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When his older brother suddenly joins the army and is sent to the Persian Gulf, sixteen-year-old Gary begins to take a new look at the restaurant that has been the focal point of his family and their small Pennsylvania town.
HOW WOULD YOU FEEL about having a Gulf soldier for a pen pal? my brother wrote to Lynn Dunlinger.
If the answer is no, don't write back.
Lynn came up to me near Christmas, at the employees' party Linger always held.
That was when she told me about it.
She said, "Gary? Guess who I got a letter from! Your brother!"
"Bobby?" I said. I only had one brother. But I couldn't believe it: Bobby writing Dunlinger's daughter! He'd never mentioned that in his letters home.
"Yes, Bobby! I'm the only girl at Faith Academy who's heard from a serviceman in the Gulf!"
"He's the only one from Berryville to be over there."
"And the only Linger alumnus. Daddy's real proud of Bobby."
"Now," I said. Lynn ignored my sarcasm. Since she went away to school and wasn't around the restaurant that much, maybe she didn't know Bobby'd had a major falling-out with her father. No one but those two knew why but Bobby said he'd never work for Dunlinger again, never set foot inside Linger again, either.
The Dunlingers behaved like parents of the holy child they had to keep safe and sheltered for some special destiny. Lynn couldn't date until she was seventeen, and by that time she was enrolled in a Catholic boarding school ninety miles from Berryville, in the middle of nowhere. If she did date, she had to double date with Gloria Yee, daughter of Lung Yee, Linger's maître d'. Summers Lynn went to a camp called Le Soleil, where they spoke only French.
Take advantage of your advantages, Mr. D. liked to say. I guess that was what my brother was doing.
It'd have to have been a war or something like it to get my brother's toe in Lynn Dunlinger's front door.
I don't know if you remember those days, but there were yellow ribbons hanging off everything, and more flags around than you see on July Fourth.
Who was going to answer that kind of letter saying no, thanks, I'll pass on writing one of you guys?
Preppies and college freshmen from Philadelphia and its outskirts would get in line at holiday time to date Lynn. I never saw her date anyone from Berryville.
Before Saddam Hussein turned the world upside down, no one could have told me the one guy from Berryville Lynn would be bragging wrote her a letter would be my big brother.
At the party I could see Thayer Drake out on the porch waiting for her, his ears red from the cold. He was in his last year at Choate, a little preppy prince in a Paul Stuart tweed suit, a rep tie, and jazzy boots with spurs, long hair tied in back with a silk scarf.
Thayer Drake wouldn't be comfortable coming inside for a drink with the waiters, busboys, cooks, and clerks who worked in the restaurant Lynn's father owned.
The big sign outside said:
PROPRIETOR, NED DUNLINGER ESTABLISHED 1959
Inside there was a smaller sign saying:
YOU DON'T HAVE TO PRAISE US OR LAUGH AT OUR JOKES. EAT HEARTY, COME OFTEN, YOU'RE ONE OF THE FOLKS
Dunlinger said he wanted his customers to feel that Linger was unique, that there was so much more to it than a meal out, with some musician entertaining.... He also said his marriage was that kind: unique, much more than he'd expected.
Dunlinger adored Lynn, of course—she was his only child—but he also talked about his wife all the time, in glowing terms. He came off as a romantic character, certainly where Natalia Dunlinger was concerned.
He'd built this special apartment for her at the top of Linger, with a cupola above it, and a small square balcony outside, enclosed with a little white fence.
Mrs. Dunlinger sometimes rested there, or watched the sunset from a white wicker rocker with a glass of champagne. It was her private little area. She called it Lingering Shadows. Sometimes I sneaked up there when I knew she wasn't at the restaurant.
It smelled good there. I knew it was a perfume called Red. I'd seen the bottle in the bathroom. I'd sprayed a little in the air and looked out at the hills of Berryville, and I'd wished I had a great love. Not some dumb little meet-me-by-my-locker thing, but something that would be once-in-a-lifetime, earthshaking, secret, dark, and possibly even deadly.
I would close my eyes and try to imagine the face of this beloved female, but nothing ever came ... except Lynn Dunlinger. Everyone's Dream Girl. Berryville's one world-class beauty.
And I would tell myself: No Way! ... Nooooo Way! It wasn't just that I was sixteen and she was seventeen, or that I was a sophomore in high school and she was a senior in boarding school. It was what Bobby always said: Why line up with the sheep and drool over her? That's not for the cool, cool Peel brothers! There're a lot of fish in the sea; you just haven't swum from the little pond into the big sea. Wait till you get your butt out of Berryville, Gary—she'll look like nothing to you.
Both our parents thought Berryville was paradise.
They loved Berryville and they loved Linger.
My dad, Charlie Peel, was Linger's manager, and Wanda, my mother, did the books for the place, from home.
Dad thought The Boss hung the moon, and Mom talked about the Dunlingers the way the English rave about The Royal Family: Every little thing they did fascinated her.
It used to embarrass Bobby when he'd fall into the family rut. Working up there as a waiter, same as I did after he joined up, Bobby'd rave about how smart Dunlinger was, then say something to play it down, like "Now I sound like Dad and Mom!"
But Bobby often fought with Dunlinger, too. He hated the way Dunlinger controlled everything about Linger. Bobby griped about the rules, and the way Dunlinger saw that they were followed.
When Mr. Yee sat people in the dining room, he had to seat unattractive customers back by the kitchen doors (unless they were on Dunlinger's A list of old, well-heeled regulars). No men without ties, or ladies in pants, ever in The Regency Room. They went into The Grill, as did customers with children in tow. Jules Raleigh, the musician, had to play upbeat songs until after dinner, when he'd go into The Grill and the bar drinkers would sit around the piano and request blues.
No drunk, ever, no matter who it was, could stay at a table or on a barstool; he or she had to leave. Fresh flowers on the tables, clean windows, and in the smoking section no more than two butts in an ashtray before you emptied it.
There was a long list of rules.
Dunlinger had the only real restaurant in town. The hotel dining room was a tacky place that couldn't keep a cook more than six months. The others were fast-food joints like Waffle Waffle and McDonald's.
Linger paid a lot of attention to Berryville, too.
It wouldn't seem like Christmas in our town without the Linger tree. We all went up there to watch the lights go on and sing carols every December fifteenth ... Easter there was the egg rolling out on the lawn, for the kids ... and on the Fourth of July, Linger's fireworks could be seen and heard for miles.
Linger was the best thing about the town. Bobby said it was all due to Dunlinger, until their fight turned Bobby against him.
After that, Bobby joined the Army, and it was as though Linger didn't exist where he was concerned. He never once asked about Linger or the Dunlingers. If we mentioned them during our phone calls, he changed the subject.
But once there was the threat of war, and Bobby was shipped over to Saudi Arabia, once he'd finally swum from the little pond into the big sea, what did he do first thing?
He wrote Lynn.CHAPTER 2
—FROM THE JOURNAL OF PRIVATE Robert Peel
First thing at Fort Hood, this black guy in a Smokey the Bear Hat barked out, "On your face!"
I was right off the bus with the other new recruits.
I stared back at him, didn't have a clue what he wanted.
He called himself Kali Andala, black as the Dunlingers' cat, Joan, and just as angry.
Behind me this guy whispered, "He wants you to do push-ups."
"Beat your face, asshole!" Sergeant Andala introduced me to the Army's pretty talk. His lips practically touched mine, he was so close, and I could smell his morning coffee.
I got down and started going. It was just like the old days out behind Berryville High on the football field, the coach barking at me to save some energy because I'd do some laps next.
"I want twenty!" Sergeant Sweet Talk told me.
A guy behind me muttered, "Jesus!" like he felt for me, and the drill sergeant got on his case next.
He said you're going to beat your face, too, greasehead, because the guy behind me was Spanish, and Sergeant Andala liked to call you the worst thing anyone could. (Italians were wops, and he called a German Sauerkraut Breath.)
Next he asked this guy his name, and it went like this:
"Augustin Sanchez, Sir."
"You a little Spic girl from Porto Ricko, Sanchez?"
"No, Sir. I'm a Mexican from New York City."
"You this Yo-Yo Peel's girlfriend?"
"No, Sir, Drill Sergeant! I'm a male, Sir."
I was at their feet, up to five and already feeling it.
"You look like a girl or something, a movie star or something, pretty boy!"
"I'm sorry, Sir. I can't help how I look, Sir!"
"You can help how you act, Movie Star."
"If you ever try again to help out that Yo-Yo down there beating his face, I'll have your ass!"
"Now you give me fifty, Movie Star!"
What is it with me? All I need to do is show up anywhere and someone there will hate me on sight. Dunlinger used to say I had an attitude. He'd say, You could be my younger self with your cocky strut and your smirk. You've got to bury it, kid! Always pretend to be a bigger fool than you are, Smart Guy, or someone's going to nail you.
Movie Star and me are laughing about it now, sitting on a cot near our tank. I never saw so many stars in one sky.
"I only got to do twelve push-ups," Movie Star says. "Then I caved in. You did all twenty."
I tell him I was something of a jock in Berryville High, and not much of a student. One reason I joined up: for the $5,000 bonus, yes, but also for the chance to go to college, since the family savings should go to the brain, not the brawn. I tell him Gary's going to be a lawyer.
Movie Star says he's no jock, but he's got four brothers, so he joined up for the same reasons. He says instead of sports at the school he went to in New York City, he danced.
I tell him Gary and me are the cool, cool Peel brothers. "We don't dance, we don't have to."
He says he'll teach me if I don't know how.
I tell him he's too pretty to dance with. I'd get a name dancing with him. We all call him Movie Star now.
He calls me Roberto.
I tell him the only word I know in Spanish is Mañana.
I don't tell him that for a while it was a Mexican restaurant in Berryville. Not long. Not after Dunlinger heard it was doing okay. I don't tell him about the kid named Carlos whose father ran the restaurant. But I think of Carlos every day of my life.
Movie Star sits hugging his knees, socks on his hands because it is so cold. Tomorrow the day's heat will kill us, but at night it is freezing.
Movie Star says if I want to learn more than mañana, a good way is to learn a Spanish song.
"Ya que para despedirme, Eres tan solo un sueño."
I copy it down because I like what it says. It goes,
Keep from saying farewell, For you are only a dream.
I think of Lynn. Sometimes I wonder if I was fascinated by her just because she was Dunlinger's daughter. I had in my lifetime exactly three conversations with Lynn. One about how Joan holds her bell with one paw when she hunts, and goes on three legs.... One about removing the toilet plunger from the downstairs Ladies' after it was plugged up, because it looks bad in there.... One about how she bets she will remember Christmas at Linger no matter what any future Christmas is like because her father really knows how to make Linger magic then. Agreed.
I wouldn't mind having a beer, but there's no booze anywhere since it is prohibited in this country. Even Playboy is.
We drink Sharp's nonalcoholic beer, not the same and it's usually warm.
Movie Star says, What if the Iraqis decide to lay it on us first, like tonight?
I say, The only thing I'm really afraid of is the mines.
What if they use gas? Movie Star persists.
We got gas masks, I say.
What if it's not that kind? What if it's some new thing that just has to be in the air and your bones turn to jelly?
I change the subject, ask him how often Amy writes.
He says he doesn't get a letter every day but she sends one every day.
"Does your Lynn write every day too?"
I shrug, lie. I got one from her, though. She could have written it to anyone. Well, tell me what it's like over there kind of thing.
Off in the distance we see a line of camels moving across the desert on a route marked by cyalume light sticks, the kind I used to keep in the glove compartment of my old Mustang in case I got lucky.
Break it in half and there was this soft little green light girls loved.
Once one said she'd heard about me, that I was just a makeout artist, and she wasn't going to risk getting AIDS.
I had the name but not that big a game.
The girls I really liked I never got the nerve to ask out. So I'd pretend I didn't even see them, or I'd whistle at them through my fingers, like a hardhat, yell out my car window, "Yo! Baby!"
But I never whistled at L.D. I never let on how I felt about her, to anyone. I didn't even tell Gary, though I think he had a crush on her himself.
Down the way someone's playing that song again on Desert Shield Radio, the 91st Psalm.
You will not fear the terror of the night.
I wonder if I'll die without ever knowing what someone like Lynn Dunlinger says when you kiss her.CHAPTER 3
"WHAT DID SHE HAVE on?" my mom said.
"How would I know? This green thing."
"Yeah, I think."
"She's home for Christmas vacation early this year. Her school's let out early."
"Mom, did you hear what I said? Bobby and her are writing."
"Bobby and she are. Who said she was? Did she say she was writing to him?"
"What did you think she'd do? Bobby probably wrote her that he was homesick and he needed a letter."
"Did she say she wrote him?" Mom persisted.
I couldn't remember. After she dropped her little bombshell about hearing from Bobby, I was too busy trying to look like that didn't surprise me, that it'd take more than that to turn me around.
I told Mom she didn't have to say she was writing him. Who wouldn't write him? Have to be an Iraqi who wouldn't, a Russian, not, believe me, a Dunlinger. They had the biggest flag in town, and Mr. Dunlinger was American Legion, Rotary, Lions, go down the lists, he'd be there.
Mom said, "Oh, yes, she would have to say she was writing to him before I'd believe it."
My father piped up then, "I believe it! What I have trouble believing is Bobby writing her. I thought he was through with all Dunlingers forever!"
"I knew Bobby'd never stay mad at Mr. D.," said Mom. "Those two were thick as thieves, never mind their little falling out."
We never knew what it was really about, but there was a rumor around that Bobby and Mr. Dunlinger fought over something to do with a Mexican restaurant called Mañana. It opened down on the canal one summer, and I remember being surprised when Bobby said Dunlinger called the owner a "wetback."
One of Dunlinger's rules at Linger was no one on the staff could make any ethnic slurs, or tell any jokes about minorities, not even gays. He said the only name for anyone who walked through the front door was "customer," and anyway, he always added, I don't like bigotry of any sort!
I'd even heard Dunlinger put them out of business, and that Bobby quit because of it. But that didn't really seem like my brother. Bobby wasn't that kind of hero. He'd mop up the floor with anyone who went after me, and he'd stick by little kids up against a bully, but he'd never been into causes. You can bet he'd never have joined the Army if he'd thought he'd have to fight a war.
My father said, "Well, if Bobby is writing Lynn, he's got a lot of competition."
"Like Thayer Drake," I said. "He was waiting for her after the party."
"She dates others like her," said my father. "Home from school for the holidays she gets Gloria Yee and they double date. You know the rules. They're to protect her."
My father seemed pleased at that idea.
Excerpted from Linger by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1993 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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