In February 1963, in that middle twilight between Christmas vacation and Spring Break, a group of us boys sat hunched on benches in the wood paneled smoking room. In those days, parents still gave their sixteen-year-old sons permission to smoke on the grounds of our private school. As the customs of a coat and tie prep school demanded, we didn’t just smoke cigarettes. We luxuriated in swirls of black, pungent, Turkish tobacco and punctuated our sentences by jabbing the air with our Gauloises, the blue packaged favorites of impossibly suave continental actors. We were too cool.
“Watch it!” Robert yelped, and I noticed a neat circle of ash on his blue, silk tie.
Barry Ellis, a tall kid with sandy hair and cheeks flushed with a new crop of acne, was thrilling us with details of the trip he and his parents and sister took to the Bahamas. I was mostly interested in the sister. Lila was shorter than her brother, no acne and with breasts noticeable enough to blank my mind at a rampaging dogfight. At that point in my life, female breasts were still only a theory, guarded by Egyptian cottons and worsted wools. Things of mystery. The thoughts of which could keep you up until well past the time you were sure your roommate was asleep.
As Barry droned on about the cost of steaks at the Seasider in Bimini and other detritus, my mind was on the warmth of the sun, Lila in a one-piece bathing suit, her skin aglow, eyes closed, nestled on a thick, white towel on the sand. She had one knee up and I could follow her perfect form through every slow, rhythmic breath. She turned her head and eyes opened as gracefully as doves’ wings. Those sapphire orbs held me like a very awkward mouse in a trap. Even in the privacy of my thoughts, no poignant response leapt out to make her mine. At that point, I hadn’t actually spoken with Barry’s sister, but I had seen her eyes. Dreams, like clouds, float without anchors.
You might ask why a one-piece instead of something more titillatingly improper? A one-piece suit represented womanhood to me, maybe because my mother always wore one at our rented Edisto beach house, or perhaps because the cheap thrills in some of the men’s magazines always wore bikinis, the top coyly held in place by a limp hand and a smile. By then I’d learned the difference. Breasts were the defining edge. Women in the pictures always beckoned. Real girls guarded them like the keys to their immortal souls.
Barry, perhaps noticing my somnolent gaze, picked up the volume. My dream died in the blare of his voice and I had to listen to the cost of new Bass Weejuns. I already owned a pair myself.
“So, Barry,” I said, “What’s your sis up to these days?” The question made as much sense as interrupting a rectal exam to ask, ‘Hey, doc, how’s the wife.’ Barry stared at me, but kept on talking.
The torch of conversation passed. Mark, a shorter kid, with a tight, dark haircut, lamented a past Spring Break that had been pretty much a sleep late and have pancakes with your family operation. Tommy and Robert nodded. Tommy always held his cigarette with a thumb and forefinger, the palm of his hand toward his face, like some Peter Lorre character. We dragged at our cigs a bit more and the discussion swung to drinking, another adult mountain.
All of us were proud of having wrestled down a swallow of the evil whisky. Unlike testosterone tales involving young ladies, these were probably true. There’s something volatile about the combination of truth and possibility. Before long we were well into a plot to willfully disregard the state law, our parents fervent hopes, and drink to the point of stupefaction.
Tommy flicked a shred of tobacco off his tongue, lowered his voice half an octave and rasped out the thin plot. “You just stand outside a liquor store in the city,” he continued, glancing around, “And when you see a black guy coming, you offer him some money. Works every time.” There weren’t any witnesses to testify, but confidence is a golden coin.
Robert, whose father was black, wanted to know why it had to be a black guy. We discussed that and it boiled down to black guys being more willing to flaunt the law and being more trustworthy with our money.
“With a white guy,” Tommy opined, “You either get a derelict or a biker, who are both gonna stiff you, or you get a guy in a suit who all of a sudden figures he’s morally compelled to flag down the police. A black guy will just buy the stuff and hand it to you on his way out.” Even Robert didn’t mount a counter argument, although it was hard to tell what he was thinking. Black guy, whiskey. White guy, police. Police is a sobering thought. No pun intended.
Race was still pretty abstract in a school that was ninety-five percent white. When we put a face on it, like with Robert, we moved crab-like rather than straight line. So, the whole idea of who’s better to ask to buy you a bottle could have gone either way, even with Robert standing there. After all, who’s the better guy, the one who does you a favor or the one who won’t? We went with the black guy theory, but Robert said he wasn’t going to do the asking.
“My dad would kill me,” he said sadly. That didn’t mean he was out of the picture, he just didn’t want a speaking part. He echoed our dread of discovery. All of our dads would have killed us, except for Tommy, who lived with his aunt and uncle, so his uncle would have to do the killing.
But, no matter the consequences, conspiracies seldom fail in the planning phase. Three nights later, we headed into the city in a convertible, top down. The wind cut like ice. Nobody wore a hat, but we clutched our overcoats and tucked our chins. Robert drove. He was the only one who could scrounge a car. Barry knew the liquor store, but he wasn’t getting out because he said someone might recognize him. The deed fell to me. Pass the money; get the whiskey. The honor was dubious, the fear real.
I stood shivering about five feet from the entrance, putting a post and most of the door between the liquor store clerk’s view and myself. The first prospect was a white guy in a suit, exactly the sort I’d been warned against. The second guy was a black guy in a suit. I started to. I made a move, but then held back. A black guy in a suit wasn’t in the equation. Maybe he’d kick the crap out of me, then call the police.
I fogged the chill air and watched the first two saunter out the door and down the street. If they noticed me, they didn’t say anything. Around liquor stores, people don’t speak.
Finally, an older black guy, in jeans, a jeans jacket and a well-oiled baseball cap showed up. My teeth chattered, but I mumbled my order, slipped him a ten-dollar bill and watched him disappear into the glow and warmth of the store. Minutes passed like hours. I stole a glance. He was chatting with the clerk. My throat was already frozen. My heart followed the throat’s lead. Was this it? Was that the sound of sirens, the trumpet call of my downfall and disgrace? The clerk kept talking and didn’t reach for the phone.
Moments later the black guy strode out with two brown paper bags. He pressed one into my hand and asked if I wanted my change. I mumbled no. He hustled down the street and didn’t look back.
The four of us drove to a city park a block away. Being it was cold and night, we and the evergreens had it all to ourselves. Robert didn’t partake. It was before the days of don’t drink and drive, but he was afraid his dad would smell it on his breath.
Rum burns raw in your throat at first and the gag reflex tries not to let you swallow, but we choked it down. Warmth and smug contentment flooded me. I sucked deep lungfuls of chilled air, gazed upward at the stars and tasted the thrill of adulthood. The bottle lasted about an hour and made a hollow clink when Barry tossed it in the steel trashcan. Mark retrieved it and wiped off the fingerprints. There was some debate about whether we should go get another, but by that time it was near ten o’clock.
On the ride back we sang sloppy rock and roll at the top of our lungs. The streets were pretty deserted, so it didn’t matter. At the first stoplight, Mark favored us with his rendition of the upchuck song. Robert was screaming at him not to get any on the car, while the rest of us grabbed some overcoat and kept him from taking a header onto the asphalt.
Barry went next, but not at a stoplight. Robert screamed at him, but Barry tossed it over the side at full gallop. He used his tie to get the spillage. Robert was inconsolable.
We got dropped one by one and the easy laughter died an awkward death.
Next morning Robert’s dad first whiffed the unmistakable stench of raw bile and then saw yellow streaks on the door, dried like old, sad, tears.
After parental recriminations tapered off, the school year settled back into the same loping, downhill gait. Robert lost his use of the car. Our parents pulled our smoking privileges. The dark age of winter dragged on.
Spring’s bright smile brought redemption. Sins forgiven or forgotten. Lila never made the transition from dream to reality. I think she married a stockbroker. But, sometimes I still think about that one-piece suit.