It seems like yesterday, that sultry August afternoon when the boys came into the barnyard as Robby Beck and I were throwing knives at a tree. There were five of them, about my age or older—I was going on fourteen. Since I was new in the area, some sort of greeting was in order, but I saw at once that a friendly welcome was not on their minds.
“What’s your name?” said the tallest, a redhead with a smirk and a calculated stance. He wore a baseball cap turned sideways and kept tossing a ball into a fielder’s mitt.
“Chris,” I said. “Chris Taylor.”
“Chris is a sissy name,” he said. Heads nodded.
“Well, I’m not a sissy,” I replied.
“He says he’s not a sissy,” said Red, and looked at the others.
A dog that had followed them, mostly Chesapeake Bay retriever, ran up to me and stood panting. I asked, “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Not my dog. He just lives around.”
Someone supplied a name: “Scratch.”
“He’s thirsty,” I said.
I walked to the target, a giant maple, and withdrew my hunting knife. Then I stepped back a certain distance and threw it at the trunk. It bounced off.
Red said, “You’re gonna have to prove it—Chris.”
“Prove you’re not a sissy.” Again the heads nodded.
Now Robby spoke up. “Hey, I told you guys to give me time to get him in shape.”
“Stow it, Robby,” said Red. “We’re done waiting.”
Robby had predicted the confrontation, had used it as an excuse to grapple or pummel me in the name of training. This had gone on since June, when I became a boarder at the Becks’ farm. He said I was soft from living on army bases. Though tall for my age, I was skinny and no match for him or most of our visitors. I stroked the dog while weighing means of escape.
Then Red indicated the boy beside him and said, “This is Sam. Sam’s gonna take you on.” All the faces were solemn.
Sam was stocky, the heaviest of the lot. Thick neck, sloping shoulders, barrel chest. Sandy hair clipped short. He wore no sleeves, no ornaments, no shoes. No expression. I was slated to fight a gorilla.
Again I threw my knife at the tree. This time it stuck. I thought of using it to defend myself. I could climb to my perch and ward them off, as I did when Robby came sneaking after my reading matter. But no, I had to meet the new-boy challenge.
“Fight or rassle?” said Red.
Fight, I could get a bloody nose or lose teeth. Wrestle, I could do my best until he pinned me to the ground and declared victory. But it wasn’t quite that simple. I dreaded the panic I felt when held down, a blind impulse to free myself. Even so, my choice was clear.
“Rassle,” I said.
Sam pulled off his shirt. I braced myself and wiped sweat from my eyes. We circled, groping for a hold. I tried a wristlock, but Sam’s thick forearm wouldn’t twist. I put a leg behind one of his and tried to trip him, but he didn’t budge. Then he seized me around the waist and squeezed. I was turning blue when he let up and somehow got me across his shoulders. Staggering around, he spun me until I was dizzy. I expected to suffer a few broken bones when he threw me down. To my surprise, though, he let me slide off his bent, sweaty back. As I lay on the ground, head still spinning, he placed a foot on my chest and raised a fist in triumph.
“Shoulders!” someone shouted. “You gotta pin his shoulders!”
Sam fell on his knees astride me and pressed my shoulders to the turf. Could I endure this without resisting? Don’t panic! Don’t panic! As I peered into Sam’s flushed, dripping face, I saw—what? I can only say what I didn’t see. No anger, no hostility, no gloating. He probably didn’t want to fight any more than I did, and he hadn’t really hurt me. It struck me, even in my torment, that Sam and I could be friends.
What brought it all back, years later, was running into Sam aboard ship on our return from Vietnam. Over beers, we talked about action we’d seen, he as a ’copter pilot and I as a photographer. Then we got to reminiscing. I soon realized I was skirting something and bluntly asked, “Do you ever think about Lil?”
“I try not to,” he said, and I could see he meant it.
So I moved on to something else. But the memory, once awakened, stayed with me, a bittersweet reminder of bygone days. This is the story he avoided—the story of Sam and a wench called Lil.
A few weeks after the wrestling match (if you could call it that), my parents rented a house on the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, not far from the farm. They and Jean, my twelve-year-old sister, had stayed with relatives since Dad’s transfer to the Pentagon. I rejoined them and started school.
In time I was part of the local gang. Sam’s younger brother Lenny, of a large family named Tompkin, became my best friend, and Sam often joined our games and adventures. Now sixteen, he drove an old Chevy coupe in which Lenny and I often rode. The encounter in Robby’s yard was never mentioned.
It was just after Halloween that Sam met Lily Cooper. Sam, Lenny, Jean, and I were doing a play: The Mystery of the Old Clock. The plot derived from a small, low opening in the rear of the Tompkins’ garage, which had once been a chicken coop. We had covered the hole indoors with a tall crate painted to resemble a clock. The master of the house opens the clock and winds it, then goes to bed downstage. At midnight a monster mysteriously steps out of the clock and stabs him.
“Kid stuff,” Sam had grumbled, but he agreed to play the monster. When he proved to be wider than the hole, Lenny took the role and Sam was recast as the victim. Jean would find the body, scream, and call in the private eye—me. The rest of the plot was incidental.
The play opened that autumn evening before nine or ten paying neighbors (a nickel a head). After Lenny murdered his brother, we dragged the body offstage to make room. Sam, no longer needed, joined the audience on the gravel driveway, sitting down beside Lily. No one noticed because Scratch had just come through the hole for a cameo appearance. All in all, the viewers seemed to enjoy our not-too-serious effort.
Lily stayed in a tourist house on the nearby highway. I had seen her once or twice, a tall blonde in her late teens. I might have described her as “voluptuous” (a word learned from magazines I sold). I can’t say exactly what passed between her and Sam while our play wound down, but when I next visited the Tompkins’ house, she was living there. In Sam’s room. Since the house was crammed with family, Sam had moved to a cot on the side porch. Lenny and I wondered if he’d lost his mind.
The parents seemed indifferent to the casual traffic through their worn Victorian home. I, for instance, could enter at any time without knocking. Sam and Lenny had brothers and sisters both older and younger, all living there except for a brother in college. The parents were out a lot, and the maid, Ruby, did most of the housekeeping.
It amused me in those days to give people nicknames. I liked the sound of Shanghai Lil, from an old flick. So Lily became Lil and it stuck. She didn’t object when others took it up. “You could call me Diamond Lil if I had the rocks to go with it,” she said.
At first, Lenny and I rather liked her. We overlooked the paint and the bleached hair in ridiculous styles. Her background as well. Sam had asked her where she came from and what brought her to Alexandria.
“Born in North Carolina,” she said, adding, “Rah-leigh.” She lit a new cigarette from the old. “Ran off and got hitched when I was fourteen. We came up here in Joe’s furniture van. But Joe drank too much and hit me once too often. End of story.” Sam had listened wide-eyed. I doubt that what she said appealed to him as much as what she’d poured into her dress.
Lil could be obliging when in the mood. One evening she was waltzing around to music on the radio, and Lenny said, “Lil, teach us to dance.”
“Well, take off your shoes,” she said. “I just manicured my toenails.”
Lenny obliged and went to her outstretched arms. Sam and I shed our shoes and waited. Lil showed Lenny how to hold her—close, which she preferred to the looser modes then in vogue. As she sang along with the popular “Moon River,” Lenny mastered the basics.
It was now my turn. When I stopped looking down at my feet, I stepped on her sandaled toes. She said, “You’re no Fred Astaire,” but went on dancing and crooning. At one point she said, “I’m leading. Now you lead me.” That was harder, but I thought I did okay.
When all this happened, I still found females to be pretty much of a drag, at best a curiosity. The absence of women in Treasure Island, Jim’s mother excepted, helped to make it my favorite book. As for Lil, I found the pressure of her breasts exciting, but her other charms—perfume, deodorant, whatever—offensive. I’d just as soon have smelled a wet dog.
Sam, on the other hand, two years older, was plainly enchanted by everything about her. He sat on the edge of his chair, eyes riveted. Presently he declared, “My turn.” But Lil let go of me and said, “Hey, that’s enough.” On her way past Sam, she tossed, “Learn to walk first.” Probably a slur at the way he dragged his feet. He took it with a lopsided grin, but I knew she had hurt his feelings.
Nevertheless, we found Sam’s condition amusing enough to kid him. While riding to school one day, I asked, “How’s Lil?” Sam drove on in silence. Then Lenny sang out, “A woman’s a two-faced, worrisome thing who’ll lead you to sing the blu-u-u-ues in the night.” And I chanted, “A fool there was and he made his prayer to a rag and a bone and a hank of hair.” But we didn’t even get a smile out of smitten Sam, which put an end to such sport.
Lil was a beautician, part-time. One afternoon Lenny and I found her ironing a blouse in the Tomkins’ kitchen and asked her to cut our hair. She seated Lenny, put a towel over his shoulders, and snipped away with a professional air. Then I took the stool and we discussed my cowlick, which she said she could fix. Impressed, I asked where she worked.
“Sometimes here, sometimes there,” she said, wielding her comb and scissors.
“Where’s here?” I asked, and watched my brown hair rain on Lenny’s gold.
“Rosalie’s Beauty Salon,” she said.
“And where’s there?”
“Morton’s Funeral Parlor, if you must know.”
I didn’t mind the scissors, but had a creepy feeling about the comb.
At length she shook out the towel, took her blouse off the ironing board, and left. Lenny swept the floor while I held a dustpan. “Messy,” he muttered. “Eats in her room, leaves a ring in the bathtub and greasy Kleenex everywhere . . . I wish she’d just go.”
There were further reasons for Lenny’s attitude. One, Lil could spend hours dressing for an evening out. This meant applying hair bleach, curlers, makeup, nail polish; filling the bathroom with lotions, curling iron, wet towels; and all done in a flowing kimono worn over black underwear. For that, of course, we’d hang around.
She wasn’t as guarded as the other females in our lives. Sometimes she’d even smile when we caught a glimpse. Lenny said, “Born to be a stripper.” She was different, though, with Sam—maybe because he was older and had ideas. She’d frown and snatch the kimono around her. Even so, she was careless enough to keep him in misery.
Fueling his problem was her refusal to go out with him. While she primped, he would sit in her room and beg for a date. She seldom responded, like he wasn’t even there. You could see he longed to declare his love, to kiss her, to make out. And he let everything else slide: forgot his car, forgot family and friends, even forgot to eat.
Matters got worse when she began to entertain a man late at night. He was about ten years her senior, the owner of Gorman’s Dance Studio on King Street. Sam was especially glum as we rode to school one morning. Trying to raise his spirits, I asked how he was making out with Lil.
“I’m not,” he said. “But somebody sure is.”
We soon pried loose the whole story. Sam still slept on the porch, now under a mountain of blankets. A window beside his cot was over the living room sofa. “I heard love-talk for about an hour,” he said. “Then it turned into moans and groans. I couldn’t chance a look, but I know damn well they done it. Not a doubt in my mind.”
That evening I went home for dinner and back to the Tompkins’ to do homework with Lenny. An older brother and sister were out, the younger ones underfoot. Sam sat at the kitchen table drinking beer until we heard Mr. Tompkin drive up. Then Sam went out back and, cold as it was, sat on the steps drinking and brooding. Lenny warmed his father’s dinner and served it, as he often did, and we finished our homework. Sam was still outside when I left.
We knew he was getting worse when he came home one night blind-drunk and drove half way through the back of the garage, bringing down the entire structure. Fortunately, he and his car suffered only minor damage. But I had a sense that more was lost than our thimble theater.
At recess the following day, Lenny and I discussed the situation. We worried about what Sam’s obsession might do to him—maybe turn him into an alcoholic. We decided to take steps to persuade Lil to leave.
Scratch followed us home that evening and I threw a brickbat for him to fetch. He was notorious for crushing bricks with his teeth. Also for harboring fleas, which may have earned him his name. As we neared the Tompkins’ house, I had an idea. The next time Lil went out, we’d put the flea-ridden dog in her bed. This wouldn’t be a final solution, but it could launch our campaign.
That night, we lured Scratch upstairs with a big knuckle bone. Gnawing it, he sprawled in contentment, his head on Lil’s pillow. Lenny covered him with the upper sheet “to give her a double whammy.” After doing our homework, we put Scratch under the porch with meat and water. We did all this quietly, expecting no one to cheer.
The following night we heard Lil bleat, “Sam! Come up here!” This was so unusual we figured it for the payoff. As Sam clumped up the steps, we went outside and mounted a ladder to the porch roof. Lil’s window was open a crack, so we caught the whole show.
“Something bit me,” Lil said. “I found fleas in the bed and I’ve got a big welt on my butt. It itches like hell. I want you to take this salve and put it . . . here.” Their backs were toward us as she lifted her blouse, pushed down her skirt a bit, and moved closer to Sam seated on the bed. Lenny and I thumped each other and held back our laughter. We got a good look as Sam applied the salve—and kept on applying it, to Lil’s sigh of relief. Then we heard her say, “That’s enough. Don’t get carried away.”
“Are there more bites?” Sam tried.
“Yes, but not where you can go.”
Sam must have left the room shortly, for he was in the kitchen when we entered by the back door. “Hey, Sam,” I said by way of greeting. In return he popped open a beer and slumped in his chair. The air was heavy with dejection.
In our postmortem, Lenny and I agreed that the mission, though accomplished, could hardly be called a success if it drove Sam to drink more.
Across the street from the Tompkins’ and up the hill a way stood the home of Mr. Doone, an old bachelor who made kids uneasy. I had no qualms about lowering his status in the neighborhood, and one day I showed Lil his lofty tower capped with a weather vane. “If you look sharp,” I said, “you’ll see the lens of a telescope.”
She raised her shade more and peered out. The telescope was my invention, but a glint of sunshine on glass favored the illusion.
“It’s focused on your window.”
“Whatever for?” she asked, gazing at me with her bulging brown eyes.
Ignoring the play of innocence, I said, “He’s an old creep. Maybe he likes to see you undress.”
“Well, thanks for the warning.”
“Once he tried to get me and Lenny to watch a dirty movie.” That was partly true. Doone had invited us to watch a movie, but having backed off, we could only assume it was dirty. “You’d better keep your shade down,” I added.
“You bet. We don’t want to give Mr. Sicko a heart attack.”
But the next time I saw Lil’s window, the shade was all the way up. Lenny commented, “I told you it wouldn’t work. She’s a stripper for sure. Let’s hope she doesn’t find out Old Man Doone had a stroke and lives downstairs in a wheelchair.”
She just didn’t get the message. “Maybe we ought to make a stink bomb,” I said.
We racked our brains for another prank to make her uncomfortable. She kept to her room and it wasn’t easy to get at her in subtle ways. Then a weather report on the tube gave me a brainstorm. A cold wave was approaching. The house had a primitive heating system, and the upstairs tended to be chilly on cold nights. I thought of increasing the predictable chill of Lil’s boudoir. While she was out, I opened her window and Lenny drove a nail into the frame, low down, letting the head protrude. She wouldn’t be able to close the window completely, and the gap would free a lot of heat.
That evening, Ruby spoke to Lenny and me as she gathered her own laundry. Her husband was waiting outside, but she paused to say, “Y’all better watch what you do. Miss Lil know somethin’s up.”
“What are you saying?” asked Lenny.
“Saying I had to douse her bed with Flit and wash her sheets twice this week. I heard you talk about serving her walking papers. Well, fleas and dog hair won’t do it. Mr. Tompkin gotta tell her to scat.” She drew the string on her laundry bag and bustled off.
The following day dawned clear and cold, with snow flurries that called for full winter gear. I thought of Lil’s stuck window and shivered. We’d done a mean thing, but I told myself it was justified in light of her frosty treatment of Sam. Lenny was waiting on the porch. He had likely kept an eye on the night’s events.
“Is Sam driving to school today?” I asked.
“No, we’ll have to hitch,” he said. We cut through snow-dusted yards to the highway.
“Don’t keep me in suspense,” I said. Lenny’s way of doing just that was not to respond for a while. We walked backward and thumbed. At length my curiosity took over. “Okay, Lenny. Did we freeze her out or not?”
“Yes and no. She got in late and undressed in the bathroom with the heater on. I had my door open a crack. Then she went in her room and Sam came upstairs to take a leak. When he came out, she was standing there in blue silk pajamas, shivering and rubbing her arms. ‘Sam, I can’t get the window down,’ she says. ‘I’m about to freeze to death. Come in here and warm me up.’ So he goes in and shuts the door.”
“Yeah? Then what?”
A car with a couple in front stopped and we climbed into the back. After a brief exchange with the driver, I turned to Lenny. “So he went into her room. Then what?”
“Then—who knows? He’s still there.”
“Still there! Wow! We didn’t see that coming. Now what happens?”
“Depends.” Lenny lowered his voice. “Did she tease him all night or did he get in? That could change everything.”
Well, it did. Sam spent nearly every night, half way through December, in Lil's bed. And he was now a new man—surfing the curl of the wave. Lil even condescended to ride in his car, her legs tucked under a blanket for lack of a heater. Sometimes Lenny and I went along. We froze in the back with its unclosable window, but had a good time—even rode into Washington one Saturday and caught a film, To Kill a Mockingbird. Sam sold his bike to buy Lil a Christmas present.
Naturally, we wondered about her change of heart. It was Lenny who arrived at the most likely explanation. “She suspects us and wants Sam on her side.”
Then, twelve days before Christmas, it all came crashing down. Lenny told it like this: “She’s knocked up. I heard her tell Sam, and she swears it’s his. He’s about to croak.”
“Cripes! What’ll they do?”
“Nothing, I guess. She won’t go to a doctor—says they’re all butchers—and he’s not old enough to marry her. Worse, she’s turned cold as a witch’s tit. Says it was all Sam’s fault. She’s dating other guys again and Sam’s back on beer.”
There seemed to be no solution, either to her problem or his. Would she stay on at the house? Have her baby there? What would the parents do when they found out? Sam was too shattered to talk about it and just moped. I spent Christmas with my family and couldn’t make myself go near the Tompkins’ place for days.
Then Lil surprised us again. She told Sam and Lenny she would give a party at the house on New Year’s Eve and make an important announcement. Lil and some girls from the beauty parlor brought decorations, and Lenny and I pitched in. Sam, however, stayed clear. “You don’t need me around,” he said. We knew he felt responsible and rejected, but totally helpless, and was trying to cover his pain. He disappeared and we wondered whether he’d even attend the affair.
He was present, though, on New Year’s Eve, wearing his suit and a colorful tie. Lil wore her hair loose to the shoulders, dyed platinum, and a black strapless gown that displayed her cleavage. I guess she acted out of habit in offering Sam an eyeful, as if he wasn’t frustrated enough already. I took it as a sign of returning strength that he ignored her and danced with his little sister standing on his shoes.
Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. Tompkin, other family, neighbors, Ruby and her husband, and several people I didn’t know. There was a buffet table and a bowl of spiked punch called glogg. It wasn’t a lively party, with the older folks present, but it wasn’t stiff either. I was glad no one suggested games.
One of the guests was the man Lil had seen before Sam. When the party was well under way, she tapped on a glass and said she had an announcement. To the hushed gathering, she said, “Friends, for those of you who haven’t met him, this is Fred Gorman, my fiancé. You’ll be the first to know we’re getting married tomorrow.” Applause drowned out her next words, “A new year and a new beginning.”
I can’t imagine the storm of emotions Sam must have felt. Picture someone not quite dead who hears clods falling on his coffin. In the months to come, he kept to himself and drank constantly, then gradually pulled out of it. He was never much with words, but you could see a change in his manner. He attended the funeral when Lil, close to term, lost the baby. Boosting his age, he even tried unsuccessfully to join the Marines. Still, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he became a man at sixteen.
Lenny and I, on the other hand, experienced something a whole lot simpler: deep, deep relief.