Copyright 2013 David Castlewitz
I found Debbie at the corner restaurant where she and I often had coffee. She sat on a swivel stool at the counter, her light brown hair falling down her back to her bare crossed ankles, her hand-tooled leather sandals clinging to her feet. Hunched over a mostly eaten tuna on white, a paperback in one hand, she fingered the circle-handle of a green stripped white coffee cup and didn’t notice my arrival.
“Are we going?” I asked after an initial grunt to announce my presence. She looked at me in the mirror on the worker side of the counter. Our faces stood out in the otherwise empty reflection above a metal coffee pot, stacked glasses and assorted restaurant gadgets.
Debbie closed her book. I glanced at the cover: Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me. I checked the clock on the wall above the swinging kitchen doors. “We’ve got about 15 minutes,” I said.
She brushed crumbs from her white blouse. “Lenny’s meeting us here.”
Something thumped near my heart. I’d looked forward to having Debbie to myself. I didn’t want to share her with Lenny. But he was my friend as well as hers, so how could I object? More important, what would Debbie think if I did.
“Great,” I mumbled. “He likes Ferlinghetti.” The poet’s name caught in my throat because I saw Lenny in the mirror, his massive black beard that let only his eyes shine through pressed against the window, which elicited startled looks from the two men in rumpled suits occupying the adjacent booth.
“Kafka’s Castle awaits,” Lenny said when he entered, taking a line from “Coney Island of the Mind,” Ferlinghetti’s famous poem. Sidling up to Debbie and me, he put one arm across her narrow shoulders, the other across mine, and squeezed. “We better walk fast or we won’t get in.”
Debbie pushed herself from her stool. Lenny made it spin and rattle. The counter waitress glanced up, her wane face about to form a frown. But I think Lenny’s eye caught hers because she smiled. Then, with an arm around Debbie’s narrow waist, her long hair brushing his forearm, Lenny and she left the restaurant together, and I followed, hands in my pockets.
The late March evening enveloped us; the sunset peeked out from between the buildings. Buses and taxis and hurrying pedestrians clogged the intersections where we crossed Market Street and slipped further away from the center city chaos of rush hour traffic. Below, commuter trains rumbled westward, subway cars lurched to a stop, underground trolleys sparked and squealed. I’d grown up on the fringes of the city, in a suburb very much like the one these trains and cars headed to in the evening’s dying light. But now, as a denizen of center city Philadelphia, I enjoyed the adventure of being college-aged, with a draft deferment to protect me from the Vietnam War.
We crossed the wide, tree-lined Parkway and skirted Logan Square with its stone nymphs sitting in a circle inside a dry fountain. Night fell. Street lights twinkled. Together, Debbie in the middle, one hand in mine, the other hand in Lenny’s, we dashed into the crowd mingling on the steps of the Philadelphia Public Library.
A banner above the doors announced the event: Lawrence Ferlinghetti would read from his book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind. Hundreds – mostly students like us – thronged the base of the marble stairs leading to the second floor auditorium. A few older couples huddled on the periphery. A man in a red bowtie chatted with admirers, his bald head glowing in the glare of lamps dangling by brass chains from the high ceiling.
We milled about the lobby, near the ornate wood-and-glass doors to the library’s hushed interior, where an elderly guard kept vigil at a blue velvet rope. A crowd snaked along the limestone stairs to the second floor landing and the library’s auditorium; a bulging line hugged the smooth stone wall and rubbed against the marble banister. Arms crossed over my chest, I searched for something to say that might interest Debbie and steal her attention from Lenny.
But he held her hand, held her gaze. He spoke of the poetry and stories he’d been writing, of books he’d read. Debbie spoke little; she laughed with him, and only once glanced in my direction. Lenny’s smile drew me as well. His voice captivated me. Infected with the warmth of his breath and the gleam in his dark eyes, I wished I possessed just an iota of whatever made Lenny so strong, so capable of amusing his listeners, so able to take them on journeys of fun and adventure, like one of those magical amusement park rides.
A groan shot from the top of the crowded stairs, and spread through the packed lobby. The auditorium was full. No one else would be admitted.
And then a cheer erupted; a loudspeaker buzzed. The library would broadcast Ferlinghetti’s reading to the fans outside the auditorium. Speakers on stands were brought into the lobby and plugged into receptacles at the base of the walls. Two speakers were pushed outside on tall tripods guarded by some crisply dressed young men who worked for the library.
An announcer told us that Lawrence Ferlinghetti would soon appear. A moment passed. Applause and cheers followed the short silence. When that dissipated, a mellow voice took command and we settled in to hear the poetry as though listening to a deity preach sacred truth.
Ferlinghetti’s voice crackled from the loudspeakers. I pictured the bearded poet standing near a circle of light bathing a podium, his eyes downcast as he read, his thin hands emphasizing his words, which Debbie mouthed, as though she’d memorized every syllable of every symbol,. Lenny kept his eyes closed, and I wondered if he pictured the spinning Ferris wheel, the revolving calliope, and other wonders of the amusement park, his mind alive like the poet’s, poised to burst with something grand, something great.
When Ferlinghetti finished reading, the doors opened and we poured into the night. Crowds on the sidewalk spilled into the street. Police directed the foot traffic, urged us to keep moving. Lenny and Debbie and I clasped hands and rushed down the steps and then across the street, across the wide Parkway.
“Coffee?” Lenny suggested.
I nodded and looked at Debbie, who said, “I’ve a 7 o’clock class. I need to get home.”
Debbie lived on Walnut Street, a long walk from the Parkway, on the top floor of a four-story brownstone. We walked up the staircase. Lenny stopped to inspect a bicycle left on the third floor landing. A mouse peeked from the edge of a paper bag of trash.
At the top of the stairs Debbie’s dark door blended into the paneling in the hall. Her key dangled on a plastic chain. She tossed a smile back over one shoulder and unlocked, then opened the door. Beaded curtains separated her sleeping area – I saw a mattress on the floor — from the throw pillows and cushions strewn about the space I imagined as her “living room.” A tiny kitchen – sink, gas stove, and refrigerator jammed into a corner – stood next to a small bathroom. Drapes made from colorful cotton covered her only window.
Lenny’s sideways glance said I should leave. He put his hand against Debbie’s door and pushed himself into her apartment. A flash of protest appeared in her eyes. She started to speak, but Lenny bent close to her, one hand on her bare arm, the other on the door knob.
I pictured Debbie’s protest giving way to acceptance. As I often imagined her giving in to me, though I never made any demands, had never thought to step into her one-room dwelling and slam shut the door, had never tried to take hold of her in any way except with my voice, my gaze, my silent wishes.
A muffled scream erupted behind me as I started downstairs. I looked back at Debbie’s closed door. Indistinct words slipped from her apartment. I listened for clues as to what I should do.
Debbie’s shouts guided me back upstairs. When I got closer to her apartment I heard her cry, “Don’t do that.”
Lenny laughed and I wondered if Debbie would now laugh with him, as if his demands and her denials were factors of a game. But Debbie argued and Lenny said nothing. Heavy feet hit the bare wood floor. A sob wound its way to my ears.
I knocked on the door. “Debbie? Debbie? Are you all right?”
She didn’t scream. I strained to hear Lenny’s voice. I listened to the long and empty silence that came when all the noise had ceased.
Lenny appeared at the open door. He glared at me, pushed past, rushed downstairs. I stood at the threshold to the apartment. Debbie lay across the pillows on the floor. Her panties and sandals sat crumbled together.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“What do you think happened? Are you really that stupid?” She waved a hand at me. “Get out.”
I left. Out of the building, out onto the dark and quiet street.
Lenny was nowhere nearby. Good. I didn’t know what to say to him. Not then. Not later, when I saw him at school the next day in a students’ lounge we frequented, the one with a coffee vending machine that served an acrid brew; and a kiosk for candy and chips and wrapped pastries.
He sat with friends.
Debbie wasn’t there. I walked on, ignoring Lenny when he called to me. I walked out of the lounge. I walked between the buildings. I looked for Debbie, hoping I’d find her, dreading what I’d find when I did, hating what I found when I finally came across her sitting on a low wall outside Administration.
“Do you want to talk?” I offered.
She walked away. When I ran after her she stopped to say, “Now you know what your friend is really like.”
When I tried to take her hand to comfort her, she broke loose and ran.
She fled from me every time she saw me. She wanted nothing to do with me no matter what I said. Whenever I tried to confront Lenny about what had happened, his dark eyes overpowered me and his stare frustrated what words I thought I might say.
The most I could muster was to refuse to remain one of his admirers, one of those who huddled around him to hear his poetry, his stories, his tales of romance and adventure. I mustered the courage to ignore him and, soon, I didn’t miss his warm smile, the feel of his hand squeezing my shoulder, the affection I thought he felt for me and all of his friends.
But I missed Debbie, and I’ve always wondered what I could have done to save her.