Awkward autumn gave way to unpleasant winter and then an ugly spring: the Days of Rage in River City. There were strikes and sieges and emergency curfews, sniping and firebombing; arsonists burned the KU student union. Not since Quantrill's raid in 1863 had Lawrence seen so much fire damage. Without abating at home, the rage spread nationwide: Kent State, Jackson State, hardhats rioting against war protesters.
It upset my mother dreadfully. She'd lost all track of my half-sister, and her friendship with Mrs. Franzia had lapsed after a quarrel over how NOT to raise a teenager.
(My own thirteenth birthday, incidentally, got lost in all the sturm und drang.) Finally Mom told me to pack a suitcase: we were going to Gramps Rhine's in Terre Haute. That is, she and I were. "Your father's staying here."
I figured we were being evacuated while Dad bravely held the fort, and that we'd return after the dust settled. My father seemed to believe this too, telling me to take care of Mom and counting out extra allowance for traveling expenses. We shook hands at parting, which should have made me feel like a responsible man of affairs.
And would have, had circumstances not deteriorated to damn near worst imaginable.
It happened the Friday before Memorial Day. I went down the backstairs for what turned out to be the last time—recalling the first time eight years earlier, when I'd had to hold onto the banister to manage the backstairs by myself. And had seen a little girl next door struggling to pull a tricycle up her backstairs.
"Hello," she'd said.
"Hello," I'd said.
"My name is Rozay. I'm subject to fits."
Which I took to mean she had her clothes specially made. Such as the miniature Laura Petrie outfit she was wearing: sleeveless top and Capri pants. I told her my name, and she made a face.
"I don't like that. Just the first letter. I'm going to call you ‘Aitch.' Can you help me with this?" There was no fence between our yards, just a low scrubby hedge, not difficult for me to squeeze through. "You hold that end," I was instructed, and together we lugged the tricycle up to her back door.
"Are you going to take it inside?" I asked.
"No," said Rozay.
Climbing onto the trike, she rode it dramatically down the stairs and somersaulted over its handlebars at the bottom. Not by intent, it seemed.
"Owww," she went, sniffing away tears. "Owww..."
I stared aghast, sure that a mob would form to blame me, a boy, for a girl's getting hurt in my presence—unless I acted fast. Recklessly ignoring the banister, I hurried down to her. "Are you okay?"
Rozay was examining a bad scrape on one elbow. "Doesn't look like it'll bleed much," she said. Fixing me with dewy but narrowed eyes for a second, she held out her other hand. I took it and helped her up.
"Was that a fit?" I asked.
"No! That was a sperriment."
Now eight years later I glanced sperrimentally across at next door's empty yard. Hello, she'd said; Hello, I'd said. Almost as many words as we'd exchanged since last autumn, when she'd caught me focusing on the contents of her loose peasant blouse.
Get a good look? had popped into my head.
Yes thank you, I'd replied politely.
You could almost hear a door slam. She definitely seemed to avoid me after that: unwilling to encourage anybody's wank-fantasies, least of all mine.
My name is Rozay. I'm going to call you—
Sounding subterranean. Halfway, anyway: the back ends of basements on Alpine Drive were at groundlevel.
"Come on down."
That is, go through the hedge and into their laundry room. And there she was, sorting the wash, looking impossibly grown up in paisley jeans and leopardskin top. Her mother ("Irene," she called her) was still at work in the Dean's office. Her father ("Dick," she called him) was under the weather, as he'd been on many another Friday when he was supposed to pick her up. We had the place to ourselves. The basement radio played "Let It Be" over and over, along with "Come Saturday Morning," "Instant Karma (We All Shine On)," "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)," and "Up the Ladder to the Roof."
I found her smoking, though not tobacco; it smelled more like burning leaves.
"Can I have a puff?"
"Toke," she corrected me. "And no you can't. Your asthma." She finished loading the washing machine, turned it on, turned back to me. "We ought to have a drink. A bon voyage toast." From behind bleach and detergent she produced a full fifth of Smirnoff.
"Where'd you get that?"
"Dick's house. They're ‘hidden' all over. Do you want a drink or not?"
"Sure," I said, wondering whether it would singe my mouth. "Even though Indiana's not much of a voyage. And we'll probably be back in a couple weeks."
Her dark eyes narrowed. "You really don't know what's going on, do you?"
"Oh, and I suppose you're going to tell me."
Rozay poured vodka into plastic glasses. "You'll understand these things when you get a little older—"
I broke in to remind her that I had, I'd caught up to her again last month, we were both in our teens now so why didn't she just drop it? Which she nearly did with my glass, clapping a dismayed hand over her mouth.
Oh my God I forgot.
You're damn right you did.
"Well," she said, clearing mind and throat, "let's drink to that."
The stuff tasted like insipid medicine, a great disappointment—till I finished my second glassful and noticed I was slouching over the dryer, most of my skeleton having gone AWOL. Rozay was perched nearby atop the busy washing machine, gazing at me with indefinite infinitude.
You look older.
You look beautiful. But then you always did... that...
Look—if I do anything— "(sigh) it's only because we'll probably never see each other again."
Why? Are YOU moving away?
"Oh, Aitch," she sighed again, taking my head in her two hands. You're so—
A sentence never finished, as her lips landed on mine like the Eagle on the moon.
Withdrawing after awhile to purse meditatively. I almost expected her to produce a speckle-covered theme book and start jotting notes.
Instead, she unbuttoned my shirt. Then her leopardskin. Reaching back to unclasp her pink bra, which slipped down and off and away to the basement floor. As I might have reacted myself had I not been anesthetized by Smirnoff.
But it all got etched eternally onto my retinas: her bare breasts, their juxtaposition with the rest of her, the proprietary little soothe-squeeze she gave them, the peace sign and yin-yang and crucifix dangling from a chain just above them, how roseate were her areolae and how "nip it in the bud" now meant the opposite of what I'd always thought—
She smiled at me. Holding out her arms. Well, come here—
Whereupon I did. Without moving any other muscle. Miserably.
What's the matter?
What do you THINK?
"Oh!" she went. "Well... that's" okay: less pressure that way. We can take our time. Irene won't be home till late. We'll put your pants through the next wash.
(Meaning I should take them off? Would she do the same to hers? Could I do the same to hers?)
The washing machine shuddered to a halt, but Rozay made no move to shift its load to the dryer. Instead she took my hands, lifted them up, pressed herself into them. And with that contact came a surge—
—not of static electricity, but more dynamic—
—as my hands touched her sweet bosom and became Hands. Knowing precisely what to do and where to go. How they should bear down, when they should ease up.
My lips rejoined hers and all four were capitalized. She introduced her tongue, I promoted mine, there was twining, there was sealing as we kissed. And caressed. And ached, and strained, and throbbed—and not just with our bodies. In that instant it was disclosed to us that "esping" could extend beyond mere message-exchange. As we vibed together at the edge of singlemindedness: one psyche, one eros, mutual self-possession. Our thoughts melded and thundered toward bright hot enlightenment—
—a prolonged screech on the driveway outside—
—a jarring thump that shook the house—
—a hoarse voice raised in narrow darkness—
It's my dad, my father's here, he's coming inside oh God oh God—
Frantic efforts to pull ourselves not together but apart as we collide in delirium oh hurry stumble and blunder and spin the bottle oh help me spill your Smirnoff on the ground footsteps overhead I can't I can't draw a breath to say "we meet at last, Mr. Franzia" as Rozay drops her bra and herself and implodes
writhing on her back anointed with potato juice sightless eyes heaving breasts bucking hips as I stand over her staring down at black Friday glaring up from pink panties no Lollipops these but just as unstarched as the doorknob turns
hightail through the basement window, whirl through the hedge and begone.
It was not the proudest moment of my life. Then or since.
I have no memory of the days that followed. I put my brain on lockdown, battened every hatch, plugged my inner ears, and stayed that way till I wasn't in Kansas anymore. All the way to Terre Haute I don't think I inhaled once. Many days and many miles had to pass before I could believe there hadn't been and wouldn't be any fallout, consequences, repercussions from my ignominious egress.
But of course there would be: karma is as karma does. And it was and it did, and it came to my attention seven years later. Thanks to my resurfaced half-sister, then in her gypsy hogback phase, passing nostalgically through the Middle West like a wistful twister. She called me (collect) at my college in Wisconsin, saying she was sorry to report (she didn't sound sorry) that the little weirdo chick I used to hang out with had come home to Lawrence from Julliard a month or so ago, and jumped off a bridge into the Kaw River.
"I hear she left a suicide note as long as a novel."
"Well," I said, "I guess some of us just have rotten luck is all."
Not to worry, kiddo: remember this is part of our evolution on the Wheel of Samsara, passing from one level to the next until we attain Nirvana and can break the cycle. Speaking of which, she had to go get her Harley serviced. She and Krishna loved me; so long Dwarf.
I hung up and looked around at the sculptures I was trying to create, molding flesh of clay over wire bones. Feeling muddily mortal about it.
Seeing them all as lumps.
And smashing them, one by inert one.
P. S. Ehrlich is the author-in-progress of the Skeeter Kitefly books and website (www.skeeterkitefly.com). Recent selections have appeared in The Sidewalk's End, Ten Thousand Monkeys, The Shadowshow, Entropic Desires, and Rhapsoidia. P. S. himself is employed by the University of Washington (not necessarily as an instructor) and lives outside Seattle. Though associated with no graduate writing programs, P. S. Ehrlich was once reading Jitterbug Perfume in a public cafeteria when Tom Robbins walked by. "Hey!" he said to P.S., "is that a good book?" "How Roseate Were Her Areolae" is excerpted from his current work-in-progress, 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder.