Lightning struck Bernard Lemongello twice.
The first time was when he was 15 years old. It was a hair-singeing and blistering bolt from a sky that never before had seemed to bear him particular malice. The second time was also when he was 15, three days after the first. Though a figurative blow, it was only slightly less tangible and powerful, and was similar to the scalding charge he’d received beneath the tree on the golf course in that it consisted solely of light.
He had been fishing in the Passaic River. Down behind where Duncans used to live, back through the overgrown fields on the far side of the decaying barn. Alone, he’d picked his spot, upstream from the border of a par-5 fairway, shortly after dawn. By mid-morning he’d caught two fine brook trout. They lay dead, shiny and speckled green and amber and brown, on fistfulls of June grass in his grandfather Pino’s reed creel.
Although two was the limit, Bernard’s line remained in the water.
Bernard didn’t know what he would do if he had the good fortune to catch another fish. He might throw it back and he might keep it, and he figured the odds on either course of action were exactly even. He really wasn’t inclined or predisposed one way or the other. He didn’t want to seem greedy or predatory, but neither did he want to leave. He was content there with his bony haunches on the perfect grass-padded tussock, the middle of his long back against the cool bank.
He couldn’t imagine himself just sitting around there if he weren’t fishing. And anyway, for him and his sister Jeanette and his parents to have a nice and substantial dinner of trout and the nouvelle potatoes he planned to sauté in scalliony butter, they needed three fish.
Though they wouldn’t go hungry, either, if it ended up being just these two. He would just make more salad.
He had brought his accordion. He hadn’t brought it because he’d planned on playing it while he fished. It might well have just sat there, fine with him, all day long in its hard black valise without making a sound. But he knew too that the urge might strike, there by himself on the peaceful pretty river. So he’d brought it along just in case.
That was one of the things he loved about fishing. It was something that, depending on your frame of mind, could absorb all your attention, concentration even. But if you were in a different sort of mood it would also allow you to do something else at the same time. Like whittle, or shell walnuts, or play the accordion.
It was about an hour after he’d caught his second fish and a few minutes after he’d eaten his baloney and provolone sandwich that he shoved his empty tennis ball can into the ground and inserted the handle of his fishing pole in the tube and took his instrument from its case.
It was hot, so he played something slow. It wasn’t sunny, so he played something with a simple melody, a bit sad. The song he played was El Día Que Me Quieras (The Day You Love Me). It was a tune that sounded better on a bandoneon, he knew, but he stretched and milked the notes and it sounded quite beautiful on this instrument too. He wouldn’t trade his accordion, no way, for any old bandoneon, which was great for tangos but not all that versatile. Nobody appreciated tangos around here anyway except his great-uncle Rocco, who had moved to New Jersey from Montevideo and who was always singing Carlos Gardel lyrics and trying to act like Carlos Gardel.
While playing this song, Bernard supposed that if he’d grown up in Uruguay like his great-uncle nobody would call him “Lemon Jello” down there. Because they must not even know what Jello is. Even so, while he was busy supposing, he supposed that he would not have preferred to grow up in Montevideo instead of in Stirling.
Stirling, New Jersey was a great place to grow up, he thought. Especially since his parents had finally, halfway through sixth grade, taken him out of stupid St. Joseph’s and let him go to Central School where his best friend Tommy Kneebone, who was an Episcopalian, went.
After the slow tango he worked on a jazzy arrangement of Summertime, it being summertime. And muggy. And what with him being alone on a riverbank he let it slide and bend and come close to straining, a very cool and suave interpretation, and his perception of himself as an occasionally fairly cool and suave cat was reinforced. But not so much as to erase the conviction that he was pretty dippy in most other, non-musical, regards, athletically uncoordinated as he was and never having had a girl’s tongue in his mouth.
He wasn’t even through with Summertime when it became clear it was going to rain. Not only that it was going to rain but that it was getting ready to pour down fat globules, the kind that make noise when they hit.
The willow on the opposite bank swayed and shook crazily like the head of a stallion at the whiff of a mare. Suddenly anxious, Bernard rose and stowed his instrument, reeled in his line, draped the strap of the creel over his shoulder and struck out with long strides, his accordion case in one hand and his rod in the other. But he hadn’t gone 90 yards when bright pellets the size of grapes splattered his face and denim-sheathed thighs and the tops of his black canvas Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. Seconds later the gray scenery of the world was illuminated for a startling instant and the sky cracked in an explosion he felt in the soft heart of his bones. Scrotum shriveled and anus clenched, Bernard Lemongello ran clumsily and overburdened through knee-high grass toward the dog-legged 12th-hole fairway of the Clover Hill Golf Course. His destination was a magnificent centenarian oak that stood like an eternally vigilant sentry at the bend in the link but that, to Bernard in his harried circumstance, looked more like a huge and welcoming umbrella.
That’s where Floyd Plate found him, knocked out and steaming, beneath the ravaged oak.
Floyd, the course’s chief groundskeeper, enjoyed a thunderstorm. He’d been standing at the clubhouse’s picture window watching from that knoll the gathering violence and its onslaught. He’d winced when the bright jagged crack filled the sky, and he’d seen it stab the earth through the oak.
“Lordy,” he breathed.
The tree was split.
Floyd had not seen Bernard take refuge under the branches. That was not the reason he immediately pulled on his rubber boots and hooded slicker and ventured out into the storm. It was because he didn’t fear the weather (he’d never been in a hurricane or seen a tornado close up or gotten stranded in a blizzard) and could not wait to examine the tree, so astounded was he that such a grand and old and massive thing should have been cleaved like a hatcheted chunk of kindling.
He ran through sheeted rain to the nearest cart, sidled in and struck off for the tree, keeping to the cart path so as not to rut the suddenly sodden fairways.
Floyd Plate hated it when people, especially fat people, drove their carts on his thick green beautiful grass when it was wet.
When Bernard opened his eyes he was warm and curled on his side between slightly stiff bright white sheets that smelled of licorice. He was so utterly rested and tranquil that he presumed he was dead. That did not bother him. He lay still with his eyes open watching the screen of an unplugged 19-inch television on a wheeled table against the wall. The screen was dull gray but just off-center was a rectangle of aquamarine light, which was divided by a dark strip into two more narrow rectangles. He knew the strip must be part of a window-frame. He knew – though anything liable to be called knowledge was inimical to the state of his eminently pacific brain – that he was looking at the reflection of what must be a window behind him. Black silhouettes of spruce tips lined the bottom of the frame. About two-thirds of the way up the reflected panes there sailed slowly from right to left, ever so slowly, a cloud like a bright white dream of a cloud.
He watched the cloud until it passed out of sight, then fell back asleep.
Claire Paxton was not the first person Bernard saw when he awoke a few hours later. This time he was on his back and he knew he was alive and in a hospital and that it was either dawn or dusk outside. This time he did not feel content or all that calm. He was extremely hungry.
He propped himself on his elbows. “Ho,” he called.
A nurse, a gray-haired black woman of late middle age, came in. She smiled for a second, her face lighted by relief and joy, even, at the fact that not everything turns out badly, before resuming a straight-lipped and no-nonsense professional demeanor.
“Welcome back to the land of the quick,” she said, helping to settle him against two pillows. “I’ll just go and get the doctor now, Bernard-honey. Don’t try to get up. Just take it easy a minute.”
Neither the nurse nor the doctor was the next person to fill Bernard Lemongello’s renascent eyes. There was more light in the corridor than in his room, so it was almost as if she pertained to another dimension when Claire appeared in the trapezoid of pearly glare beyond the threshold. She stood there looking at him for a moment before entering.
Too young to be a nurse, she was nevertheless dressed like one. White dress and white stockings, but over the dress a sort of apron of red and white stripes. A folded cap of the same pattern perched atop honey-colored hair gathered in a short braid that descended her nape to rest inside the open collar in the dish of a sculpted collarbone. Suntanned face and rosy red cheeks framed light brown eyes so luminescent it seemed she was about to cry.
Her lips parted and she said: “Hi.” A timorous smile.
Bernard tried to say Hi back, but the syllable stuck in his throat. She was so exquisite, her eyes so full of a force both gentle and precarious, that he suffered the passing flash of an urge to cry himself.
He didn’t, though. What he did was shift a bit and draw up his knees beneath the sheet so she wouldn’t see he was encumbered with a big hard straining boner like a tent pole.
Maybe the nurse had seen it, he thought, embarrassed. Because he’d only been awake a minute or less and he’d obviously been in this state of arousal when he opened his eyes. But then he forgot immediately about everything in the world except this vision of a girl. He forgot about the nurse and even forgot about his mother – whether she knew where he was and that he was all right – and his accordion – what had become of it? Which had been the first two things that entered his mind upon emergence from oblivion.
Then, as if she knew and wanted to remind him what was important, or at least attainable, she opened the door of the closet to allow him see there the black case.
“It’s in perfect condition, don’t worry,” she said. “The lightning didn’t do a thing to it. I hope you don’t mind, but one of the janitors, Mr. Boudreaux, took it into the hall last night and tested it out. He used to play himself, because he’s from Louisiana, and wanted to see if it was OK. He even knew who you were. He said you were the state champion accordion player or something.”
Her voice was like a French horn blown softly.
“Last year,” said Bernard. “This year in the under-16s I lost to a Canadian kid from Newfoundland who just moved here. That’s the part of Canada they make jokes about. That’s what he told me, anyway. But he’s really good. Has a more varied repertoire than me, too.”
She was at his bedside now, looking down at him.
“I took piano lessons for two months last winter. But the teacher was a creep. So I quit.”
“If you wanna learn to play the accordion, I’ll teach you. For free.” It came out just like that, without him giving it any consideration.
Claire Paxton, who was a month older than Bernard and the latest addition to Overlook’s small cadre of Candy Striper volunteers, looked at the case in the closet, then at the boy in bed, then back at the case.
“OK,” she said.
She lived there in Summit, not far from the hospital. That’s where Bernard spent six days after being struck by lightning, the first three of them in a state resembling coma but with too many peaks and valleys on the electro-encephalograph to be technically classified as such. Whatever diagnosis might best have described his sojourn in the silvery gray domain of unconsciousness, Bernard, upon awaking, felt merely as if he’d had a very long and extremely restful night’s sleep. Some of his chestnut curls were frizzy and his lips and the tips of some of his fingers and toes were blistered. But overall, he was in perfect physical condition. (The doctor told him it was providential he’d been wearing rubber-soled shoes.)
The only thing that seemed abnormal to him was that every night of the three waking days he spent under observation he’d had a copious nocturnal emission, a sheet-staining soggy dream. The last night he had two.
On the sixth morning, he was standing at the window looking out while Mrs. Winston, the nurse who’d discovered him revived, changed the bedding.
“St. James in the belfry, boy. I swear that lightnin’ bolt fired you up right good. Jus’ hope your mama’s stocked up on linens.”
Bernard’s face flushed red.
“You mean the first nights too?”
“Bet your britches. Ever’ night unfailin’. Daytime once or twice as well. The nurses callin’ you Lightnin’ Rod. One say she gonna plug her husband inta the wall socket. Mornin’ of the day ‘fore you woke up like to been a Elmer’s glue fact’ry ‘tween them sheets. You got a little girlfriend, she best watch out.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” said Bernard.
“All the same tha’s some nasty prideful thing you got ‘tween them skinny legs. Recommend you keep the Good Book at your bedside and read some ten-twelve chapters ‘fore you drift off. If that don’ work, jes give ‘im a good tweak when he starts gettin’ all ornery and rebellious.”
When Mrs. Winston left, Bernard lay back down. He wondered if Claire knew. She and the other Candy Stripers worked afternoons and evenings, not usually the sheet-changing shift. But someone, one of the nurses, might have told her about Young Faithful, boy-wonder geyser, in 414.
If she knew, she didn’t let on. Not even a month later, after a dozen accordion lessons, when they were somewhat better acquainted and passionately in love.
Claire took the train, the Gladstone branch of the Erie Lakawanna, from Summit to Stirling on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Bernard’s house was three blocks from the station. At the end of the second week, he went to meet her train. There he waited, pacing the asphalt platform and trying to disguise his anxiety. When the train arrived on that unforgettable day and she stepped down from the carriage and saw him and smiled, he felt a welling-up like his gut, some intangible yet viscous part of him brimming at the bounds of his body.
On Saturdays, because she didn’t go to the hospital that day, she would stay for lunch.
Bernard’s mother Daniella was born in Sicily but had come with her parents to New Jersey as a baby. She seemed to Claire very much the average American Mom except for the fact that she could speak another language and was an exceptionally good cook. She spoke Sicilian with her mother – Bernard’s black-shawled white-haired grandmother Alba – but her English was vernacular and unaccented.
Claire’s own mother spoke only Illinois American, whose expletives were limited to “Golly,” “Gosh” and the extraordinarily rare and emphatic “Hell’s Bells.” Claire had never in her life, despite it being characterized by a substantial measure of wealth, partaken of a mussel, calamar squid, basil, imported parmesan cheese or a sweetly delicious vin santo dessert wine. (Grape juice was used for Christ’s blood in her Methodist congregation’s Communion.)
Mrs. and Mr. Lemongello, as well as Nonna Alba and Jeanette, took grinning pleasure at the barely dissimulated relish with which the soft-spoken Protestant girl ate their daily fare. They could not help but notice how sometimes, upon closing her mouth around a forkfull of linguine in clam sauce, she might allow her eyelids to descend slowly and sigh, her nostrils slightly flared. At the end of the first month, the Saturday accordion lesson was abbreviated to allow Claire to spend the latter part of the morning in the kitchen with Alba and Daniella, apprenticed to the simple and exacting art of southern Italian cuisine.
As it turned out, her culinary vocation was greater than whatever gift she may have had for music.
Bernard had realized right off, by the end of their first hour of instruction, that she did not have much of an ear. But he didn’t care. He fell in love with her anyway. And she loved him, too.
She told him so, while cradling his head and dabbing at spittle on his chin with the fabric of her shirt, a few minutes after he’d blanched and gone slightly cross-eyed and stumbled off into the bushes to vomit.
That had been the effect of his first drags of tobacco smoke.
Claire had been coming to his house three times a week for a month and they’d gone to the movies together in Summit on two successive Friday evenings before Bernard found out she smoked.
They were walking along the railroad tracks towards Gillette on Saturday after lunch.
“I didn’t tell you before ’cause I thought you might not like it,” she said. She had stopped there on the dark creosote-soaked ties between the gently curving, gently converging silver bands. It was hot. She wore sandals and cut-offs and a halter top that exposed a tanned flat belly. With what dexterity had she flicked a lighter beneath the tip of the cigarette, sucking in a first mouthful only to let it flow thickly out between her lips and rush in silky gray streams up her nostrils.
“About a year ago. I just kinda got the urge, so I finished a butt my Dad left in an ashtray. Then I started sneaking one here and there from either his or my Mom’s pack and smokin’ it while I walked from school to the hospital. Just one a day for a while. But they both smoke these super-light jobs with zero tar and nicotine that don’t even taste like anything.”
Bernard had seen, when she’d taken the pack from her long-strapped leather purse, that her brand was Lucky Strike.
“These or Camels are the best,” she said, taking another deep drag. “Anything blended with Turkish.”
They continued walking until they reached the Clay Pits. A hundred or two hundred years earlier generations of brick makers and potters had gouged raw material from here until they hit a spring. Or until the hollows filled up with rain. Or the water table rose. Bernard didn’t really know precisely what had happened. He only knew that now and for a long time, since his Mother had been a little girl, they were just two deep ponds where Gillette and Stirling and Millington kids skated and played hockey in the winter.
“Wanna go sit by the water?” he asked her.
They went through a stand of birch and he led her around the edge of the smaller, nearer pond and along the bank of the other. He was looking for a comfortable place to sit that had grass and a pretty perspective on the pond and the woods on the other side. But he was also aware that he wanted it to be a place hidden from the tracks and from the road that crossed them on its way from Gillette to Meyersville.
He could not have told you why he wanted to be out of sight. It wasn’t as if he were planning to kiss her. Of course he’d thought many times about kissing her during the previous weeks. But whenever he did – think about it – his heart pounded and his breathing turned shallow and insufficient.
So he was trying not to think about it. And succeeding, for the most part.
Claire was a perceptive girl. She knew that if she waited for Bernard to kiss her, she might be waiting until New Year’s Eve. So after they’d been sitting in the grass and clover at the lake edge for several minutes, she played a little trick on him. Without letting him see her do it, doing it mostly with one hand at her side out of his sight, she pinched a leaf off a shamrock and took a bit of the stem with it and joined it, holding it fast between the tips of her fingers, to another whole one, so that it looked like a 4-leaf clover.
She exclaimed softly, knowing he would lean toward her, incline his head so that it touched hers as she showed him her prize. And when she’d shown him it she seized the moment and turned her warm clovery breath to his face and their lips met.
After a moment they stretched out and kissed passionately, tongues sliding over and under each other like wrestling eels. They did that for a good while. Until Claire whispered to him: “Let’s take five.”
That was a term he’d used with her in suggesting a break during a music lesson.
They sat up and she tapped a Lucky from her pack. She lit it. The smoke smelled good to Bernard, like something from pioneer days or a sylvan incense inherent to this landscape.
“Let me try it,” he said. Perhaps he deemed it a propitious day for new experiences.
The first drag didn’t get much beyond his mouth. His cheeks inflated, and he blew out the smoke in a puff.
“Ya gotta inhale,” she said.
The next drag he inhaled, then coughed out a billow.
Bernard didn’t much like the taste, but he wanted to succeed at this foray into the world of adults and he wanted to not resemble a wimp. He took another drag.
He did not cough again but felt suddenly weak and hollow, especially in his fingers and forearms and his feet. The blood drained from his face. His stomach fluttered and he tightened his rump muscles but that effort and the concentration it required wasn’t enough to get his body back under control and he knew, the moment he blew out the second drag, that he was going to puke.
He turned away from Claire onto all fours and pushed himself up and forward, flop-stepping like a drunk into the saplings and brush, where he fell to his knees and wretched. His eyes were watering. Through the blur he could make out red beans and short rhomboid noodles from the midday pasta-e-fasul.
Claire was Bernard’s girlfriend, and Bernard Claire’s boyfriend, throughout that summer. He gave her a bracelet of delicate silver chain the night they watched the July 4th fireworks in Berkeley Heights. They went to the movies at least once a week. Bernard’s father took them to Sandy Hook State Park at the shore the first and last Sunday of August. They were regulars at Stirling lake, where they swam and sunned themselves and read novels, with Bernard’s taste tending toward Leon Uris and James Michener, while Claire delighted in Vonnegut, laughing out loud as she turned the pages.
Claire kept at it with the accordion. By the time school started again, she could work her way through fairly coherent if stumbling versions of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” a Palermitano tarantela and “Amazing Grace.”
Bernard was the music teacher. But Claire was his instructor in the ways of petting and caressing, a tender and playful guide into the astonishing terrain of an adolescent girl’s body, its curves and hollows. Its ravenous desire. The smoothness and the hardness and the softness. Claire’s delirious pleasure was a revelation to him as powerful and heady as that attending his own, or so bound up with his own rapture as to be indistinct from it.
They stopped short, though, of technically consummating their union. Claire thought more in terms of 16, or even junior year, as a more appropriate age to give herself up completely. For the time being, hands and fingers and mouths and tongues did their utmost during the half-dozen opportunities they’d found or created to be alone in circumstances – usually in one or the other of their houses when their parents were out, but also once in the pine forest of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and another time on the second floor of a nearly completed split-level in a new development off Valley Road – that permitted them to be undressed and unobserved and for the most part reclined, with room enough to kneel and crouch and hunch over and maneuver.
Then came a Sunday in mid-September that gave Bernard pause. The pause lasted more than a moment. It lasted about two weeks, during which time it turned into something resembling trepidation.
It was doubt. Or a kind of misgiving.
Later, when Bernard thought back on his summer’s romance with Claire, his first taste of love, he identified that Sunday as the beginning of its demise.
Claire’s parents had gone to Princeton for a football game, the Tigers being Mr. Paxton’s alma mater. Claire’s older brother had returned to college in Philadelphia, and they had the big reddish brown cut-stone slate-roofed house in Summit to themselves for the entire day.
It was still hot outside. They were lying naked and temporarily exhausted on the white and green striped cotton bedspread atop Claire’s bed, which was an antique model called a “Jenny Lynn” with handsomely lathed cherry dowels in the headboard and footboard. The bed was a good deal wider than a twin but narrower than a double. It was the perfect size for teenage lovers. A Tunisian chime of slender wrought black iron and bronze bells hung silently from the light fixture above them. Past the footboard on the far wall was a reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s painting titled Apple Tree 1.
At sated repose and content, Bernard contemplated the painting’s harmonious confusion of red-orange apples afloat in a blurry evocation of leaves and boughs, of marigolds and violets and spheres of dandelion fuzz sprouting from foreground grass. At the same time he savored in his drowsy waking dream the scent of sex; young sweat, Claire’s delicious lubrications and perfume.
“Have you ever seen anyone die?” she asked.
“Has it ever happened to you that you were watching somebody when they died?”
That question is why Bernard is easily able to summon, and why he believes he shall always be able to, the recollection of the washed shade of end-of-summer green Klimt used to surround and lose and at the same time exalt the fruit and flowers.
“I’ve never even seen a dead person. Not even at a funeral. My grandfather died when I was a baby.”
She rolled from her back to her side and draped an arm across Bernard’s chest, his skin the color of a pecan shell and just as smooth. Her head rested on her other arm, which extended to the headboard. She gripped one of the rippled pegs.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “Awe-inspiring.”
She used that construction because she thought “awesome” sounded ignorant, now that everybody used it for everything.
“When did you see somebody die?” Bernard asked.
“The first time?”
“You mean you’ve seen more than one?”
“Yes, people. That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
Bernard didn’t insist or say anything else. It occurred to him that if he did not pursue the matter perhaps it would coast to a halt and he could, maybe, forget it had ever come up.
But after a moment of silence she said: “It was when I was 13.
“I was comin’ home from swim team practice. At Chatham Fish and Game. I remember my hair was still wet and it was cold outside, even though it was only November, right before Thanksgiving.
“My father picked me up and we were on our way home, just driving along like always. He told me Mom was gonna make a goose instead of a turkey and I was thinking how weird that would be, to eat a goose on Thanksgiving.” Claire rose onto her elbow, her voice gathered speed and changed timbre slightly. “Then the car up in front of us swerved like crazy, first into the oncoming lane, but nobody was coming, then back across their own lane and off the road and right into a telephone pole.
“It was the only time I ever heard my Dad say `Fuck.’ He said `Fuck all,’ and hit the brakes and we pulled up behind this car rammed into the telephone pole and he stopped on the shoulder and jumped out. I jumped out too, and when we got to the side of the car there was a man in it, draped over the steering wheel, but the wheel was all bent and Dad pulled the door open and you could see the man was kinda stuck over the bent-up steering wheel and my Dad had to kinda get in behind him and use both hands to pull him back off it, an’ when he was leanin’ back against the seat you could see his chest was all caved in. But his eyes were open and his face looked almost OK, ‘cept for a scratch on his chin and some blood, just a trickle, comin’ out of his mouth. And a couple drops outa his nose.
“We pulled him out and laid him on the ground. He was breathin’ kinda like a dog breathes sometimes, short breaths and raspy. So Dad tells me to stay there with him and he goes to the road and looks up and down but nobody’s coming either way. So he tells me again to just stay there, that he’s going to the nearest house to call an ambulance.
“And that’s what he did. He takes off runnin’. And there I was, kneeling beside the man, and his eyes were mostly brown but with a green ring around the outside a’ the colored part, whatsit called, the iris. And he’s lookin’ at me, like he wants to try to sit up maybe or at least he wants to say something; anyway like he was making this effort. And then it was like all of a sudden he relaxed, like he decided he didn’t want to say anything or move, but he was still lookin’ at me, the only thing is he stopped breathing. And the most amazing thing, the thing that gives you the goose pimples and makes you feel strange, is that his eyes started changing. Not so much changing color, but before they were bright or maybe not bright but like they had a little water on them, a film of liquid like is on everybody’s eyes, so they reflected things, whatever was there in front of him, your face or trees or whatever, if you looked closely. Well, they started losing the brightness, very gradually but steadily. I mean I’m not talkin’ about a long time, I think only five or ten seconds or somethin’ like that. But that’s the thing, when the light goes out of their eyes, and then after another little while they don’t reflect anything anymore. They’re just kinda dull like foggy marbles. But still open. That’s when ya know they’re dead.”
A month after school resumed Bernard formed a band. His father had bought him a synthesizer and that was what he played in the band, whose main fare was Rock. Not too hard or heavy. Mostly Folk Rock and some Rhythm and Blues. They called the group The Greasers. Partly as a joke, because three of the five members were Italian. They liked the name though, and four of them already had black leather sport coat-cut jackets and that’s what they wore when they played, at school dances and a couple private parties. The fifth one, the drummer, bought himself a black leather vest he wore over a t-shirt, because he said he sweated too much, what with his energetic style, to wear a jacket.
Claire attended Summit High and Bernard went to Watchung Hills Regional. She carried on with her accordion lessons once a week, on Saturday, until early October. Then she told Bernard she was too busy with schoolwork and Candy Striping to continue.
They never mentioned the dying business again. She had talked about it for a while longer that afternoon in bed. She’d told how the other two times were in the hospital, one an elderly woman with cancer with whom she’d made friends and whose hand she’d been holding at the final moment, and another in the Emergency Room. But she said the one in the ER – a workman who’d fallen from a scaffold – wasn’t like the other two because his eyes were closed when his heart stopped and the machine extended the beep into a continuum and the line on the screen went flat. They had tried to shock him back to life and had even stuck a needle with adrenaline into his heart. But there was nothing doing.
The second Saturday morning after she’d given up her lessons, Claire called Bernard on the telephone. It was just after 10 o’clock.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said.
“I was kinda missin’ you.” She paused. “But I know you don’t love me anymore.”
“I don’t know, Claire. I don’t know if it’s that, or what.”
“That’s OK.” Pause. “You know. It’s hard when you go to different schools.”
There was a long silence.
“Want your bracelet back?”
“Of course not. That’s for you. To remember me by.”
“OK, then. Maybe we’ll see each other around. At the movies or a dance or somethin’.”
“Maybe you can come hear us play sometime.”
“Yeah, maybe. …OK, anyway. Bye.”
Bernard didn’t replace the receiver in the cradle. He just pushed down the button to get a dial tone, then called Frankie, then Joe, and told them to come over at 4 to rehearse, and for them to call Mark and Jimbo.
Photo By: Kevin Christopher Burke