The week of my sixteenth birthday, every teacher at James Buchanan High School talked as if the world was about to end. Instead of listening to three days of talk about the War of 1812, we heard about first-strike capability and how that was one way the United States could end the Cold War. Instead of discussing Walden, we talked about the morality of using H-bombs. Instead of more ways to identify the first thirty elements of the Periodic Table by mixing and matching them, we were told about the U-2 spy planes and how important chemistry and physics were now that wars could be won by scientists.
I had a late birthday, meaning nearly everybody who was a junior had a driver’s license, some since late in their sophomore year. The cutoff was December 1st, but I didn’t know anybody with a November birthday except Bonnie Sellers, who had been born on Thanksgiving and was my date for the junior prom, which was always the last Saturday in October, even when it fell exactly on Halloween.
“There’s a line in the sand now,” Mr. Karwoski, the history teacher said on Wednesday. “We still have weapons’ superiority,” Mr. Price, the chemistry teacher said for the third time that week. And Miss Rossi, in her first year of teaching English, said, “Every boy and girl in this room should pray.”
That Wednesday was my birthday, and by the time school ended it felt as if this might be my last. Maybe Aunt Peg thought so too because she’d made two pepperoni and anchovy pizzas from scratch, even grating the mozzarella on some old metal contraption she’d found in a drawer where everything we never used in the kitchen was stored. She seemed exhausted, her feet up on the couch. ”The cake is store bought,” she said. “The pizza took the oomph right out of me, but that pepperoni is the cat’s meow.”
Aunt Peg had moved in with my sister Diana and me almost seven years ago after our parents died in a plane crash. She was thirteen years older than our mother, and all the extra weight she’d been carrying for sixty-one years had worn out her heart. Diana was in college, and Aunt Peg, about once a week, would tell me to “hurry up and get there” because her swollen ankles and heavy breathing were telling her she didn’t have much more of staying on her feet in her. ”You two will have what’s left of the insurance money and this house all paid for,” she’d said before Diana had gone off to Penn State at the end of August.
Birthday or not, the pizza was a nice change. We’d started having tv dinners every night after Diana left. Aunt Peg would give me the little sliver of meat from hers and act like she was on a diet, but now she said, “I do like a good pizza. Two slices won’t kill me, and if they do, I’ll die happy.”
Right then, with all the talk about doomsday and the taste of anchovies and pepperoni in my mouth, it sounded like the right attitude. And then, for her present to me, Aunt Peg handed me the keys to my father’s 1955 Fiat Spider, which had been parked in our garage 99% of the time for seven years. “That car needs a driver,” she said. “I’m too old to learn, and your sister’s afraid of it. It’s too pretty to go to waste.”
At that particular moment I knew the meaning of “bittersweet,” because I’d driven that beautiful red two-seater up and down our street for the past year since Diana had shown me how to drive on the old Chevy our mother had left behind, but now, a few weeks from getting a license, I might go up in a mushroom cloud before I ever drove that car farther than the Miller’s house where our street dead-ended a quarter mile from our driveway.
In history class, on Thursday, Mr. Karwoski told us the United States military forces were at DefCon 2, a place we’d never been before. The class sat there staring at Mr. Karwoski as if he’d just levitated until Linda Crosby said, “What does that mean?”
“We’re ready,” Mr. Karwoski said. “We’re prepared.”
He sounded so much like he wanted to go to DefCon 1 that I waved my hand. “Why do you think anybody would ever drop the bomb?” I said, but my voice sounded soft and squeaky like I was having an asthma attack like Sharon Grammes, the girl who’d needed a nebulizer half an hour after I’d walked her into our sophomore spring dance.
“Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Mr. Karwoski said, pumping his right and then his left fist in short jabs as if he was putting exclamation marks after those names. “And Pearl Harbor,” he added, giving his fists the old one-two again, his tone like the one Aunt Peg used when she gave reasons why she’d never have a dog in the house.
By lunch time there was a rumor the prom would be canceled. “Postponed,” Miss Rossi said near the end of English. “There’s a right word for everything.”
“Canceled is the right word,” Jimmy Daniels said, and two girls began to cry.
Ten minutes later, while my bus was filling up, I talked to Bonnie who, I noticed right away, had changed her dark brown hair. It was shorter, teased a little on top, but she had small, separated bangs now, and an upward flip of hair across her ears, everything held miraculously in shape by the hair spray that every girl carried in her purse. “Your hair looks great,” I said, and I thought she glanced at my flat-top as if she was disappointed I hadn’t altered myself for the prom.
“I heard you had a fight with Mr. Karwoski.”
“I asked a question is all.” I waited for her to say she’d heard I’d lost the fight, but she just said, “Call me at eight so we can really talk. I’m glad you like my hair.”
On Friday all our teachers said the Russian ships had slowed down before they reached Kennedy’s blockade, some, it looked like, even turning back. The halls got noisier. The principal announced over the PA that the prom was on, and everybody in the room who had a date cheered.
Saturday, though,Aunt Peg said she’d heard a rumor that a spy plane had been shot down over Cuba, and the television news she turned on said there was an unconfirmed report the Russians were still arming the missiles in Cuba.“Too late to cancel that prom now,” Aunt Peg said. She was lying on the couch waiting to help me figure out how to dress. “How far is it from Cuba to Pittsburgh?” she said when I walked into the living room with clothes on hangers.
“Just over a thousand miles.”
“Have they taught you how long it would take for a missile to get here?Is there a way to figure that?”
“Not long,” I said, holding up the hangers. The junior prom didn’t require a tuxedo, just a coat and tie, and I had two of each to choose from. “The darker,” Aunt Peg said, “and the gray tie.” It took her five seconds to decide for me.
When I told Aunt Peg I needed to ride the bus to the flower shop before it got too late, she shook her head and said, “Nobody rides a bus on prom day. If I can squeeze into that that new car of yours, you can drive us to Dick Trowbridge’s greenhouse and save yourself some money to spend later.”
“On the road?” I said as if there were some other way.
“It’s closer than that shopping center,” she said. “Let’s find out if that pretty thing likes going farther than our dead end and back before you drive your sweetheart all the way to Pittsburgh.”
I had to call Jack Bayne before we left, tell him I didn’t need to double with him and Sue Savich in his father’s chrome-covered Chrysler. “The Spider?” he said. “You don’t even have a permit.” He sounded jealous, like he wished Sue and Bonnie would take the Chrysler and meet us there after we drove around for an hour like Italian playboys.
“Dick Trowbridge is an old friend,” Aunt Peg said after she watched the road for half a mile as if she had anything to do with keeping the car on the asphalt. “He’ll have something nice.”
I kept my eyes on the road. I made sure we were right on the speed limit. “I paid for the registration,” she said. “It’s been waiting for you, but it hasn’t been inspected since 1955 so don’t you be doing anything to get yourself stopped.”
“I’m being careful,” I said.
“We’ll take care of the inspection when you get your permit if we’re all still around, but your sister has to bring the Chevy back home for your test. Those state cops will fail you if you show up looking like a hot shot. And look here, we made it all the way to Dick’s in one piece.”
Dick Trowbridge had two greenhouses, but we walked straight through the first one before he paused just inside the second where the temperature seemed to soar and it felt like it might rain. “Show us what a young man needs for a special night,” Aunt Peg said.
Trowbridge stood near a row of exotic looking flowers. “What color is her dress?” he said.
“I have no idea.”
“No matter,” Trowbridge said. “White will do. A wrist corsage so you don’t have to be fussing with pins.”
“Mini calla lilies,” Trowbridge said, passing a gift box with a corsage lying in a bed of green tissue paper to me. I understood that Aunt Peg had called Trowbridge before we’d watched the news, that this wrist corsage was the only one in the greenhouse. “And here’s a full-sized one for your boutonniere.”
I held the flower in my hand, inspecting it as if I was afraid it could hurt me. Aunt Peg laughed. “I’ll pin it on your coat before you go out the door. Don’t you worry about it.”
By the time we reached the car, Aunt Peg was panting. “I’ll hold these for you,” she said between gasps. “You don’t need to be looking at flowers while you drive.” Her hands full, she settled so heavily into the passenger seat I imagined the seams of the leather splitting. “Whoo boy,” she said. “It’s a good thing nobody’s taking me to the prom. I’d be a wet blanket.”
We were half way home when she leaned forward and opened the glove compartment, and I looked over. “You keep your eyes on the road, young man,” she said. “I’m just making sure that little card’s in here instead of in a drawer at the house.”
“That, and Dad’s Beretta,” I said.
She slid the pistol out. In her hands it looked large and evil. “Your father kept this in here, but then I expect you looked one day and there it was.”
“So you know he kept it loaded in case there was trouble?”
“It probably doesn’t even work anymore.”
“Let’s hope you never need to find out. Your father was such a desperado when it came to his things. Him and his being prepared. He was such a Boy Scout and yet it didn’t make any difference at all.”
“Maybe it did. You don’t know.”
“All these things from other countries. I used to ask him why he bought from foreigners, and he’d just say ‘Peg, some things are made better somewhere else.’” She laid the gun back inside, careful not to bump either end against the sides of the glove compartment. “You have yourself a time tonight,” she said. “Those bombs will fall or they won’t.”
Bonnie’s dress was powder blue. I slid the wrist corsage over her hand while Mrs. Sellers snapped a picture with a Polaroid camera. “So we can see the two of you right away,” she said, motioning us to stand close together, but she had to wait a minute between each one while we stood beside each other like the figures I’d seen on cakes at a couple of cousins’ weddings. “Jerry,” she kept saying. “Come out here and look at your beautiful daughter. The war won’t start without you.”
After the fourth picture, Mr. Sellers came out of the room where they kept the television. A den, Bonnie called it. He looked bleary and tired,wearing a sleeveless undershirt and holding a half empty bottle of Stroh’s. “Aren’t you the prettiest girl ever,” he said, kissing Bonnie’s cheek.
I could hear somebody talking about Cuba and the Russians, something about how there were experts who believed the missiles might already be armed, that the Russians didn’t need any of the stuff that was on the boats that turned back to be able to fire. One of the voices declared that some of Kennedy’s advisors thought Castro was crazy enough to welcome launching anuclear strike. “You have the time of your life,” Mr. Sellers said. Curls of dark chest hair showed above the top of his undershirt. Light flickered through the open doorway for a moment, and then he closed the door.
“He’s been watching all day,” Mrs. Sellers said. “Nobody knows anything. They just talk and talk and talk, and he sits there listening like being the first to know would make any difference.” She opened the door for us and held it. “Look at that car he’s driving, Bonnie,” she called as we walked away. “You’re a Cinderella who can stay out past midnight.”
“Your aunt owns this car?” Bonnie practically whispered as I started the engine.
“My father’s. Well, hers, I guess. She gave it to me for my birthday.”
“You passed your test already?”
“So you’re driving us without a license?”
“Not even a learner’s permit. We’re like desperados,” I said. “But don’t worry. I’ve been driving this for a year.”
“Up and down your driveway?”
“My street,” I said, and she laughed.
“It’s really cool, but I wish it had a radio.”
“’You don’t need a radio when you’re driving a car like this,’” my father had said more than once, but what I told her was “It’s a good night not to have a radio.”
The prom was at the Hotel Webster Hall in the part of Pittsburgh where there were four colleges that I knew of, the biggest building, Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, towering up like a skyscraper almost right next door. “We’re right in the bulls eye,” said Jimmy Daniels, who was waiting by the cloak room when we walked in.
I didn’t answer. I checked Bonnie’s coat and took her hand, leaving Daniels and his doom fever behind. Jack and Sue had saved us two seats at a table, but Bonnie and Sue went off to what they called the powder room before we’d even settled in. “You see Miss Rossi’s low-cut dress?” Jack said. “You could go to jail for what it makes you think.”
I took a look at Miss Rossi who, for sure, didn’t look like a chaperone where she was standing near the gym teacher Mr. Barrone. “Or if the cops pull me over,” I said because Bonnie and Sue were on their way back.
“I know you,” Jack said. “You’ll keep it slow and straight.”
The band didn’t have any guitars, and the bass was a stand up. There were horns and two saxophones and thank God, drums, and all the men were wearing dark suits that made them look older than anybody’s father. But they played songs we recognized like “Mr. Blue” and “Sealed with a Kiss.”
There was green punch in a huge frosted bowl and plenty of chips and pretzels. We sat at a table where each place had a thin plastic glass filled with I tasted and found out was carbonated cider. JBHS Junior Prom, 1962 was frosted onto the side. “It’s called a flute,” Bonnie said, but she didn’t touch hers.
After a half dozen slow songs, the band cranked up “The Twist.” Bonnie seemed surprised when I started twisting, but she kept up. Miss Rossi ended up beside us, twisting like crazy while Mr. Barrone shuffled a little, his eyes fixed on the top of her dress. After a minute, the band started doing a call and response from a different Twist song called “Dear Lady,” my favorite, the singer shouting “Get up a’ off your chair” and the horn section calling out “Dear Lady.” It sounded old fashioned, like something one of the big bands my father had listened to would do. Like Louie Prima, I thought, the name coming to me as I worked my feet and arms. And then the band took up again, the singer belting out, “’Cause doctors agree, so I’ve been told, do the Twist and you’ll never grow old” before they switched, over the singer’s cackling laugh, to “Monster Mash.” I skidded my way into the Mashed Potato and Bonnie, without moving, said, “Where did you learn that?”
It was wonderful to have her marvel, but I couldn’t tell Bonnie I’d spent nearly every Saturday night since high school began dancing by myself in my room, the door locked in case my sister decided it would be hilarious to throw it open and surprise me.
I was happy and sweaty and tried slurping punch from the glass dipper into my flute, spilling it on my hand as Bonnie laughed. Her arms were bare except for the lilies. I wanted to tell her she was beautiful, but settled for “You look really nice in that dress.”
“Thank you,” she said, which didn’t prompt a next line. I swallowed the mouthful of punch I’d dumped in the flute, and Bonnie carried the cup I’d filled for her back to the table.
We didn’t dance for the next three songs, but when the band started “The Way You Look Tonight,” a song my father used to sing along with when he played the record, I was on my feet and Bonnie followed. She pressed against me this time, and I dropped both arms around her back, holding her and swaying from side to side without even bothering to move my feet. We just stood there when the song ended, and though I knew it wouldn’t happen, I wanted the band to play the same song again.
Afterward, we were supposed to follow Jack and Sue and six other couples to a nightclub in Monroeville so we could sit at another table and drink Cokes and listen to Bobby Vinton, who was from somewhere near Pittsburgh and had a number one song called “Roses are Red.”
“Let’s look inside the Cathedral first,” Bonnie said. “They have all those nationality rooms there.”
“It won’t be open,” I said.
“Maybe it is. If it’s all locked up, we can find Monroeville by ourselves.”
To make her happy, I tugged on the heavy front door, and I nearly lost my balance when it swung open. There were lights on, but as soon as we walked inside, a security guard rose from a chair and strode toward us as if he meant to throw us out.
“Prom night?” he said.
“Yes,” Bonnie said.
“Hard to have fun tonight,” he said. He glanced around as a bearded man in a light brown jacket clattered down the uncarpeted stairs. The guard nodded as the man left. “Busy night here,” he said. “Professors arranging things. You know. They have me here until one o’clock.” He looked at his watch. “”Forty more minutes and then, Cuba or no Cuba, I have to chase everybody.”
“Are the Nationality Rooms open?” Bonnie said.
“No,” he said, but I could see him looking her up and down, and when she said, “Could you just open one for a minute?” I knew he was adding up the minutes he had left, how they would be more pleasant if he could spend some of them near a pretty girl in a prom dress.
“Ok,” he said. “I’ll open my favorite, and you can pick one more that’s close and that’s it. Ten minutes and you’re gone.”
He opened Italian. “You know who that is up there?” he said, pointing at a bust on top of a wooden cabinet. “Dante,” he said, before either of us could answer. “Have you read him?”
“Not yet,” Bonnie said.
“Look at this,” he said, opening the wooden doors, a blackboard behind them the way our old television had come inside a set of doors.
“Da Vinci,” Bonnie said, reading from the wall paneling. “Galileo, Marconi. I know all of these people.”
I didn’t say anything. The room was so extraordinary I thought I was in a castle, and five minutes later I let Bonnie pick the German room, which was right next door. There were quotations from Goethe and Schiller on plaques, another list of famous names, and Bonnie asked me, “Why do we know all the Italians but I never heard of the Germans?” as if she knew I didn’t recognize them either.
“I don’t know,” I said, but the guard had put one hand on Bonnie’s arm and was guiding her toward a row of stained glass windows.
“Grimm’s fairy tales,” he said, mentioning one name I recognized, but I noticed he didn’t take his hand away when they stopped. “Rumplestiltskin,” he said, “and here’s Cinderella, the girl of my dreams.”
His hand began to rub her arm, moving just a few inches. Bonnie seemed entranced. I took a few steps, reading the marker. “She’s Ashenputtel in German,” I said, and the guard dropped his hand.
“These are all so gorgeous,” Bonnie said. “I want to come back and look at every room.”
“It would take all night to do it right, sweetheart,” the guard said, and there was a moment when all three of us stood there in silence, eyes forward, before another set of footsteps made the guard turn away and say, “I have to lock up in a few minutes. You kids need to move along.”
I’m starved,” I said. It was all I could think of, a half hour later, to keep the night from ending as we drove north on Route 8 toward Bonnie’s house after we decided to skip Bobby Vinton.
“So am I,” she said, “but what’s still open?”
“A diner. I remember one’s out a little farther by the turnpike exit.”
A little farther meant nearly ten miles, but I was happy to keep driving until we passed the interchange and saw the Venus Diner right there where I remembered it, only two cars in the parking lot but lights on the sign that said “Open 24 Hours.”
Two men wearing plaid flannel shirts over dark t-shirts sat at the counter drinking coffee and smoking, so I picked a booth and we waited for the waitress to bring us menus. “Here you go, kids,” she said. “Prom get you hungry?”
“Yes,” Bonnie said, but she was looking at the fork the waitress had put in front of her. “This has egg stuck on it,” she said, handing it back.
“That happens,” the waitress said. I could see the men looking our way, listening. “I’ll bring you a new one with your order.”
Bonnie and I scanned our menus, and the thought of that egg made both of us order pancakes. “Gotcha,” the waitress said, and she disappeared into the kitchen.
The men raised their voices then, as if they were staging an argument for us.
“Nuke those cocksuckers,” the man who wore a cap said. “Shoot first. It’s the only way.”
The bare-headed man nodded his head as if he’d been convinced. “That fat fuck Khrushchev,” he said. “That fucking cocksucker.”
The waitress pushed through the swinging door. “Tone it down, boys,” she said, and both men looked our way. The man with the cap stood up and said, “You kids should go fuck someplace before it’s too late.” I thought the men could tell Bonnie was still fifteen, that her age made them stare at her as if that was the perfect age for all the things they wanted to do to a girl.
“Enough, boys,” the waitress said, “or I’ll have to ask George to come out here.”
The men went back to smoking. The pancakes arrived. Bonnie had a clean fork. It was sliding past two a.m., we were eating breakfast, and just then I was happy we’d gone to the Nationality Rooms and the Venus Diner, that all the men looking at Bonnie made her more beautiful.
We took our time eating. I pushed the last few bites around in syrup and waited for the men to leave, but finally, when there was nothing else to do that didn’t make me look afraid, I dropped a few bills on the table and walked Bonnie to the door.
We weren’t half way to the car when I heard the door open behind us. “Hey, cutie,” the cap-wearer called, and the other, as we approached the Fiat, said, “Don’t it figure, in a foreign car. A Guinea one at that. Hey, schoolboy, it don’t matter what your Daddy’s car is. The bomb don’t check the make and model.”
The men were surprisingly thin. I’d never thought of threats wearing bodies similar to mine, but the danger was in their faces, the stubble and the slicked back hair part of a costume that amplified what was in their eyes and mouths. Something predatory. As if there were bars between them and us, and now it had dawned on them that a gate had been left open.
“Cutie,” the cap wearer said again. “Come go for a ride in an American car.”
I dropped my keys, and Bonnie moved closer to me as I bent to retrieve them. “There you go,” one man said. “Now you’re cooking.”
The door was finally open. Bonnie scrambled inside. She was crying and my arm dropped around her shoulders and her head rested against my chest. I took a breath, relieved, but as I slipped the key into the ignition I could see the men approaching the car from the front, closing up the distance, laying their hands n the hood as if they expected me to pop it open so they could check the oil.
I reached across Bonnie, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out the Beretta. Bonnie sat up, staring, and I stepped out of the car, pointing the gun my father had left there almost eight years ago. I hadn’t told Aunt Peg on the way back from the greenhouse, but he’d not only shown it to me one day, he’d taught me how to hold it and shoot it before he told me if I ever touched it I’d never ride in that car again. “It’s for emergencies,” he’d said, and this was one.
“Whoa there, Jesse James,” the bare-headed man said.
I swung the gun in a small arc from one to the other. They lifted their hands off the hood, but when they didn’t step away, I said, ”You two go fuck yourselves someplace” and fixed the gun on the cap-wearing man.
“You’d never shoot,” he said, his voice softer now.
“Only if you get closer.”
“Not even then,” he said. “And we’d have that car and that girl and have us a night of it.”
My mouth was suddenly so dry I was afraid to say anything else. I tried to keep my eyes on his face in order to read what would happen next, and then I saw the waitress step outside, the cook beside her. “Hey,” she said, and the word broke whatever spell all of us were under. I reached behind me, found the door, and dropped into my seat, the Beretta pointed at the roof, then switched it to my left hand as I turned the key to rev up the Spider.
I didn’t look back. I drove a mile without either of us speaking, the gun still in my left hand, before I saw a set of headlights come up so fast in the mirror that by the time Bonnie turned in her seat to look the car whizzed by. “He must be going 100,” she said.
I checked my speed and saw it was seventy-five, the Spider acting like it enjoyed it. Bonnie seemed to be following the disappearing taillights; and I started to slow. “It’s like On the Beach,” I said, “when Fred Astaire wins that race near the end when everybody’s already starting to die.”
I let the car settle in again at fifty-five, the speed limit. Bonnie was still staring, but she said, “What happened to everybody?”
“All the fallout from World War III killed everybody, even in Australia.”
“Oh,” Bonnie said. “When?”
“1964” I was surprised she hadn’t ever heard of On the Beach. The novel had been so popular the Pittsburgh Press has run a condensed version as a serial when it first came out. She looked out the side window, her breath clouding the glass, and I let us drop back to fifty, heading south toward her house,
“What do you think we’ll be doing tonight?” Bonnie said as we pulled into her driveway.
“It’s still prom night,” I said, although I knew what she meant. “Tomorrow night we have homework. Chemistry and trigonometry.” Both of us were in accelerated science and math, chosen, when we started seventh grade, to keep up with the Russians.
Bonnie smiled, and for a second I thought she hadn’t meant anything at all asking about how Sunday might end. “I wish I could get out of all that. All those numbers and Greek letters. Everything I want to do is in English.”
She slipped out, and I followed. “I thought the fast car was the Venus creeps,” she said.
“More likely than Fred Astaire,” I said. “That was my father’s gun back there.”
“He’s been dead a long time, hasn’t he?”
“He thought if he owned things other people dreamed about he’d need to defend them.”
“That would be hard, wouldn’t it? Always looking for something awful to happen?”
“And then it did.”
“I didn’t know you then. But my parents talked about it like you lived next door.”
She looked up, and so did I. It was past three a.m. This had been the longest night of our lives, and now there wasn’t anything left to do to make it more than a few minutes longer. Bonnie said, “I’m freezing,” and I took it as a signal she was ready to go inside.
I kissed her once more at the door, but when she opened it, her mother was sitting in a chair, a shaded floor lamp on behind her as if she’d stayed up reading a book. “Come on in, the both of you,” she said, and when she stood, I saw she had a glass in her hand. “Go on downstairs where you’ll be comfortable,” she said. “You kids make yourselves at home.”
I’d never been in her basement, but if I’d been blindfolded and didn’t know we’d gone downstairs, I would have thought we were in a huge living room. The walls were paneled; the floor was carpeted. And besides the chairs and a couch and a table designed for card players, there was a bar with a tap for beer and a shelf of bottles.
“Wow,” I said. I thought about turning on the television, but it seemed like a terrible idea. We sat together on the couch, and I listened to the footsteps above us until they stopped, and then I leaned into Bonnie again, and she pressed against me.
“It’s like we’re starting over,” she said.
The door opened. Mrs. Sellers started down the stairs. “I need a refill,” she said. “You two pay me no mind.” She stood behind the bar and looked our way as if she was inspecting us. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, “as long as I’m in your way, let me make each of you a drink. One cocktail never hurt anybody.”
It was nearly three thirty. She wobbled a little in a robe over what looked to be a lace trimmed negligee. “Some outfit for a bartender,” she said. “Bonnie’s brothers would never let me peek under their covers, but her father is upstairs asleep in his underwear. I told him he should look decent just in case, wear those pajamas I bought for him last Christmas”
She finished making the drinks by dropping two maraschino cherries in each one. “This is called a Manhattan,” she said, “Mostly bourbon. The extra cherry will make it sweeter for you.” She hooked a thin orange slice on the side of each thick glass, handed them to us, and plodded upstairs..
We sipped those drinks, which didn’t taste sweet enough for either of us, but they gave us something to do, sitting apart, the words gone out of us. Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Sellers returned. “If I make you all a second drink, can I show you a movie?”
“Mom,” Bonnie said, but Mrs. Sellers was already wheeling a projector out from where it had been stored behind one of the two overstuffed chairs..
“It’s not from when you were a baby or anything like that,” Mrs. Sellers said. She flipped the tube for the screen to horizontal, unfurled it, and snapped it in place above the tripod it sat on. “Hold on while I make the drinks.”
More Manhattans. I drank off half of mine while she fiddled with the projector. I’d never drunk anything but a few half glasses of beer Aunt Peg set in front of me when she wanted just a little more than one bottle, and now I felt light-headed and wondered if Bonnie, maybe sixty or seventy pounds lighter than I was, felt giddy.
When the film began, Bonnie groaned because there she was in a one-piece flower print swimsuit with two boys, one younger, one older. “Look at you and those brothers of yours,” her mother said, and as she stood between them on a dock, I did, figuring her for about eleven.
I thought Bonnie would tell her to shut it off, maybe even get up and shut it off herself, but she let her eleven year-old self pose on the dock, wave at the camera, even blow a kiss with her open hand cupped below her mouth like Marilyn Monroe in a photograph I’d seen somewhere.
Her brothers hopped into the lake. They splashed each other, and then the camera went back to Bonnie walking farther down the dock before she leaped into the water.
There was more, the camera sweeping along the shore to where Mr. Sellers stood fully dressed. A few minutes later, though, Mrs. Sellers seemed to sag. “That’s all there is of you here,” she said, speaking toward the screen, but then she ran the film backward, something my uncle did at family reunions so everybody could laugh, and we all watched without making a sound as Bonnie emerged from the water and landed on her feet; her brothers returned to the dock, and then that kiss as if Bonnie was slapping herself in the mouth.
Mrs. Sellers let the film run all the way back to the beginning and the room went dark. “Don’t you wish you could do that sometimes?” she said, and when nobody answered, she said, “I’ll leave you kids alone, but the bar’s closed, you hear?” She wobbled up three stairs before pausing and turning, her hand clutching the railing. “Goodbye” she said and held her gaze on us for a few seconds before she turned and disappeared up the stairs.
“What now?” Bonnie said, and it was so much a signal we stood at the same time, and the next kiss was just like dancing with our lips together, hers parting until our tongues met like both of us had been practicing. “You can touch me if you want,” she said, which paralyzed me, my hands locked against her sides a few inches from her breasts. I kissed her again, felt her heart racing through the pressure of my hands, but they didn’t move.
When she stepped back, Bonnie said, “I want to sleep down here.” I swallowed hard. “Will you stay until I change and get a blanket and pillow?”
I heard the furnace kick off and on while I waited. All I had to do was move my hands over her body and the rest was up to her. And then I told myself I was afraid she thought I’d earned something at the diner, or worse, that I expected it.
While Bonnie was gone, I thought about the Hotel Webster Hall, how we could have walked a few more blocks and gone into the Carnegie Library if it was open, too, at one a.m. Three years ago I’d ridden the bus into Pittsburgh. I knew how to transfer to one heading out to Oakland because that’s how Aunt Peg and I went to a couple of Pirate games at Forbes Field every summer. The library was right there out past the left field wall, and though I’d never been inside, I knew somebody would help me find the old newspaper stories about the plane crash. That’s what I counted on, somebody who knew how to find answers to whatever question you had. She didn’t have to know the answers, just where to find them.
“I remember that crash,” she said. “It gave everybody something new to worry about.”
I didn’t say anything, and she hooked up the microfilm, and it began to spin through the last three months of 1955. She stopped it at October 31st as if she could feel the right date through her fingers. She slowed it down, crawling through November 1st, the day it happened, and stopping on the front page of the Pittsburgh Press, November 2nd, the plane crash story that said “Passengers included local couple.”
“You writing a report for school?” she said.
“Well then,” she said. “You just be sure to rewind it when you’re done and return it to me.”
I didn’t explain that my parents had been passengers the first time anybody had set off a bomb on board a plane while it was in the air, some asshole wanting to receive his mother’s insurance money, but I went back and asked her for 1956, the last three months. “I know how to work it,” I said, so I was alone when I found November 1st,and the photograph of me standing with Diana above a caption that said, “Tragedy’s Children.” By then Aunt Peg had lived with us for a year, keeping us from the orphanage.
I felt tired and sad. People were cruel. The Venus Diner jerks could break into Bonnie’s house and someone like Mr. Sellers wouldn’t be able to stop them. You needed a gun like my father. You needed to have the nerve to shoot it.
He should have taken it on the plane, I thought, which made no sense. He should have noticed some nervous guy saying goodbye to his mother and and been able to tell he’d packed a bomb in her suitcase, which was as impossible as world peace. I felt like I had when I heard the news, nine years old and grinding my teeth until Aunt Peg had given me a package of chewing gum, saying “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Bonnie returned in pajamas. She carried a blanket and pillow. Her breasts were loose under the soft fabric, and there was a moment when she bent down and kissed my forehead that the top billowed out like an invitation to push my hands up under it, but I held my breath until she said “Thank you” and turned toward the couch where she lay down and pulled the blanket over herself.
“You think Cuba will get worse?” she said.
“We’ll hear sirens if it does.”
“It would be better if we didn’t. I don’t want to know there’s one minute left before everything blows up.”
I thought we would talk more. Say something we needed to say as Kennedy and Khrushchev decided whether this Sunday was the day that had been speeding toward us since 1945. When, after a minute, nothing that mattered came out of me, I said, “I hope you had as good a time as I did.” Bonnie didn’t answer, and I thought I’d made a fool of myself until I realized she was asleep.
I didn’t leave. I watched her sleep and wondered, if there was a sudden, brilliant light, whether covering Bonnie’s sleeping body with mine would be shelter enough to save her, turning so sentimental I thought about watching the old home movie of Bonnie again, having her wake up to the image of her blowing a kiss. When the sky stayed dark and quiet, I had time to decide that it would be more merciful not to disturb Bonnie, that I’d been foolish even to imagine the selfishness of bravery.
As it grew light, I stood at the window to watch the eastern sky. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a sunrise. I’d been dragged out of bed for years around the time the sun came up in winter, but I’d never looked outside until it was time to walk to the bus stop, checking for how deep the snow was or whether it was raining. By then the sun was up.
Just before eight o’clock I heard stirring upstairs, the floor creaking, and knew I should leave before her parents dressed and checked on her. Neither of them would be drunk now. They were church goers, and there was no explaining my being in the house with their daughter at eight a.m. Still I kept watch. The sky remained quiet. Bonnie’s eyes stayed shut, her face so beautiful in the natural light that I knew what I wanted to tell her–I felt grateful to have spent the night with her.
And there was more I’d say if this Sunday let me, if speaking aloud and honestly still mattered when she woke and found me eating a second breakfast with her parents, her father in a suit, her mother dressed for church and blessing me with eggs over easy, bacon, and toast, all of the silverware beside my plate sparkling and clean.