The suburban phone book
THE FIRST TIME I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside me. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from the water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.
That night, before dinner, I called her. “Who are you calling?” my Aunt Gladys asked. “Some girl I met today.” “Doris introduced you?” “Doris wouldn’t introduce me to the guy who drains the pool, Aunt Gladys.” “Don’t criticize all the time. A cousin’s a cousin. How did you meet her?”
“I didn’t really meet her. I saw her.” “Who is she?” “Her last name is Patimkin.” “Patimkin I don’t know,” Aunt Gladys said, as if she knew anybody who belonged to the Green Lane Country Club. “You’re going to call her you don’t know her?” “Yes,” I explained. “I’ll introduce myself.” “Casanova,” she said, and went back to preparing my uncle’s dinner. None of us ate together: my Aunt Gladys ate at five o’clock, my cousin Susan at five-thirty, me at six, and my uncle at six-thirty. There is nothing to explain this beyond the fact that my aunt is crazy. “Where’s the suburban phone book?” I asked after pulling out all the books tucked under the telephone table. “What?”
“The suburban phone book. I want to call Short Hills.” “That skinny book? What, I gotta clutter my house with that, I never use it?” “Where is it?” “Under the dresser where the leg came off.” “For God’s sake,” I said. “Call information better. You’ll go yanking around there, you’ll mess up my drawers. Don’t bother me, you see your uncle’ll be home soon. I haven’t even fed you yet.” “Aunt Gladys, suppose tonight we all eat together. It’s hot, it’ll be easier for you.” “Sure, I should serve four different meals at once. You eat pot roast, Susan with the cottage cheese, Max has steak. Friday night is his steak night, I wouldn’t deny him. And I’m having a little cold chicken. I should jump up and down twenty different times? What am I, a workhorse?”
“Why don’t we all have steak, or cold chicken—” “Twenty years I’m running a house. Go call your girl friend.” But when I called, Brenda Patimkin wasn’t home. She’s having dinner at the club, a woman’s voice told me. Will she be home after (my voice was two octaves higher than a choirboy’s)? I don’t know, the voice said, she may go driving golf balls. Who is this? I mumbled some words—nobody she wouldn’t know I’ll call back no message thank you sorry to bother … I hung up somewhere along in there. Then my aunt called me and I steeled myself for dinner. She pushed the black whirring fan up to High and that way it managed to stir the cord that hung from the kitchen light. “What kind of soda you want? I got ginger ale, plain seltzer, black raspberry, and a bottle cream soda I could open up.” “None, thank you.” “You want water?” “I don’t drink with my meals. Aunt Gladys, I’ve told you that every day for a year already—” “Max could drink a whole case with his chopped liver only. He works hard all day. If you worked hard you’d drink more.” At the stove she heaped up a plate with pot roast, gravy, boiled potatoes, and peas and carrots. She put it in front of me and I could feel the heat of the food in my face. Then she cut two pieces of rye bread and put that next to me, on the table.
I forked a potato in half and ate it, while Aunt Gladys, who had seated herself across from me, watched. “You don’t want bread,” she said, “I wouldn’t cut it it should go stale.”
“I want bread,” I said. “You don’t like with seeds, do you?” I tore a piece of bread in half and ate it. “How’s the meat?” she said. “Okay. Good.” “You’ll fill yourself with potatoes and bread, the meat you’ll leave over I’ll have to throw it out.” Suddenly she leaped up from the chair. “Salt!” When she returned to the table she plunked a salt shaker down in front of me—pepper wasn’t served in her home: she’d heard on Galen Drake that it was not absorbed by the body, and it was disturbing to Aunt Gladys to think that anything she served might pass through a gullet, stomach, and bowel just for the pleasure of the trip. “You’re going to pick the peas out is all? You tell me that, I wouldn’t buy with the carrots.” “I love carrots,” I said, “I love them.” And to prove it, I dumped half of them down my throat and the other half onto my trousers. “Pig,” she said. Though I am very fond of desserts, especially fruit, I chose not to have any. I wanted, this hot night, to avoid the conversation that revolved around my choosing fresh fruit over canned fruit, or canned fruit over fresh fruit; whichever I preferred, Aunt Gladys always had an abundance of the other jamming her refrigerator like stolen diamonds. “He wants canned peaches, I have a refrigerator full of grapes I have to get rid of …” Life was a throwing off for poor Aunt Gladys, her greatest joys were taking out the garbage, emptying her pantry, and making threadbare bundles for what she still referred to as the Poor Jews in Palestine. I only hope she dies with an empty refrigerator, otherwise she’ll ruin eternity for everyone else, what with her Velveeta turning green, and her navel oranges growing fuzzy jackets down below.
My Uncle Max came home and while I dialed Brenda’s number once again, I could hear soda bottles being popped open in the kitchen. The voice that answered this time was high, curt, and tired. “Hullo.” I launched into my speech.
“Hello-Brenda-Brenda-you-don’t-know-me-that-is-you-don’t-know-my-n ame-but-I-held-your-glasses-f or-you-this-afternoon-at-the-club … You-asked-me-to-rm-not-a-member-my-cousin-Doris-is-Doris-Klugman-Iasked-who-you-were …” I breathed, gave her a chance to speak, and then went ahead and answered the silence on the other end. “Doris? She’s the one who’s always reading War and Peace. That’s how I know it’s the summer, when Doris is reading War and Peace.” Brenda didn’t laugh; right from the start she was a practical girl. “What’s your name?” she said. “Neil Klugman. I held your glasses at the board, remember?” She answered me with a question of her own, one, I’m sure, that is an embarrassment to both the homely and the fair. “What do you look like?” “I’m … dark.” “Are you a Negro?” “No,” I said. “What do you look like?” “May I come see you tonight and show you?” “That’s nice,” she laughed. “I’m playing tennis tonight.”
“I thought you were driving golf balls.” “I drove them already.” “How about after tennis?” “I’ll be sweaty after,” Brenda said. It was not to warn me to clothespin my nose and run in the opposite direction; it was a fact, it apparently didn’t bother Brenda, but she wanted it recorded. “I don’t mind,” I said, and hoped by my tone to earn a niche somewhere between the squeamish and the grubby. “Can I pick you up?” She did not answer a minute; I heard her muttering, “Doris Klugman, Doris Klugman …” Then she said, “Yes, Briarpath Hills, eight-fifteen.” “I’ll be driving a—” I hung back with the year, “a tan Plymouth. So you’ll know me. How will I know you?” I said with a sly, awful laugh. “I’ll be sweating,” she said and hung up.
Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though
the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin. It was only eight o’clock, and I did not want to be early, so I drove up and down the streets whose names were those of eastern colleges, as though the township, years ago, when things were named, had planned the destinies of the sons of its citizens. I thought of my Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max sharing a Mounds bar in the cindery darkness of their alley, on beach chairs, each cool breeze sweet to them as the promise of afterlife, and after a while I rolled onto the gravel roads of the small park where Brenda was playing tennis. Inside my glove compartment it was as though the map of The City Streets of Newark had metamorphosed into crickets, for those mile-long tarry streets did not exist for me any longer and the night noises sounded loud as the blood whacking at my temples.
I parked the car under the black-green canopy of three oaks, and walked towards the sound of the tennis balls. I heard an exasperated voice say, “Deuce again.” It was Brenda and she sounded as though she was sweating considerably. I crackled slowly up the gravel and heard Brenda once more. “My ad,” and then just as I rounded the path, catching a cuff full of burrs, I heard, “Game!” Her racket went spinning up in the air and she caught it neatly as I came into sight. “Hello,” I called. “Hello, Neil. One more game,” she called. Brenda’s words seemed to infuriate her opponent, a pretty brown-haired girl, not quite so tall as Brenda, who stopped searching for the ball that had been driven past her, and gave both Brenda and myself a dirty look. In a moment I learned the reason why: Brenda was ahead five games to four, and her cocksureness about there being just one game remaining aroused enough anger in her opponent for the two of us to share.