The whole thing mystified me at age fifteen. Knocking on eighty’s door, I’m a lot less mystified. I’m less troubled too, though I must allow that the event still leaves me strangely uneasy.
I’d been walking back from the school ball field. We couldn’t get enough boys together for an actual game, so we just played catch, shagged flies, and so on. Mostly, we told our exaggerated stories to one another, even though no one believed anyone else’s. That’s why for years I never shared this anecdote with a soul apart from one friend in my class. Too many would have thought I was fibbing. I’m not.
When I got within a quarter-mile or so of home, I heard a radio playing music that was far more than just loud. Don’t think badly of me. Who wouldn’t have wanted to see what that strange din was all about?
The racket came from the Ds’ house, a very familiar one to me. I crossed the front lawn when I didn’t see Mr. D’s car in the drive. He was a bit daunting with his Navy tattoos –anchors and mermaids– on both big arms and his drinking like… well, like a sailor. He could get pretty grumpy after he’d had a few. I’d never dare to drop in there unless the Ds’ daughter Dolly was home, and even then I got pretty nervous until I could be sure he had his mood more or less under control.
You could have called Dolly my girlfriend, I suppose, so I knew she was away at a camp in Maine. She’d been going there summers for years. I sometimes wondered why she hadn’t gotten tired of the place. In any case, Dolly was an only child; if she was gone, then Mrs. D must be alone.
Her daughter called Mrs. D. a bottle-blonde. She sneered a little when she said that, but I always figured she felt bitter, knowing she’d never be so beautiful. Oh, Dolly was nice-looking, all right. Just not in her mother’s league.
Now understand, I’ve never been some creepy voyeur, not even as an adolescent, when hormones were raging enough to make me half-crazy at times. Maybe I can’t claim I was completely guiltless that afternoon, but it wouldn’t be quite right to blame me, either.
The Ds’ house was close to mine, and as I say, I knew it well. My parents disapproved of television, and we didn’t have one at home. In fact, the Ds’ TV may actually have been my main reason for hanging out with Dolly. You don’t have to tell me it sounds terrible. Looking back, I can beat myself up about that without any help. That, and plenty of other things.
I remember dark winter afternoons after school, when we two would go down to the basement and tune in “Queen for a Day,” which we liked to poke fun at. There’d be some poor old lady weeping with joy over the washing machine or the oven or the medical help she was going to get just for being the most miserable person in the studio, as determined by the audience’s response to her pathetic story. The sadder her situation, the louder the applause. Was that really a win? We didn’t think about such a matter.
Dolly and I also engaged, when we dared, in some teenage groping. Nothing too heavy-duty, though.
One day as we watched our program, just holding hands, she and I felt as though we were being watched. It turned out to be only Bobo, a short-legged neighborhood mongrel, mixed Dalmatian and basset. He was out there in the fog, looking through the window as if he were also enjoying what he saw. From then on, we noticed that he seemed to show up whenever we had the set tuned in.
“He must look at TV Guide,” Dolly joked after we’d caught him three or four times.
But I’ve strayed from my account, which back then I never dreamed I’d consider sad too.
The ear-splitting music was something corny, all trembly strings. When I looked through the cellar window and into what I thought of as the TV room, I saw Dolly’s mom holding her mop handle like a microphone. She was obviously singing, although I couldn’t hear her at all over the blaring radio. Her eyes were half-closed, and all she had on was her underwear, frilly and black, the kind I’d seen once or twice in my older cousin Drayton’s Playboys.
I really wanted to run, but before I could, Mrs. D opened her eyes and locked them on mine. I froze. I had nowhere to go. I was just there. To my astonishment, she smiled a bit woozily and waved me around to her back door. I don’t know why I felt I had to obey, even though all I wanted to do was escape.
After she opened up, Mrs. D reeled back to that basement room. I dutifully followed, trying not to watch her body jiggle. Suddenly, she pivoted and hugged me, all in one motion. I froze again, almost fainting with shyness, and turned my head away from her, no matter that, like every boy I knew, I’d always said that I’d give my right arm for a moment pretty much like this one. She was pretty as a model or a movie actress.
I just couldn’t lay eyes on her. Don’t ask me why.
She didn’t embrace me for long at all. Letting out a big sigh, or a huff rather, she grabbed a robe from a chair, put it on, and led me– or pushed me– back to where I’d come in.
She seemed angry, but what had I done?
Next day, swearing him to secrecy, I told my classmate Patrick about what had happened, though I didn’t really go into detail. Once he saw I wasn’t lying, Pat said I had to repent, which was not a word I was used to hearing. Pat’s dad worked for the Knights of Columbus, though I’m not sure what his job was. I couldn’t see how I’d go about repenting, or even quite why, and my friend didn’t pursue the matter.
Truth is, I believe Pat was plain jealous. He kept pressing me for more than I wanted to give. I told him that she wore those lacey underthings and that she hugged me, but only for an instant. Everything else I left vague. Of course, there wasn’t much else, come to think of it.
Patrick never learned how in that briefest of moments, I could feel her heart and mine beating together. I remember the sensation quite well, maybe better than anything else from that afternoon.
Once Mrs. D. had ushered me out, I looked through that little window again. She was obviously crying. She’d turned off her radio and stood the mop in its sudsy bucket. Still wearing that rather ragged robe, she stood in the middle of the room herself, not even moving, except for her hands, which she kept clenching and unclenching.
Strange: I suddenly felt like I could care more about Dolly now than I ever had before. I couldn’t imagine how I’d face her, though, when she got back from her camp, let alone how I’d face her mom. I’d have to write Dolly a letter if I could find an address up there. I’d just say we were through, and leave it at that, because there didn’t seem any way to tell her why. I only knew I couldn’t go down to that basement again. The whole business made me pretty unhappy.
I knew this meant no more TV, either. That was a long way from what troubled me most, though– not that I could precisely identify what the real trouble was.
Mrs. D seemed awfully young when she died, at least much younger than my own mom, who, when I asked her about it, simply told me, with a puzzling look on her face, They say she liked her wine.