Copyright 2022 David Castlewitz
In June of 1970 I stopped wearing shoes and went barefoot around downtown Philadelphia. The onset of summer marked seven straight months of working at Aardvark Books on Chestnut Street, the completion of my freshman year at Temple University, and nine months of living in a house with five other guys. After three years in the army and two aimless years – three different colleges, a half-dozen one-room apartments, and as many jobs – life was on the upswing. My mom and step-dad would be proud. Not that I’d tell them. All they’d see were my bare feet.
Which brought me to Lynn’s attention. “Don’t you have shoes?” she’d asked.
“Can’t afford them,” I lied. Her lean face puckered in disbelief. Her chin wrinkled when she laughed, her gold-brown hair bouncing against her narrow back. We talked for a while and I learned that she was a student at one of the schools I’d attended: The Philadelphia College of Art.
“Taking a summer session?” I asked as she accompanied me to Aardvark for my 5PM shift. Shoppers swarmed the stores, buses and taxis and cars clogged the streets, so we did a lot of weaving and ducking as we hurried through the traffic.
“Ceramics,” she chirped to answer my question. And then, “I’m worried about your feet.”
“I’ve got calluses.”
We reached the bookstore, a deep, narrow recess with racks of paperback books climbing from floor to ceiling along three walls. The window ledge was loaded with dusty hardbacks and art books. More books clung to wire racks running down the center of the store. Neal Cohen waved at me. I was his relief.
“Gotta run,” Neal said, and grabbed the burlap bag he used as a knapsack. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth. “See you back at the house. We’ll start that paint job tonight.”
I sat on the folding chair by the cash register.
“You guys roommates?” Lynn asked, and sat on the aluminum step ladder we kept around for visitors.
“Neal, me, and four other guys. We’ve got all this paint and stuff, but we haven’t started yet. Got the furniture moved to the middle of the room so we can get to the walls.”
“I love to paint,” Lynn said.
“Want to come over? You can get us started.” I smiled. With thick brown hair curling around my collar, dark eyes and sunken cheeks, I knew I looked like a victim just waiting to be saved.
The look always worked! Lynn smiled back and we became a couple.
I often wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t killed her. From a distance of nearly four decades I have only the memory of her wrinkly smile, a clipping in my wallet to read when I want to cry, and some color photographs we took one Saturday when she and I and Neal traipsed about Philadelphia’s historic district, playing tourist and visiting the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Betsy Ross’ house. For dinner, we went to Headhouse Tavern, a restaurant dating back to the Revolutionary War, and tried to sneak into the basement to find the ghost of the Hessian soldier reputed to roam there.
Some nights we got in line at Dirty Harry’s, a neighborhood bar just south of the historic district, at 12th and Pine. You could be eighty years old, white haired and decrepit, and they still checked your ID at the door. Inside, the place was thick with cigarette smoke and the stink of beer. What fell on the floor stayed on the floor, spilled drinks along with cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and assorted debris. The owner, Harry, threw down more sawdust when he thought the floor needed it.
Other nights, we walked. To the Delaware River and back, along Pine Street. Or to South Street and its eclectic collection of boutiques, storefront theatres, and bookstores. Many nights we stayed at the house, which was a wild adventure, with six guys and their friends parading from room to room, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, toking marijuana or hashish in the basement. We made balloons out of condoms for living room volleyball games.
Lynn preferred her tiny apartment, which was quiet and just north of downtown. Beaded curtains separated the room into two parts. On one side, her narrow bed. On the other, a ratty couch. A fridge and a two burner stove filled an alcove.
Her pencil drawings, ceramics, and sculptures were everywhere. The drawings were crude stick figures. Her ceramics – mugs, saucers, ashtrays circa 1950 – bore frenzied splashes of color. Her sculptures ranged from hands with fingers that looked like feet to gnarled muscles without arm, leg or body.
There wasn’t much of a bed. We tangled together and tried not to knock one another out of it when we made love. We were both thin. She called me emaciated and herself slender.
“Do you like my body?” she asked one night. “My tits are too small,” she said.
“More than a mouthful is a waste,” I replied.
“You always know the right thing to say,” she told me.
It was a great summer. My bare feet developed impenetrable calluses, I became adept at maneuvering the city streets without injury, and I sometimes think I was responsible for the signs that began appearing in the stores: “No shirt. No shoes. No service.”
One night, when Neal and I roamed the streets at midnight, I saw Lynn in line at Dirty Harry’s, a tall guy with long gray hair and a thick goatee beside her.
She blushed when she saw me.
Purposely, I leaned close to kiss her. She let me. Then she introduced me to Al Cummings, her companion. He was one of her professors at school.
“Helping you with your homework?” I asked.
Al laughed. Loud and deep. “A beer and a braut. That’s the homework. Join us?”
“Eat at Dirty Harry’s?” Neal said. “Not me.”
Al looked at me. “Lynn told me you were in the army.”
I shrugged, which was my usual answer to any question about my army career. I never spoke of Vietnam. Not because I’d tracked through the jungles and seen buddies blown apart. I never went into the jungle. I worked at the personnel office on a base near Saigon. My war was a year of shitting my pants during mortar attacks and being scared every time I walked from my barracks to HQ.
“We’re going to get a pizza,” I said.
“See ya, then,” Lynn said.
Had our love come to a close? Everything ends, I thought. Love. Summer. I was even planning to start wearing shoes again.
“Remember Al Cummings?” Lynn asked me. We were sitting in the bookstore. Our ending hadn’t yet come. I didn’t mind drawing it out.
“Bearded guy? Wanted to eat at Dirty Harry’s?”
“He’s having a picnic at his place,” Lynn said. “Pete – you met him. He’s got a van. We can go with him.”
I imagined a stone-paved patio, a cooler full of beer cans and a handful of students lounging on chairs next to a two foot deep wading pool. The imagining wasn’t even close because Al Cummings had a two hundred and fifty acre farm. His house was once the barn. He’d gutted. Remodeled it. His bedroom was at the base of the corn silo. When you lay on the bed you looked up at a skylight 100 feet up. In the sun-bathed room all the pastels looked like tasty sherbet.
There was no official tour. With about fifty students and friends on the farm, Cummings just let us roam. His workroom was long and wide, with rows of windows and lots of light. Power tools stood in a corner, but I noticed that he also used hand saws and knives and chisels. In the middle of the room stood his current project: a table carved from a tree trunk.
Lynn studied it closely, a finger to her lips, her nail clicking against a front tooth. I don’t know what kind of tree this had been, but it looked like it would become a hefty table.
“He’s amazing,” Lynn whispered.
On the patio, Cummings captained the grill and served up a mix of shish-kabob, hamburgers, brats and hot dogs. Vats of coleslaw and potato salad, with bags of chips, sat on a nearby table. A beer keg stood in a tub of ice and cans of soda pop lay buried in a plastic cooler. There was wine, too, if you went into the kitchen to help yourself.
I grabbed a beer and headed for the grassy field behind the house, where a softball game took shape. We had 15 on one side and 16 on the other. Lynn watched for a while, but slipped away when I was in centerfield.
I had a few hits and did some great fielding. After about two hours, people left the game to sit and watch and drink and eat. When it got down to seven players on each side, with the game tied 33 to 33, we stopped and congratulated one another for having so much fun.
Walking back to the house, I saw Lynn. She carried her sandals in her hand. “Game over?” she asked. “That grass feels good.” She wiggled her toes. I looked closely at her tee shirt. I looked her slender body up and down. Tangle hair and white fuzz in the curls around her ears were giveaways.
“Your tee shirt is inside-out,” I said.
She pulled at it and looked at the exposed seams. Her face reddened. “I put it on that way?”
“Not when we left your apartment,” I said. “Maybe you took it off to go for a swim. But he doesn’t have a pool, does he?” I snatched a piece of fuzz from her ear. A pillow feather.
“I took a nap.”
“You got a thing for your teacher, fine. You’re allowed. The summer’s over anyway.” I walked to the front lawn, where the cars were parked. I asked around for a lift, either to a train station or into the city.
Occasionally, because the Philadelphia College of Art was not far from Aardvark Books, I saw Lynn on Chestnut Street. We didn’t trade glances. We didn’t talk. I’d buried our past. I did that with a lot of things – Vietnam, my parents, colleges I’d attended, and lovers, especially lovers. As autumn gave way to winter, Lynn’s appearances dwindled from few to none.
Until the end of May, 1971, when she returned to Chestnut Street. With shorter hair that fell in neat waves that didn’t quite touch her shoulders. Her face was puffy, no longer thin, and she pushed a shabby baby carriage. Outside Aardvark, she stopped and looked at me. Neal was in the store to relieve me because he had the night shift this spring.
I walked outside. Lynn smiled, but there were no happy wrinkles in her chin. Her eyes, though still flecked with gold, did not dance.
A baby lay tucked under a gray blanket. A bump for a nose, dark eyes, and wrinkly skin. Like some kind of animal hatched from an egg.
“That’s Doris,” Lynn said.
“You and Cummings get married?” I asked.
Lynn shook her head. “Maybe we can talk? Have coffee?”
“You still in school?” I asked.
“I’m living with a friend near 23rd street,” she said.
“It’s not mine,” I blurted. “So I don’t think we have anything to talk about.”
I left her standing there with her baby carriage outside the bookstore. That baby didn’t even look like me. Then, again, it didn’t look like anyone.
Nearly three years later, I found Lynn living with two girls in a house near mine. By this time, my original housemates had graduated and left, some for jobs and one for medical school in North Carolina.
The baby, older now, looked more like a person. I saw Lynn playing with her at the tot-lot near a day care center on South Street. Chubby kid. With short black hair and dark eyes. A lot of kids in the lot looked like that.
Lynn introduced me to Doris. She told me about her house and the two other girls who lived there. Each had a child; Doris was the oldest.
“We’ve all been fucked twice by old lovers,” Lynn told me. “Once to get the kid. Again to keep it.”
“You should’ve made Cummings marry you,” I said. “Or was he already married?”
Lynn said, “The bookstore shut down.”
“I’m working at a bank.” I’d flunked out of Temple, but I didn’t tell her that.
Over the course of the next two years, Lynn and I forged a casual friendship. Eventually, she met someone who loved her. He lived in Washington, D.C., a 90 minute train ride away. When she decided to leave Philadelphia and move in with him, she asked me to see her off at 30th Street Station.
Doris was five, but not fully weaned. She kept grabbing at Lynn, whining, “Mammies. Mammies.” In a soothing voice, I told Doris, “You’ll be fed later.”
“Go away,” Doris told me. “Go-go-go away.”
“Your boyfriend’s going to love this one,” I said to Lynn.
“He already does,” Lynn said.
We had more than an hour before boarding so we went to the Rexall Drugstore lunch counter. We gave Doris a cup of water, but she wanted Lynn’s tit, so we sat in a back booth and Lynn fed the five-year-old.
“What do you think?” Lynn asked when she had slipped her breast back under her shirt.
“I think she’s too big for that.”
“You still think she’s not yours?”
I shrugged. “You never insisted that she was,” I said.
“No. I never insisted.”
“You had that thing with your teacher. Cummings.”
Lynn frowned. “Didn’t you notice that he didn’t have a wife or girlfriend or anyone?”
“He had you students,” I said.
“He was only interested in the male variety.”
I studied Doris snuggled in Lynn’s arms. The child was small for age five. Mom had said I’d been small. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I’m telling you now,” Lynn said. She narrowed her eyes. “Now that you’ll never see us again and she’ll never be part of your life, I’m telling you the truth.”
“You could’ve told me years ago.”
“I tried. You ran away.” Lynn stood up. She had only her large bag with drinks and treats and an emergency diaper, and her five-year-old. “Walk for me, Doris,” Lynn said.
“I’m tired,” Doris whined. “I’m too-too-too tired!”
Lynn made her walk across the shiny marble floor of Thirtieth Street Station’s spacious lobby, to the stairway that said Track 17 in pale yellow light. Watching how Doris walked, studying the shape of her body, recalling the moodiness in her eyes and how her hair fell in tight curls about her ears, how Lynn wrestled with the cowlick at the front of Doris’ head, I realized, this child is mine.
I raced across the lobby and bounded down the steps to Track 17. Lynn stood on the platform. A light shone in the distance. The concrete vibrated under my feet.
“Don’t go,” I called to her. “Don’t go to D.C.”
“I never intended to,” Lynn said. “There’s no one in D.C.” She squeezed Doris to her chest.
I smiled, thinking Lynn was about to come into my outstretched arms. I smiled, wanting to hug Doris and claim her as my own. I ached to feel Lynn’s body melt into mine. It would be the summer of 1970 once more, but the only one with bare feet would be my little Doris.
These days, I sometimes go to Philadelphia to find Doris. She’d be about thirty-six. She’d have children of her own, my grandchildren. I look in the suburbs, too. Merion or Bryn Mawr or across the river in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I look for someone with dark hair, a slender build, and chocolate-brown eyes.
None of these women are my Doris, of course. In Manyunk, a small community along the Schuylkill River, north of downtown Philadelphia, someone called the police and they questioned me in the parking lot of an I-HOP where “Doris” and her two children were having dinner.
“It’s just a case of mistaken identity,” I said, and tried to be affable. “I haven’t seen my daughter in years.”
“So we ain’t gotta send you over to Eastern for a psych exam?” one of the cops asked. He was stout, with rippling jowls, the essence of police. His partner scrutinized my driver’s license and rental car papers. What should I do? Take out that old clipping? The one that makes me cry?
“Get in your car so we don’t have to take you in. And don’t go following that young lady no more.”
I walked to my car, settled myself behind the wheel. I took out my wallet and extracted the folded piece of old Daily News newsprint. The article which told of the death of a 26-year-old woman who lowered her child to the platform before jumping in front of a train pulling into Track 17 at Thirtieth Street Station.
A reporter found me that night while I stood on the platform, my forehead bleeding from where I’d hit it against a pillar. When the police finished questioning me, the reporter jumped in, listened intently as I told him what happened, and then waxed poetically at my expense to write his little article.
Which I keep in my wallet. I know the words by heart. They say nothing except the bare facts. A woman. A child. A fast-moving train. They say nothing of what I remember, as if my memory is somehow incorrect. In my mind, Lynn calls my name, her eyes dancing one last time, her chin wrinkling, her lips forming the words, “I love you.”