Copyright 2022 David Castlewitz
For the second time I asked, “Is that an entrée or an appetizer?” My wife, Doris, answered with an annoyed shake of her head. When I braked the car in the Willbern’s driveway, she opened her door and started to slide out. I considered jerking forward to make her stumble. Instead, I eased the gear shift into park. I didn’t hate my wife. I just didn’t love her anymore.
“Well?” I asked. “Appetizer? Entrée? Which?”
“It doesn’t matter, Jack.” She shut the door with her knee and stepped into a light drizzle that sent her scurrying up the cement walk to the front door, which suddenly opened. A tall, thin woman in a green party dress that showed off dancer’s legs greeted my wife with a hug.
“Janis,” my wife replied, and the two pecked one another on the cheek. Janis Willbern was my wife’s latest best friend. They’d met at a sewing class, another of Doris’ futile attempts to do something useful with her time.
Doris stepped into the house and I quickly stepped into the foyer. “Jack Hansen,” I said to Janis. “The husband half.”
“Of course,” Janis said. The overhead lighting revealed lines in her face. I knew her type: sixty-something housewife wishing she was still twenty-two; glossy red lips and accented eyes painted Cleopatra fashion. I wondered about her husband. Doris said he owned a Chevy dealership in the west suburbs. How prosperous could that be? The house was no mansion, but it was two stories with a large backyard, wooden deck, and a sunken back room jammed with party goers. A wet bar dominated one corner. A doorway on the left led to the kitchen.
A steady stream of people in party clothes oozed room to room. Seeing no one I knew, I figured I’d start drinking and make friends. Doris stood with a glass in her hand, chatting with the hostess. Doesn’t she realize Janis has to circulate? I thought.
I admired Janis’ dancer’s legs, her long waist, her silky hair falling past her shoulders in waves that gleamed. Dumpy Doris looked like a wet duck in a dress with lace and frills and billowing skirt.
I turned to the bartender. “Hired for the night? Or are you the host?”
“I’m the host,” the bartender said. A dark turtleneck hugged his neck. Sweat matted his short blonde hair. I watched his hands as he fixed me a Jack Daniels. Long fingers. Massive knuckles. “Andy Willbern,” he introduced himself.
I soon met four or five other men, but I didn’t remember anyone’s name. I met a couple of the wives. I smiled and nodded and pretended to care when the talk got around to sports. I wasn’t a lover of football and didn’t care how well the Bears did this season. Basketball held no glitter for me. Baseball was boring. Hockey was confusing. But, as a radio ad salesman I knew how to schmooze and pretend.
Doris came alongside me. “You and Janis have something in common,” she continued. “When did you live in Philadelphia?”
“That was a previous life,” I said. I quickly downed my first Jack Daniels. Now I needed another. I liked its lingering sting, the faint glow it produced. That’s why I drank. That was the attraction. Later, I’d get away with kissing the hostess or feeling someone’s boob or patting a butt or two. Drunk, they’d say. Poor Doris.
What I didn’t like was vomiting all over myself and having a headache the next day and feeling miserable for twenty-four hours. At age 66, I just could not drink anymore.
“Don’t do it,” Doris said. “Don’t get drunk.”
“What do I get if I don’t?” I countered. “Will you go down on me?”
“Drop dead, Jack.” Her light gray eyes watered; her lower lip trembled. I peered at her breasts. Her dress revealed the essence of her shape.
“You must meet my cousin Linda,” Janis said as she joined us. She put a hand on my shoulder and I felt her heat through my sports coat. I sniffed her sweet smelling breath and soon followed her, Pied Piper style, with Doris beside me, as we maneuvered our way into a small room where several guests engaged in quiet conversation.
The one who had to be Linda stood beside a gruff, heavyset man sitting in an armchair next to the fireplace. Another man had his elbow on the mantle, his fingers twitching as he animated a story. Both men looked to be in their seventies. Linda looked like she wasn’t more than 30. But that, I realized, was an illusion. She was close to my age, and it had been more than 40-some years since I last saw her in Philadelphia, on the night of Danny Kammel’s send off into the army.
“Gotta refresh my drink,” I said, and ducked away. Neither Linda nor I were ready for this. Because our meeting again would be a disaster.
“What the hell was that?” Doris asked when she caught up to me. “You embarrassed me.”
I stared down at my wife. For a small woman she had a way of gaining stature when she was angry. She’d been beautiful and delicate years ago. Even after two children she’d retained a degree of enchantment that endeared her to school teachers, our two daughters’ friends and their parents, and everyone else with whom we had contact. When had that enchantress become a witch? When our kids grew up and left home? When our youngest, Patty, was killed in a highway mishap? When our eldest turned to drugs and disappeared from our lives? When my business failed during the Dot-Com crash ten years ago and I took a job for a third of what I’d been making?
No simple questions. There was only reality and the Now of our life together.
“Sorry,” I muttered in Doris’ direction. I ventured back to that sitting room, leaving Doris to be swallowed by the crowd.
Looking about, I tried to spy out Linda. Her last name was Kammel. Linda Kammel. I remembered because I had called her a camel and asked if she liked to be humped. Forty some years after the fact, my question lingered in memory.
“You’re gross,” she’d replied to that comment, and pulled her long blonde hair away from her face and then braided the tresses so that they hung to her narrow waist like an animal’s golden tail. A female was a magnet to me and my housemates. And the way Linda sat in her short sundress, her bare legs tucked under her, I knew she liked the attention.
I introduced myself.
“I’m Danny’s cousin,” Linda said.
“I gathered that. From the name. Kammel.” I sat beside her on the sofa. I offered her a sip of my morning drink: vodka and grapefruit juice. She declined. “Staying for the party?” I asked.
“Wasn’t that last night?”
“We’ve got one every night.”
“No wonder Danny flunked out and lost his deferment.”
“What’s one got to do with the other?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. Danny Kammel came into the room. He looked pale. Hung over or just scared? He and his cousin embraced.
“He behavin’?” Danny pointed at me.
“Like a lamb,” I replied. I offered him my glass. He took it and drank half.
“Do you guys drink all day and all night?” Linda asked. She stood, her hands on her hips. Rounded hips proved she wasn’t some skinny, underfed hippie. Her full lips glistened and her bright eyes seemed to be sometimes green and sometimes gray, depending on how the light struck her. She didn’t look at all like Danny, who was short and stocky, with a wrestler’s body.
“Doesn’t anyone have class today?” Linda asked, looking from Danny to me to the bodies on the floor. A lot of last night’s visitors had crashed in the house. Three girls lay curled together in a corner, as though gathered for mutual protection. “It’s Thursday, guys,” Linda said. “School day?”
“Actually,” I said, “today’s Friday.”
Linda glared at me. Suddenly, a smile crossed her face, and she laughed. “You’re right! Still, doesn’t anyone have to get to class?”
Nobody answered. This was our week to see Danny off to the army. He’d been drafted when his student deferment expired and, for all we knew, he’d be in Vietnam three months from now. Who cared about classes? Who cared about anything except drinking and getting high and making sure Danny had a good time before they killed him?
I looked around the main party room and didn’t see Linda. I wondered what became of her cousin, Danny. I struggled to remember something more about my one-time college housemate. We’d met at Temple University in Philadelphia sometime during our senior year when he was looking for a place to live. I and eight other guys had a three-story house not far from school. There was always room for one more if they contributed to the rent.
I caught up to Doris. “Does Janis have a brother?” I asked.
She gave me an angry look because I had pulled her away from a conversation. I doubted she could add to whatever they were talking about. Doris didn’t know anything about the working world, little of art, and her taste in movies was insipid. She’d make a fool of herself in any intelligent exchange of ideas.
“Does she?” I demanded.
Doris sniffed my breath. “Up to four already?”
“Just answer my question.”
“I don’t know. Ask her yourself.” Doris walked away and I missed grabbing her arm to stop her. I stumbled because we were standing on a step, and bumped into a short, heavyset woman, mumbled an “excuse me” and rushed to the bar.
Safely ensconced on a stool in the corner, sipping another Jack Daniels, I watched for Linda or Janis. The former I wanted to avoid. The latter I needed to question. As I sat with my back against the paneled wall, with the music buzzing in my ears, the ambient conversation a melody of incoherence, I smiled as I recalled that night we took Danny out for the last time and then delivered him the next morning to the induction center at Broad and Cherry Streets, which was just a dozen blocks from school.
“If I kiss you guys goodbye,” he said, “maybe they’ll think I’m queer and not want me.”
We all laughed. There were four of us, plus Danny. It was early Saturday morning. We hugged tightly, standing across the street from where the buses lined up to take this batch of draftees to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Uniformed soldiers stood guard at the entrance to the induction center.
And then Danny dashed across the street. There was very little traffic, so he didn’t have to dodge the cars and buses that usually clogged Broad Street. He rushed away from us and disappeared into that crowd and that was the last we saw of him. Slowly, the four of us, the still standing survivors of Danny’s Last Night, wandered back to our college lives, safe with our student deferments, confident that the war would be over before the draft found us.
Linda wasn’t with us. She’d collapsed back at the house. No one expected her to be there when we returned, and she wasn’t. In the room where we’d put her, there were bloody sheets on the bed and there was vomit on a pillow.
When I saw Linda poke her head in from the Willbern kitchen, I tried to watch where she went without catching her eye. I didn’t want her to recognize me. Would she? Maybe not. I’d aged in the many years since that night. I’d grown thick around the middle. I had lines in my brow. My cheeks were puffy. My ears were even a little bigger. I kept my hair neatly trimmed. I wasn’t the scruffy, long haired, freaky looking guy I’d been back then.
I got her started on pot that night. I teased her into taking that first hit. I offered her a glass of Ripple wine. Bright red, somewhat fruity in taste, Ripple was our drink of choice when we wanted to get drunk on the cheap. It didn’t take much. Of course, once the drunk wore off, the only thing you could do with Ripple was throw up.
The wine and the pot had the right effect and Linda danced so that her sundress swirled up around her bare thighs. When we went outside, we maneuvered her over a grate in the sidewalk so the wind from a subway train took hold of her skirt and sent it high up over her head. Laughing, she let her dress fly about her face, giving us and everyone else on Broad Street a look at her buttocks-hugging panties.
I took her in my arms and hugged her. I kissed her and other guys kissed and hugged her as we wandered north on Broad Street in a knot of laughing fools. Even Danny kissed her like he loved her.
We decided to take the subway further north. There was an arts cinema near the end of the line, past Olney Avenue. The movie was “The Night of the Butcher’s Daughter.” It was Swedish. With a lot of nudity. Acting sober and responsible, we paid our way inside and settled in the back row. Someone had secured a bottle of Ripple in a saddle bag, so we had something to drink. Linda sat beside me and I draped my arm across the back of her shoulders and put my hand on her breast.
“You botherin’ my cousin?” Danny asked me. He sat on her other side.
“He’s not bothering me,” Linda cooed, and press her hand against mine.
On screen, the butcher’s daughter ran naked through a forest, pursued by a pack of dogs, which slowly morphed into men. They tackled her. They wrestled on the ground. I felt Linda shiver and I tasted the soft fabric of her dress as I took her nipple between my teeth.
“Maybe you knew my brother,” Janis offered.
“Danny Kammel?” I asked. We were standing in the kitchen together. Janis held a mug of coffee close to her lips. Thunder sounded outside. Lightening flashed. The rain hit hard.
“What a coincidence!”
“How is Danny these days?” I asked, hoping he was still alive. He’d never written to us, never returned to the house on Broad Street.
“He’s a movie producer,” Janis said. “He lives in Los Angeles, in Westwood. On his third wife.” She laughed. “Imagine. You knew each other. I’ll have to email him.”
“Tell him “Hi” for me,” I mumbled.
“Which means you must’ve known my cousin Linda,” Janis continued
“We’ve got to find her. This is really all too fantastic.” Janis rushed off. I didn’t follow. I wouldn’t let her tow me from room to room in search of her wayward cousin. I opened the door to the back yard. Rain pelted my face. I shut the door. How could I escape?
There was only one way out, and I took it before Janis returned with Linda. I dived into the swarming sea of party goers in the sunken room and pretended to be part of a conversation about a new Bill Murray movie. It didn’t take much to nod and smile and act interested, though my mind dwelt on that last night with Danny and the way Linda went wild when we left the movie theatre.
“I’m the Butcher’s Daughter,” she kept saying. We tried to silence her. It was after midnight. The residential street we were on was too quiet for this kind of behavior.
“If you’re the butcher’s daughter,” I said, “then you know what you’re going to get.” I put my arm around her waist. She laughed like a gleeful child.
I kissed her. We all kissed her. We kissed her hard and her lips started to bleed and wiped away the blood with her hand.
When we got back to the house, we stormed the kitchen for snacks – popcorn, pretzels, nuts, anything. We lit several joints, opened several bottles of Ripple, and passed both around, along with Linda. And soon took her into one of the bedrooms on the second floor.
When we stripped off her dress, she balled herself into a fetal position, eyes shut. It wasn’t me, but someone else, who ripped her panties away. And it wasn’t me, but someone else, who mounted her first. It wasn’t me, but someone, who took her virginity and got blood on the sheet.
A cheer ran through the house. A line formed at the door to the room and Linda lay on her back, her long golden hair billowed out around her head, and she trembled as one by one we took our turn with her.
“This is the night we poke the butcher’s daughter,” someone said, and we laughed, while Linda cried and we stood around the bed and watched her. We watched her feeble attempts at pushing our buddies away. We watched her vomit into the pillow. Even Danny watched, drinking with us, cheering when we cheered.
Much later, when we had returned from the induction center, and after someone had gotten rid of the stained sheet and the ruined pillow, while we sat around in the living room, some of us with coffee and others with fruit juice, some of us spiking our drinks, smoking tobacco now, saving our pot for the night, someone said, “You think she’s okay?”
No one answered the question.
Now, in the Willbern home, I watched Linda make her way towards me. My back was to the wall. There was no escape. Janis was with her. So was her husband, Andy. Doris, too. They were coming for me and I couldn’t run.
“I don’t believe it,” Linda said, her eyes glowing. “You don’t remember me?”
Doris stood beside me. I reached for her hand. I touched her fingers. “Linda Kammel,” I said.
“If you ask if I want to be humped, I’ll throw this drink in your face.”
“You remember that?” I said, feebly.
She nodded, pursed her lips and said, “I remember.”
“It was a long time ago,” I said.
“Another life,” she said. She turned to Janis and Andy and said, “I ran into Jack the night we got Danny drunk before he went into the army.”
Janis and Andy nodded.
“Quite a night, huh?” I said. Linda turned back to me. Her eyes bore into mine. I didn’t see sadness. I didn’t see fear or anger. She looked empty.
“Quite,” she agreed, “though you got me so drunk I don’t remember much after we saw that movie. What was it called?”
I swallowed. I shrugged. I squirmed.
“The ‘Night we Poked the Butcher’s Daughter’?” Linda asked.
“Something like that,” I said, remembering what one of my housemates had shouted in drunken revelry. “So, what have you been doing? Oh! Wait. Did you meet my wife, Doris?”
The two introduced themselves to one another. Doris offered Linda her hand. They shook gently, as women do. Then, for the first time in a long time, Doris returned her hand to mine and we stood together, side-by-side, hand-in-hand, while Janis and Andy excused themselves.
Linda said, “What have I been doing?” Her voice had a musical quality and I started to relax. “About 40 years worth of things,” she said. “Married, divorced, children, career. You know.”
I nodded. I squeezed Doris’ hand. I didn’t look down at her at that moment. But I looked at Doris later, when we said our goodbyes to Janis and Andy. I watched Linda and her date as they left ahead of us. I saw them in the street, arm-in-arm, strolling to a Lexus sedan.
“How well did you know that woman?” Doris asked.
“Not well. She was someone’s cousin.”
“At least you were sociable,” she said.
I noticed that our car was the only one in the Willbern’s driveway and I wondered if we’d violated some kind of taboo by parking there. As I pulled out and started for home, Doris put her hand on my leg and squeezed.
“Thanks,” she said. “For not embarrassing me.”
I wanted to say, “Does this mean I get some kind of reward?” Instead, I nodded and patted her hand and drove slowly through the rain-wet streets to our little house not far from the Willbern’s.
“What was the name of that movie?” Linda had asked. When she answered her own question, I realized she remembered more about that night than she’d admitted. She remembered everything, as I did, but she’d come to terms with her youth and the things you look back on. She’d come to terms with the present as well, I assumed. As should I, I thought. As should I.