Lake FrontThe girl whose name we didn’t know lay face-up, completely exposed. When our fraternity brother stood, struggling up his black jeans, she looked discarded. The lake water, stirred by the wakes of passing boats, softly panted against the bank that promised to surrender more of its recently mown weeds to erosion. Without speaking, one of us from a group of six who had been watching from about seventy-five feet away approached her body in a brisk, decisive way.
The PivotDuring fall semester, the first of the two-volume American Literature anthology had spanned from the Puritans to Whitman. More than 200 years, yet Anne Bradstreet had been the text’s only woman. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I was expected by eight a.m., not later, no exceptions. Twenty-four others besides me were pleased, at first, that six absences needed no excuse, an attendance policy that seemed so benign and slack that all those September Puritan sermons and poems sparked no guilt when I rose at eleven to shower and began the day with lunch.
By late October, eighteen eight-o’clocks remaining, Curtis Beardsley and I had both reached that limit where the next cut meant automatic failure, no appeal, even admittance to the room refused. That dark-suited, white-haired professor sported forty years of seniority, dating his tenure to the roaring 20s, old enough to be born in the nineteenth century where everyone left to read by mid-December had died.
One Monday, a week of Emerson about to begin, Beardsley’s desk sat empty beside mine. A girl I didn’t know started to explain that Beardsley was hospitalized, a Saturday night car-crash victim, citing the number of the hospital room as evidence, listing concussion, broken bones, and stitches. The professor, with a flourish, drew a line across his school-logoed roll book.
“Inform Mr. Beardsley he need not return,” the professor said, turning to Transcendentalism and the importance of the self. In a week, Thoreau would enter his cabin and settle in, cutting his private class in isolation from time to time without penalty. Meanwhile, self-discipline was the essay I began to write, using inductive reasoning three mornings each week, through November, bleak and worse to come after Thanksgiving, those final six in snow, the deep, lake-effect kind that accumulate only a few miles north of spotless sidewalks.
Lake FrontJust before that waterfront scene confirmed how readily I could stand and watch evil accelerate, our friend waved away the boy who approached. He folded his beach blanket over the naked girl, thoughtful, perhaps, or regretting something, or losing interest, noticing her flaws, preferring her wrapped in white with our fraternity crest in maroon. Though it made no difference, I was relieved. Good, I thought of saying, but didn’t. Though that made no difference as well.
BridgingWe weren’t far from home. A few miles. A bridge. Homewood, like any part of Pittsburgh my friend Jack and I imagined, was close enough for his father’s Peugeot. We knew enough French to understand both halves of the owner’s manual. When we parked close to the marquee, I said, “Dans rue grise des ruines,” expecting broken, empty seats, a janitor hobbling the aisle with an early broom and bag while Vincent Price let loose his laugh during any of the three movies we planned to see for exactly ninety-nine cents in the early days of nineteen sixty-five.
The truth? That theater was packed when we entered in the dark while the sharp-bladed pendulum swung. We whispered in English and slipped into the first vacant seats to the right. Ninety minutes later, the House of Usher tumbled. We loved every cheesy minute of Poe, especially Monsieur Valdemar melting, at last, into phantasmagoric gore, but when the lights went up, we saw ourselves as white as our hazy idea of Grace. The aisle clotted, black and loud, all the dead or rescued white actors already hammered dark by the projectionist’s thumb.
In that aisle, we didn’t have names, but we worked the crowd’s rhythm so perfectly into our shoes we bumped nobody in that swirl, impeding none of the two hundred black patrons who never saw us, we believed, walking speechless into the cataract gray of midnight, snow surviving among the tracks all of us made toward three cars and the doors of a hundred houses spreading into the January darkness.
Lake FrontNot one of us touched that girl who none of us had ever seen before, excused from our spoken-aloud commitment by our friend’s second thoughts. All of us, however, must have known who we’d shown ourselves to be, each of us taking a number like we were standing in line at a deli counter, no one mouthing even the minimum of stop. And the fraternity brother who had shouted “One”? while I had hesitated, stalled, and acquiesced to saying “Six”? What did his walk toward that girl reveal that made me feel better about myself? Such daydreaming could only be called deflection, something cheap but briefly reassuring.
Selective HonestyA week after returning to campus in late January, I wrote a letter to a girl from home, delirious with excitement from our one night in bed. I tore its two pages out of a spiral notebook and rushed them to the first envelope I could borrow.
Two weeks later, her letter lay centerfold on my unmade bed. I had followed her abstractions about distance and transience and translated them from excuses to goodbye. I turned that one page of stationery over to where small photographs ran down the front side and a solemn question was printed in a tiny font–“Of the eight great thinkers of the world, which is your favorite?”
I recognized Shakespeare and Shaw, Einstein and Jefferson. The other four of this exclusive club were all men as well. I wasn’t thinking at all, but I picked the most modern-dressed of those strangers and wondered whose mind I was fond of, what that great thinker had been pondering, by the look of his hair and suit, early in the 20th century. For more than a year, my grades had told me I wasn’t a candidate for that column even if it extended for miles. That girl had signed off from a college in Michigan, saying she was going abroad as soon as the semester ended, that she wouldn’t be going back to Pittsburgh except to pack.
Emily Dickinson was poet-for-a day, the second semester’s single woman. Curtis Beardsley vanished into an ice-breaker with a girl I talked to after world history, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, three p.m., both of us with perfect attendance for three weeks as a way of preserving our three allotted cuts until the weather improved. She laughed that third Friday when I told her how I’d survived eighteen early morning roll calls for a C-.
She patted my wrist and walked into her dorm eight hours and ten minutes before she died in a car crash of her own, forty hours and fifteen minutes before I rose in the near-dark, walking alone and arriving before that literature professor who, precisely at eight a.m., according to his watch, closed and locked the door before, pen poised, he called my name.
Lake FrontThe fraternity brother who had called “One” retraced his steps, but most of our group had already begun to scatter farther from where that girl now stood. As she walked toward our friend’s car, she carried her clothes in one hand and clutched that crest with the other like a survivor of shipwreck or a late-night, winter house-fire. Once inside the car, she dressed herself while our friend, his back toward the passenger-side window, waited. Two days passed before any of us heard the news that the girl had called her parents, packed, and left college that night, providing no reason for her withdrawal so late in the semester
The AttackWeek by week, facts replaced rumors about the fatal one-car crash only a hundred yards from campus on a street where the speed limit was thirty miles per hour. The girl I talked to after class had been sitting close beside the driver, the car not even equipped with seat belts. The cause was excessive speed and alcohol. It happens every weekend, classmates said, meaning the drunk driving at nearly twice the speed limit, not the fatal crash. The driver belonged to another fraternity. No one I knew did anything but condemn him. Unforgivable, we agreed.
Lake FrontBecause that undeveloped lake front seemed private, exclusive for us, I spent several more afternoons there before the semester ended. Always, we were there as a group, sometimes as many as a few dozen when fraternity brothers brought their girlfriends. Not once did a couple have sex, not even inside a parked car. The couples barely touched each other, even the seniors who seemed intent on marriage.
The Pass June meant a summer job in the Heinz factory. I rode the bus unless the timing of the shift meant I could borrow the family car. In July, on one of those rare days, an older co-worker said he’d buy me a beer in one of the factory bars across the street. He paid for three, and once outside, by now late twilight, he said he wanted to make me happy in a way I would always remember. The street was as empty as how he heard “No, thanks,” the polite refusal I made. What he did next was offer money, twenty dollars, to purchase my acquiescence with what amounted to a day’s take-home pay during the thirteen weeks I had to earn my share of college tuition. We used, at last, my father’s car and darkness for privacy in a parking lot so close to the Allegheny River he could have killed me and dragged my body to dump there if he had been somebody other than a man driven by desire, someone who made me an object he ached to absorb.
Driving home, I turned off the radio to listen closely to what I was thinking. That I was a whore now, not the idea of one who was relying upon using the try-anything-once excuse. In half an hour, my father would be sitting where I had accepted pleasure in a way he believed was a hell-bound sin, and now I had one more secret that could cast me from his house into exile.
“See,” that stranger had murmured, “nothing there,” but I hadn’t looked. I drove and sat down with my father who was eating a sandwich and drinking coffee, preparing himself for his stand-alone night shift. I described my warehouse work, the pattern used for the art of securely stacking dozens of identical boxes, learning that secrecy was as commonplace as the stale, sweet roll he softened in his second cup of coffee. “So it doesn’t go to waste,” he said, sharing that simple satisfaction as a way of acknowledging he was pleased to hear I was capable of accepting the need to work. Without saying another word, he ran warm water over his plate and dark-stained cup, leaving them to dry, reusable as excuses.
Lake Front For two more years, I lived with every fraternity brother who was in that group of six, and no one ever spoke about that Saturday afternoon. I reminded myself I’d stalled my complicity by choosing to become last to board that train, hating myself for that lie, realizing it was determined by fear rather than some small, low-level decency.
The Spin“Get lost somewhere,” the supervisor said, and I didn’t question because my summer at Heinz was nearly over, that late August week and one more before I would return to the college where I was addicted to being lost. I followed the public path where tourists, some afternoons, huddled at predetermined locations while college girls whose fathers held white collar jobs explained what was happening in sterilizing and packaging before escorting them to a shop that featured plastic pickles, cartoon ketchup bottles, and hard-cover pictorial histories of Heinz that praised the company’s baked beans, spaghetti, and a long list of condensed, canned soups. The locker room, when I reached it, was deserted, a shift change hours away. I found a newspaper and sat against a wall to read about the Pirates and the racial unrest that had blossomed again in cities, Newark lately, Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore.
That unrest had reached Pittsburgh, too. There were businesses near the Belmar that had fallen to the fire of riots. Reading those reports, it seemed likely that someone who had been in that Belmar crowd might kill or be killed for honor, pride, or insanity before summer ended. Though neither my friend Jack nor I would know anything but the filmed version, the two of us already past the end of our casual visits to neighborhoods we didn’t understand. For now, we were merely self-declared experts on Poe who had compared, scornful, once we had driven four blocks from the Belmar’s shabby screen, what we’d read to what we’d seen.
I left that newspaper on the floor when I finally stood to check the clock on the wall behind me. I felt like a thief earning two dollars and fifty cents for what would soon be an hour of lost, a job whose one demand was hiding shame. I might as well have been cutting one more calculus class in order to avoid the simple task of humiliation, watching my roommate dress and leave before I rose to get lost where nothing was done but following the progress of shadows. For a small pleasure, I tried to time my travel back to research so it would be exactly one hour I’d been lost. Though the time, like calculus, didn’t care what I did, advancing while I wasn’t thankful for the privilege of union wage, even those minutes, walking slowly, to return.
Gaslight Even now, fifty-five years later, I work at excuses for all of us accepting what would have been rape. Apology, if possible, would be an obscenity. Regret is insufficient. Or how convenient and cheap this self-serving is, since I’m controlling point of view, since I know that the fraternity brother who called “one” that afternoon has been dead for years, that, besides my own agreement to “six,” I don’t remember the order the others claimed or how quickly they counted off.
Such failure of the spirit is a diagnosis that can be made without exploratory surgery. Upon reflection, self-hatred is as faceless as an anonymous donor who offers a small, insignificant gift. Confession can be as shameful as the act, a construction built on the foundation of deflection. A lie.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleiades Press, 2018). A new collection “The Mayan Syndrome” will be published by Madhat in 2023. Its lead essay, “After the Three-Moon Era,” was reprinted in Best American Essays 2020.