"You can't go out now," Bernard Chalfin said to his eighteen year old son John. "I need you to run an errand for me."
"I got the whole crew waiting for me at Jay Park," said John. He was a handsome, black-haired boy with very white skin and an aquiline nose. He had grown his hair just long enough to offend his father, but was scorned by the hippies because it barely fell over his collar. He attended Brooklyn College by day, and hung out in Jay Park with his friends at night.
"Fuck the crew," Bernard said. "Here's what you're gonna do. Take your car and go around to the three muffler shops. They'll give you the week's cash. Keep it with you and meet me at Battista's at eight o'clock."
"Why don't I just bring it back here?"
"You don't need to bring it here," said his father, as if talking to an idiot, "because I won't be here."
"Why don't I leave it for you?"
"Because you're gonna meet me at Battista's at eight, and give it to me personally." Bernard Chalfin was stocky and gray, with thinning hair swept sideways over the top of his head and a flamboyant mustache. He owned more stores in Brooklyn than his family could keep track of, including the three muffler franchises.
He handed John the keys to the Cadillac and John, angry but obedient, drove down to Eastern Parkway to the first of the three stores. Iago Badalamenti saw the Caddy idling in front of the store and came out with a paper bag. "Count it," he said when John placed it on the passenger seat. The boy unfolded and counted ten worn ten dollar bills.
"That's not much money for one week," he said, squinting at Iago, who shrugged and said, "That's what it is."
John drove to the second store, on Flatbush Avenue, where Bruno Badalamenti, Iago's brother, gave him a single, crisp $100 bill.
He got on the BQE and headed towards Bay Ridge, where the third shop was located under the highway. Tom Tolbert, his father's longest time employee and the one John liked the best, handed him an envelope. "Tom, you're always straight with me," John said.
"Life is too short for bullshit and argumentation," Tom said.
"What are the odds that I open this envelope, and there's exactly one hundred dollars in there?"
"The odds are very high," the tall, skeletal man said. John looked inside and saw two fifties.
"It's another fucking test, isn't it?"
"You know your dad," Tolbert said, and went back inside.
Twenty minutes later, John was in Jay Park, drinking Bali Hai with Brian Hanrahan and several of the Apple Bonker crew. He parked the Caddy where he could see it. The money was under the seat.
Big Moe was interrogating Brian regarding the Midwood High School girls he had seduced. Brian was a recent drop-out from Midwood; before that, he had been thrown out of Nazareth, the nearby Catholic school. He was the best-looking boy in the neighborhood, with straight, thick brown hair to his shoulders and a long oval face with a three-day growth of beard. Girls said he looked like Mick Jagger. His parents were dead, and he lived with his brother Will a few blocks from Jay Park. Brian called John, who was two years older, "Little Brother", and John reciprocated by calling him "Big Brother." Accordingly, everyone else called them the "Bro's". Strangers, and girls they were goofing on, readily believed they were related to each other, because they were both very good-looking. "He's the good one," Brian would say, "and I'm the b-a-a-a-d one," and if it were a girl he wanted, he would make a grab for her, which she would evade, laughing and interested.
"What about Desiree Stein?" Big Moe asked. He was a big, red, flaccid-faced boy who sniffed glue.
"She likes me," Brian said, "and she wants it, but I ain't got around to her yet."
"Do you think she's good looking?" said a heavy-set, red-haired boy named Allen.
"She has a great body," said a pale, slender boy named Coop. "If you see her from behind you think you're about to see the most beautiful girl in Midwood. When she turns around, not so much."
"Well," said Brian, "you could always put a bag over her face before you fuck her. Me, I don't mind her face so much, especially because it will spend more time on my member than it will looking at me. Yes, Desiree STEIN will be MINE." He started whistling.
"What do you think, Little Bro?" Allen asked.
John wasn't sure whether he should say anything, but vanity won out. "I'm meeting her later," he said.
"Yep, nine o'clock at Dairy Queen."
"You mean, like on a date."
John considered. "I'm not sure if its a date or not," he said, "but I'm meeting her."
It was seven thirty. John sighed and said, "I got to split."
"Catch you later," Big Moe said.
"Maybe not." As he reached the car, he turned to face Brian, who had followed him.
"You have money," Brian said. "I saw you picking up at the muffler place on Eastern Parkway."
"Give me some. Brothers, remember? I need ten bucks. I haven't had anything to eat today."
"Get it from Will."
"I'd have to go home to get it from Will, wouldn't I? And then he'd give me rice, or a hamburger. Not money."
"What is it, Big Bro? You gonna have a liquid dinner?" Nevertheless, he reached into his pocket and extracted the top bill from his roll. Ordinary middle class kids carried wallets, but the Chalfins carried money clips. He couldn't take the roll out, or Brian might abscond with the whole thing.
It was a ten dollar bill. "Here," he said, but when Brian reached for it, he pulled it away. Brian flicked him in the face, John feinted, then crumpled the bill up and threw it at him. Both boys were smiling.
John drove to Avenue X and parked in the lot behind Battista's. It was a crisp March night, and he had come out without his overcoat, decoyed by the spring warmth of the afternoon. Inside, he didn't see his father. He sat at the bar and Giovanni Battista, who knew he was underage, served him a Miller. He borrowed a pen and on the front of the envelope he wrote FUCK YOU.
Bernard came in, gave Flora Battista his coat, and sat next to his son at the bar. "I saw you," he said.
"Saw me what?"
"Saw you give my money to that worthless fuck, Brian Hanrahan."
"You were watching me?"
"I was in the front window of Houlihan's."
Houlihan's was a little, green Irish bar with a steam table, a block away from Jay Park.
"If you could see me from Houlihan's, you must have had some pretty powerful binoculars."
"I did. I borrowed them from E." Ian Chalfin, known as "E", was Bernard's younger half-brother, the Vietnam vet.
"You are a fucking madman," John said.
"No, you're the fuck-up. Give me my money. Whatever's left."
John flung him the envelope. "Its all there. That was my own money I gave Brian. My allowance."
Bernard, his face screwed up with suspicion, counted the bills in the envelope: three hundred dollars. "I don't know that its all here. I don't know how much there was."
"You told them to give me a hundred dollars apiece."
"I said 'about a hundred dollars'."
"No brain surgeons work for you. They each gave me a hundred. Call them and check."
"So, even if it was your allowance you gave him, what difference does that make?"
"What do you mean? Its my money. I can spend it on pistachio ice cream, pinball, or Brian Hanrahan."
"It ain't your money, kid. Its mine. I don't give a shit if you spend it on pistachio ice cream 'til you choke, or piss it away on pinball. But I won't let you give it to that little fuck."
"How can you stop me?"
"How much did you give him?"
"Starting right now, you get ten bucks a week less allowance. Until you tell me you'll never again give a red cent to that scumbag. And I believe you."
"Turn the envelope over," John said. Bernard slowly turned it around and read the words "FUCK YOU" upside down. "That's going to cost you another ten bucks," he said.
At nine o'clock, John was sitting with Desiree Stein in the Dairy Queen at the Junction. He saw before him a tall, dramatic girl with a mass of wavy blonde hair, a hawk's beak of a nose and bushy dark eyebrows. She wore an ankle-length flowery hippie-chick dress and cowboy boots.
John went to the counter to get two milkshakes, and when he came back, sang, "You'd look good pushing down a house with me."
Her eyebrows rose and her large, sensuous mouth drew out in a smile. "Yeah, big talker."
"I mean it."
"Words are cheap."
"My word is my bond," John drawled, like a cowboy in a movie.
"Prove it to me."
He realized she was serious and started to think about choices. He couldn't bring her home; his parents were there. "Can we go to your place?"
"No way," she said, laughing.
"You could come over tomorrow. My folks are going to Atlantic City for the weekend."
"I might not still be interested tomorrow."
He looked around the store and spotted one of the Harrison House boys whom he knew. He went over to him and whispered, "Ted, you see that girl I'm with? I need somewhere to take her right now."
Ted Grizzuti looked around and said, "Well, if it isn't Desiree Stein." The sarcastic emphasis on her last name made John momentarily uncomfortable. "OK, John-boy, here's my key. Just make sure you're out of there in two hours. I need my beauty sleep for a game tomorrow."
The house was two blocks away; it faced the Brooklyn College quadrangle. No-one was home. Large untidy living room, empty pizza boxes from a feast earlier in the evening. A dozen empty beer cans. Jimi Hendrix poster, best viewed in black light. In Ted's room, the bed was unmade. John pulled the coverlet up so they could lie on top of it. "You're not a virgin, Desi, are you?" he asked.
"No-o-o-o, I wouldn't say so."
"Are you protected?"
"I'm on the pill." She was standing close, fixing him with her brilliant smile. The girl generated more than the usual amount of electricity. John kissed her and she put her hands up under his shirt, caressing his back.
Afterwards, he said, "You came, didn't you?"
"Couldn't you tell?"
"You act like that's a big event in your life," she said.
It was. Many girls didn't.
"I've never had any problem with that," Desiree said. "A guy looking at me in a particular way brings me off."
They dressed and walked back to his car. He wanted to hold her hand but she let go of his as if concerned someone might see them.
"Do you want to get together tomorrow night? Maybe see a movie?"
Her booming laugh filled the quiet street; an old man opened the window shade opposite to stare at her.
"You want to take me on a date?" she asked, incredulous.
"I'm busy tomorrow night. I'm going with my folks to an NYU fund-raiser."
"What about Saturday?"
"I don't know."
"Can I call you?"
"No, don't call me. I'll see you at the hang-out corner. God, you're not getting sweet on me, are you, John?"
"I could if you want."
"I don't want. You said I'd look good pushing down a house. We pushed. Don't make something else out of it."
John was confused and very quiet as he drove her home. Outside her house, he leaned to kiss her, but she slid away from him. Smiling.
The next day, he ran into Brian on the quad. "Well, did you nail her?" Brian asked.
"Desiree, you fool."
John hesitated and Brian said, "You did, didn't you?" John smiled and Brian said, "Would you set me up with her?"
"What the fuck?"
"Brothers share, right? What, you want to keep her for yourself?"
"Would you set me up with Lina?"
"That's different," Brian said.
"Lina is mine," Brian said. "She doesn't want to be with anyone else."
"Well, maybe I feel the same way about Desiree."
"If you do, you're more of a jerk than I thought. Desiree don't settle down. She's a good time girl."
On Saturday, Bernard wanted him around as an audience, but John slipped away in the afternoon to visit Uncle E. A carpenter, E was at work in the basement, building a bookcase for someone. John loved the smell of the cedar shavings and admired the way E sometimes put pieces of wood together without nails, by making them fit into each other. E gave him the plane and stepped back, gently directing John as he finished the job.
"E, you remember when you were about to join the army, and I asked you if I would have to fight in Vietnam someday?"
"Yes, John. You were eleven years old."
"You said the war would long be over."
"I was wrong."
"I have to deal with it now. I got a low number in the lottery. Dad says he can get a letter from a doctor friend that I have asthma and get me classified 4F. Uncle Charlie says that if I do that, he's not sure I can go into politics." Charles Chalfin was an assemblyman who spent most of the year up in Albany. "He says the plan is I should join the army. He claims to have the pull to get me posted to Hawaii. Dad doesn't trust him and doesn't want me to go in at all."
"What do you think?"
"I don't want to get sent to Vietnam." He looked at his unassuming gentle uncle with the livid scar on his forehead disappearing under his long brown hair. "Especially after what happened to you." E had come home crazy and spent a year in an institution upstate. "What do you think I should do?"
"That's a difficult question," E said. "Let's think." He took a broom and started sweeping up wood shavings. "I don't think you should fight in Vietnam. So we have the Charlie way, and the Bernard way of staying out of it. Any other choices?"
"My friend Shipwreck says the honest thing to do would be to leave for Canada or go to jail. He says that's taking a stand, and everything else is deception."
"Shipwreck, if I remember, is two years younger than you. When his time comes around, he might feel differently. OK, let's think. I don't trust Charles any more than your dad does, so I would choose the Bernard way. But Charles might be right about evading the draft closing you out of politics. The question is, do you care?"
"Not very much."
"What does your dad say?"
"He's weird. Most of the time he seems proud that Uncle Charlie wants to put me in politics. Then he rants and raves and says, fuck politics, you're going to run my businesses."
"What do you want, John?"
"No-one has ever asked me that, Uncle E. I don't know."
They finished the work and went back upstairs to the kitchen, where E opened a can of Budweiser. "Your dad owns this house," he said. "Did you know that? He rents it to me for only $150 a month. When I first got out of the hospital and came here, the cops didn't know who I was. I looked pretty strung out, I guess, and they used to stop me all the time. Make me empty my pockets and shit. I was too proud or too stupid to tell them I was related to Charlie or Bernard. I probably didn't know how much clout those two have, I don't remember any more. Then your dad put in a word, and they stopped hassling me. I guess what I'm saying is, I live under his wing, though I pretty much scrape by with the carpentry."
"Is it true you tried to kill yourself?"
"I got the scars to prove it," E said, showing John his wrists. "I burned people up. Women and children. Some guys do that from a plane, they don't see them burning, don't care and everyone thinks they're heroes. I did it up close. I tried to slash my wrists in Saigon and they sent me, first to this big beautiful place in Hawaii, then upstate. I was on all kinds of meds then, doped up like a junkie, lazing around all day going, 'Uh huh, uh huh.' Real slow. Then up in Big Indian they got me off the stuff, one step at a time, and I started thinking about doing myself again. But I had a vision of God. I was walking in the yard behind the place, beneath the Catskill Mountains. The towns up there have beautiful names, Big Indian, Shokan, Olivaera. It was late afternoon, when the light up there becomes solid. Like being inside a block of ice. That afternoon at the hospital in Big Indian, I was slow but my mind was clear. God talked to me in that light, and He said that He loved me. I said, I would do anything for You, Lord, including dousing myself in gasoline and lighting it. Which I had been thinking about anyway. And He said to me, Go see what Wayne is reading. Wayne was the orderly, an elderly black man. So I went around in front, and Wayne was on his break, sitting on the front porch with a book. From the front, you know, the place looks like a hotel, which it used to be anyway. I said, 'What are you reading, Wayne?' And he said, 'E, I got here a book of religious poetry.' And I asked to see what poem he had open. It was by Mr. John Milton, about being blind. And I asked could I read it, so I could see what God was trying to tell me, and it contained this line: 'They also serve who only stand and wait.'"
"So what are you saying, E? You're waiting?"
"Damn straight I am. Waiting for instructions."
"You're almost as crazy as dad," John said. "But I like you better."
That afternoon, he looked up Desiree Stein in the phone book and called her.
"I told you not to call me."
"My folks are away. Do you want to come over?"
She didn't answer for a moment and he added: "We had fun, didn't we?"
"That we did."
"We could have more fun." He started to sing: "The minute I have more dinner, I get hung up for a week."
"Where are you?"
He gave her the address and she said: "I'll be over in an hour."
The Chalfin residence was only a ten minute walk for her, but she was there ninety minutes later. John had just started to get very angry and was trying to decide how much longer to wait before he went out.
He didn't let her in the door right away, and used the opportunity to look her up and down appreciatively as she stood on the stoop. Desiree was wearing jeans and a peasant blouse under her G.I. jacket, which swung open. Also the boots she always wore.
"If I'd known you were coming," he said, "I would have baked a cake."
"I got hung up with my parents," she said protestingly, and he stood back and made a half-bow. She walked into the hallway and, as he took her coat, she made a whistling expression and said, "Some house."
She didn't want to go to bed right away, but asked for a tour. He showed her his parents' enormous bedroom, his father's office, the living room with the extremely expensive stereo to which Bernard never listened, the basement recreation room with the pool table, the upstairs balcony and finally, his room. He tried to catch her by the waist and she slipped away, into the bathroom. She left the door open, and he followed her in. She was examining the wooden hairbrush with his initials on the handle: JEC.
"I have one like this. What's the E for?"
"Evelyn," he said, embarrassed. He pronounced it "Eve-a-lyn."
"Spell it," she said. He did and Desiree said, wonderingly, "That's my middle name. Only I pronounce it Evv-a-lyn." She picked up the hairbrush and waved it around, watching herself in the mirror. "How come you have a girl's middle name?"
"Evelyn used to be a man's name. In England, anyway."
"Is that where you're from?"
"My grandfather. He was a latecomer. Other branches of the family came over in the eighteenth century. We're like the black sheep."
"So that would make you some kind of Protestant?"
"Most English are. We're Catholic. Just some rogue group of Catholics in England who were persecuted. The smart ones left centuries ago and the dumb ones stayed. We're the only people I've ever heard of who can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years but who never made any money until now."
Desiree looked at him appraisingly, and said, "I'm Jewish. Half, actually, my mom is Episcopalian. But I think of myself as Jewish."
"You don't mind?"
"No, I like you."
She shrugged, not completely happy with his answer. "Let's go sit down."
She took his desk chair and John sat on his bed, hoping she would join him. Desiree looked around the room: Mets poster, airplane models, toy dinosaurs, Mr. Mechano, stack of baseball cards, glove in the corner. He realized that he hadn't really changed his room in years.
"God, you're straight," Desiree said.
"I am not straight."
"So you think you're a freak, like me?"
"Well, maybe not as much as you," he said smiling.
"I'll bet you've never even dropped acid."
"No," he admitted, "I haven't."
"I have, twelve times. I did that blue acid Ship and Coop had. Smooth as a baby's ass. And that Orange Sunshine Allen was dealing. A bad trip guaranteed in every tab. Someone took it to a lab and they said it had strychnine in it. The stuff they poison rats with."
"Gee, I'm sorry I missed that."
"You've probably never even snorted speed."
"No. I've smoked pot, hash and kif. That's about it. Do you still respect me?"
"I never respected you," she said, with a malicious half-smile. John wanted her very badly. When he reached out for her, she moved the chair away.
"I thought you came over here to make love with me."
"I came over here to ball you, but now I'm not sure I want to." She got up again and looked at his books, pulling them out of the bookcase and sticking them back in haphazardly. "The Hardy Boys. The Man Without a Country---you read that one for school. James Bond, James Bond, James Bond. Whoa, what's this? Looks like a complete Dickens."
"My dad ordered it before I was born. I think he got it off a cereal box, a quarter a book."
"He ever read any of it?"
"No." She knocked some toy soldiers from the shelf with an awkward motion, but didn't try to pick them up. "What would you do if I decided to walk out of here without going to bed with you? Would you attack me and rape me?"
"Would you fall on the floor and beg?"
"Would you be disappointed?"
"Because we could have been at the movies tonight instead of having this idiot conversation."
Desiree laughed, came to him, put a palm on his cheek and kissed him.
Later, after she had walked home (she declined his escort) John went out to a nearby Chinese restaurant to get some fried rice. As he crossed Ocean Avenue, a battered old blue Volkswagen pulled up and Eugene Sparrow, the plainclothes detective, leaned out the window and said, "Hello, John. I want to talk to you."
John stood very still. Sparrow parked at an angle to the curb, came over to him and said, "Okay, John. Empty your pockets."
John didn't feel the same hatred for the cop that most of his peers did---he had been raised to like and respect the police---but he felt cold indignation surging in his bones. "You can't just search me," he said, "unless you have a warrant or I've done something to give you a reason."
"Uncle E. Ian Chalfin."
"E says that, does he?" Sparrow crinkled up his face in an ugly expression; after a moment John surmised he didn't know he was doing it. "Well, I'll tell you something, John. E is right. So if you insist, I'd have to go away without checking you out. But then I'd be mad at you, John, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"
John, figuring he had nothing dangerous anyway, showed Sparrow his handkerchief, keys, and money clip.
"Let me see that." Sparrow took the roll, riffled through it, and whistled. "Where'd you get all this money, John? You haven't been dealing, have you?"
"My father gave it to me."
Sparrow looked him in the eye, very sharply. "What for?"
"I get sixty dollars a week allowance."
"I heard you were rich." Sparrow said it very unpleasantly, like he would have beaten up John if they were the same age. He handed the money back.
"You're not a bad kid," Sparrow said, "but you ought to stay away from Brian Hanrahan."
"Brian is my friend."
"Brian is an ape," Sparrow said. "He shits where he sleeps, and sooner or later he'll shit on you."
John's parents came home on Sunday night. John had dinner with them and went up to his room to watch the Smothers Brothers on his black and white TV. He heard the phone ring. After a while, Bernard came upstairs and switched off the set. He sat in the desk chair and said, "Well, it appears you had some kind of a big blonde girl over here for a few hours last night."
"What happened, Tommy Matora called you?" Their neighbor across the street, a Korean war vet on full disability, was always looking into the street and his neighbors' windows.
"He does keep track of what's going on over here."
"So I had a girl over. Now you know I'm not a fag."
"I never thought you were a fag. I don't mind you like girls. I like girls. You just can't bring them to your mother's house. You see it never happens again."
He waited in front of Midwood High School at three-thirty on Tuesday. Desiree came down the front steps with small, dark-haired, mousy Charlotte Davis. She frowned when she saw John. He started to walk after her, whereupon she dismissed Charlotte and turned on him.
"You're getting on my nerves right now, John."
"I just wanted to talk to you."
"Can't it wait? I have homework."
"All right," he said and took a step back. Desiree looked up the steps, over her shoulder, didn't see what she was looking for, and said: "You can walk me down to the Junction if you like."
They started to walk. Desiree said, "Why are you following me around?"
"I really like you."
"And you want us to go out."
"You're an odd one. You've had what comes at the end, now you want the beginning."
"Yes. I'm not some kind of dog, that just wants to hump other dogs in the street. I like a little company and conversation."
"I am a dog," Desiree said, "just not the kind you want me to be. I'm a big old golden retriever you see in the streets of a little town. It's large, healthy and strong and doesn't belong to anyone in particular. It owns the sidewalks and goes anywhere it wants."
"And what do you think I want you to be?"
"Your pet, which you can walk on a leash past the steps of Midwood, and tell everyone proudly, 'This is my poodle! I own this.'"
"No I don't."
They were standing in front of Troedmann's, a large clothing store on the Junction. "Go in," Desiree said, talking very quickly in a low voice, "and rip me off a man's blue workshirt, a large. You can slip it in your briefcase, there."
John thought about it, wishing to impress her, but finally said, "I won't."
"Go on. Win me with your prowess."
He stood still.
"Fetch," she said, "go fetch, little doggie, fetch."
He turned and began walking away. Desiree caught up to him. Her expression had completely changed in an instant: she was contrite, her lip trembling. "I'm sorry," she said. "That was very nasty."
"Its all right." They walked together in silence for a moment. She put her arm through his, but took it away again, for fear someone might see them.
"Are you mad at me I wouldn't take the shirt?" John asked.
"No. I thought I would be, but I'm not."
She had a wild green smell, like dried plants, that he adored. "So where does this leave us?"
"I won't be with just one person," Desiree said.
"Will we get together again?" John asked, feeling very sad.
"Maybe, but only if you'll wait 'til I ask you."
Bernard decided to ask John to make the cash pick-ups weekly at the muffler shops and several other stores.
"Fuck up, and I break your knees," he said. When his son gave him a pained smile, he said, "You don't believe me." He went to the basement, got a wrench, and tapped John hard enough on the right knee to make him double over, without doing any permanent damage.
On Friday, John took the Caddy and visited first the muffler shops, then Celine's Lingerie on Avenue M. A thin blonde woman around forty, with big brown eyes and an extremely sad air, came out of the back to hand him the envelope. "Are you Celine?" John asked.
"Yes." She fixed him with her large eyes, then said, "Come and talk to me a moment." He followed her into the back to a small office. Bra samples were hanging everywhere; he felt a little aroused. She sat on her desk looking at him. She was very neatly, very fashionably dressed, but she was haggard and he sensed there was something wrong.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked.
"Yes," John said.
"Did your dad tell you?"
"No, but other people talk."
"Yes, they do, don't they? Does your mom know?"
"I don't think so."
She offered him a Salem, then tried to light one for herself. Her hands were trembling. He got his Bic from his pocket and lit it for her.
"Thank you," she said, then: "I have ovarian cancer."
"I probably won't be able to work more than another few months. It goes so fast."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Help what?" she asked, and laughed, an abrupt bark. "Yes, you can tell your dad to come around and visit. I haven't seen him in months. He vanished the day I was diagnosed. Like he was afraid he would catch it in his dick."
Both she and John were embarrassed. Celine stared out the window at a brick wall a few feet away in the alley. John looked at her feet. She was wearing red leather high heels and her toes were beautifully manicured.
"I'm sorry," Celine said. "Its just very hard. You seem like a nice boy."
"If there's anything I can do...."
"Actually there is. I have to go to Kings Highway Hospital for a treatment. Could you drop me?"
It was a few minutes out of his way but he drove her. She sat silently next to him, smoking and daydreaming, blowing the smoke out the window.
He went home afterwards and gave Bernard the money. "What took you so long?" his father asked. "I was about to look for you over at Jay Park."
"I took Celine to the hospital."
"What's the matter, did she have an attack or something?"
"No, just a routine treatment."
"What did she tell you?"
"Nothing. What is there to tell?"
"You watch out for her," Bernard said. "She's a little bit crazy."
That night, Uncle Charlie came over with Sid Klein, the lawyer he and Bernard shared. Sid was also involved with Charlie's political club, the New Reform Democrats (of whom E said, "They're not new, not for reform, and not really even Democrats"). Sid was a close friend of both men, and served as a kind of business advisor to Bernard as well as legal counsel. The men sometimes invested together; at one time in the past they had co-owned a racehorse.
Sid was a very small, florid man who was so close to being entirely bald that he shaved off his remaining hair from vanity. Charlie looked like Bernard, except that he was shorter, had jowls and didn't wear a mustache. He and Bernard were fraternal twins.
They were planning to go out to dinner together (John's mother, Trina, was excluded because it was "business") but first they took John into Bernard's study for a strategy session about the draft.
Sid served as a kind of arbitrator. First Charlie argued his position, that John ought to go in the service if drafted, and Charlie would pull strings to obtain him a safe posting. Bernard, without quite saying that he didn't trust his brother, was concerned that once John was in the army, they would lose control of his destiny and he might still be sent to Vietnam. Bernard knew a doctor who owed him a favor. This doctor could write John a letter saying he had bad asthma. It was almost impossible to prove such a statement was false, unless you followed the subject around for months waiting for him to have an attack. John would be classified 4F and there would be no shame attached. It wasn't like being rejected for psychological reasons. Bernard fell silent, looking to Sid to knit up their differences.
"I think there's a middle ground here," Sid finally said. "What did you say your number is?"
"They reached 232 last year," Charlie said.
"Asthma can be diagnosed at any time," Sid replied. "Why don't we wait until we see if they're getting close to his number? Once you send that asthma letter, its in his file forever."
They decided to do it that way. The men left. John hadn't opened his mouth.
He had dinner alone with Trina, who barely spoke. John's mother was Italian, twelve years younger than his father. She was a war bride; she had been a nineteen year old girl in Sicily when she met Captain Bernard Chalfin in 1944. She spoke English well, but with a strong accent. She was black-haired, had large sad dark eyes and was very slender. Celine was very like her.
Wednesday in Jay Park John had a very unpleasant shock. Tom Sinclair, the leader of the Apple Bonkers, was bragging he had had Desiree the night before. Tom was a tall, good looking boy with shoulder length brown hair; only Brian was thought to be more successful with women than him. "She meowed like a cat," Tom said. "We were all over the place, on the bed, on the floor, in the shower, in the tub, almost on the ceiling."
John felt sick, as if Desiree had been unfaithful to him.
The next day, after his last course at Brooklyn College, he went over to Midwood and waited for her by the right hand fence, where the hippies hung out. She came down the steps, saw him and smiled. He had been very careful and courteous since their last conversation.
When she saw his face up close, her smile vanished. "What's the matter?"
"Is it true you slept with Tom Sinclair?"
She was furious but whispering; it was very eerie. "I'm not your dog. I told you that. Whatever I do with my body, its not your business."
"So you did sleep with him."
"Whether I did or didn't, its none of your affair." She wouldn't look at him, so he knew she had. She stomped away, her boots going crack, crack, crack on the pavement. After that, she avoided John, crossing the street if she saw him.
He went to make the pick-up at Tolbert's one day and Al Davis, Tolbert's assistant, came out with the money. "Where's Tom?" John asked.
"I run the place now," Al said. "Didn't your dad tell you?"
"Tolbert left. He opened a muffler place of his own."
"Dad must be very angry."
"Tell me about it."
The summer came and Bernard arranged a job for him working with Al Davis. It was apparently understood he wasn't going to get his hands dirty. The other men logged in work, then went and did it; even Davis got grease on his hands. John only worked in the front, doing paperwork with customers. He was busy about three hours out of eight. He asked Davis to train him to do the real tasks, but Davis refused. The men didn't want John in the back. Davis seemed very annoyed to have John on his hands for the summer, but didn't say anything.
He got off at four every day and went to Jay Park. It was a low period of his life; he didn't have a girl friend and sometimes would see Desiree in the street. She still wouldn't look at him. He spent hours sitting next to Brian on a bench, listening to the same stories, having the same conversations week after week. In earlier years, John had eagerly run to Jay Park to see what was happening; now he went there because he wasn't sure what to do with himself. It was better than going home and sitting in the air-conditioned living room listening to his mother complain about his father.
Girls didn't spend much time in Jay Park, but one afternoon Charlotte Davis came by with Shipwreck. She had an old guitar and played and sang very sweetly: "Where have all the flowers gone," not exactly a Jay Park kind of song, and "Both Sides Now." Afterwards, John tried to talk to her. He had never really liked her---she was quiet and thought to be a snob---but he suddenly found her very pretty, and her connection to Desiree made her interesting. But when he spoke, she frowned at him.
Charlotte left the park and the boys began talking about her.
"Its funny how the sexy girls like to keep an ugly one around for contrast," Allen said. "She's becoming Desiree Stein's sidekick."
"Char's not ugly," Shipwreck said. "In fact, I think she's really good-looking."
"Why do you think so?"
"Nice hair and skin, smart-looking, kind of mysterious expression...."
Brian Hanrahan laughed. "She's a dark little mouse who thinks her shit don't stink."
"So," Big Moe said, "if you came home, and she was in your bed...."
"Oh, they have to be a good deal more ugly than that before I'd kick them out," Brian said, and everyone laughed.
John went to meet his father at Battista's one night and saw him sitting at the bar with Francis Multimano, known locally as Frankie Many Hands. John went to sit at the opposite end. When Frankie left, he went over.
"They say he's a Mafia guy," he remarked to his father.
"He is. I have a little problem. I bought an Italian restaurant in Bay Ridge. I meant to flip it. I would have made two or three hundred thou. Along comes a wise guy and tells me that only the family can own Italian places in Bay Ridge. They offer me cost plus twenty thousand dollars."
"Frankie told you that?"
"No, some local wise guy from Bay Ridge. I asked Sid to negotiate. Some other wise guy comes up to his Court Street office and do you know what he did? He slapped Sid around. Dribbled him like a basketball, to hear Sid tell it."
"So what's Frankie got to do with it?"
"I asked him to intervene, but he said there's nothing he can do. That's some other group entirely."
"I didn't know you knew him."
"Yeah. We went to high school together, and later he was under my command in the army, in Sicily."
John came out of the muffler shop and Brian was waiting for him.
"I wanted to head you off if you were going to Jay Park."
"I was," John said. "Why?"
"They've got a little plan going over there. They were going to trip you out. If you go there, Little Moe is going to offer you a drink from a bottle of Bali Hai with two tabs of acid dissolved in it. Big Moe and the rest of the Bonkers are in on it."
"Whose brilliant idea was that?"
John stopped walking, shocked, and looked at his friend.
"I was only goofing around. People were talking about how straight you are. They were saying you're probably a nark, and we shouldn't let you hang around with us. So I said we should trip you out. I was just joking around, to relieve the situation. But it got out of hand. They were going to dose you, then rob you of your roll."
"Great, now I can never go back to Jay Park."
"Sure you can. Just wait a day or two."
But John didn't go back the rest of the summer. As a result, he spent more time with Trina.
"Do you think your father has other women? He's out so much in the evenings now, I think he must have other women."
"It's business, ma," he said lamely.
The state legislature was in recess. Charlie took John to church one August Sunday: Our Lady of the Sorrows, on Ocean Parkway. John dozed while the priest walked around up front and droned. Altar boys waved censers and the faithful lined up to receive the host. John remembered Brian saying, "I'm hungry. Maybe I'll go over to St. Mary's and get a cracker."
John looked at Uncle Charlie and was convinced he was sleeping too, with his eyes open. Charlie finally roused himself and went, rather uneasily, to get the wafer. John didn't follow.
He was very uncomfortable. It was ninety-five degrees out and Charlie had made him wear a sports jacket and tie.
After church, Charlie stood outside and shook everyone's hand. They went back in and visited with the priest for a while. Father Seamus asked Charlie to help him redo the refectory and Charlie offered to raise some money and send E over to help.
Then Charlie and John made a walking tour of the district, going in to every restaurant and shop which opened on Sundays and calling at people's houses as well. John lost track of how many cups of coffee and slices of Entenman's cake he accepted. Everyone told him that Charlie was a great man.
Charlie had married in 1955, ten years after Bernard, but his wife had died of an aneurysm in 1965. John had loved his Aunt Belle---she was affectionate and funny---and was shocked when she passed. He had never known anyone who died before. "I should have gone like Belle," John had heard his mother say. It apparently was not necessary to be married to be a politician, as long as you had been. Charlie had a corner of his living room set up as a shrine to Belle and carried a picture of her in his wallet. John had heard that he had a mistress named Cissy whom he kept in an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. There was even a story he had had Celine before passing her on to Bernard.
Charlie had no children of his own and therefore it was generally understood that he regarded John as his political heir. In between visits to constituents, Charlie lectured him about being a fuck-up. "Your dad says you run with a bad crowd and that you're careless with girls. Now, I like girls as much as the next guy, and I've been with a lot of them. But you have to be really careful and discreet, both with your friends and with your girls. Because you can't get in messes and still be in politics. Do you understand me? Knowing how to stay out of messes is the first rule. Are you listening to me?"
"I heard you," John said.
As a substitute for the crowd in Jay Park, John began hanging out with Shipwreck, Allen and Coop. Allen had a basement apartment in his parents' house which they never entered. Every night, the four boys, sometimes joined by others, would smoke pot or hash and drink a bottle of cheap wine together, then complain about their lives or talk about women. John didn't feel he fit in with them, but he was glad to have somewhere to go. Then one day he went into the bathroom, and when the water stopped running he could hear them talking about him in the next room.
"Why do we hang around with him?" Allen asked. "Big Moe says he's probably a nark."
Ship replied, "He's definitely not a nark, but his family has a lot of pull with the cops. John is a useful guy to know, because if you ever got in a jam with Sparrow he could probably help you out."
"Nark or not, he's not one of us. He puts on rich-boy airs, and drives that fucking Daddy-lac. Besides which, Desiree won't come over if he's here."
He ran the water again, so he wouldn't hear more. The next night he made an excuse rather than returning to Allen's house.
Now, without Jay Park or the three boys, he felt as if he had no friends. He was very angry at Brian, both for suggesting that the Apple Bonkers dose him and for not coming around now that John didn't visit the park. John hadn't seen him in several weeks.
He was glad when school started again after Labor Day. The first day of classes, John looked around at his classmates expectantly. I have a hole in my life right now, he thought. Maybe I can fill it with some of these people. It would be nice to have some college friends for once, instead of scamps and dropouts.
In his Twentieth Century Literature class, he spotted an interesting black girl. She wasn't pretty, but she was very pleasant looking, with a broad, freckled face, medium brown skin, and long curly hair. She had an island accent, like British only more musical. She wore a long skirt and a high-necked blouse.
The next day, he saw her in the cafeteria sitting alone. He wondered why she wasn't at the table where the black students hung out. He walked over and sat next to her and said, "Hi, I'm John. I'm in your literature class."
She smiled brilliantly and was very pretty for a moment. "Terry Jones," she said, and shook his hand.
She said she was from Trinidad, an island he knew nothing about. She lived with her grandmother and a ten year old brother, and had been in Brooklyn five years. He figured out quickly that Terry was smarter than he was, and she began helping him with the work. For the first time, he began looking forward to college, because Terry was there and he would spend time with her every day. They met either in the cafeteria or in the library. This went on for a few weeks, and then John said, "I really enjoy hanging out with you." She had spent an hour explaining a difficult passage of Joyce to him and then they had spoken of their philosophies of life. Terry wanted to be a college professor and was planning to attend graduate school.
"I enjoy it too, John-O," she said.
"Would you like to see a movie with me tonight?"
Terry looked down at the floor, embarrassed, and said quickly, "I'd love to, John-O, but I can't. I have to get home to give Lionel his dinner. Grandma is out."
"I could come with you."
"Oh, no," she said, laughing.
Two nights later, she said, "Still interested in that movie, John-O? Because I could tonight, if you want."
After that, they had dinner together one or two nights a week. They didn't go back to the movies after the first time because Terry explained it didn't leave enough time for homework.
He sometimes felt excited when sitting next to Terry; he loved her perfume, which he thought of as a sweet brown smell, like brown sugar or cinnamon. But he tried not to regard her as a sexual prospect; it was rewarding to have her as a friend, and the other way seemed risky. Still, he liked her so much it was hard not to think of it.
His midterm grades came, and for the first time he had all B's and B pluses. He walked Terry to the subway---she wouldn't let him see her home---and said, "I'm a B student, and its your work---you did it." He leaned over and gave her a brotherly kiss intended for her cheek, but which landed on her forehead when she turned her head sharply in surprise. "John-O, let me give you a proper kiss," she said. She looked around, drew him down the empty subway steps by his hand, and kissed him. Then she stood back, still holding his hand, and looked at him fearfully. "Wow," John said, and saw her brilliant smile.
He asked her out for Friday night, and they saw a forgettable cop movie, and held hands and kissed in the darkest part of the theater. There was an indefinable sweetness now in her manner to him, something very foreign; she wasn't like the Brooklyn girls at all. She was strong but not hard-edged. He wildly wanted to be alone with her, but there was no opportunity. She was not a girl he could take to Harrison House, and have everyone tease him and her afterwards.
He reached for Terry's breast once at the movies, and she slapped his hand. "Are you a virgin?" he asked when he walked her to the train afterwards. She wouldn't look at him or answer.
One night, after he dropped Terry at the train station, he turned and saw Brian.
"Black chick, eh?" Brian said with a smile.
"Cool." They went to DQ for a shake. Brian told him all kinds of stories about the sexual potency of black women and their equipment. John said Terry was just a normal girl, and added: "You've probably never been with a black girl yourself." Brian insisted he had, but John did not believe him.
Brian wanted John to come over to Jay Park. John followed him, uncertain that he should.
"The boys here are really sorry for what they were gonna do to you," Brian said. He bullied Big Moe into apologizing. Tom Sinclair shook John's hand and said he wouldn't mind seeing him around more.
One Friday night when John had a date with Terry, she made the cash pick-up with him. The Badalamentis and Davis stared at her curiously. She came in to meet Celine and by the time they drove her to the hospital (as John now did most Friday nights) the two women were friends. Terry insisted on waiting with Celine in the hospital instead of going to the movie. John hated the hospital; he had his father's horror of sick people.
One Saturday afternoon, they took the subway to Brooklyn Heights and sat on a bench on the Promenade, holding hands and kissing and looking at the Manhattan skyline across the river. John asked Terry why she looked different than American black people.
"I'm a mixture of a lot of things," Terry said with a frown. "My father was white. I have Indian blood, Arawak and we think also Taino." She touched her flat nose. "This is an Indian feature."
"I didn't know your dad was white."
"I don't remember him. He was an Italian construction executive. He never married mom. They were together five or six years. We come from an old, conservative family in Trinidad. Important in politics there. Mom was the prodigal, the daughter they had to disown because she misbehaved. Lionel has a different father. When mom died, grandma brought us here to get us away from the family. We were an embarrassment."
Five or six more weeks went by, and John became increasingly desperate. One Saturday he had a mild cold, and feeling irritated, called Terry to cancel their date for that evening. His parents were in Atlantic City again, and with wild excitement he said, "Why don't you come over here?"
"I can't do that."
He was lying on his bed watching television a half hour later when the phone rang.
"Still at loose ends, John-O? I'll be over."
Fifteen minutes after she arrived in a taxi, they were in John's bed. He was naked and Terry was wearing only her panties. He tried to take them off and she wouldn't allow it. He reached between her legs and felt her hymen. He had never encountered one before.
"You really are a virgin."
A few minutes later, Terry was doing hand-stands in the corner of his room while John admired her slender body and small, pretty breasts. "Come back to bed," he said.
"I have a lot of nervous energy."
"I could do something about that if you'd let me."
"I don't want to."
Later that week Brian asked if he had fucked the black chick yet. He drew John into telling the story, then laughed incredulously.
"You should have ripped her off," Brian said. "That's what I would have done."
"She didn't want to."
"What do you think she was there for?"
John had no answer. He felt miserable and disloyal for having spoken of Terry.
"I guess you're more of a lady sparer than a lady killer," Brian said, and after that, the Jay Park crew began calling John "Sparer", except for Big Moe and Little Moe, who called him "Lady".
One night, John turned around and Eugene Sparrow was in his face. "Is that a joke on my name or what?" the big cop asked.
"When they call you Sparer."
Tommy Matora narked on John to Bernard, who said, "I understand you had a colored girl over here while we were in Atlantic City last weekend."
"I know you didn't want me to bring girls here. I had nowhere else to take her but I shouldn't have disobeyed you."
"You're in more trouble than that," Bernard said. "I don't want you seeing a colored girl."
"I like her. She's a friend of mine."
"There's no future in it. If you were a different kind of kid, I wouldn't worry. You'd make a trip to the islands or down South and you'd come back and tell me you had some wild colored chick and I'd tell you about some other colored whore I had once. But you're not a lady killer like I was. You're soft and moony and you get stuck on people. I can see it. You've already taken this girl along when you make your Friday pick-up; the employees told me. Next thing I know, you'll be wanting your poor mother to meet her. No. It ends here. You're going to tell that girl tomorrow, you can't see her any more."
"Its my life, dad. She's my friend, and I won't stop."
"Who said its your life?" Bernard slapped John so hard he rocked back on his feet. The blow resounded in the house so loudly that Trina came to the top of the stairs, staring down with huge dark eyes. "Its nothing, Trine," Bernard said. "John and I are just having a little conversation." She went back to her bedroom.
John was holding his face. "You're a racist," he said.
Bernard slapped him again, not as hard this time but it still hurt. "I'm no racist. I even have coloreds working in some of the muffler shops. Al Davis has one whose a pretty good mechanic. But its a long way from that to my son hanging around with one. You do what I say or its over between you and me. As long as you eat my food and I provide your sheets, you do what I say."
On Friday, Terry couldn't see John because she was taking her grandmother to visit a friend in the Bronx. Coop's parents were away and he held a party in his house. John looked across the rec room and saw Desiree looking at him with her malicious smile. He went to her and she said, "I heard about the cute black girlfriend."
" Her name is Terry."
"Is it serious?"
There was wine on Desiree's breath and he had seen her smoke a joint with Shipwreck. John was stoned too. The basement was hazy with pot and cigarette smoke.
"I'd say so."
"I heard they call you Lady Sparer now."
John flushed. "I don't have to explain anything to anybody."
"I'll bet I could get you back if I wanted," Desiree said. She began touching John, caressing his arms, chest and face with her warm palms. She did this in a very stylized way, quick caresses. A prostitute move, John thought. He was very turned on. She took his hand and they went upstairs to Coop's parents' bedroom. Crucifix on one wall, portrait of John F. Kennedy on the other. Desiree laughed as he pushed her down on the bed. Afterwards, they had both come down from their high and looked at each other, feeling embarrassed and low. John was sorry and Desiree knew it. They decided to leave the house rather than face their friends in the basement. She was very quiet; when he offered to walk her home, she shook her head and ran down the street, her boots clacking on the pavement.
Saturday night, John had caught a cold again and told Terry he couldn't see her. On Monday, they met on campus to have dinner. They walked across the quad and Terry immediately could tell from John's manner that there was something wrong. He discovered he couldn't lie to her so after some minutes of questioning, he told her about Desiree. Terry turned and started walking back onto the campus with her head down. John caught up to her and she was crying so hard she had trouble walking. She put her hands over her face and ran and he followed her. She went into the student union and found a sitting room where no-one was. She collapsed in an armchair, put her head back and cried. He sat by her and kept trying to take her hands, but she batted him away.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I did a stupid thing. I never wanted to hurt you like this."
She had stopped crying, and stared past him out the window. "Maybe I was the dumb one. You just think you can be with someone, quietly, with no bullshit, but it doesn't work that way."
"I don't understand."
"I was happy, John-O. I just wanted to go on like that."
"So did I. I didn't go out looking to spoil it. It just kind of happened."
"I kept thinking, in the back of my mind, that if I didn't go with you, you'd find someone else."
"That's not why."
"That's the way things work. Its not that I don't want you, John-O. I do. I just didn't want to go too fast. I don't want to be like my mother."
She suffered him to hold her hand now. Occasional big tears came down her cheeks and he dried them with a bandanna he took from his jacket pocket.
"I think I love you, John-O. When you came over to talk to me that first time in the cafeteria, I thought you were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."
He leaned over and kissed her. "I think I love you, too, Terry."
A few days later, she said she would sleep with him if he wanted.
John said, "I didn't want it to happen because I bullied you. I would have waited 'til you were comfortable."
"I want to."
His Sicilian grandmother, whom he had only met twice, was mortally ill, and Bernard and Trina went to Italy for a week. Bernard called on Wednesday night and kept him on the phone almost forty-five minutes, giving him instructions on things he wanted John to do. Right after John hung up, the phone rang; it was Terry, who had been trying to get through and asked to whom he'd been speaking. He still couldn't lie to her about anything, so he told her that his parents were out of town.
"Shall I come over, John-O? I could be there in half an hour." Her voice trembled.
"I'd like that, Terry, but I can't."
"What do you mean, you can't."
He told her that Tommy Matora had spied on him last time and informed his father, who had hit him.
"Was this before the night you went with your old girlfriend?"
"It was a day or two after you were here the last time."
"And you never told me."
"I was ashamed."
"Ashamed of who, John-O? Your father or me?"
"Of my father," he said, but Terry hung up. He called back fifty times but she wouldn't pick up the telephone. Finally, her grandmother answered to say that Terry had gone to bed.
The next day she ran away from him in the quad. He started to follow but was afraid of making a spectacle of himself. He called her again but she wouldn't come to the phone. He wrote her a letter and it came back to him a few days later. She had placed it unopened inside an envelope addressed to him. On the outside of his letter, she had written two words: "Please don't." After that she was out of school for a few days.
He went down to Jay Park and Shipwreck told him that Charlotte Davis was now living with Desiree and her parents. Desiree had somehow acquired a nickname in the last month or so: the boys called her Streetcar. "Char is like Streetcar's shadow," Allen said. "She's her conscience," Coop corrected him. "She goes everywhere with her and tells her what not to do." "Street's not half as much fun as she was," Allen said.
Desiree having a conscience didn't prevent her from having sex with Brian Hanrahan a few days later. Brian bragged about it. "She tried that panty trick on me, but I ripped her off anyway, like you should have done with Terry." John couldn't endure listening to him, so he stopped going to Jay Park for a while, and spent a lot of time at E's house building cabinets and bookshelves with him.
Bernard sat John down in the kitchen one night and spoke to him for an hour about whether he would go into politics or run Bernard's businesses. "The problem is that Charlie and I have only the one son between us. I don't know what to do. You might go far in politics; maybe you could be Senator, even president, who knows. If you could just learn not to be a fuck-up. Which is always a big question, with you. But if you go into politics with Charlie, I have no-one to run the businesses. Tom Tolbert was the only guy who could have done it, but he fucked me."
Politics meant going up to Albany as Charlie's intern after graduation in two years. Business would involve staying in the Chalfin house or nearby in Brooklyn. Albany seemed far away and cold. Brooklyn had become a prison. John had no idea what he wanted to do.
For some months, Celine no longer had come in to work, and he had picked her up at her apartment to take her for her treatment. She looked haggard and terrible, wore a wig because of the loss of her hair, and spoke slowly as a result of the medication. She said that Terry had stayed in touch, and had been to see her twice. He called Terry and got her on the phone for the first time. She spoke to him for a few minutes about Celine, in a calm, distant voice, like a friendly stranger. Then one Friday, Diane Ventura, who had taken over the store, told John not to go to Celine's, because she was already in the hospital. He decided he would go visit her soon, but he hated the hospital and couldn't make up his mind to do it. Three weeks later, Diane told him Celine had died. She was only forty-two years old.
He saw Terry sometimes at school and she would spend a few minutes with him, even have lunch with him in the cafeteria. She wouldn't let him touch her, not even her hand, nor would she go out with him. She was friendly but listless and curiously formal, as if they had known each other in the very distant past.
One night a few days before Christmas, Coop's parents were away again and Coop held another party. This time, there were nearly fifty people in his house, including the entire Apple Bonker crew, and things were beginning to get out of hand. Shipwreck slipped out, murmuring to John as he passed that Sparrow would probably show up in a few minutes and arrest everybody. John went outside and saw Desiree sitting with Charlotte Davis on the front steps. Char was cradling her guitar case between her knees. Coop had come out to plead with them to stay. A boy named Jim Fowler whom John knew from college invited everyone to a party his cousin was giving in Bay Ridge. John had the Caddy and offered to drive the two girls. Charlotte frowned---she never saw him without making a face---and Desiree gave him an amused, arch look. They had come with Tommy McPherson, who had his brother's Ford. He was too drunk to drive, so Desiree would take him. John helped them load Tommy into the back of the car. Charlotte rested her guitar on top of him and the girls got into the front. Coop stood on the porch, disappointed they were leaving. Jim Fowler pulled out first in his Lincoln, then Desiree, then John, followed by Big Moe. Waiting for his turn, John tuned the radio to WNEW-FM. Alison Steele, the Night Bird, was playing the Rolling Stones. "Rape, murder, is just a shot away," Mick Jagger sang.
A freezing rain was falling and the streets were icy. They convoyed slowly down the avenue to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway ramp. "Love, sister, is just a kiss away," Jagger sang, and Merry Clayton echoed the line. Jim Fowler, in a familiar act of bravado, accelerated on the ramp, then Desi did the same. John didn't want to drive fast on the ice, so he went down slowly. He sensed that Big Moe was waiting at the top for him to reach the highway so that Moe could speed down the entryway faster than anyone else.
"If I don't get some shelter, I'm gonna fade away," Jagger sang. John came around the blind corner at the bottom and saw that the Continental had spun around and stopped, blocking the ramp. The Ford had hit it. He swung out wide to the left, so that he had two wheels on the dirt shoulder, and rode the brake, intending to stop on the right just after the other two cars so that he could check on his friends. The brake hardly slowed the Caddy at all; it slid forward in the ice. He saw he would not hit the other two cars. Just when he thought he had evaded all the consequences, Desiree Stein popped up right in front of him.