Not Even A One Night Stand

 

   It knocks me out how people keep repeating old junk they pick up. And believe it. I have yet to see the apple that kept the doctor away. And if opposites attract it doesn't happen around here. Chinese don't marry Eskimos and millionaires don't hang around with pushcart peddlers. It would be a good thing if they did. We're all the same species but most of the time you would never know it.

   Bernie Sadler's father was such a hot Republican that every year he looked more like an elephant. Bernie agreed with his old man that Roosevelt's election would destroy not only Brooklyn - where he owned three sporting goods stores - but eventually the Woolworth building and the stock exchange. Bernie had come down from college with his new moustache in time for his high school reunion, two of which he had missed. Over the summer he planned to help out in the family business, although it had predictably fallen off since, according to Mr. Sadler, the new president had introduced the depression.

   Nevertheless, Bernie was headed for a degree in business. Now anxious to meet old school friends, he had spiffed himself up in his gray flannels, college tie, blue blazer and white shoes, standing lean and tall. But he never expected to meet anyone like Sybil Miller. She wasn't even a member of his graduating class. She was a senior taking part in the reunion welcome-back program delivering an impassioned speech on the suffragettes as Bernie Sadler walked into the auditorium. He scarcely followed a word of it so absorbed was he in looking at her. She was well worth more than a look as plenty of guys in her class agreed. Her immediate appeal, flashing black eyes, and smooth skin with a touch of the desert, caught his attention. People whispered to him to sit down as he stood in the aisle listening. But she had finished, and during the applause he strode back to the door and went around to the stage entrance. She had gone. She had descended the steps at the front of the stage and walked up the aisle and out the same door Bernie had used. He nervously searched everywhere for her, having obtained her name from a student backstage, then ran into old buddies and girl friends, excusing himself after brief hellos, looking for her. Almost an hour later, at the dance in the gym, he saw her as she headed for the exit. He left his partner in the middle of the floor with a quick beg pardon, and ran up to her.
   "Sybil!" he called. She turned and saw him coming toward her. He looked familiar. "I heard your speech. It was great," he exclaimed.
   "Thanks," she said. "Sorry I can't stop now, I'm late."
   "Wait, wait," he said. "I'm Bernie Sadler, an alumnus. I came down for the reunion . . . "
   "Bernie Sadler? The Bernie Sadler who was school president?"
   "Yeah!"
   "I voted for you!" she said, laughing. "I was a sophomore."
   "Oh, my God!" he cried.
   "I really have to go," she said, starting for the exit.
   "Wait. Please," he said, accompanying her. "I just want to talk for a minute . . ."
   "Why don't you call me?" she replied, hurrying toward the bus stop.
   "No! I have to be back at college tomorrow for exams. How about tonight?" The bus came down the street where a group of students waited.
   "Tonight? No, tonight I have to be in Manhattan."
   "Okay. Where?"
   "I'll tell you what. I can meet you in front of Kleins. You know Kleins?"
   "Yeah, sure. What time?"
   "Eight o'clock," she called back as she got on the bus.

   Bernie arrived near the famous clothing emporium at seven forty five to find Union Square jammed. A rally was breaking up, the chanting crowd surrounding a platform, police on foot and on horseback everywhere. A light drizzle had begun to disperse the crowd rapidly to the subway entrances. A banner coming down from the platform read "Free The Scottsboro Boys", and the rigged lights blinked out. Bernie walked quickly across to Kleins from which people were pouring at the store's closing. He saw Sybil huddled near the entrance in a beat-up raincoat and rain hat. She grabbed his hand.
   "I'm awfully sorry," she said. "I can't stay. An emergency came up and I've got to do something. You want to come along, it's okay."
   "What's the emergency?"
   "I can't stop to explain. I've got to deliver something. Maybe I can meet you later..."
   "I'll take you. I've got my car parked around the corner."
   "Oh, that's great! Where is it?"

   In his father's Buick she directed him to drive her to an address not five minutes away. She went into a spooky looking old commercial loft building while he waited patiently in the gloomy, drizzly street planning to drive her back to Brooklyn and park the car in a dark neighborhood he had already selected. About ten minutes later she popped out followed by two middle-aged men in open shirts carrying six bundles in brown wrapping paper each tied with yellow cord. She opened the rear door and the men tossed the bundles onto the rear seat then ran back into the building. She hopped into the car.
   "Thanks. Let's go," she panted. "Burnside Avenue."
   "Where's that?"
   "The Bronx. Didn't you ever hear of Burnside Avenue?" she laughed.
   "How far is it? I can't keep the car out all night."
   "It's not that far, I don't think. Let's get directions. Once we're there I'm all right."
   "We'll have to find a cop..."
   "A cop? A taxi driver is what you want. Go back to Fourteenth Street."
They found a taxi in front of a coffee shop as the driver came out of it chewing a toothpick. He gave them directions, got back in his cab and drove off.
   "That's far. That's very far," Bernie said.
   "I didn't ask you to drive me. You offered. I can't carry all that stuff in the subway by myself. If you didn't have the car I wouldn't have taken all that stuff. I'd have gone right back to Brooklyn."

   Unfamiliar with the territory, Bernie's sense of control began to fade, though the excitement she had roused inspired him to go through with it in the hope that after the packages were delivered he could have time with her once he got back to Brooklyn. He drove cautiously, conscious of his father's admonition never to take the car out of Brooklyn alone. Sensing his discomfort, Sybil engaged him in conversation.
   "I think it's swell that you're doing something like this for someone you don't even really know," she said.
   "Yeah, well, I'm doing it because I want to know you better. Maybe we can, I mean, sit around in the car for a while later and shmooz."
   "You mean neck."
   "With you, anytime." He flashed his most devastating smile.
   "My father's horse's advice is never neck with a stranger," she quipped.
   "Your father's horse? Is your father a jockey?"
   "No, he's a milkman. Up at three every morning. How'd you like a job like that?"
   "No, thanks. I'm majoring in economics."
   "Take a right here. Did you take eco in high school with Mr. Popkin?" she asked.
   "Yeah, I did. Popkin was a great teacher."
   "He's an idiot. Teddy Roosevelt made him drool."
   "What's wrong with Teddy Roosevelt?" he asked, surprised.
   "He was an imperialist."
   "He was a good imperialist," Bernie replied.
   "Are you taking a course in good imperialists?" she asked.
   "There's no such course," he said, annoyed.
   "So where did you learn all that shit about good imperialists?" she demanded.
Startled, he glanced at her as she stared at him with her piquant face, her black marble eyes. She was right out of Ortchy Chornya, Dark Eyes, his father's favorite romantic song. His father sang it in a menacing baritone. But Ortchy Chornya would never have used such language. It bothered Bernie to hear it from the delectable lips of a girl like Sybil, Sybil whom his every tingling fibre had responded to, Sybil whom he felt he had to have even if he had to marry her. The word love never came to his mind. It was more overwhelming than that. One of his mother's favorite sayings was coming true: "You'll know her when you see her." Right now, though, his feelings were complicated by the endless drive into the Bronx: a place totally unknown to him, the streets numbering into the hundreds hilly, deserted, wet, the sudden word she had thrown at him causing him to tense up and drive erratically.
   "Watch out," she cautioned as he nearly swiped another car.
   "Where the hell is this place?" he asked.
   "We're real close now," she said. They had been driving almost half an hour. "Want a cigarette?" she asked.
   "I don't smoke," he said. They were silent for a few minutes. He glanced at her as she lit up. He couldn't explain it but it thrilled him to see her do that.
   "Turn right next block," she called. "Up the hill. I'll show you the first house."
   "What do you mean the first house?" he asked, shifting into low gear as the car climbed the dark street.
   "I have five deliveries back there. Stop at the building with one shade up and one shade down. Good. Don't get out. Turn off your lights." She leaped from the car, grabbed two bundles and went up the front stoop. She had marvelous legs. She rang once, twice, then once, waited, the door opened into an unlit vestibule where she handed the package to the unseen ghost within and then got back into the car.
   "Okay," she said as the car started moving. "Make a right." They proceeded according to her directions for another ten minutes, located the next drop where she emerged from the car, and entered a dilapidated tenement five stories tall. She disappeared inside. Bernie turned around and looked at the remaining bundles on the back seat. He reached over and tore the wrapper exposing a section of the front page of what was apparently the top copy of the newspapers beneath. In bold, black type the name of the press came to light, The Daily Worker. At that moment Sibyl came out of the doorway followed by a pale, skinny teenager in an undershirt and gym shorts, his left arm partly paralyzed, though he was able to carry two of the bundles she thrust at him. She kissed him and sent him staggering back into the tenement.
   "Okay, let's go," she whispered.
   "I'm not going anywhere," he said.
   "Bernie! This is Coughlin country. Let's get out of here!"
   "Whose country?"
   "Father Coughlin's! The fascist radio preacher. Bernie!"
   A quintet of males, shabbily dressed, some carrying bats and smoking, came around the corner under the thin light, singing and pushing one another. Bernie started the car with such a jolt that she was thrown against the windshield banging her forehead. When they came to a lighted avenue where some stores were still open and a movie theatre brightened the sidewalk before it, he pulled over to the curb.
   "Why didn't you tell me you were transporting that stuff in my father's car?" he asked coldly.
   "You never asked me," she said, rubbing her bruise. "Did you ever read it?"
   "That!" he exploded. "You think I'm crazy?"
   "How do you know what's in it if you never read it?"
   "I can smell it. I don't have to step in it."
   "That's brilliant. I have to remember that," she said.
   "You're working for the communists, aren't you?"
   "No. I'm just a volunteer."
   "You're a communist," he said.
   "You're a Republican," she said.
   "Jesus Christ!" he said.
   "He was a communist, too. He wanted to share everything. Can you imagine that? He drove the stock market gamblers out of the temple."
   "They didn't have a stock market!" he shouted.
   "Listen, Bernie, I've got two more deliveries to make. Then you can go home to your mama and your papa and tell them how you slugged a commie with your own two hands..."
   "Who said I was going to do that?"
   "Well, then let's get going for geezus' sake. I've got two more deliveries to make."
   He gripped the wheel and stared out the windshield then started the car and drove off slowly. "Tell me how to get out of this dump," he said, hoarsely. She told him. "When I get on a familiar street, I'm going home."
   "That is not your gentleman's agreement," she said. "You are a gentleman, aren't you? At least a bourgeois gentleman."
   "I told you what I'm going to do," he said.
   "I wouldn't advise you to do that," she said evenly. "Let's end the class war just for tonight and carry out your promise."
   "No," he said, driving faster.
   She pushed his knee down and his foot struck the accelerator. The car shot forward. He braked. "Damn it!" he cried. "You crazy?"
   "I got to do this," she explained. "A couple of the newspaper's delivery vans were burned and some places won't get the paper."
He drew up at a subway station. "Get out," he said.
   "Here? I'll scream. They'll come running out of the houses. I'll tell them you tried to rape me in your father's Buick. You don't know the Irish cops around here, Bernie. They're very family. One of my best friends is an Irish cop. When they get revolutionary you never saw anything like it. Bernie?"
Tense, furious, he started the car, and drove at her directions. "I know how you must feel," she said. "You do your best and I'll do mine."
   "A Russian communist!"
   "I'm a fourth generation American, Bernie. When did your parents come over?"
   "Where is this delivery?"
   "A Hundred Twentieth Street. In Manhattan."
   "That's Harlem!"
   "That's where it is."
   "I don't care what happens to your goddam delivery, I'm not going into Harlem! And if you try banging my foot once more I'll stop the car and you can sit here all frigging night if you want to."
   "Oh, that's real bad language," she said. She sat back resigned. "Well, I guess some spots won't get their morning edition tomorrow. Okay. Let's go. Brooklyn, here we come. And by the way, I live off Kings Highway." And as the car moved along the road, picking up speed, she asked with a chuckle, "You still interested in necking, Bernie?"




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Copyright August 3, 2000-

 

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