Riding in a car on the Jewish High Holidays is forbidden, but Kathy’s mother felt too woozy to walk from home to synagogue, so she told Kathy to drive to a side street nearby, and they’d arrive on foot. “Shut your window,” Mrs. Leiberson said, “I feel a breeze.” Kathy rolled up the driver’s side window in the used Chevy they got when their 1959 Cadillac was repossessed. She knew the real reason her mother wanted the windows closed was to make other people think they had air-conditioning. Sweat dripped down Kathy’s forehead.
Despite getting a day off from school, Kathy didn’t want to go to synagogue because she didn’t believe in God, and she had a test in French that day. Her French teacher was an obnoxious anti-Semite who always scheduled a test on Yom Kippur and tried to flunk everyone who took the make-up. Kathy had never flunked anything. Nevertheless, her father didn’t attend religious services, her mother refused to go alone, and Kathy didn’t want to set her off, which was never worth the consequences. Kathy dried her face with a handkerchief and sniffed her armpits to be sure she didn’t stink then exited the car. By the time she got to the front steps of the synagogue, all she thought about was how uncomfortable her girdle was. When she came out of her bedroom that morning, her mother sneered and sent her back to put it on because she thought Kathy’s rear was too attractive without it. Kathy was a pixie at five feet two and ninety-seven pounds; she had no need of a girdle.
Rodger, a fourteen-year-old tenth grader, stood talking with some buddies as Kathy and her mother ascended the steps to the synagogue’s front deck. “Smile,” Mrs. Leiberson said as they approached the boys. Kathy dutifully flashed her dimpled smile. The smell of lilacs drifted in her wake.
“Who was that?” Rodger said. No one knew her, but one of the boys heard she just moved to town and thought she was still in high school.
Rodger went inside to his family pew. Finding Kathy was easy; her head was full of black ringlets that looked like ocean waves in a hurricane. He made his way to the far end of the bench beside his Uncle Bernie where he got his best view of Kathy. Her curls cascaded down the nape of her thin neck and rounded forehead; she had to push them aside to read from her prayer book. She had large round eyes and long eyelashes. Her thick, black eyebrows, curved cheeks, and small chin made her face almost childlike, but her figure was anything but. Rodger hadn’t seen anyone as gorgeous who wasn’t on a big screen in Cinemascope and Technicolor. She even had a beauty mark like Marilyn Monroe.
Uncle Bernie elbowed Rodger. “Don’t stare,” he said. “Besides, I thought you were dating Ray Murphy’s daughter.”
Rodger glanced at Kathy. “Not anymore.”
“She’s your girlfriend?”
“From your lips to God’s ears.”
Uncle Bernie handed him a machzor. “Then start praying,” he said.
Rodger opened the prayer book but continued to watch Kathy. He slid to the aisle end of the bench when she started to leave, much later than he usually stayed at religious services and long after the rest of his family had gone home. His face was only inches from Kathy’s when she walked past him. She was so pretty.
At school the next day, Rodger searched the entrances, bicycle stands, parking lot, cafeteria, and hallways between classes. Before football practice, he explored the eleventh-grade floor and found Kathy in front of her locker with an eleventh-grade boy who was also on the football team. Rodger turned away just as Kathy noticed him. Kids from different grades dated, but the boys were always older than the girls. He could hope for an exception, but it was obvious he’d have to act fast; she wouldn’t stay free long if she even was then.
At football practice, Rodger couldn’t think about anything else—how Kathy looked, how he could meet her, where she came from, and whether she had a boyfriend. He confused a play, ran into his own ball carrier, and tripped but didn’t pounce on the fumble he caused. His coach stood over him with his hands on his hips. “Lazarus,” he said, “would you care to join us?”
At the football game that weekend, Rodger was on defense and dug in for a goal-line stand with seconds left on the clock. The play called for him to stand his ground, but the visiting team’s two biggest linemen crouched opposite him, one to his left, one to his right and both smirking; they only needed a yard to win the game, and they planned to run the ball over him. To avoid getting clobbered, Rodger shot through the gap and left the two behemoths pushing air behind him. “What the hell!” the opposing quarterback shouted when Rodger pounced on him before he could hand the ball to his fullback. Rodger’s teammates mobbed him while the fans counted down the clock. They hadn’t beaten this team in three years, and the win meant a chance at the league championship.
At the candy stand where she’d worked during the game, Kathy stood with her hands clasped behind her back watching the coach and players walk to the locker room while her faculty advisor checked cash receipts against inventory. Rodger’s coach patted him on the rear. “Nice play,” he said. “How’s it feel to be a hero?” Rodger smiled. Kathy brushed a stray curl from her forehead and locked eyes with him.
Kathy’s advisor looked up from the cash box and candy bars. “Forget him,” she said. “I’ve had every Lazarus for two generations, and none of them is any good.”
That night, Kathy was going to The Stompin’ Ground with Gilda Rosen, a girl in her class. The Stompin’ Ground was a long-abandoned opera house where city fathers had removed the orchestra seats and leveled the floor so kids could dance while a disk jockey played songs on stage. She stood in front of her mirror and tried on several outfits before she settled on a pink satin boat neck blouse and white duck pedal pushers with a rope belt, then she dabbed her neck and wrists with lilac eau de toilette.
Kathy’s mother came to inspect her, set her martini down on Kathy’s dresser and lingered in front of the mirror pulling the skin at her temples and cheeks to smooth away the crow’s feet and flatten the wrinkles between her nose and mouth. She hadn’t adjusted well to middle age, and Kathy’s development was a source of friction. When they tried on dresses at Tripler’s Fashion Shop, a parrot perched near the cash register squawked, “Is she good-looking, or what?” when they came out of the changing room. Kathy blushed as everyone in the store looked at her. They left empty-handed, and when they got back to the car Mrs. Leiberson squeezed the steering wheel with both hands. “You make me invisible,” she cried. She wished she could afford to send Kathy to boarding school, and Kathy did too.
Kathy turned around so her mother could inspect her before she left for The Stompin’ Ground. “Enjoy it while you’ve got it,” Mrs. Leiberson slurred, “but don’t make your tuchus so inviting. Put on your girdle.”
The Stompin’ Ground was crowded when Rodger arrived with Lenny and Herb. The three boys wore black chinos, white dress shirts and plenty of Aqua Velva. They’d rolled their sleeves to three-quarters length and turned their collars up like Elvis to look cool. Rodger left his friends and ran up to the balcony to scope out the dance floor. Kathy and the boy he’d seen her with at her locker were leaving Gilda to dance. Rodger skipped steps on his way down to Gilda. The song ended, Kathy returned, and Gilda introduced them. “I’ve known Rodger since we were babies,” she said. Kathy had a quizzical look.
“We used to live in the same apartment house,” Rodger said. “Would you like to dance?”
Kathy looked at Gilda and then back at Rodger. She was embarrassed because she hadn’t spent any time with Gilda and wary of Rodger because of what her advisor said. Nevertheless, she was the new girl in town, first impressions matter, and she didn’t want to offend anyone, so she went with Rodger onto the dance floor. “You know your collar’s up?” she said.
“It is?” Rodger turned his collar down before putting his hand on the side of Kathy’s waist. Her dark olive tan, curly black hair, and ebony eyes looked exotic, even tropical. They slow danced around the crammed floor to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” number one that week. Rodger loved Kathy’s smooth, shiny blouse, soft, warm hand, and springtime scent. The girl of his dreams was in his arms, and he’d have pledged his love then and there if he didn’t think it would scare her off.
“Michael” ended, and “Let’s Twist Again Like We Did Last Summer” played. “I can’t do this,” Rodger said.
“Sure you can,” Kathy replied. “It’s fun.”
Rodger laughed and bumped into everyone around them. When it was over, he massaged an ache in his side. “Let’s take a rest,” he said. They walked to the refreshment stand where Rodger bought a six-pack of Oreos and a couple of root beers. He split his Oreo and licked the sweet filling. “Pure goodness,” he said.
“But then you’re stuck with the cookies,” Kathy replied, “and they’re nothing special.”
Rodger shrugged. “Where you from?”
“Amsterdam? You don’t have an accent.”
“Amsterdam, New York.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
“Have you been there?”
“I think we passed it when we drove to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.”
“You did,” Kathy said. “Since they built the Thruway, no one stops in Amsterdam unless they have too.” She put her straw into her soda bottle and took a sip.
“That’ll happen here too when they finish the Northway,” Rodger said. “Why’d you move?”
“My father’s work.”
“What’s he do?”
“He’s in the installment business.”
“He used to sell appliances when he had his store,” Kathy said, “but now he sells furniture, linens, some clothes, pretty much whatever you need he can get you.”
Rodger looked confused. “Why would he install that stuff?”
“He doesn’t install them,” Kathy said, “The customers pay in installments.”
“What do they install?”
Kathy looked Rodger in the eye. “His customers pay him a little at a time,” Kathy said, “and the payments are called installments. They never pay up before they buy something else though, so he calls on them every week to get paid and sell more stuff.”
Rodger bit his second cookie through and through like Kathy. “Why don’t they go to stores?”
“They don’t have enough money, and stores only give credit to people who don’t need it.”
“That’s strange. I never thought about it.”
“Then you never had to,” Kathy said. She took another sip of root beer.
“So, why’d you leave Amsterdam?” Rodger said.
“Everyone in Amsterdam worked for the carpet mills, and when the unions went on strike, the mills moved down south. Everyone was out of work, and business dried up, so Dad had to close his store and sell door-to-door in the North Country.”
“He’s a traveling salesman?”
“More like an itinerant peddler.”
“I didn’t know people like that still existed.”
“They do,” Kathy said, “and his customers love him. If he didn’t give them credit, they couldn’t buy anything from anybody.”
“Amsterdam to the North Country, that’s pretty far,” Rodger said.
“He’s had to drive a couple of hours back and forth every day since he closed the store, but Mom was born and raised in Amsterdam and all her friends are there, so she wouldn’t move.”
“Dad had a heart attack this spring, and his doctor said he’d be dead in a year if he didn’t slow down.”
“What a nightmare,” Rodger said, “I’m glad you came, but it must be hard.”
“Mom hasn’t stopped crying.”
Rodger squeezed Kathy’s shoulder. “On you, I mean.”
Kathy’s throat tightened, and she coughed to clear it. “We better get back,” she said. “Gilda probably wonders where we are.”
No sooner did they get back than Lenny asked Kathy to dance. Rodger glared at him. Kathy looked at Gilda, shrugged, and left with Lenny. Rodger and Gilda fumed. Gilda planned to introduce Kathy around, but what happened was that Kathy danced every song while Gilda stood by herself. When Rodger didn’t ask her to dance either, she left to find Helen and Patty to finalize plans for later.
Rodger watched Lenny wrap his arm around the small of Kathy’s back and draw her close enough to cop a feel with his chest. Kathy looked annoyed and stiff-armed him. Rodger couldn’t stand it anymore and tapped Lenny’s shoulder. “We just started,” Lenny said. Kathy shrugged, and Lenny left.
“Thanks for cutting in,” Kathy said. Rodger cut in again when Herb asked Kathy the next song. He figured if he pretended Kathy was his girlfriend, the others might think she really was.
“Do you mind?” he said.
“No,” Kathy answered, “but wait at least a minute before you do. I don’t want to seem rude.” That was all the encouragement Rodger needed. Every boy wanted his chance with Kathy, but song after song, Rodger looked at his watch and cut in as soon a minute was up. He didn’t dance with anyone else.
Kathy got back to Gilda when there was a lull between songs. “I’m embarrassed about Rodger,” she said, “but I don’t know what more to say to him.”
“All these guys are jerks,” Gilda said with a sweep of her arm. “I can’t wait to go to college. College men are much more refined, don’t you think?” Kathy smiled.
When the music started back up, Rodger asked Kathy to dance. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I need to go to the restroom. You and Gilda can dance.” Gilda looked mollified.
Except for the one song with Gilda, Rodger danced only with Kathy. “For Pete’s sake” Herb said, “give somebody else a chance,” but Rodger didn’t. The other boys were amazed at how far he’d gotten with a babe whose name none of them knew, and by the end of the dance he had Kathy to himself.
When “Sleep Walk” played, most of the kids headed for the exits with only the committed couples swaying more than dancing to the steel guitar. Kathy remembered what her advisor said that afternoon. He must not be like the rest of his family, she thought; after all, I’m nothing like mine.
Chipped bas-reliefs of cherubs holding musical instruments lined the lobby through which Rodger, Kathy and Gilda exited.
“Everything’s so old-fashioned here,” Rodger said.
“I think it’s neat,” Kathy said.
“I agree with Rodger,” Gilda said.
Rodger stopped at the entrance where Cupid aimed a bow and arrow down at him. “It is neat,” he said. Kathy smiled, which made her look angelic too. Gilda sneered. “I mean it,” Rodger said. “I never thought about it before.”
They stopped at the cast iron ticket booth outside. Gilda left to speak with Helen and Patty who sat in the front seat of an old Plymouth parked at the curb.
Rodger turned to Kathy. “Would you like me to walk you home?”
“Come on,” Gilda shouted. “Time to go.”
Kathy touched Rodger’s arm. “Wait here a second,” she said. She went to Gilda. “I think I’ll walk with Rodger instead.”
“You said you were coming with me,” Gilda said. She glowered at Rodger who by then was talking with Lenny and Herb. Gilda turned back to Kathy. “Patty’s got beer and I’ve got this.” She opened her purse and showed Kathy a flask-sized bottle of Southern Comfort.
“Where’d you get that?”
“My brother bought it for me,” Gilda said. “Come on. You said you wanted to meet people.”
Kathy looked through the open window. There was a faint odor of gasoline, and a six-pack of Heineken with a couple of empty bottles on the floor. Helen and Patty giggled.
Kathy turned back to Gilda. “I’ll go with Rodger,” she said. “I’ll be safe.”
Gilda scoffed. “Don’t count on it,” she said.
A downpour after the football game had given the air a refreshing earthy smell, but it remained unseasonably warm, and Rodger tied his jacket around his waist. “Do you have to go home now,” he said, “or would you like me to show you around?”
“We have time,” Kathy said. “My parents expected me to go out for a snack after the dance.”
“Are you hungry?”
“We’re three blocks away from the best food in town,” Rodger said.
“We don’t have time for anything fancy.”
“I didn’t say fancy. I said best. I know a short cut.”
They walked past a transient hotel and into an alley where halfway down Lenny and Herb stood in front of a homeless wino asleep on the sidewalk. Lenny looked at Kathy. “Want to see something funny?”
“I don’t think so,” Rodger said. He put his arm around Kathy’s back and tried to whisk her away, but she stayed put.
Lenny squirted lighter fluid from a pocket Zippo can around the sleeping man’s shoes, threw a match and took off. “See you later,” he yelled.
The poor drunkard woke up and stomped at the fire shouting obscenities. Kathy and Rodger took off too. Kathy hoped the man couldn’t follow but didn’t look back to find out until they stopped breathless three blocks away in front of an old-fashioned diner car. “Get me a taxi,” Kathy panted.
“No taxis in this neighborhood.”
“Then where’s a phone booth? He could have killed that guy.”
“A hot foot?” Rodger said. “I doubt it.”
“There’s a name for that?”
“Lenny says it’s the only way to get the bums off the streets.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“I tried to get you away, but you wouldn’t budge.”
“He said funny; how am I supposed to know he’s a psychopath?”
Rodger’s own can of Zippo was in his back pocket; he wouldn’t throw it away in front of Kathy because she’d think he was a psychopath too. “Let’s get some hot dogs,” he said. “Everyone calls it Slimy Sal’s.”
“Slimy Sal’s?” Kathy wondered what she’d gotten herself into.
“Blue Suede Shoes” blared from the jukebox. Fans that looked like airplane propellers spun over a narrow center aisle that separated back-to-back worn oak booths from red vinyl and chrome swivel stools, a white marble counter, and glass-domed displays of cherry pie, chocolate cake and baklava. Four rows of reddish-brown hot dogs lay sizzling on a griddle beside a stoneware bean pot that contained meat and spices in proportions only the owners knew. Men about to start the night shift at the pulp and paper mill sat at the counter; teenagers, mostly from the poorer side of town, sat in the booths. Everyone ordered hot dogs.
Rodger sneered at Lenny and Herb in back. Lenny gave Rodger the finger, which was unfortunate because Officer Coletti walked in at that moment and took it personally. Rodger looked away, but Kathy watched Lenny, Herb, and Officer Coletti in animated conversation that ended when Lenny nodded toward Rodger. She was scared they blamed Rodger and her for the hot foot and bumped Rodger’s arm to get his attention. “Let’s get out of here,” she whispered.
Rodger squeezed her hand. “Just be natural,” he said softly. “We didn’t do anything.”
“But we were there.”
Officer Coletti approached them; his jaw jutted upward, his forefinger and thumb squeezing his chin. “You won’t get away with that again,” he said. Kathy froze.
“What?” Rodger said as he tightened his jacket around his waist.
“This afternoon at the game. That was risky. Alert playing though.”
“I appreciate that,” Rodger answered, “especially from you.” Rodger turned to Kathy. “Officer Coletti was my coach in Pop Warner football.”
A wolf whistle came from somewhere in back, and Officer Coletti looked Kathy up and down. “What are you doing here?” he said.
“Rodger says they have the best food in town. What do you think?” Kathy’s poise astounded Rodger.
“It may not be the best,” Officer Coletti said, “but it’s open.”
“It sure smells good,” Kathy replied.
Officer Coletti picked up his order but turned back to Rodger as he left. “Keep your nose clean,” he said. “I know your father.”
Rodger ordered two Pepsis and three hot dogs with the works. The dog man stuffed the steaming white buns, lined them up on the counter and with a wooden trowel layered each with yellow mustard, diced white onions and that glorious sauce. Rodger handed over three quarters, left his dime change as a tip and sat opposite Kathy in a booth. “These are incredible,” she said, “and only fifteen cents apiece.”
“My uncle Bernie says they gave them to hobos for free during the depression.”
“Is he the one whose picture was in the paper?”
“Yeah, but I don’t see what’s so bad about a card game; it wasn’t a whole casino this time.”
“Is he in trouble?”
“No, my father fixed it.”
“What do you mean?”
“He donated a van to the Police Athletic Club. My Uncle Sid has a junkyard where they put together the good parts of wrecked cars to make new ones. They gave them one.”
“Is that safe?”
“I hope so. No one in my family drives anything else.”
When Rodger and Kathy got up to leave, Lenny followed.
“Can’t we get away from that creep?” Kathy whispered.
Lenny caught up with them outside. “Can I borrow your can of Zippo?” he said. “Mine’s empty.”
“Haven’t you caused enough trouble already?” Rodger answered. He took his own can of Zippo out of his pocket, squirted it onto the pavement, crushed it underfoot and handed it to Lenny. “Here.”
“Trying to impress your girlfriend?” Lenny shook the mutilated can. Nothing was left, so he dropped it through the sewer grate where it flowed with the afternoon’s runoff to the Hudson River then went back inside.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Kathy said.
Helen pulled up to the curb, and Patty staggered into Slimy Sal’s. Gilda lay flat on the back seat with her eyes closed.
“What’s with her?” Rodger said.
“She drank too much,” Helen said. “Patty’s getting coffee.”
“That doesn’t work,” Kathy said. “How much did she drink?”
“She passed a bottle around, but Patty and I were drinking beer, so Gilda chugged the whole thing by herself. She thought it was funny. It was pretty funny.”
“Pretty jerky,” Kathy said. She opened the back door and shook Gilda but got no response. “She’s not asleep; she’s comatose.”
“Comatose?” Helen yelped. “We better get her home.”
“You better get her to a hospital.”
Rodger went back into Slimy Sal’s to get Patty. Kathy turned Gilda’s head in case she vomited.
Patty was unsteady as Rodger guided her back to the car with a hot coffee in her left hand, a lit match in her right and an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. She stumbled on the curb, spilled her coffee on her leg and screaming with pain dropped the match. Fire whooshed up from the pavement. Patty fell on her rear and scuttled backward. Helen ran shrieking from the driver’s seat as tarry black smoke billowed from under the hood. Kathy stood speechless holding Gilda’s head as Rodger shot past her to yank Gilda out. “Take her feet,” he said, and together they dragged Gilda away from the car, which within seconds became an inferno.
Slimy Sal’s emptied. “Watch out,” someone yelled, “The tank’ll explode.” Lenny shot a nervous glance at Rodger and ran away. Sirens wailed; red, white, and blue beacons flashed, and the saloons on River Street emptied as a fire engine, fire truck, ambulance and police car barreled to the scene. Officer Coletti herded the gawkers away while firemen doused the car and everything nearby. Medics sped Gilda to the hospital.
When the fire was out and the pandemonium subsided, Officer Coletti spoke to Helen, Patty and the dog man then approached Rodger. “They say you pulled the Rosen girl out of the car,” he said.
Rodger looked at his feet and gestured toward Kathy. “She did too.”
“She’s lucky you were here,” Officer Coletti said. “Not everyone would have done that.” He patted Rodger and Kathy on their shoulders. “How’s it feel to be heroes?” Rodger reddened; he didn’t feel heroic.
The police took photos and called Rodger’s Uncle Sid to tow the burnt-out water sodden ruin to his junkyard. Uncle Sid recognized it as one of his own creations but mentioned it only to Rodger. Officer Coletti drove Helen and Patty to the police station.
Kathy thanked Rodger’s Uncle Sid when he offered to take her home and was first to get into the tow truck. She stepped into a puddle on the passenger side where the afternoon’s downpour had leaked in. The plaid seat covers were shredded, and a patchwork quilt with coffee stains and cigarette burns lay haphazardly over the exposed stuffing. Everything was damp and smelled moldy. The ashtray overflowed with cigar and cigarette butts that added to the stench. Kathy breathed through her mouth. How could anyone stand it? she thought.
Kathy had never ridden in a truck with a floor-mounted stick shift and wasn’t sure how to position herself. She shot a questioning look at Rodger who shrugged. Uncle Sid got into the driver’s seat, Rodger rode shotgun and Kathy sat between them, her bare feet on the hump over the driveshaft and her waterlogged penny loafers in her hands. When Uncle Sid shifted to neutral to start the truck, Kathy pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them to keep from interfering.
Uncle Sid was heavy-set, took up more than his third of the seat and seemed to overflow from his plaid flannel work shirt and grease-stained pants that didn’t fully cover his butt. Kathy slid toward Rodger; nevertheless, when Uncle Sid shifted into first gear, his right hand brushed against her leg. His index and middle fingers were stained yellow by nicotine, and half his ring finger was missing. “A war injury,” he said. “Sorry.”
Kathy pivoted and put both her legs over Rodger’s lap to keep her feet out of the puddle and squeeze herself away from Uncle Sid who when he got some speed relit the cigar he’d been chewing. Within seconds, the cabin filled with the most rancid odor Kathy had ever smelled. She dropped her shoes, grabbed her mouth with one hand and stomach with the other. Rodger rolled down the window as fast as he could, and they both stuck their heads out just in time.
Uncle Sid rolled down his window and threw out his cigar. The fresh autumn air cleared the cabin immediately. He reached under his seat and grabbed some napkins from a Dunkin’ Donuts box he’d stashed there. He gave them to Kathy with that horrifying hand. As Kathy and Rodger wiped their mouths, Rodger cocked his head toward Uncle Sid and rolled his eyes. Kathy nodded agreement then wiped a couple of drops off Rodger’s ear; he wiped some from her hair. Uncle Sid handed the Dunkin’ Donuts box to Kathy. “Have something to settle your stomach,” he said.
“Thanks,” Kathy said, not sure what to do with it. Rodger took out a jelly doughnut, split it down the middle, handed half to Kathy and licked the sweet red jelly from the middle of his. Kathy caught his eye and started to giggle. She handed him her half when Rodger finished his and laid her head on his shoulder for the rest of the ride home.
Edward Lebowitz is a writer and physician. He was born and raised in Glens Falls, NY, and currently resides in San Francisco, CA. His fiction and photo journals have appeared in Vistas & Byways Review, and his memoirs have appeared in The American College of Radiology eNews. He performed his solo show, Dave, Muhammad, and I, at The Americana Hotel at the 2022 San Francisco Fringe Festival. Edward enjoys writing fiction because of the power it confers. In his stories, he is the creator, ruler, and source of all moral authority conjuring up characters and controlling everything that happens to them. That’s a lot different from ‘real life’ where try as he might, he can’t ensure things work out the way he wants them to and a powerful inducement to inhabit a world of his own making, which is exactly what occurs when he writes a story.