may be right.
“She’s put you in the intellectual box,” Rizzo says.
McNabb vetoes this. He won’t even grant me egghead status. “Nah,” he says, “she’s got college professors for that.”
“That’s probably right,” Rizzo says. “Let’s see. You do some painting. She’s probably got you down for artistic stimulation.” McNabb grudgingly agrees.
Rizzo not only has the analysis, but the action plan as well. “Here’s what you do,” he says. “The next time you’re in her apartment, just take out your dick. Take it right out and put it on the table.”
“Which table?” I ask.
Rizzo cracks a slight smile. “That’s not the point. Any table.”
“I don’t like putting it on the kitchen table. It’s liable to end up in the salad.”
“All right, some other table. Just put it on the table and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a problem here. This is the problem.’”
I bought a car. It’s a seven-year-old De Soto. This car is like a tank. I paid a used car dealer $243. I could hear my father saying, “Be sure you get liability insurance.” Between the car and the insurance, I’m really busted.
Rizzo and I are driving back from work in the new but old De Soto. It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning – the end of another work week. The car tends to run fairly well for two or three weeks at a time. Then it just won’t start. It’s not the battery and it’s not the starter. I’m not very good at auto mechanics, and I have no money to have a shop fix it. So Rizzo and I just push it into some parking space on the street, and let it rest for a week. Like a good soldier, the car starts right up after this rest and rehabilitation.
The De Soto makes it back from work again. “What are you doing today?” Rizzo asks, as we turn down Kenwood.
“I don’t know. Sleep a couple of hours, and then play some ball at the Y.”
“It’s supposed to be beautiful today. Why would you want to stay indoors all day?”
“Look,” I say, “one of us has to be in shape for the basketball season.”
“A bunch of us are going down to the Loop today,” Rizzo says. “Why don’t you come? McNabb and Henry want to see the auto show.”
“Anyone else going?”
“McNabb’s going with Audrey. And I’m meeting Carol there.”
I’m curious to meet the fair but underage Carol. But I oversleep and have to hurry to the El to take the train to Monroe St. When I reach the Palmer House, they’re all in front waiting for me.
“Nice of you to join us,” McNabb says. He’s there with Audrey. It’s the first time I’ve seen her not wearing her WAVE uniform. Everyone is in civilian clothes. Of course, around the apartment hotels, we’re always in civvies, unless we’re going to or coming from work. This is the first time, though, I really feel like a civilian again.
“Let’s get going,” Henry says. “The show closes at five.”
Henry is the most upbeat guy I know. If it’s a façade, he’s managed to keep it up since I’ve known him. He’s tall and agonizingly thin. He joined the army after a disastrous breakup with his fiancée, just two months before the scheduled wedding date. He’s alternated between living with the dull academics and with the partners in crime. Currently he’s rooming with the underworld.
Rizzo has his arm around a short, stocky girl. The first thing I notice is that she’s got beautiful skin. She’s wearing a cream-colored, criss-cross type blouse that accentuates her breasts. She looks like she’s 16.
Beside Carol is a tall, serious-looking girl who seems a bit nervous. “Jon,” Rizzo says, “this is my girl friend Carol.”
“I’m really glad to meet you.”
“And this is Carol’s friend, Angie.”
I’m hoping my surprise isn’t evident. “Really nice to meet you, Angie,” I say.
Angie is much better looking than I expected. However, she’s wearing this strange, artsy outfit: long brown skirt, white frilly blouse, and a multicolored scarf.
She looks older than 16, I surmise with some relief. I don’t know why I’m even concerned with that. Obviously, they’re trying to fix her up with Henry, who is Rizzo’s age. Getting Henry a girl friend is not a bad idea – although I can’t imagine him being more upbeat than he already is.
“We’ll catch up with you guys after the auto show,” Henry calls out, waving goodbye. He, Audrey, and McNabb start walking down Monroe.
So much for the Henry theory. The remaining four of us start walking down Michigan Avenue like two old married couples: Rizzo and I in front, and the two girls chattering away in back.
The formation changes. Rizzo falls back to talk to Carol. We can’t all walk side-by-side here. Angie and I move to the rear.
I don’t like being set up like this. And I don’t like nervous, talkative, accessorized women.
“How do you like living in Chicago?” Angie asks.
“This is the promised land.”
She’s does have very sensuous lips. For some women, glasses actually enhance their looks.
“I call this place Fort Elysium – as opposed to Fort Hellhole,” I say. “Fort Hellhole is a metaphor, coined by the friend of your girl friend, for a really bad assignment.”
“What’s so good about this assignment?”
“Mainly that we live off-base here. We live near the University of Chicago.”
I switch the conversation to her. “And you’re in high school?”
“Technically, yes. I’m a senior this year. But I’m taking all Advanced Placement courses, and two classes at UIC – the University of Illinois in Chicago.”
The proscription against asking women their age does not apply to minors. “How old are you?”
“I’m 17. And you?”
“That’s pretty young to have finished college and served a year in the army.”
Ah. Dueling comments on our respective youthfulness. “Believe me, graduating at 21 from college didn’t require any great intelligence. I got in just under the deadline when I started school, and high school was easy to do in three-and-a half.”
The grilling continues. “What was your major in college?”
“I majored in English and minored in Design. It’s a combination guaranteed to make it difficult to find a job.”
“English is my favorite subject,” she says.
“Planning to major in that in college?”
“Yes. I’d like to eventually teach at the university level, but that’s a long way off. I may first teach in high school.”
“That’s ironic. The military has decided that my civilian occupation is a high-school English teacher.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
“Not at all.”
Silence. “What’s your favorite literary period?” I ask.
“I like the Romantic poets. Especially Shelley. In ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ I love his use of imagery and color.”
“How about his politics?”
“Those guys were revolutionaries,” I point out. “The West Wind is going to violently come across and wipe out all the corruption and class stratification of England in the early 19th century.”
“Is that your own personal theory?”
Her question ticks me off. “Believe me,” I say, “that interpretation did not originate with me.”
Up ahead, Rizzo and Carol are waiting for us in front of a row of shops. About 30 feet from them, I stop and look at Angie.
“Look,” I say, touching the multi-colored scarf, “somewhere in there there’s probably a very nice young woman. Why don’t you just be yourself?”
Angie looks at me but doesn’t say a word. Rizzo can see but not hear us. He looks at us and smiles.
“We’re going to get a soda before we go back and meet the other guys,” Rizzo says. “Want to join us?”
“Sure,” I say.
“I’ve really got to be getting back home,” Angie says.
Rizzo raises his eyebrows. I’m trying to determine if she’s pissed or not. I’m leaning towards yes.
“I’ll take you back,” I say.
“She lives in Oak Park,” Rizzo says. “You have to take a bus there.”
“I’ll take you back,” I repeat.
“It’s all right,” she says. “I’d rather go alone.”
It’s Tuesday night, about 8:30 – three hours before we have to leave for work. I’m in the living room of our apartment. Len is in the bedroom, reading. I feel bad about Angie. Granted, she’s 17 trying to act like 32. Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken to her that way. She may have taken a long time picking out that godforsaken outfit.
I decide to call and apologize. The paper Rizzo gave me is still in my wallet.
She answers the phone. “Oh, hi, Angie, this is Jon.”
At least there’s no “Who did you say you were?” or “Jon who?”
Might as well get right to the point. “Angie, I want to apologize for the way I acted last Saturday. I said some things that were really presumptuous.”
“It’s all right,” she says. “I think it was a little awkward for both of us.”
So far she’s being pretty damn nice about it, which makes me feel even worse. This is insufficient retribution. I’ve got be rejected by a 17-year-old.
“Look,” I say, “would you like to go to a movie this Saturday?”
“I’d love to.”
I’d love to? What kind of a response is that?
At 7:45 on Saturday evening, the De Soto rumbles into Oak Park. It’s not dark out yet, which should help me find her house. Angie does not live in one of the better sections of Oak Park. In her neighborhood, the houses are small and close together, with tiny front lawns.
I park in front of her house and ring the doorbell. A big, heavy-set, thin-lipped man with an expressionless face opens the door. Angie obviously does not get her full lips from her father. I open the screen door.
“Hi,” I say. “My name is Jon. I’m here to see Angie.”
Silently, he motions me inside. The front door leads directly into the living room. He sits down in the easy chair opposite the TV, and points to the sofa for me.
“So you’re in the army,” he says.
“Yes, sir. I’m stationed on the South Side at Fifth Army Headquarters.”
“And you’ve been to college?”
“And then you got drafted, I suppose.”
“No, sir. I actually enlisted for two years. It’s similar to being drafted, except you don’t have to wait around for the army to get you at their convenience.”
Just as I almost detect a nod of approval, Angie and her mother walk in from the kitchen.
Angie really looks good. She’s wearing black slacks and a red, satiny top. She carries a soft gray sweater on her arm.
Her mother is still wearing her apron. There’s the genetic source of the full lips. Her mother smiles at me, but she looks tired.
“We should get going,” Angie says.
“Very nice meeting you,” I say to both parents, as Angie and I head towards the door.
“Be sure you bring her back by 1:30. That’s her curfew,” her father says. To my surprise, Angie does not roll her eyes.
It’s dark outside now. “Your parents seem nice,” I tell Angie, as we walk toward my car.
“She really tries,” Angie says. “But he drinks too much.”
I don’t say anything.
“They really loved you,” Angie says.
“Really? I mean, you haven’t spoken to them. How can you tell?”
Her mood brightens. “I can tell. I received an on-the-spot extension of my curfew.”
She slips her hand under my arm. “Guess what I got on my English paper,” she says.
“Let’s see. One hundred and two.”
“We get letter grades.”
“A+,” she says proudly.
“Hey, that’s great.”
“I used what you told me about Shelley,” she says. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“There’s nothing proprietary about that information,” I explain. “I learned it in a college course on Romantic Literature.”
“I’ve got to get good grades,” she says quietly. “If I don’t get a scholarship, I can’t go to college.”
Surprisingly, the military Greek chorus was more vocal with me than with Rizzo. “Still traipsing out to Oak Park? That’s worse than living in Brooklyn and dating a girl from the Bronx.”
Four months after our first date, Angie and I decided we would “not see other people.”
In February I took her to her cousin’s wedding and met her extended family. In early March, she mentioned that her watch had stopped working; I shopped around, got her a good one, and had it inscribed.
It’s Tuesday, around one o’clock in the afternoon. Angie calls. I’m not sure which meal I’m eating. If breakfast is what I have when I get off from work, then I’m eating lunch. Larson is back on first shift. There’s a rumor that’s the fate in store for all of us.
“Jon? Did I wake you?”
“Nope. I ‘m having lunch. Or something.”
“Are you still working third shift?”
Funny you should ask. “For the time being. There’s a horrible rumor that we’re all going to get switched back to first. I’m fighting it with all the weapons at my disposal.”
“Do you have any say in the matter?”
“None at all.”
“Jon, something’s come up. I have an interview this Thursday at Urbana. University of Illinois. There’s talk of a scholarship. Do you think you can coach me on what to say?”
“That’s great, honey. But I wouldn’t be much good. I never went to a college interview. Got in automatically to a city school. I can see if one of my friends can help.”
I wish I could see her expression. “Well, actually Rizzo has been interviewed for college, but I guess the interview wasn’t successful. I was thinking more of a buddy of mine named Mel Davis. He graduated from Colgate.”
“It’s all right,” she says.” I’ve got a book on college interviews.”
The reenlistment brochures make their first appearance in early April. They are mailed directly to our apartments. The fact that they are mailed, that we are asked rather than told to do something, makes us feel like real people again.
However, they are the source of much amusement. Even Leonard Larson ventures into the living room with Rizzo, McNabb, and me to join in the merriment.
“It’s chutzpah,” McNabb observes, pronouncing the “ch” as in “chump.”
“Do they really think anyone’s going to re-up?” Rizzo asks.
“Maybe some regular army sergeants,” I say.
“It’s hard to believe,” Rizzo says. “In six months we’ll be free.”
I turn toward Larson. “By the way,” I ask, “what’s with Mel Davis? I didn’t see him at tennis practice the other day.”
Larson works with Davis. Mel is on the base tennis team, and is the second baseman on our softball team.
“He missed our first game,” Rizzo says.
“Is he okay?” I ask.
“He’s out,” Larson says.
“Out of the army.”
I don’t believe it. “He told me his discharge date was June 14th.”
“Early release for seasonal employment,” Larson says. “You can get out three months early if you have a seasonal-type job waiting. He got a job at Hunter Mountain in New York with the ski patrol.”
“Lucky bastard,” Rizzo says.
“Hey,” I say, “maybe I can get a job as a camp counselor and get out early, too.”
Everyone laughs. “I don’t think so,” Larson says. “That’s getting out three months early for a one-month job.”
“You can’t get any more seasonal than that,” I say.
The telephone rings, waking me from a sound sleep. I have no idea where I am, or what time it is. I fumble for my watch on the night table. 10:00 A.M.
“Jon? Did I wake you?”
“That’s all right,” I say groggily.
“I got it!” she says excitedly. I know exactly what she’s talking about. The scholarship.
“Hey, that’s great, honey.”
“It turned out to be more than anyone expected. It includes full tuition, room, board, books, lab fees, and even money for incidentals. We should celebrate,” she says. “You still in bed?” Without waiting for a reply, she says, “I’m coming right over.”
“Sure. Come on over.”
“Just kidding.” Silence. “Jon, I did something nervy.”
“I told them about you.”
“Good or bad?”
“I told them you were about to be discharged from the army, and that you majored in English and minored in Design. They were interested.”
“That’s a first.”
“They said if you enrolled in an accelerated Masters/PhD program you could probably offset expenses by teaching some freshman English courses.”
“Wow. They must want you pretty badly.”
“That wasn’t all. They asked about our relationship, and when I said it was very serious, the student aide took me to see the Family Housing Complex. Jon, it’s the cutest apartment. It’s so much better than a single dorm room. There are two bedrooms, a living room, a dinette, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. You could have the second bedroom as a study, and I’ll use the dinette.”
.This was a lot to digest. We’d talked about marriage, but it was always something far in the future.
“Jon, tell me the truth. Was I being too presumptuous?”
“Not at all.”
“And you’ll take a look at the apartment?”
“Let’s do it this weekend.”
“One more thing. You do love me, don’t you?”
“Come on, Angie. You know I do.”
“And you want to be with me, right?”
“Of course I do, honey.”
“Just checking,” she says gaily.
My parents don’t know a lot about Angie. They do know I’m seeing someone, and she’s about to start college. I write them a breezy letter, telling them how the first reenlistment brochures arrived recently, and the hilarity with which they were greeted. They did remind us that it’s only a little more than five months until we’re free. I mention that in October, after I’m home for a while, I may have to return to Chicago for a short time. That seems to be the best way of handling things.
I also mention that one of the guys here got out three months early this winter for seasonal employment. I thought that maybe I could get a summer job as a camp counselor and get out early, too. The reaction here was almost as hilarious as the one to the reenlistment brochures. Another problem was that the earliest I could get out was July 22, with only about one month left to the camping season. It’s unlikely the army would be foolish enough to let me out three months early for a one-month seasonal job.
I send them my love, hope they were well, and tell them how much I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
It’s 11 o’clock P.M. I’m lying in bed, propped against the headboard, mentally rehashing a bunch of unworkable options. The only sound in the apartment is the rhythmic snoring of Preston on the couch in the living room.
Preston is my replacement. He seems like a nice kid. He’s from Indiana. In two weeks, on July 22, I’m going to be free. The problem is that concurrent with this impending freedom I feel the walls are closing in on me.
Two days ago I got a note from my father. I’d just sent him my letter. I didn’t know the mail could travel that fast. He has this bold, calligraphic handwriting. Everyone on his side of the family, all my aunts and uncles, write that way, too. My father said he called the Secretary of the Army, who assured him that it was perfectly possible to get a three-month early release from the army for a one-month summer job. My father then called a friend of his who owns a summer camp in upstate New York. The friend said he’d be glad to hire me for one month as the camp’s senior staff program director. The pay would be $50. The only catch: the Secretary of the Army said I’d have to act fast if I wanted this early release.
Today I get a letter from my sister, Greta. Last year she dropped out of her doctoral program. She’s been living at home and commuting to work in the city. She just found a dirt-cheap apartment in Manhattan to go with her starvation-wage publishing job. She’s signed the lease. “Really looking forward to seeing you again,” she writes. “It’s so great you’re coming home early. I’ve got to move out – couldn’t let that apartment go by. Dad gets these arthritic flare-ups. He gets into the office only two or three times a week now, and has to go by car service. He and Mom have to hire people to do the household jobs you used to do, and I think they have a cash-flow problem. Your coming home early really works out so well.”
Nothing works. I could take the early release, work at the camp, spend a month at home, and then come back here and find a job. What if Dad doesn’t get better? What if he gets worse?
I could ask Angie to give up the scholarship and join me in New York. That’s even more problematic.
Funny. I’m about to be set free, I’m going to see my family, and I’m in love. These should be the happiest days of my life. Yet I can’t figure out a way of extricating myself from this mess I’m in.
“What happened to Fort Elysium?” Angie asks.
We’re sitting in the front seat of my car. We’re parked in our favorite spot in Columbus Park. Angie is near the passenger-side door. It’s really dark out tonight – dark and quiet. The crickets have chosen to take the night off. Angie appears like a shadow. It seems weird not to be able to touch her.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s closed for repairs. I mean, this was a great assignment, a great two years – I guess 21 months – of my life. But it’s still the army. And in the army, you just want to be free.” Perhaps not the best choice of words in this situation.
“This really confuses me,” Angie says. “The army lets you off three months early for a one-month summer job. That in itself is hard to figure out. But they offer you that, and you want to be free, so you accept. You know, that part I can actually understand. Here’s what I can’t fathom: you get your freedom, work the one month, go back home, and spend some of time with your parents. Let’s say a month. Why can’t you, after that month, come back here?”
“That’s what I would really want. But it’s not that simple. My father’s health has deteriorated. He gets these arthritic flare-ups. My sister has been living with them for a year. She’s basically saying that one of us should live with them, and now it’s my turn.”
“So everyone in your family comes before me.”
“That’s not true, Angie. I’m trying to balance a lot of things here. In all fairness to Greta, she doesn’t know that much about you. I’ve told her I’m seeing someone. I wanted to wait until they meet you.”
Another mistake. “So what’s your plan?” Angie asks. “Are you going to stay in New York indefinitely?”
“Of course not. Stay in New York for one semester. Get some work experience. See how my father is. If at all possible, then come back here and see if your university was serious about that offer.”
“So the apartment is out,” Angie says quietly.
“Just for one semester.”
“Jon, do you want to break up with me?”
“I do not want to break up with you.”
“I would hope,” she says, “that if you really wanted that, you’d be man enough to say so.”
“This isn’t rational. When I get home – no, as soon as I get to this summer camp job — I’m going to call you, I’m going to write to you, and we’re going to make plans for when I can get back here. That isn’t the behavior of someone who wants to break up a relationship.”
Angie doesn’t reply, but she does move away slightly from the passenger-side door. I’m hoping that’s a sign that this argument is over.
“There’s one other thing that I worry about,” she says. “Do you mind if I tell you what it is?”
“Sure. Let’s get everything out in the open.”
“Sometimes I worry that, in reality, you’re not that different from that low-life friend of yours.”
I try to remain calm, but this accusation rankles me. “Which of my many low-life friends are you talking about?”
“You know quite well who I’m talking about.”
“First of all,” I say, “Rizzo and I are completely different. You don’t have to be exactly alike to be friends with someone. Secondly, how can you say that? This is the guy who brought us together. This is the boy friend of your best friend.”
“Jon, you know and I know that this guy is bad news. The problem is Carol doesn’t know. I’ve been telling her since day one to dump that guy, but she won’t listen. He’ll break her heart.”
“That may or may not be true. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my heart broken. That’s the chance you take when you fall in love.”
“This is different,” she persists. “I think he has other women.”
“I’ve never seen him with other women.” This is technically true.
“Does he ever talk about them?”
“Men like to boast.”
“Some men do. What does he boast about?”
“Angie, I don’t like being cross-examined like this. I don’t even know when he and Carol started going steady.”
“Six days after you guys got here.”
“Look, I’m not going to talk about Rizzo’s personal life. It’s none of my business. It has nothing to do with you and me.”
“Take me home,” Angie whispers.
This is serious. We’ve had spats before, but we’ve never left each other without patching things up.
“Come on, Angie,” I say, reaching out to put my arm around her.
She withdraws against the passenger-side door. “Take me home!” she screams.
Camp Seneca was an affront to all my pleasant memories of camping life. I called Angie twice from there. The first time I left a message with her 15-year-old brother. The second time I spoke to her mother; she assured me she’d tell Angie that I called. I wrote Angie three letters – one each week. She never responded at all.
When I returned to my parents’ home in Brooklyn, I found out her number in her dorm. She never responded to my messages.
I called her home again and spoke to her mom. “What’s going on, Mrs. Price? I’ve called and written many times. Angie’s never responded.”
I heard a sigh. “I know Angie’s been hurt,” she said. “But she doesn’t confide in me that much. Sometimes I think she confides more in her father. He’s not too happy with you right now.”
“I can understand that. But, you know, I do love her. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be trying this hard to get in touch with her. I don’t understand why she won’t just talk to me.”
“Angie is very mature for her age,” her mother said, “but in some ways she’s just like every other 18-year-old. I do think she should have been a little more patient with you. I just don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Message for you,” Margo says, handing me the pink form as I pass by her desk. Margo is short, 52, with upswept blonde hair. She’s still very pretty. Her husband works in the shipping department. She’s also very efficient. She has to be. She’s department secretary for a manager and 13 staffers.
After four years of economic servitude as an editorial assistant for Computational Consultants, a publishing company that didn’t do any consulting, I finally got a break. Synthesis Data Processing hired me as a programming technical writer for their Hartford, Connecticut, development laboratory. Tech writers get the same arduous programming training as programmers. Two years later I joined the business migration south. I got a job at the education center at the Synthesis development facility in Marietta, Georgia.
I teach programming language courses, counsel self-study students, and develop computer-assisted-instruction courses. Right now I’m setting up this location’s first self-study learning laboratory. It’s the first time I’ve really enjoyed a job.
I return to my cubicle, sit down at the desk, and call Jenna Januscek. I know what the message is about. She works for Addison-Wesley. I ordered some self-study books from them three weeks ago.
“This is Jenna.”
“Hi, Jenna. This is Jon Danielson from Synthesis Atlanta. Got your message. I assume it’s about the books I ordered.”
“Hello, Jon. Thanks for calling back. I just wanted you to know your books will ship tomorrow. Sorry for the delay.”
“When do you think they’ll get here?”
“They should be there by Friday.”
“That will be fine.”
“Anything else I can do for you?” she asks.
It’s a long shot, but I’m curious. “Addison-Wesley is in Chicago, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is.”
“I used to know a gi–” “Girl” is politically incorrect now. “I used to know a woman named Jenna in Chicago. I was in the army then. She worked as an airline stewardess.”
Silence. “I used to work for the airlines.”
“Really? Did you ever live on South Kenwood?”
“I did. For a short time.”
“I think you’re putting me on,” I say. “Here’s the key question, if you don’t mind my asking. Assuming Januscek is your married name, what’s your maiden name? If you’re really you, it’s a name you didn’t like.”
Silence. “My maiden name is Whiting.”
“Wow. It is really you.”
“And you’re right,” she says. “I didn’t like that name. But I’m sorry. I just don’t remember you.”
“It’s all right,” I say. “I wasn’t very memorable.”
“I had lots of friends then.”
“But how come you left the airlines?”
“Well, it’s a long story. But, basically, my husband and I were thinking of starting a family. That’s tough to do with the parents flying around all the time.”
“Your husband also works for the airlines?”
“Yes. Jerry’s a pilot. He flies the JFK-Sydney route for TWA.”
“Sydney? As in Sydney, Australia?”
“Yes. It’s a really grueling flight.”
Aha. Rizzo was right. “And did you know Jerry when you were living on South Kenwood?”
“No. I met him two years after I moved away from there.”
Aha. Rizzo was wrong.
“And how about you?” she asks. “Are you married?”
“Yep. Married with two kids.”
“How nice. Is your wife someone you met in Chicago?”
Synthesis has a search facility which enables you to retrieve abstracts of recent books and papers in various disciplines. Last week I saw an abstract for a new book on Romantic poetry by Dr. Angela Price.
“No,” I reply, “my wife is from New York.”
“That was a difficult time for me when I lived on South Kenwood,” she says. “I’d just broken up with my high-school sweetheart. We’d been going together for four years. I figured the best way to deal with it was to see lots of other people.”
“I can vouch for the truth in that.”
“After I moved away, I met Jerry. It was really strange the way we met. I’d worked on a flight from Midway to JFK and I was about to deadhead back to Chicago. A stewardess on Jerry’s JFK to Sydney flight got sick, and they asked if anyone wanted to sub for her. I figured ‘Why not?’ I’d never been to Sydney. Isn’t that ironic?”
“Hey, timing can be everything.”
Even though she can’t remember me, we’re talking like old friends.
“Do you ever stop and think,” she asks, “how past relationships might have worked out if the timing had been different?”
“Sometimes,” I reply. “Sometimes I do.”