It was 1963, but Barney Wetterer said we were living in the Year One, A.B.—After Bonnie. It was still less than a year since the Sprinkles had moved in, and Barney had the day he first saw Mrs. Sprinkle circled in red on his calendar. She was out washing her beat up old Rambler American with her blouse tied under her chest in little bunny ears and wearing some snug little short-shorts. Barney got me and Richie Costigian and we piled into his brother’s Chevy Bel Air, which hadn’t run since last winter and probably had reached its final resting place there in the Wetterers’ front yard. The Chevy still looked good enough to sit in a showroom, though, its paint and carpets and seat covers as clean as a whistle, and it worked fine for looking across Boundary Road at the Rambler and Mrs. Sprinkle without being too obvious about it. Richie brought his telescope, and Barney had his old man’s binoculars. I remember the beads of sweat that broke out like little heat blisters on the rolls of Barney’s neck while he stared at Mrs. Sprinkle first through the binoculars, and then through the telescope.
Richie said that her knotting her blouse like that was a code that meant she had worked as a Playboy Bunny at a club somewhere, or else had posed for Playboy. We believed that until later, when we saw Karen Pinelli with her blouse knotted in bunny ears. Karen was Barney’s brother’s girlfriend, a dog who would not have been allowed in the door at a Playboy Club. Richie’s theory sounded good enough at the time, though, for us to pore through my shoplifted collection of Playboys, just in case. Mrs. Sprinkle was not to be found there, but she could have been. She had all the qualifications, particularly in the glandular area.
I’d already met her once by then. Her husband Jay—whose real name was Julius, and that’s what we preferred to call him—was looking for somebody to mow their lawn those times when he was away, and since I already did lawns for the Korskis and Langetiegs, he called my old lady and asked me to come over. Mrs. Sprinkle let me into the kitchen, which was still messed up with boxes and paper bags and cans of soup, and she leaned her butt against the table while I talked with Julius, who never came into the kitchen himself, but just yelled at me from the living room. I could see him with his head jammed into a cardboard box he couldn’t get something out of. Their orange tomcat Marciano was having a good time with a piece of tape stuck to a flap. “Two bucks,” he was yelling. “Take it or leave it, what’s your name—Brian? Take it or leave it, Brian.”
I told him both the other neighbors paid three, and the Korskis’ lawn was smaller than his. “Yep,” he just yelled. “Two bucks—take it or leave it.”
Mrs. Sprinkle was wearing some baggy dungarees and an old apron, and she stood with her arms crossed over her glandular qualifications, which I didn’t even notice at the time. She had Lucille Ball-type hair, yellow-orange and curly and a little bit wild, and one of those square chins you see on comic book heroes or football players. That chin and the quick way she moved made you think that she grew up a tomboy. But at the same time she had these soft, sugary little eyebrows that made her look like she was always about to break into tears or laughter, and the longest glamour-girl fingernails I ever saw. She had them painted up even to unpack boxes.
She never said anything, just winked and smiled that second time Julius yelled at me. Then she held up three red fingernails. I figured she was going to make up the difference with Julius none the wiser. I went away thinking she was nice-looking, but nothing special. It was only later, when she got out from behind that apron and displayed her shape, that she really got a strangle-hold on me, like she did those other guys.
Julius used to be a prizefighter down in New Jersey, or at least that’s what Mrs. Sprinkle told me one day after I finished her lawn and she paid me my three bucks. It was hard to imagine Julius as a prizefighter, he was so skinny and stretched-out looking, but Mrs. Sprinkle told me he boxed while he was in college and working as a volunteer social worker or something in Newark, where she grew up. She had just dropped out of high school, and was working in a diner, and one of her uncles ran a gym down there. Julius came around to spar, and he finally talked her Uncle Artie into setting up a professional fight for him against some Polish tomato can Artie figured would go down easy. But instead Julius got beat up so bad that her uncle threw in the towel midway through the second round. She said that was why Julius limped, though I don’t remember if she said it was a head or a hip injury. Mrs. Sprinkle was at that fight, but only for a little bit. She threw up in the aisle during the first round, and then ran out into the street and nearly got run over. She said she never spoke to Artie again after that. She was actually pretty talkative when Julius wasn’t around.
Julius was a sportswriter for the Hartford Times, and in the summer he covered the Boston Red Sox. We got all revved up when we found out about that, and Richie in particular thought that someone who actually got to go up and talk to Dick Radatz or Bill Monbouquette or Frank Malzone must be nearly as cool as they were. But when we tried to get Julius to tell us about it—one time when he was going out the door to his Austin-Healey sports car, and I was bringing Richie and Barney with me to introduce them—he just shifted around and acted like he didn’t really know anything. Then when Richie kept after him about it, and started asking about autographs, he finally told us to get lost and drove away.
Mrs. Sprinkle came out in a tight cotton pullover, her chest trying to bust out like a pair of straight-arm jabs, and she apologized for Julius, saying that he was trying to make a deadline or something, and that actually he didn’t even like most of the guys on the Red Sox.
“Is he a Yankee fan?” Richie asked her, just the same way he might ask her if he was a Communist or a junkie. “He’s from Newark, isn’t he?”
“No, he’s from around Philadelphia,” Mrs. Sprinkle said, her New Jersey accent sounding like a gangster movie on afternoon TV. That was another reason we liked her.
“So he likes the Phillies,” Barney said.
Mrs. Sprinkle shrugged. “I don’t know what team he likes. I don’t even know if he really likes baseball. Do you read his stories in the newspaper?”
I probably had, but I didn’t know for sure. I never noticed who wrote them. Richie had, and he said they were okay, but sometimes he thought they didn’t give the Red Sox enough credit for being as good as they were.
“For crying out loud, they’re in eighth place,” Barney said. “They aren’t any good.”
Richie and Barney were about to get into one of their heated discussions, but Mrs. Sprinkle started telling a story about when Jay—which is to say, Julius—was just hired by the Times, and he wanted to sign his stories with the name he took as a prizefighter, Kid Sprinkle. “Kid Sprinkle?” Mrs. Sprinkle said, imitating the voice of this editor and sounding like she swallowed a Brillo pad. “Christ, they’d think we hired a fucking circus clown.”
We nearly pissed our pants, we laughed so hard. We had already taken a dislike to Julius, which gave Barney an excuse for stealing a fishing rod out of their garage later that same day. Also there was that language she used, or quoted, without seeming to even think about it. Richie said he had never heard an adult use that word to his face, never mind the name of Jesus in vain, but I said around my house that sort of stuff passed for polite conversation and enlightened commentary, just like it did maybe with the Sprinkles. Maybe I was exaggerating, but only a little. And somehow that sort of commentary made Mrs. Sprinkle’s eyebrows look a little more sugary, and that pullover another size too small. We went away stealing looks at each other out of the corners of our eyes, and then exploding into laughter for no reason a long time after that.
It was around that time that we made sure to be there to help whenever she came out to wash the Rambler, which she did regularly even though it looked like a pile of scrap metal. The Austin-Healey stayed in their garage, which was attached to the house. So even when Julius was gone on a road trip with the Sox, it was the Rambler that was always in the driveway getting rained on, except for some days when she moved the Austin-Healey outside, went on some errand in the Rambler, and then for some reason put the Rambler into the garage and dropped the door.
Otherwise the car was always there, and we made sure one of us was on watch whenever a couple weeks had passed and the Rambler had started to look cruddy, though that was a tough call with all its rust and welded-on dirt. Barney, however, got to be very good at noticing the little changes in color and texture that provoked another washing, and then he’d set up a timetable for his movements that day, and a way for him to be notified by messenger or phone call or agreed-on signal at the moment she stepped out the door with her big sponges.
Pretty soon Richie and me had timetables too. We wrote them down and set them all together in a big grid that looked like one of Richie’s science projects. For a signal we settled on the American flag that Richie’s father flew on a pole in his front yard. The flag was visible from all our houses and most of the places we were likely to be, and whoever was standing watch would just drop the flag to half-mast. The first time, Barney forgot to put it back up again, and later Richie caught some flak from his old man when he couldn’t explain why it had been lowered. After that we were more careful, but Richie took to reading the obituaries just in case. The next time Richie forgot, his old man came in ranting about the flag being down again, and Richie told him it was out of respect for Zasu Pitts. His old man stopped short, Richie said, and for once just buttoned his lip and walked away.
Mrs. Sprinkle always wore the same pale blue blouse to wash the car, and it was worth all our trouble just to see the water splash on the blouse and turn it transparent in spots, showing glimpses of the pink bra she wore beneath. Once Richie was inside the passenger compartment, scratching at the Rambler’s floor mats with a whisk broom, just as Mrs. Sprinkle leaned over the windshield to wipe it off with Windex. He says he looked up and saw one of her melons flatten and spread against the glass, and that it reminded him of that film clip we always saw of the atom bomb going off. He just lay there on his back until Mrs. Sprinkle finished, and then he lay there some more, goggle-eyed and looking up at the sky. Barney wondered why he hadn’t reached his hand up to touch it, even through the glass. But Richie just lay there, until Mrs. Sprinkle finished and saw him gazing up at the planets with his mouth gaping and his ears red and shiny. She looked up into the sky herself for a second, and then looked down and smiled at him in a bewildered kind of way. Then she gave him a wink through the sparkling glass. We nearly needed a stretcher to get him out of there.
Afterwards we usually went down to the woods that ran along the highway behind Boundary. Then we’d gas about whether Mrs. Sprinkle knew what was going on, and was putting on a show for us and just pretending to be innocent about it; or if she didn’t even notice us that way, and just carried on like she would if she were alone, never dreaming that any of us ever had an unseemly thought; or if she had no idea that she possessed this unusual ability to provoke unseemly thoughts, maybe because all the women in New Jersey looked that good (that’s where last February’s Playmate was from); or if she was already tired of Julius and how often he was gone, and was just running us through our paces to see which one of us might be man enough sometime soon to leap into the breach, if you know what I mean.
Then every time, like clockwork, we’d listen to Richie tell us in phrases he got from Venus Revealed, one of the old-time dirty novels I had lifted from my old man and loaned to him, about things that could possibly happen sometime, for all we knew: how she could forget to wear her bra, accidentally on purpose, maybe, and what we’d see then when her blouse got wet; or how her shorts could split without her knowing it—accidentally on purpose, maybe—as she crouched to wipe the Rambler’s hubcaps, and what we’d see as she stood up and the shorts fell down in a pile at her feet on the blacktop.
We’d lie there like deadfall logs, not even feeling the flies or hearing the trucks on the highway. I lay on my back and was usually scared to turn over, afraid that the fire in my pants would start the grass smoking beneath me. But then my zipper got so tight that I was more afraid that Barney would see and make some comment. So I turned over then, tipping to one side on the length of my turgid, rampant member—to borrow a phrase from our sacred text—like a boat pitched over on its keel.
One day in the Chevy Barney had an idea. Mrs. Sprinkle was standing at her clothesline in the back yard, pinning up bed sheets. The Sprinkles’ house was next to mine, which sat on the corner of Boundary and Grasso Street, facing Grasso. That opened up a line of sight from the Chevy across Boundary, and over a low chain-link fence and Mrs. Sprinkles’ flower garden, into a good part of the Sprinkles’ back yard. “You know that bathroom door up in her bedroom?” Barney said.
“What door?” Richie asked. “There isn’t a door. I already told you that.”
“That’s exactly the point, Einstein.”
Barney was up front behind the steering wheel, his forearm balanced like a chunk of fish on the seat-top. He scrunched around and looked at me, saying, “Didn’t she tell you one time she takes a bath every day? You know, when it’s hot like this?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“So this is what.”
After Barney revealed his plan, the only sound was Richie’s corduroy pants swishing on the vinyl seat. Across the street Marciano the cat was sitting on a tree stump and watching some sparrows on the lawn. Mrs. Sprinkle’s mouth was full of clothespins, and the sheets were billowing around her in the breeze. As she reached up to pin the sheets, her blouse lifted a little higher from her dungarees, and through the telescope I could see her stomach stretched taut and flat above the snap on her pants, and the crinkly knot of her bellybutton, and the little wishbone shape that her ribs made below her blouse. For a minute Venus was revealed, and then the sheets blew in front of her again.
“Where’s Julius?” I asked Barney.
“The Red Sox left today for Kansas City. Then they play the Twins, the White Sox, and the Tigers. Kid Sprinkle is gone for two weeks, minimum. You want to see her, don’t you?”
“What do you think?”
Barney wasn’t smiling any more, just flaring his nostrils in and out and looking like his eyes were lit up with kerosene, wet and fiery at the same time.
“Yeah, but why me?” I said. “Why not you? It’s your idea, isn’t it?”
Barney looked at me with his eyelids drooping a little lower. His chin poked out and his lips got thin and blue like they did whenever he was getting teed off.
Richie’s laugh sounded like the squealing that the belts used to make in that Chevy. “He couldn’t fit under her bed—he’d need a car jack, he’s so fat.”
Barney flailed his fish-meat arm over the back of the seat. “Shut up, you little piss-ant.”
Richie didn’t flinch. “You shut up, you plump and ample succubus. You dewy mound of Venus.”
I raised a hand between them. “Okay, so you’re excused, but why not Richie?”
Barney made a noise like a horse spitting out water. “He’d screw it up.”
“Who’d screw it up?” Richie demanded.
“He wouldn’t tell us nothing he hadn’t read in your old man’s books,” Barney said. “If I want that ample succubus stuff, I’ll just read it myself.” Barney looked me in the face. “You want to see her naked, don’t you? You’re normal, aren’t you?”
“What do you think?”
“Then do it. Just go in there and do it. She wouldn’t be mad, even if she knew. You know what I’m talking about. You’re the cat burglar pretty boy. She’d probably like a little company.”
The big arms shifted in Barney’s lap, and we both knew at that moment that never in his life, unless he paid for it, would he be able to be with a woman like Bonnie Sprinkle. “Then tell me every detail, alright? Every little detail.”
“Not just you,” Richie said, his ears so red that they gave the yeasty skin of Barney’s left cheek a healthy rosy glow. “He’s got to tell us both.”
The worst thing was tapping on her bedroom door, even if it was a safe bet she wasn’t home. The Rambler was gone and she hadn’t answered my pounding on the back door, which she always left unlocked. Barney and Richie were watching from the juniper bushes in my back yard, and after I knocked, I just opened the door and walked in like I owned the place. Then I went through the kitchen and into the front hallway and up the stairs and down the upstairs hall to the only room that could be theirs, the only room that had its door closed. But I couldn’t just go through. I stopped and tapped on the door, my fingertips barely stroking the wood; the door swung open slightly.
She was gone. Richie had been up there once before, one time when she sent him after scissors for cutting flowers. He said it was dark, and it still was. The shades were drawn, though one had a long tear, where light came leaking through. Next to the bureau was a dressing table covered with brushes and cosmetics, and also a big family photo: Mrs. Sprinkle and her parents, it looked like, and a lot of brothers and cousins and aunts, all of them crowded and grinning on an apartment building’s fire escape. The picture looked like it was taken when she was still in school. On a little table by the bed, next to a big crystal ashtray half-full, was a picture of her and Julius on vacation somewhere, or maybe on their honeymoon, Mrs. Sprinkle on horseback and the Kid holding the bridle, his wife beaming down at him like he’d just saved the ranch or tamed this wild stallion. The bed was unmade and all crumpled up, its lace cover falling down the crack between the mattress and the footboard. A pair of heavy barbells lay by the footboard, and the weights had worn little black ruts in the rug.
The most important thing was the bathroom door, and it was just like Richie said: missing; it was just the doorframe with empty hinges, and from the bed—or under the bed—you had a direct view of the bathtub that Mrs. Sprinkle said she used so much in the summer. Barney’s theory was that Julius had taken the door off so he could lie in bed and watch the show whenever she took a bath, and that’s how he got the idea for this whole thing. There was a shower curtain that could be pulled around the tub, but¬—just like Richie said—it was clear plastic, and half of it was pulled off the curtain rod anyway.
Barney and Richie wanted me to go through her bureau drawers, and find out her exact bra size, and what kind of panties she wore, just in case the rest of this didn’t work out, but I didn’t like standing around in the middle of the bedroom, and I didn’t like the idea of going through her private stuff either, though I guess that was small change compared to breaking into her house and spying on her while she bathed. Anyway, I skipped the drawers and slid right away under her bed. It was musty and dark down there, jumbled up with sneakers, slippers, some wadded-up Kleenexes, a sewing basket. Julius also kept his fishing rods there now, two of them, and a green dip-net. And there was a stack of magazines: Life, Argosy, Esquire, the Sporting News, some Batman comic books, but no Playboys or anything like that.
I looked at the Lifes and the Batmans first, since pictures worked best with the bad light under there. Then I looked at some of the other ones. I saw where an article on Graham Hill chasing a second consecutive Formula One driving championship in a twelve-cylinder BRM had been cut out of Esquire. A few weeks ago Mrs. Sprinkle had folded that into the envelope she gave me with the three bucks for mowing her lawn. Sometimes it was stuff on Formula One racing, which she knew I liked, or sometimes it was stuff on President Kennedy, whom she really liked, or else different stuff on the Red Sox, like an editorial from a Kansas City newspaper, maybe. But it was always something. She never just gave me the money.
I looked at the torn edges of the Esquire pages and could see where she had creased them first with her fingernails, it looked like. Nobody else had ever done anything like that for me. I felt like I was there in some way to show my appreciation, though I didn’t want to think too hard about that, I guess, because it wouldn’t have made sense.
Afterwards there was a long pause. Marciano had come under the bed and was purring and rubbing against my cheek. I heard a match strike and smelled cigarette smoke.
“Glenda’s quitting. Did I already tell you that?”
“Tell me what?”
“I told you a couple of weeks ago. Remember? She’s my secretary.”
“Oh, yeah. So what’s she doing?”
“She’s given notice that she’s quitting at the end of the month. Just like that. I don’t have to tell you it took me completely by surprise.”
“Oh, yeah? Why’s she quitting?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. I think she wants to go back to school.”
“Good for her. That’s what I ought to do.”
“Yeah, it’s great. I said it was the best thing for her—whatever it is. Kind of leaves me high and dry, though.”
“How about one for me? Do you mind?”
“I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do.”
They were quiet again for a while. I could hear Mrs. Sprinkle pulling on her cigarette and blowing out smoke. He said, “This comes at a real bad time, you know?”
“You’ll be okay. There’s lots of girls out there, Stuart.”
The guy shifted around in the bed. “You’re missing the point.”
They were quiet again for a while. Marciano was looking at me with goo-goo eyes, and I was afraid he was going to start purring again, or meowing, and then I was afraid that he wasn’t, that in the quiet they’d hear my heart jack-hammering against the floorboards like in that Edgar Allen Poe story. I lay there without breathing, looking out across the carpet at all the stuff strewn across it: a white shirt and red tie tossed like laundry into a corner by the closet; this Stuart guy’s black creased pants jumbled over the barbells at the foot of the bed; his tasseled loafers, both on their sides, one of them rolled under the bureau; Mrs. Sprinkle’s skirt; her panties, yellow with little flowers on them, like a little girl’s; one half of her bra, the same yellow as her panties, its big right cup dangling down from the mattress and hanging in front of my face. It all had floated down like what was left of fireworks after they came charging up the stairs. I could only see their feet as he tangoed her across the floor, as he pulled her clothes off and shoved her into the bed.
I thought about trying to crawl out the door while the bed was in high gear, while Mrs. Sprinkle was moaning and he was making these grunting and whimpering noises at the same time, like he couldn’t decide if he was a pig at the trough or a dog at the back door. But then the bed slowed down, and Stuart made up his mind he was just a pig, grunting slow and deep and rolling over on his side with one more big bend of the cross-slats.
Then there was this little sucking sound, and something that looked like what you might get if you blew your nose and it all came out with mucous membrane attached, dropped with a wet plop on the carpet near my ear. I had to look at it a long time before I figured out what it was, and when I did I almost threw up right there, I swear to God. That was about when Marciano showed up. He sniffed at the mess on the carpet, licked it twice, and then came purring over to me.
“The point,” Mrs. Sprinkle said, “is first you wanted me to sign up as a salesman, or saleswoman, or whatever, and now you’re angling for me to be your secretary. I don’t even know how to do that.”
I could hear Stuart shifting around in the bed again. “Now that you mention it, just for the hell of it, what would be wrong with you taking Glenda’s place? Me, I can see several advantages in an arrangement like that.”
“Jay would blow his stack. He would literally blow his stack. You can’t imagine.”
“What is he, on to us?”
I could hear Mrs. Sprinkle stubbing out her cigarette, jabbing it into the ashtray on the table next to her. “Leave me alone, Stuart. It wouldn’t work.”
“For the love of God, he can’t pay the mortgage at the end of the month, and he’s worried about his wife working? What, he’s too proud for that?”
“Bingo—he thinks it looks bad.”
“How about losing this whole fucking house? How’s that for looking bad?”
“We pay the mortgage.”
“Sure you do, with a little help from yours truly. Where does he think that money comes from, anyway?”
“I tell him Artie sends it to us.”
“That broken-down boxing coach? I thought you weren’t talking to that guy.”
“Well, he’s not really sending us the money, is he?”
“And Jay really believes he sends you that much money each month? What is he, still punch-drunk?”
“He doesn’t want me working, and that’s the way he is. He’s not going to change. So let’s us just change the subject, okay?”
“Bonnie, Glenda makes three hundred dollars a month. You could pay off the mortgage on this place. You could get yourself a decent car. Hey, you could get a door for the bathroom. What happened to that, anyway?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What, is he on to us?”
“No, he just…. Well, I said I don’t want to talk about it, okay? It’s personal.”
“You can go pee. I won’t peek.”
“For the love of God, Bonnie, where else is a high school dropout going to get offered a job like this? Tell me that.”
“It would hurt him. I’m not going to do it.”
“No, but you’ll do this, won’t you? This doesn’t hurt, does it?”
Suddenly it got so quiet it was like they were both struck dead. I couldn’t hear the steady background squeaking of the bed. I couldn’t hear them breathe. Then: “I’m sorry, Bonnie. I shouldn’t have said that. But honestly, I can’t— Ow! Jesus!”
It was a funny sort of sound, sort of like a stone whapping into hard clay, and I don’t know how but I knew as soon as I heard it that she’d walloped him with that big ashtray by the side of her bed. Marciano took off like a ray of light at the same time that the bed bounced off the carpet again. Then Stuart’s stockinged feet were on the floor and running to the bathroom. I saw him stand in front of the mirror, cussing and moaning and then gasping when he took his hands away from his face and saw a nose that looked like the beef tongue you see in the supermarket, sometimes with blood still on it.
I edged back into the dark as he turned and said in a nasally voice, “Jesus, look what you did to me. What’s the matter with you?”
There were cigarette ashes stuck to his face and blood dripping down his mouth and chin, into the scraggly hairs of his chest where a cigarette butt was stuck, and then breaking into separate drips, like long red scratches, like Mrs. Sprinkle’s fingernails, around the big white puddle of his belly. His stomach pushed out like angel cake around his bellybutton, and underneath, his nuts were bristly enough to look like little eggs in a bird’s nest. Stuart was not as good-looking as Julius. Even with a good nose, Stuart was not as good-looking as almost anybody, except maybe Barney.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” he said. “I think you broke my nose.”
Mrs. Sprinkle didn’t say anything, or move a muscle, so far as I could tell. Stuart had crumpled a wad of toilet paper to his face, but as soon as he moved it away, he started dripping blood again. “Jesus Christ.” He wrapped a pink bath towel around his waist, and then started up again through the toilet paper about what she was going to do about this. She didn’t answer, or do anything else. He started picking up his clothes, ranting at her the whole time, saying this whole thing had been a mistake from the start, and now how could he go back to the office like this? He’d probably lose his job. He didn’t have to tell her that his nose was ruined. How was he going to explain it all to Audrey? He cussed a little more while he was pulling his clothes on with one hand, and when his pants got tangled in the barbells. Then he started looking around for his loafers.
“Meanwhile, Bonnie, you and Kid Galahad can just head right back to that rat-infested tenement you thought you got out of.”
It was that one damned loafer. His shoes were the last things he looked for, and one was right in the middle of the floor, but he couldn’t find the one under the bureau. I poked the dip-net out from under the bed when he wasn’t looking, trying to drag the loafer out into the floor, but he kept turning around before I could get it.
It got to where I just waited, knowing it was going to happen, and then it did: his head appeared mostly upside down right in front of me, the toilet paper stuck to his nose like a corsage, the words catching all of a sudden in his throat while his eyes adjusted to the dark. He stopped like he was frozen and looked right at me and said, “Bonnie, what, you got a manikin or something under this bed?”
“A manikin?” It was the first time Mrs. Sprinkle said anything since she hit him.
“You know, for your sewing?”
“What are you talking about? You’re the one who’s punch-drunk.”
“Jesus holy Christ,” he said under his breath. I was trying to be a manikin, but I couldn’t keep it up. I blinked or breathed or something. I was just about to spasm my way out the other side, and then crash through the window like Batman and land in the shrubs outside, when Stuart reached out and grabbed my arm. Then he had hold of my hair. I came out fast and yelling pretty good.
I couldn’t understand what Barney was doing out there already. The plan had been for him and Richie to meet me in my back yard at two AM, after Mrs. Sprinkle had had her bath, and gone to sleep, and after I’d sneaked out. For some reason Barney was already there behind the juniper bushes—or still there—in the middle of the afternoon, and he waved me over as soon as I got out the door. “What are you doing out already?” he said. “Did she catch you? Did she throw you out?”
“No, she didn’t throw me out.”
“I heard the Rambler pull out just now. What’s going on?”
I think I just shrugged my shoulders and smoothed my hair. I don’t remember.
“Well, come on—did you see her?”
“Don’t dick around with me, Brian.”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I saw her.”
Everything else would come later: the Rambler dropping its transmission right in the driveway and getting hauled away by a wrecker; the “For Sale—Vulcan Realty” sign stuck in the front yard, and then “SOLD!” slashed across the front of it. Mrs. Sprinkle hardly ever came out any more. The grass grew long, and then turned brown in a long drought. Jimmy Clark—in a Lotus Climax—began to pull away in the Formula One standings. The Red Sox put on a late-season surge to finish seventh in the American League. The Yankees ran away with the pennant, but in October, in the World Series, they got swept by the Dodgers. On the day the Sprinkles were loading their furniture into a moving van about to leave for some town in Iowa, where Julius had gotten a job with another paper, I don’t remember her nails or those sugary eyebrows so much, while I stared through the binoculars from the front seat of the Bel Air, but I remember the look in her eyes as she sat against the fender of the Austin-Healey with her arms crossed over her chest: like she didn’t even see the moving guys or anything else for that matter, like she had already left.
I also remember Barney’s face that day, with its numb and puzzled look while the chairs and tables and pieces of the bed went into the van. “I know why she’s got that thing on,” he said finally, gesturing to the loose, baggy frock she wore, and talking like he’d solved the riddle of the sphinx: “She’s pregnant. See her belly?” Richie couldn’t see it. I wasn’t sure, but it kind of looked to me like Barney was right.
On the day he caught me coming out of their house, though, I must have talked to him for an hour about what you might call a different kind of riddle. Of course there was the truth, which was classified: how Stuart twisted my arm behind my back like it was a rag he was wringing dry, how I clamped my eyes shut and tried to bury my face in my chest. Stuart just grabbed my hair again and pulled my head up so Mrs. Sprinkle could tell him who I was.
He wanted to know what I was doing under the bed, and I said I didn’t know. Then he twisted my arm some more, until I knew it wouldn’t make any difference what I told him, that the bastard just wanted to break my arm. I didn’t mean to cry. I didn’t want to blubber like a damned baby in front of Mrs. Sprinkle, but I was doing that anyway by the time she told him not to hurt me.
“Or what?” Stuart sneered. “You’re gonna hit me with that ashtray again? Or what? What are you gonna do, Bonnie?”
So she told him. First she was going to call his boss, and then she was going to introduce herself to Audrey, and then she was going to set fire to his brand new Thunderbird, the one he just paid cash for.
I think any one of those would have been good enough for Stuart. He let go of me like I was contagious and then I heard him clumping around the bedroom, still looking for that other shoe, saying she was the craziest dumb bitch he ever heard of, and wondering how many other little spies Jay Edgar Sprinkle had in the neighborhood.
“In the meantime, Bonnie,” he went on, “you better call up Hopalong Cassidy and tell him to start looking for change out there under the seats at Tiger Stadium. I don’t have to tell you that your sugar-daddy uncle is going to find himself a little indisposed in the future.”
Then Stuart was gone, giving up on the other shoe and slamming the bedroom door behind him. I heard the sheets rustle, and then I heard something hit hard against the swinging door and go clattering to the floor. I guessed it was that ashtray again. Then I heard Stuart clumping down the stairs. I didn’t want to run into him again, so I couldn’t leave until I’d heard him go out the door into the garage. Instead I stood there like a post, feeling naked myself, my arm throbbing and my eyes still clamped shut and leaking tears. After a minute, while I could still hear Stuart downstairs, Mrs. Sprinkle said, “Look at me, Brian.”
I didn’t know if she was under the covers or not, and I just shook my head. Maybe it looked like more of a twitch.
“So what were you doing under there, honey?” Her voice sounded tired, almost like she was nodding off to sleep. “Did you come in here looking for money?”
“No, honest to God, I wasn’t stealing anything.”
“Is this something Jay put you up to?”
“No, I swear to God, Mrs. Sprinkle.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“I don’t know.” I thought I was lying again, but when it came out like that, at least at that moment, it sounded more like the truth than anything else I could have said.
“Well,” she said after a minute, “that makes two of us.”
That was when I heard Stuart coming back up the stairs. He clumped inside the room and then stopped behind me. He was quiet for a second while I stood there shaking. “This is memorable, just memorable,” he said finally. “You lying there like that in front of this little pervert. If you’ll pardon me for interrupting, you’ll remember that we came over here in your car. I’m going to have to ask you for a ride home, if that’s not too much trouble. Audrey won’t be there.”
I heard Mrs. Sprinkle roll out of bed, heard her bare feet brush across the carpet. Marciano had come in again with Stuart and was rubbing against my leg. I peeked down and saw Stuart’s fluids, his blood and spunk, on the carpet at my feet. There was also that ashtray, upside down and emptied out and shaped like a scallop shell.
“You don’t mind, do you, Brian?” Stuart said. “Brian? What is he, catatonic?”
I didn’t breathe a word of any of that to Barney that day, or to Richie or to anyone else, though I thought for a minute—once I got outside—about somehow telling Barney the good news that sometimes looks don’t matter so much. But instead I took another deep breath and told him just what he wanted to hear: how Mrs. Sprinkle had come in sweaty for an afternoon bath before going out on some errand. I told him I saw her standing in the bathroom and removing all her clothes, item by item, doing it slowly while the water was running. And I told him what I could see as each garment dropped to the floor, and as she eased into the tub, setting her pert little rump on the edge first, her jugs jiggling a little, and then daintily swinging her feet around, her thighs parting slightly, before finally slipping everything into a whipped-up sea-foam of soapsuds. I told him things I couldn’t possibly have seen from under the bed, like the way her breasts floated in the foam, or the way she handled the sponge around her various nooks and crannies. Barney just drank it all in.
“God, tell it to me again,” he said, once I’d gotten her out of the tub and dried off and dressed. His breath came in hot little bursts, and he looked at me with his kerosene eyes like I was Moses down from the mountaintop.
So I told him again, but that time I got some of the details changed around slightly. Barney crossed his eyes and looked to be on his way to getting teed off, but I corrected myself in time and he settled back into his wet dream. I never said anything to Richie because Barney repeated it all for me, even improving on it, I’d have to say, and eventually, on the twentieth repetition or so, taking my place under the bed, squeezing himself in just fine.
Richie never called him on it, and whatever Barney wanted to say was okay with me. I just sat like a post in the Bel Air, blind, maybe catatonic, my face pointing across the road at the bare November shrubs planted where Mrs. Sprinkle’s flower garden used to be. That was when I felt the Chevy move, felt it start up and carry me and everyone else away at much too high a speed to our own version of Iowa, a future we couldn’t imagine and that had little to do, if you really want to know, with whatever it was we intended.