Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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We were in the locker room after practice, shedding our uniforms, each of us with three ridges of sweaty hair on his head from the helmet padding, when Chuck Davis, our starting fullback, slammed a locker door and said, “Three days and only twenty times? Christ, with her I’d’ve done it two hundred times!”
Rough laughter filled the air, and Chuck went into a hulking pantomime of the act, shouting, “Whomp, whomp! Like that, man! Whomp!”
Kurt “the Kraut” Webber looked thoughtfully at him and, after the laughter had died out, said, “She has been a victim of a cruel act.”
“Aw, up yours, Gestapo,” Chuck said. “You gimp-assed Nazi — you’d’ve done it, too, if you knew nobody’d catch you.”
Kurt laughed, his face reddening. “I am surprised at your . . . how you say, missing of sensitivity?”
“Sensitivity my ass!” Chuck yelled. “Whaddaya talkin’ about, sensitivity? That’s for girls and fags.” Then, looking at me, he added, “And artists.”
“Hey, watch yourself, stud,” I said. But the insult didn’t bother me. Chuck insulted everyone equally. Because of his size, he could get away with it.
“Dave is a good artist,” Kurt said. “His drawings —”
“Art is for girls and fags,” Chuck said, and walked, in arrogant nakedness, toward the showers.
The subject of our discussion was Heidi Daniels, a tall, well-endowed blonde who seemed destined for the covers of magazines. Although a cheerleader, Heidi was quiet and studious and shyly good-natured. But she had something else that distinguished her from the rest — an aura of pure and lofty inviolability. She was nobody’s girl, a being of a higher order. Those of us who were the sons of farmers and laborers in that small New York State town knew better than to cultivate any dreams of getting close to her. She did go on dates, but only with well-mannered scholars and shy science-and-math types. We crude football players contented ourselves with our thin or stout or otherwise flawed girlfriends, and went on with our collective campaign to complete our sexual education, reporting small victories — “bare tit” or “sticky fingers” — in the locker room after practice.
This peculiar social balance had been overturned that September when Heidi Daniels had disappeared. After nearly three days, she was reunited with her exhausted parents, and a town that had buzzed with speculation: Runaway? Kidnapping? Murder? The story came out in bits and pieces, mostly through gossip, while she remained absent from school: She’d been abducted by a man she described as “dark, maybe a foreigner,” and held at an abandoned farmhouse in a remote section of woods, fairly close to where I lived. She had been raped by this dark stranger. Word was that it could have been as many as twenty times. He had not spoken to her. She’d been kept tied and blindfolded and hungry, and could describe only his grunts and coughs, the sound of his heavy shoes on the old floor, the smell of stale tobacco on his breath, and the sandpapery feel of his unshaven face. When asked what the man had done, Heidi Daniels said, “Everything, I guess. Everything.”
She did not elaborate, so it remained to the individual imagination what the man, who came to be called “the Dark Creep,” had done those twenty times. The vagueness somehow made it even more terrible. Boys with sisters or girlfriends vowed mutilating vengeance should the man ever be found. For a long time the entire town remained angry and frightened, and all strangers were suspects. At school, the girls reacted with disgust, fear, curiosity, and awe. But the darkest reaction surfaced in people like Chuck Davis, who, that afternoon in the locker room — now in his street clothes and running a comb through his hair — said, “Life is unfair; that creep breezes into town and wham! he gets the best.” He wheeled around. “My God, can you imagine it? Can you see yourself doin’ it?”
At least part of what he said was true — this invasion of our priceless turf made us feel a strange resentment. The Dark Creep had violated our property rights. One of us, we were sure, would end up with Heidi Daniels, and the Creep had taken the best part of her.
Only Kurt Webber seemed to find Chuck’s attitude obviously wrong. He would stare off into the middle distance with an almost comically philosophical look. Kurt was new to our town, having come straight from Germany, land of swastikas and gas chambers and lampshades made of human skin. It had been only fifteen years since the war, and the exotic horror of it was strong in our minds. So he was called the Kraut, although he wasn’t singled out to receive a nickname. Most of us had one. My father was well-known for drinking too much at the bar of the local hotel, and my name is David Turner, so I became “DTs.” There were also George “Toot, Toot” Bugel, an acne-scarred kid named “Goober” Sloman, and so on. But since I had proven myself on the football field, my nickname was no longer used — its source, I hoped, mercifully forgotten.
Whenever our discussions came around to Heidi Daniels’s violation, Chuck would take over, and Kurt would blush and shake his head. But now he attempted to reason with Chuck:
“You keep talking about this in . . . was ist das? Terms which show no feeling for —”
“I go to sleep at night wishin’ I was that goddamn creep,” Chuck said. “That’s the only terms I like. Shit, I’d wait half my life to churn her butter.”
“What is ‘churn her butter’?”
“Oh, Jesus,” Chuck groaned. “Plow. You know, ream.”
Kurt looked at me with an expression of confusion and doubt. I was his only friend, and had become his advisor on the mysteries of American life. I had been the one to persuade him to go out for football. One day, he’d just been turning the football over in his hands and looking off toward the goal posts. “At first I thought it was our football,” he said. “Fusball, as we say, round. This has a very curious shape.” He looked again at the goal posts. “Here, hold it on its point, like you do.”
“We’re too far,” I said as he backed up and off to the side. “You hit my hand and I’ll . . .” I didn’t continue. I couldn’t bring myself to threaten this confused foreigner.
Kurt trotted up and kicked the ball with the inside of his foot. The ball spun unevenly for half the distance and then settled magically into a perfect reverse pinwheel. Thirty-five yards, at least. I went to tell the coach. So Kurt became our kicker, and would be responsible for our only victory that year.
Heidi Daniels still hadn’t returned to school, and curiosity about her grew. The football players’ speculations displayed the predictable crudeness of the male imagination. George Bugel said girls could flip-flop from rigid purity to outrageous whoredom because of an experience like Heidi’s. Another player was convinced that Heidi had now entered a world of dirty and exotic pleasure-seeking and would become eager jelly in the hands of the first guy who got her into the back seat of a car.
And then Chuck Davis said, “You gotta compete with the Dark Creep. And look at the time he had, the lucky bastard!” Chuck cast his grass-stained helmet away in angry disgust, and it bounced with surprising resilience off a locker. In the silence that followed, we thought about the possibility of a sudden morality reversal in Heidi, the highest genetic achievement in female form we had ever seen, a goddess we could hardly imagine touching. It was a matter of extreme opposites — the degree to which she had seemed perfect was equal to the degree to which she had been “touched.”
On the day of her return, Heidi’s father drove her to school with some of her friends along for support. He opened the door for her with an air of chivalry, and she came up the long walk flanked by her friends. To everyone’s surprise, she looked exactly the same, right down to the clothes she wore — a sweater and a skirt with numerous petticoats, like a huge carnation with legs sticking out. It was as if the experience had made almost no impression on her.
This inspired sexual anarchy among the boys in my crowd. The logic seemed clear to them: if everything had been done to Heidi and she showed no change — in fact, bore herself in an even more lofty manner — then surely our girlfriends could withstand some lesser violation, a more familiar kind of rape. At the time I had no girlfriend, and therefore no chance to test this logic, but among the rest the spirit spread. George Dickson, for one, came within inches of doing it with his girlfriend by force, and she broke up with him.
One night at a sock hop, the lights failed for two minutes, and in the darkness one of the more stacked girls was pinned against a wall and thoroughly felt up. The culprit had to have been Chuck Davis, but no one was ever accused. She said only that he’d had onions on his breath, and had ruined the front of a good angora sweater by tangling the wool.
Chuck pulled an even lousier prank on Heidi in social studies, about three weeks after her return to school. The teacher was a myopic woman with a high, piercing voice and a tendency to either fail to see or to permit all sorts of misbehavior. I sat next to Kurt in the back. As Heidi entered, I saw Chuck snickering with one of his buddies, who reached over and placed something on Heidi’s seat.
When she sat down, a strange expression came over her face. She rose, and I saw a red stain on the back of her skirt. She looked down at her seat, turned pale, and walked quickly out of the room.
Curious, I stood up and peeked over the chair back. A girl in the next row looked at me with murderous contempt and said, “You lousy bastard.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Like hell you didn’t.”
On Heidi’s seat was a crushed maraschino cherry. Other boys got up and saw it, too, and went back to their seats covering their mouths to keep the laughter from exploding out. At first I felt the thrill of participating in such dirty mischief, but then I felt bad, and was embarrassed at being taken for one of the culprits. I looked at Chuck Davis, thinking, My God, that is too much.
Kurt did not understand what the prank meant. At practice that day, while I held the ball and he gimp-kicked it over the bar, I explained what a broken cherry was.
Over the sound of pads smacking dummies and brief screeches of the coach’s whistle, he said, “It is cruel of him. He understands nothing.”
“Yeah, well, the world is full of jerks,” I said.
“But he does not consider how the girl feels.”
“Aw, c’mon; kick the goddamn ball.”
“You saw her face.”
“C’mon, kick. I’m getting stiff all scrunched up like this.”
I had thought about Heidi’s point of view before, but only briefly. Now I tried to see things even more from her perspective. Had she been frightened to the point of permanent emotional damage? Would the experience become an obsessive nightmare tattooed on her mind? Would she be afraid of men for the rest of her life? I thought of her now as the Girl Everything Was Done To, but sometimes, in a curious reversal, she became the Girl Who Had Done Everything, as if she’d had some choice in the matter. In my darkest moments, Heidi Daniels became a willing participant.
Shortly after the cherry incident, I was asked by one of the teachers to clean out some heavy jars in the home-economics room using a large bottle brush. I had never been in this girls’ lair, and I dreaded the thought of anyone seeing me there, particularly in the humiliating role of dishwasher. I was scrubbing away, looking over my shoulder for any football players, when Heidi Daniels walked in.
She was carrying a bunch of pots and pans, which she lowered carefully into the sink next to mine. She smiled at me and began scouring the pots with a wad of steel wool. Goose flesh erupted on my arms. I was in the presence of the Girl Who Had Done Everything, who’d been soiled forever by the Dark Creep, and now possessed secret, erotic knowledge. I felt strangely ashamed standing there next to her in an apron.
For a long while we didn’t speak. Finally, she said, “You’re friends with Kurt —”
“Kurt the Kraut,” she said, obviously unused to the sound of the nickname. “Why do you guys do that?”
I paused, holding a jar. “What?” Then I looked directly at her, just briefly. It was true — she was totally and mysteriously the same. But when I looked away I thought I’d caught something; I wasn’t sure what, a shadow of something, but it wasn’t my imagination.
“Call each other that?” she said.
“Oh, we’re just messing around. Anyway, I never call him that.”
“And what about that poor kid they call Lawman?”
I laughed. “It’s his lunch box. It has a picture of that TV guy on it, you know? So they call him Lawman.” The kid was kind of nondescript. Once, even the principal had called him by his nickname, assuming it was his real last name.
“I mean,” Heidi said, “we call each other Bunny and Cricket and Dixie.”
“Yeah, well . . .”
Heidi went on scrubbing. “Anyway, I like your pictures,” she said. “I’ve always wished I could draw like that.”
I shrugged, working on another jar. And then I glimpsed it again in her expression — something subtle and new, some microscopic erosion of her essence.
“Why do you always draw those monsters or comicbook heroes?”
“Well, that’s how I learned, copying comics.”
“You going to study art in college?”
“Nah. I’ll join the service, prob’ly.”
“I’m going to college. I want to study law, or something.”
Law? Girls didn’t study law. But then, I thought, maybe the rape had kind of sexually neutralized her, so that suddenly she wanted a man’s job. It seemed ironic: me with my art, an almost feminine thing, and Heidi with her thoughts of law.
That was pretty much the whole conversation, and when it was over, the strongest impression I had of her was not from what she’d said, but from what I believed I’d seen in her expression.
We did win one game that year, as I mentioned, on a twenty-five-yard field goal by Kurt, who took a vicious intentional lick while he was suspended in midair with his kicking leg at the end of its sideways swing. Absurd as it sounds, that victory was also a result of what had happened to Heidi Daniels. In the second quarter, just before the snap, one of the opposing linemen said to his counterpart on our team, “Hey, how’s about a little piece of that Heidi Hot-Snatch?”
Insults of this sort were commonplace, so our lineman kept his cool and said, “Nah, she’s all ours.”
Exhilarated by the game and always quick with my mouth, I added, “We don’t want no diseases from you clowns.”
Back in the huddle, I realized how rotten it had been to use her that way. I glanced over and, sure enough, there she was on the sidelines, a pompom in each hand. But everybody else in the huddle seemed suddenly fired up, angry and eager for contact. Those goons weren’t going to say that about our girl. For the remainder of the game, the insults escalated: “Shit, she’d laugh you right outta the sack, you overgrown faggot,” and so on. There were a lot of penalties for jumping offside and unnecessary roughness. The coach, mystified by the unaccustomed vigor of our play, never knew what caused it.
When the game was over, a bunch of us went over to Chuck Davis’s house to celebrate and drink beer in his basement. Kurt was there, too, and was honored to have been “how you say . . . also summoned?”
But not even our first victory could overcome the magnetic attraction of the subject of Heidi Daniels. I listened to my teammates go on and on: “Let’s have a bet to see who can get into her pants by Christmas.”
“This becomes tiresome,” Kurt whispered to me.
“I know. Jesus, do I ever know.”
“The problem is getting close enough to get your hand on it,” someone was saying. “Then there isn’t any problem.”
Amid a lot of snickering and whispering, Chuck Davis came out of the utility room with a large box, which he presented to Kurt. “Uh, on behalf of the team we would like to, uh, bestow this here gift on you.”
Flushed with embarrassment and surprise, Kurt placed the box on the table in the center of the room, where it was illuminated by a dusty orange light. He opened the box, and inside was a pink lampshade. He looked down at it in the midst of growing laughter, puzzled. Then it hit him, and he got this strange look on his face — not anger but a pained disappointment. He looked around at the guys who were laughing, stared at each one briefly but intently, then walked out.
“Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea,” I said.
“Aw, stuff it,” Chuck said, and the conversation turned back to Heidi Daniels.
I was curious about the normally unflappable Kurt’s response to the joke, so on Monday I went to the school library and found a book about the war, one with lots of grainy black-and-white photographs: the clean-looking German soldiers, the hanged farmers, the mounds of emaciated dead. There were no pictures of lampshades made of human skin.
I was studying the pictures and thinking vaguely about Chuck’s joke when I became aware of someone behind me, watching. It was Kurt.
He glanced toward the librarian’s desk, then leaned down and whispered, “You must excuse me — my father did not like Hitler, and worked against him during the war.”
I felt suddenly ashamed, as if I’d been caught prying into someone else’s private business.
“Also,” Kurt continued, “I was born in 1944. How much do you think I could have known about it?”
“Well, nothing, of course, but —”
“There are things I cannot laugh about.”
From the hall came a commotion that sounded almost like a fight. The librarian went out to see. Kurt said, “I must tell this to Chuck. It is a serious matter, and he must understand it.”
“Yeah, I know, I know — hey, let’s see what’s going on out there.”
“It is no longer a joke.”
The noise was coming from the home-economics room. When we got to the hall, we saw the nurse and the principal carrying someone out the door: Heidi Daniels.
According to the stories we all heard later that day, Heidi had looked up from a book and suddenly begun to gag or choke. Then she’d turned pale and started to cry uncontrollably. She tried to stand, but couldn’t get her balance, and fell down, her fists clenched under her chin and her arms tight against her. Shocked and frightened, her friends couldn’t help her, couldn’t even make eye contact — she seemed to stare right through them. The school nurse and the principal carried her to a car and drove her to the town doctor, who brought her to the nearest hospital for treatment.
At first, people thought it could have been some kind of epileptic fit, but later we learned that she’d had a nervous breakdown, something that probably should have happened weeks before, but had held off in a strange psychological lag. I understood then what I had seen that day we’d washed dishes together, and there was nothing mysterious or exotic about it: Heidi had been the victim of unspeakable cruelty, and had been trying, with whatever strength she had left, to go on living.
We did not see her again for nearly two months, and when she returned her hair was short, she had gained weight, and the aura — that special attraction — was gone. It wasn’t the weight or the hair, however — it was more like something in her bearing; whatever had happened to her had changed her utterly. Her future, like those of most of the people in town, would be quiet and routinely domestic.
The day of Heidi Daniels’s breakdown, the football players were grouped at the back of the school before practice, talking about what had happened. It was cold and windy, and I stayed off to the side, listening during lulls in the wind to the story of Heidi’s collapse. The comment that provoked the most laughter came, predictably, from Chuck Davis, who said, “Gee, what do you suppose got into her?”
Kurt emerged from the back of the group as everyone was laughing. He stood in front of Chuck Davis, saying something I couldn’t hear, and Chuck squinted at him with a look that signified Kurt’s total irrelevance.
“What?” Chuck said, turning to the others. “You mean I hurt widdu Adolf’s feewings?”
“But you see nothing,” Kurt said. “Like with that girl —”
“Widdu Adolf’s feewings are hurt!”
I went over to draw Kurt aside. “Leave it alone,” I said to him.
“I cannot leave this alone,” Kurt said.
“Hey, DTs,” Chuck called mockingly, “make widdu Adolf feew better.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth,” I said. This, of course, was a mistake. I had stepped over the line.
Chuck’s expression became one of challenge. “What did you say?”
“I said, shut your goddamn mouth.”
“Hey, DTs, you look like you need a shot, baby.”
“Yeah? Is that so?”
It had been a long time since anyone had drawn attention to my deepest shame. At that moment I recognized what defending Kurt had cost me.
“You’re shakin’,” Chuck taunted. Then, to the others: “Look, he’s shakin’.”
“You’re a fucking asshole, Chuck, you know that?”
His face sort of dropped; first he looked hurt, then angry. The insult had pierced him all the way to the core of his beefy self-esteem.
The rest happened very quickly. Seeing what was about to take place, I said to Kurt something to the effect that this was the way things were done in America. Then Chuck stepped up and swung.
The damage to my face was temporary; I only missed two games. After the fight, Chuck even asked me if I was all right. But for the remainder of my time in school, I was conspicuously alienated from the other jocks.
Kurt told me that, although it hadn’t been much of a contest, I had managed to badly bruise Chuck’s ribcage. He added that, considering the preposterous weight difference, I should have aimed for his head. I agreed, but for some reason I hadn’t been able to do it. Kurt said he understood this, but in the battle against stupidity, anything helps. “You have heard of Gypsies?” he asked. “They have a saying: ‘Even an ant casts a shadow.’ ”
“Thanks a lot.”
“I see you are offended by this,” he said. “It is meant as an irony —”
“OK, OK, I see.”
“I would not offend you,” he said.
For a long time I would whisper that simple statement to myself, as if it were some amazing incantation.