Read an Excerpt
By Thomas Rogers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Thomas Rogers
All rights reserved.
From where he stood on Thompson Street Jerry Engels could see them dancing in the Sigma Pi house. Couples circled and dipped to a tune that leaked faintly into the frosty air. Then the front door opened, letting out a burst of music and light. A couple emerged, hatless, coatless, laughing, and went running off to Delta Upsilon where another party was in progress. It was Saturday night in State College, Pennsylvania. December, 1951.
Jerry shifted on his feet and continued to stare grimly into the Sigma Pi party room. His usually reliable informant in the Kappa sorority had told him his girlfriend—check that, his ex-girlfriend Pat Gaheris would be dancing this evening with Ken Moomaw. Jerry wanted to confirm those evil tidings. He wanted to see it with his own eyes. Though why did he want to see it? What masochistic impulse kept him standing there in the cold, waiting for pain?
Never mind, there she was in her red dress with the tight waist.
A bubble of grief burst in his heart. His eyes closed, and on the retina of memory he saw Pat in the two-piece Queen of Sheba costume she wore in last year's Greek Week pageant. He had been her Nubian slave in diaper and shoe polish who followed her around on stage holding an umbrella over her head. They were the hits of the show, and after the last performance, as cast and crew celebrated in the tent, he turned to Pat—she had not been his girlfriend then—and said, "I want to kiss your navel. Let me kiss your navel." Without a word she raised her arms, lifting her high breasts higher, exposing yet more midriff. He dropped to his bare knees on the trodden spring grass and pressed his lips to her warm skin. That had been the sweet beginning, this—his eyes opened—the bitter end.
Only moments had passed, but now his view of Pat was blocked by Moomaw's broad shoulders and thick head.
Jerry had fraternity brothers who believed you should challenge anyone who even tried to take away your girlfriend, but they could be wrong. They often were. Beating up Moomaw (assuming he could do it) would not bring back Pat, and anyway Moomaw had not taken her away. She had left under her own steam, slinging his fraternity pin back at him like a murderous little boomerang. And now there she was in Moomaw's arms, seen through a window darkly.
What to do? Slink away, crushed? Heave a rock through the window? Or just howl? He howled. Looking up at the crescent moon he let loose with one of those inarticulate ululations of erotic sadness or sad eroticism that sometimes rise along fraternity rows. Then, his lungs empty, his heart heavy, he turned away and started up Thompson Street towards the Deke house where there was no party that night because the chapter was in trouble again with the Dean of Men and the Interfraternity Council. No parties for six weeks. Fall rushing privileges suspended. Could things get worse? Probably.
Jerry was mounting the grand staircase when Mildenhall came out of the Trophy Room to say they needed a fourth for bridge. Jerry just shook his head. This was no time for cards. He proceeded to the room he shared with Jeff Begler.
He found Begler lying on his bed dressed in the anti-magnetic, self-winding, shockproof, waterproof Swiss watch he wore all the time, even in the shower. Begler had evidently just had one of his long, hot showers. His lean body looked pink and hairy. He was smoking one of his Upmann cigars.
Jerry sank onto the edge of his own bed and sat looking first at Begler, then at the nail-scarred wall above Begler's bed where hung the mighty lacrosse stick with which Begler had knocked out the teeth of an enemy at Lawrence Academy in the days before he came to Penn State, indeed in the days before he was expelled from Lawrence. Begler finished high school in Cooperstown, New York, where his father, the Reverend Jeffrey Begler, had a rich parish. Mr. Begler wanted his son to go to Yale, row for his college, and prepare for the ministry, but Jeff had inherited enough money from his mother to do what he pleased. He had chosen Penn State for its Hotel and Food Management major. Begler planned to own and operate a ski resort one day. He had his future all mapped out.
"Well, she's down there dancing with Moomaw," Jerry said at last.
Begler said, "What did you expect?"
"Am I dancing?" Jerry asked. "Have I gone out with anyone?"
Begler didn't answer. He continued to smoke. He smoked the way he did everything, with artistry. First he rolled the cigar between the tips of his fingers while blowing gently on the coal. Next he put the cigar to his rosy lips and inhaled. Then came a suspenseful moment before he released the smoke. Sometimes Begler blew smoke rings, but tonight he was not trying for special effects. When he exhaled, the smoke rose in a fragrant blue plume to be instantly dispersed by the cold wind blowing through the window. Begler was a Spartan. He kept the window open all winter, never wore pajamas, and scorned any man who even owned a hat or an umbrella.
Jerry said, "In high school we studied a poem about what to do when your mistress some rich anger shows. Did you study that one?" Begler seemed to shake his head. Jerry went on, "Well, the poet says you should imprison her soft hand, and while she raves you feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes, but that's crazy. I mean, if I'd done that with Pat she'd have kicked me in the shins."
Begler tapped ash into the saucer resting on his flat stomach. "Well, you gave her crabs," he pointed out.
Normally Jerry didn't talk about the girls he had affairs with, but Pat was a special case. At Thanksgiving Jerry had gone down to Haverford to see his old pal Phil Forson, only that weekend Phil had to finish a paper on The Decay of the Weimar Republic and the Rise of National Socialism and so on Saturday night Jerry had gone into Philadelphia alone and picked up a young streetwalker who gave him crabs. He had never had them before, and didn't realize anything was wrong until after he had spent an evening with Pat in a motel in Port Matilda. Only then did he remark to Begler as they were going to bed one evening that he had been itching a lot recently. Begler took a look and said, "You've got crabs," and then it had all come out as Jerry realized he had exposed Pat.
"I suppose I could grovel at her feet," he said.
Begler puffed gently on his cigar.
"Only what good would that do?" Jerry asked himself. Pat was not an understanding or forgiving girl. That was part of her attraction. She was one of those quick people. Quick to love and quick to hate. And once she hated it was the end. Curtains. Finito Benito. "My goose is cooked," Jerry concluded.
Begler checked his watch. "Tell you what. I can get us down to Altoona by eleven."
"I don't want to go to Altoona."
"What you need is to get your ashes hauled." Begler was a great believer in the therapeutic effects of sex.
"That's the last thing I need."
"Your trouble," Begler told him, "is that you get all emotional over these sorority babes and lose your perspective."
"I know a lot more about my trouble than you do."
"So what are you going to do, sit here and moan?"
"Have I moaned?" Jerry asked.
"That was probably you outside caterwauling a while ago."
"What if it was? I have a right to howl."
Begler was up and dressing. He was a man of action. "So are you coming with me or not?"
"To the Knights of Corassen?" Jerry said scornfully. The Knights was an Altoona dance hall and pick-up joint.
"So if you don't like the Knights we can stop in Bellwood and check out the Paradise Bar and Grille."
Jerry didn't think much of the Paradise either. "Is that the best you can do?"
Begler frowned in thought. "Well, there's that joint in Juniata. We haven't been there in years."
"The Brown Derby!" Jerry exclaimed.
They went in Begler's MG.
"There should be a pint in the glove compartment," Begler said as he pulled on his driving gloves and adjusted his goggles. Jerry got it out, a fresh pint of Jim Beam. They each took a hefty swig. Then Jerry capped the bottle and put it away, Begler gunned the motor, and they were off with a roar. Begler always drove like the wind that poured over the windscreen.
These night rides with Begler had been going on since they were both freshmen, and by now they had seen all of Centre County and a lot of Blair and Clearfield and Huntingdon counties as well. They had seen frozen cornfields glittering in the moonlight, and town squares deserted by everyone but bronze doughboys flanked by cannons and symmetrical piles of cannon balls. They had seen courthouse clocks registering the unearthly hour of four A.M. Owls on fence posts had turned their heads in solemn disapproval as Jerry and Begler flashed by, and deer had waited nervously at the side of the road deciding whether or not to jump in front of the car. Once they had seen what they thought was a bear. "That looked like a bear," Begler had said, as they raced down Route 45 towards Water Street. "I think it was a bear," Jerry replied, and Begler had shaken his head. "We're really in the boondocks out here." But in fact they both loved these hills and valleys and little towns of central Pennsylvania.
They stopped to warm up in a roadside bar just beyond Warrior's Mark. They ordered boilermakers. "Go to State?" the bartender asked as he put their drinks in front of them. They went to State, they said. "Know Dorsey Struble?" They knew who he was. A great wrestler. Jerry had seen Struble working out in the weight room at Rec. Hall. "Comes from around here," the bartender said, "that's his uncle." The bartender pointed at a heavy-set, balding man in overalls drinking alone at a table for two. Begler and Jerry looked with respect at Dorsey Struble's uncle, then downed their drinks and went out into the cold. "You were right," Jerry told Begler, "I needed this." When they stopped in Tyrone for another boilermaker, he added, "I mean, I'm heartbroken, but I've got to go on living."
You couldn't talk easily in the open cockpit of the MG.
The Brown Derby was a raunchy Juniata bar near Bedbug Row and the main gate of the Altoona mills. Jerry and Begler had come upon it by accident when they were freshmen, new to the region and exploring in every direction. They filed it away then as a possible pick-up spot, though they had seldom visited it because once when they were sophomores they had trouble getting served at the bar. Now, as juniors, they had proof they were of age, though no proof was asked. The bartender served them their boilermakers without question.
Begler downed his shot, and then, beer in hand, went off to talk to a woman studying the selections in the Wurlitzer. Jerry just sat for a while, toying with his shot glass, thinking the long, long thoughts of youth. Pat was the fourth girl he had lost in as many years, and as he thought of them all he wondered if there was something really wrong with him. Aside from his promiscuity. Did he lack grip? Did girls just sort of trickle through his hands because he was weak? Should he try to be more the caveman sort? But that didn't seem to fit his personality. He was not cave-mannish. Maybe he was sort of weak. In fact his weakness and his promiscuity were probably connected, twin facets of an easy, lighthearted, somewhat negligible personality. He felt fresh sadness gathering at the edges of his mood. He could get quite sad thinking about his light heartedness, but he was not there for sadness. Shaking himself mentally, he began to look around.
There were no beauties in the bar, but then he had not expected beauty. Beauty was not the point, the point was fun, adventure, excitement. He wondered about two enormous women drinking beer together at a table in the back. They seemed to be having a great time, bantering with the regulars, and hoo-hawing over jokes of their own. They were whoppers, but jolly. Jolly whoppers. Jerry smiled in their direction, and one of them shouted out, "Hey, Handsome, come on over."
He went on over. One of them was named Phoebe, the other Sandra. Sandra got right to the point. "Which of us would you rather take home?" she asked.
"I'll take you both home," Jerry said.
They hooted at that. "Sure you're man enough for us both?" Sandra asked.
"Just feel my muscle," Jerry said, flexing his right arm. Sandra laid a fat hand on his biceps. That made Phoebe clamor that she wanted a feel, too, so Jerry flexed his left arm.
"Aren't you the man?" Sandra said. "Can you sing?"
"No, but I know some poetry," Jerry told her.
"Let's hear it," said Sandra, so Jerry recited a Shakespeare sonnet that Phil Forson's grandmother once bullied him into memorizing. It began Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? When he finished, Sandra said, "It makes you want to cry, doesn't it?" Phoebe said she always wanted to cry when she heard poetry. "But you're too young to know what tears are," Sandra told Jerry.
"I am not," Jerry declared.
"When have you ever cried?" Sandra challenged him.
"Yeah, when have you ever cried?" Phoebe echoed.
"I've cried lots."
"Pete! More beer!" Sandra yelled towards the bar.
"Let me pay for this," Jerry said. He hauled out his money and paid for the pitcher when it came. Then he filled glasses all around. "There you are, ladies."
"Who you calling a lady?" Sandra asked.
"Yeah, who you calling ladies?" said Phoebe.
"Well, anyway, there you are," Jerry said, "and don't tell me I don't know about tears. I cried buckets over Rosalind."
"Who's she?" Phoebe asked, looking around the bar suspiciously.
Jerry said, "She was the most beautiful girl in my high school. She had everything. She was blonde, and rich, and beautiful, and kind, and she got good grades. Everyone loved her. You'd have loved her, too. Girls didn't even feel jealous of her, she was so nice."
Sandra seemed touched. "So why'd you cry over her?"
"I lost her," Jerry said. "I had her and I lost her, so I went out in the garden and cried, and then I went out to the Shores and tried to drown myself."
"That's the saddest story I've ever heard," Phoebe said.
Sandra patted Jerry's shoulder. "But you'll find another, good-looking like you are."
Jerry shook his head. "I've lost three more girls since Rosalind."
"And you tried to kill yourself every time," Phoebe prompted him.
"No, I didn't," Jerry said, "When Marie left me for another man, I stole a car and started to drive back to Indiana to avenge myself."
"That's the spirit," said Sandra.
"I'm not so sure," said Jerry. "If someone doesn't love you anymore, what good does it do to kill her, or kill yourself, or kill the other man?"
"Makes you feel better."
"Not if you're dead."
"So what happened?" Phoebe asked.
"When you stole a car to go kill the trollop that jilted you."
"She was no trollop. She was going to a beauty school in Gary. She wanted to be a hairdresser. I met her on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park. Have you ever been there?"
"Been where?" Sandra asked.
"She loved presents," Jerry went on. "She had a charm bracelet ..." He held out his arm to show his wrist to Sandra and Phoebe. "She wore it here," he said, "and I used to buy her charms to put on it. Silver charms. And when I went away to school, I gave her a platinum pin. I spent every buck I earned that summer on that pin. And then she never wrote me, and she started going out with this steelworker ..." He shook his head.
"I was right," Phoebe said, "she was a trollop."
"I'd kill her," said Sandra.
"I wanted to kill him," Jerry confessed, "but I ran out of gas. There wasn't enough gas in the car I stole, and I'd forgotten to take any money with me. I mean, I was distraught."
"You poor thing." Sandra patted Jerry's leg.
Phoebe turned the pitcher upside down. "There's no beer left," she announced.
"Let me get this one," Jerry said.
"You got the last one."
"Then let me get the next one."
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," Sandra said, "I'm going to take you home and make things all right for you."
"And she's the girl that can do it," Phoebe assured him.
Jerry said, "I don't know. How can it be all right if no one loves me and wants to marry me anymore? I mean, Pat and I were going to get married. She'd even decided that we'd honeymoon on the Gaspé peninsula. Now I'll probably never see it."
"Well, who wants to see it?" Phoebe asked.
"It's supposed to be very beautiful."
"Honey," Sandra said, "I'll show you beauty. You just finish up that beer and we'll go around the corner."
Phoebe frowned. "Wait a minute! Why do you get him?"
"I saw him first," said Sandra. "I called him over here, didn't I?"
"Don't quarrel," Jerry told them.
"Yeah, but I'm younger than you are," Phoebe said to Sandra. She explained it to Jerry. "I should get you because I'm more your age."
"I'm twenty-one," he said.
"She's forty," said Sandra.
"It's a lie," said Phoebe. "I'm hardly thirty."
"When she's drunk, she forgets her own name," Sandra said to Jerry. "Now you come on. We're wasting time," and the next thing Jerry knew he was out in the cold, with Sandra beside him. She steered him around the corner and up the steps of a double house that looked quite ordinary from the outside. Inside it looked very strange. A sofa stuck out at an angle from the wall, chairs lay on their sides, an upside down coffee table made Jerry think of those dead groundhogs you saw along the highway, their legs stiffening in the air. It was as if Sandra had just thrown furniture into the room, but before Jerry could take it all in, Sandra dropped her coat over an empty birdcage and said, "This way."
Excerpted from Jerry Engels by Thomas Rogers. Copyright © 2001 Thomas Rogers. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.