It was Lyle Dwyer's favorite time of year. The week after the goddamn prom was one long lazy slide to summer vacation. A couple of exams to monitor, a few dozen papers to correct, hand out the A's and the F's and the summer was his.
Two months off was the only thing teaching high school had to recommend for itself. This year he figured to take a long drive upstate, maybe visit a couple of the SUNY campuses. The college at Plattsburgh was always coming into some interesting specimens they dredged out of Lake Champlain. And again this summer there'd be the usual rumors of Loch Ness-type monsters in Lake George. Put that good stuff together with the countless Indian skeletons that were still turning up, many of them with obvious bullet wounds and other signs of violent death, and a biologist like himself, with a bend towards the macabre, could have a good, cheap, not to mention educational sabbatical.
So Dwyer was absent-mindedly policing up the bio lab. Some of the sophomore kids had been dissecting puppies for extra credit after school, so Lyle hadn't gone home for dinner. He preferred a hot sandwich from the ptomaine wagon and the delicious flurry of activity in the lab to leftovers from the fridge at home. He was that kind of bachelor.
Outside, the evening had begun to thicken. Lyle paused by the open window, assessing the night-to-come as he imagined a dog might: the moisture-laden molecules borne on the downslope wind across the Hudson tickled the thick black hairs in his nose. The storm that had been flirting with the mountaintops across the river would hit Waldren in a couple of hours. Listening hard, with a heavy hand behind a hairy ear, Dwyer could make out rumblings of thunder. The intermittent glow of lightning strikes behind the Catskills were already brighter than the tired sun, which had finally taken the evening off.
There was another sound on the wind. For Lyle Dwyer it was unpleasant, a harbinger of all that would be even more unpleasant by the time the dance got started. Downtown, the kids had begun tooling their cars up and down the main drag, leaning on their horns just so nobody missed the point: it was prom night and there was hell to be raised.
Lyle grabbed the long stick with the brass hook on the end and started shutting windows. He pulled the water-stained yellow shades down so that later, when the lightning struck, the branches of the trees outside would be silhouetted against them. It appealed to some sick sense of order Dwyer had: he liked the idea of the lab being as creepy as it could be, at night, just in case somebody got the idea that it might be fun to hang out in. Maybe have a little rum and coke in. Smoke some maryjane in. That was why he always volunteered to monitor the prom anyhow. The one year—his first here—when he hadn't, the crazy kids had emptied every specimen bottle in the place. Next to biology, Lyle was very big on law and order. A fetus was to study, not to festoon a corridor.
Dwyer wandered down the back stairs past the boys' locker room and into the gymnasium. The place was hung with red and gold crepe and there was a large mirror ball suspended over mid-court. The thirty or forty kids who'd already gathered in the gym were mostly geeks and losers, kids without personalities and looks, the quiet ones, the easy ones. The elite crowd, the seniors with juice, were still enjoying lavish dinners and drinks downtown, at some of the better restaurants no doubt.
At the far end of the room the band was noodling a little four-four vamp, pacing themselves. Like Lyle, they knew they were in for a long evening.
Dwyer nodded to a couple of kids who ignored him, walked past the refreshment table where the new young vice principal was holding court, and headed out the main door and down the stairs, with the vague idea of checking the barometer outside the metal shop to see if the storm was really going to be as big as his rheumatism thought.
The wind whipped at his blue gabardine suit, the one he saved for dances and funerals. He could smell ozone already, but he also smelled tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana, in about equal measures. Kids in party outfits were gathered in little groups, and in the center of each group there seemed to be a small orange glow. Lyle grinned. His job would be easy tonight. These kids didn't have cars. They had to smoke or toke or booze it here and there outside. And outside, soon, would be no place to do anything except get out of the rain.
"OK, children," he said, loud enough for all of them to hear, but not loud enough for any of them to think he was addressing them and them alone. "The action's all inside now." He clapped his hands for emphasis. "Let's go. Break it up."
There were a few titters on the edges of some of the groups, but Lyle detected a general movement towards the gym. He smiled and said nothing more. It was like herding sheep, somewhat, he thought.
What were they all but human sheep? Same hair, same clothes, same taste in music. It was the nature of the beast. And teenagers were beasts, make no mistake about that.
Lyle Dwyer had never considered that he'd actually be teaching real teenagers when he first got into this line of work. His real interest, after all, was the work itself. The dissection, the exploration, the exciting discovery of egg sacs, or better— tumors. The kids were a kind of unlikable appendage to his work. A necessary but nonetheless unlikable accessory. By the time he grew to realize that he hated teenagers as much as he liked cadavers, it was too damned late. He'd been teaching for twenty years, and there was nothing else he knew how to do.
Lyle watched the smoke from his own cigarette get caught up on the wind and waft away. Once, he'd had a chance to get out. About five years ago, O'Brian, the history teacher, and Dobbs, the JV coach, got some money together and started up a little soft ice cream place. After a year or so they added hot dogs and fish fries. They needed capital, and Lyle had made an offer, but they turned him down. He'd have been willing to quit the teaching and just sit there filleting fish all day, but it didn't work out. He always wondered if it had anything to do with him personally, like maybe he didn't bathe enough or something. Or maybe they just didn't like the idea of him coming fresh from the lab to do some cutting for them.
All water under the bridge now. No matter. He had tenure. He'd put in his thirty years—he could teach the amphibian nervous system with his eyes shut—and then maybe he'd get himself a little Airstream and just travel or something. Anything, actually, to get away from the kids.
Like well-heeled locusts, they'd really started to arrive. The big iron, the fancy cars with their New York City tags, one after the other they made their entrance. They all seemed to be tuned to the same radio station, sheep that they were.
The incessant beat and obscene sex-obsessed lyrics enveloped Dwyer like the unique malignant breath of an unknowable monster. From all directions it spewed, horrific. Lyle had had about enough. He was taking one last drag and was about to reenter the gym when—da da da dum—the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth wrenched their way across the parking lot, followed all too soon by the awesomely customized van of Roger Davis.
Dum dum dum dah. The phrase repeated as Davis leaned on the horn and the van slid by, like some weird 21st Century Black Mariah. Roger Davis waved, the way Prince William might wave if he knew he was getting a little mud for his turtle later that night, and the van—the Deathmobile he thought they called it—turned too tightly in Dwyer's direction, forcing him to step back so it could park.
Dwyer's mood took a turn for the better. Giving Davis what he figured was a properly professional once-over, he crossed in front of the Deathmobile to the passenger's side. Kids might be kids and a pain in the ass to boot, but Davis's girl, Joan, the blonde who crossed her legs in an impossibly suggestive way in his sixth period Advanced was worth waiting around for. Yes. Gustav Doré on a black field. Tres chic, no?
Dit dit dit dah, the Deathmobile sang out one more time. Enough engine to keep a flying fortress aloft came to a halt and, simultaneously, the sliding door opened and—pig of pigs—Allen Palumbo jumped out, nearly crashing into Dwyer.
Somehow Palumbo had found a tux to fit him, and, as the big ox mumbled "Hiya, Dwyer," Lyle noticed that he looked pretty good. The suit fit nicely; must've been a custom job.
"Hello, Allen," Dwyer managed to get out. He noticed a joint sticking out from behind Palumbo's ear, but Palumbo noticed him notice and quickly reached back and tucked it under his slick black hair, smiling an unctuous smile. Dwyer saw that the boy had had some excellent crown work done, and he wondered who would be foolish enough to knock out such a monster's teeth. Probably his father.
"Scuse me a minnit, wouldja teach?" said Palumbo as he kind of shoved Dwyer to the side. "Lady comin' through." In the instant, Roberta Eliot stepped from the van, accepting Palumbo's hand as though it belonged to a knight of the round table.
Miss Eliot was no child. Nor was she a sheep. She had the build of a goddess. A frosty gown of mystic green insinuated itself around her body like a dream will sometimes wrap around your waking hours. She wore her hair in an elaborate twist and she carried a sheaf of wild flowers as though they were a scepter. One thing was certain—she was too damn gorgeous for Allen Palumbo. Regardless, he brought his other hand around her tiny waist, its smallness accentuated by the tightness of the gown, and swept her off towards the gym.
"Watch yourself, Lyle," whispered Roger Davis, appearing suddenly. "Look but don't touch." Lyle came back to his senses in time enough to move even farther back for Joan Snowland's exit, but to his surprise, Davis rolled the door shut emphatically. Davis cocked himself a half-smile, as if in apology, and hurried to catch up with Palumbo.
"Davis!" said Dwyer, loudly, but most unlike a threat. The big quarterback turned back to him, already bored with whatever it was Dwyer was about to say.
"This is a fire lane," said Lyle. "You'll have to move it."
"Aw man..." protested Palumbo, who'd overheard. He moved towards Dwyer a little too quickly.
"No, no," said Davis. "He's right. We'll move it." Surprisingly, Mr. All American Roger Davis unlocked his Deathmobile, climbed in, and started it.
"Unh Davis," said Dwyer. Rog rolled down the window.
"Where's your girl?"
Rog laid rubber in reverse for twenty yards. The van then jerked back into the adjacent loading zone. An ironic choice, considering, thought Dwyer. He decided to let them win this one, but he was curious: where was the Snowland girl? Lyle Dwyer looked back and forth between Roberta and Palumbo for a hint, but they, like Roger Davis, didn't want to talk about it.
And then lightning struck. Not real lightning; that was still some hours off, still playing over the mountaintops, still waiting for its cue.
This was a fearsome metaphorical lightning, accompanied by an horrific metaphorical thunder. Roger Davis slipped nonchalantly from behind the wheel of his van just in time to observe the arrival of his year's prom queen, the indomitable Joanie Snowland.
Incredible as it seemed, she sat tall and proud beside Charlie Washington in the Miller's filling station tow truck. Charlie rounded the corner carefully, as though he were chauffeuring a movie star, a famous head of state, someone very important. The truck ran a little rough. Charlie had to keep goosing it, keeping up the rpms. The kids who hadn't quite filed all the way back into school yet stood there in silent stupefaction. And the distant thunder rolled on.
Charlie saw them all: Rog Davis and Palumbo and Roberta, looking like a big city tart. He had a bunch of choices as to where to park the truck. Some of them allowed for a quicker getaway than others. Before he'd really made up his mind, Joanie piped up:
"Right there," she said, pointing at the Deathmobile. Charlie eased between the night-black van and Lyle Dwyer. The science teacher was giving him a very weird look, and at the same time he was standing on his toes to see what Joanie was looking like. Rog Davis stopped dead in his tracks, half-in and half-out of the dumb old van.
Charlie tapped the accelerator one last time to clear the carburetor and switched off the engine. He jerked the emergency brake hard and the parking lot exploded in silence. Joanie smiled at him, set her jaw defiantly, and tried to open the tow truck door.
She couldn't of course. It was a very old truck, and the only part of it that didn't stick was the brakes.
Charlie knew he would have to expose himself to the stares and whatever else the kids out there had waiting for him. It was the gallant thing to do, after all. He shouldered his own door open. It hinges made a sickening sort of derisive squeak. He had started to think that maybe this wasn't such a good idea. The way Allen Palumbo was looking at him, a guy could get killed.
As he stepped to the pavement, Charlie was acutely aware that he wasn't dressed for the part. There was nothing the least bit festive about his bib overalls and his grimy shirt. He took a big red bandana from his back pocket and blotted the sweat from his brow. He looked some kind of fool. To his immense astonishment, the crowd—which had grown to some fifty or sixty kids by now—began to applaud. He hesitated, somewhat confused. Somebody yelled "Yay Charlie!" and the applause grew louder.
Lyle Dwyer smelled fear on Charlie Washington, but he smiled as the boy eased gracefully around the front of his beat-up old tow truck. The kid was all white teeth and smiles too, and he sort of waved his red bandana, and the crowd loved it.
Rog Davis stiffened as Charlie walked in front of him, and then the passenger side door of the tow truck was opening, and as the applause grew (people were sticking their heads of the out gym windows by now) Joanie Snowland stepped from the running board of the old truck as though she were Cinderella arriving at the ball. It was quite an amazing scene.
Joanie curtsied to her brave black footman. With a glance from the corner of her eye at Rog Davis, she bowed deeply to the crowd. The kids went wild. It was as dramatic an entrance as anybody'd ever made at Willard Freeman Memorial High School, and the fact was not lost on Davis.
He stood there, for once looking as dumb as his crony Palumbo. And then there was a slight exchange of energy between Davis and Charlie, just as Charlie took the prom queen's arm. Davis made a half step towards the couple out of something like sheer animal animosity, and without thinking twice, Charlie, in his oily bib overalls, stiffened just enough to let Davis know that, hey, jock, this lady is safe with me.
The crowd went mad. There were cries of "Joanie, Joanie, Joanie," and "yay, Washington, show him man," and—discreet in the face of greater valor—Davis relaxed and hung back, as Joanie and Charlie swept to a kind of makeshift royal welcome just outside the door to the gym. You could see Rog's brain was working very quickly, looking for a way to save the situation, realizing at last that this round, at least, was lost, and resolving to make his move later on, when the heat of the moment had subdued.
Oh, it was something special, I want to tell you. Out of such simple acts of chivalry comes the stuff of legend. And all the while, the storm grumbled away, waiting off-stage like the third act monster, secure in the enormity of its power, waiting for the perfect time.
The kids of course ignored the weather. They were witnesses to a great event, and had eyes and ears for nothing else. Only Charlie and Dwyer noted the coming storm for what it was—a fearsome underscore to the night's events. Charlie eyed the distant lightning nervously as he hurried back to his truck.
He had turned the queen over to her subjects, his dinner hour was over, he had a job to do. Dwyer nosed again the ozone in the air with the satisfaction of the scientist who understands what everything's about. He didn't like the way Palumbo and Davis were huddled together, but at the same time, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe there weren't someway he might get to escort Joanie home. Now wouldn't that be something on a dark and stormy night? It was fate, is what it was.
Lyle Dwyer watched Joanie Snowland's new champion grind off into the night. All he had to do was play his cards, deck stacked as it was. He lit himself another cigarette. He'd let things go inside for a while; see how it all developed.
Oh they had good times. They had rock n roll. They had punch you could spike or not as your heart desired. They had pot, grass, weed, marijuana, hash, and even toots 'n' acid too. All the teachers said it was remarkable how well-behaved the kids at this year's prom were, but the truth was, they were so swacked out of their minds they had no choice. It was behave or die.
When Joanie hit the dance floor, the place went crazy. By this time word had got round that she and Rog were on the outs, and the poor girl was at nothing like a loss for dance partners. Obscure boys who'd watched her from the shadows lo these many years were reborn as kamikaze lotharios. Everybody was moving in on Joanie, last chance as it was, and it was driving Roger Davis crazy.
Not that there weren't a few candidates for Joanie's seat on the Lear jet leaving later, mind. Old Roger Davis was surrounded by second, third, and even fourth and fifth stringers. Some would offer sex. And some would offer drugs. And some were naïve enough to think that Rog did anything for nothing. But at the center of this swirl of feminine hyperactivity, Roger Davis sat asulking. What he wanted it appeared he couldn't have. And she was driving him crazy.
Lyle Dwyer, that expert on the adolescent psyche, had observed all this with a wary eye. After she'd danced for ninety non-stop minutes, Dwyer figured Joanie needed a rest, and he sauntered over to where she stood, aglow, sweaty and satisfied. He bore a very special cup of punch.
"You look radiant, Joan," said Lyle Dwyer at his most professorial. In his mind he was treating their relationship as one more properly found on the college level: he was the middle-aged expert pedagogue, Joanie the young but not-too-young—a hah hah hah—liberal arts student who might like to get an A in a subject she didn't particularly like. To tell the truth, Dwyer was beginning to get a little messed up in the head from all the booze, but be that as it may....
"Thank you, Mr. Dwyer," said Joanie Snowland. She paused to coax a stray blonde strand back into place, off a wet tan shoulder. Joanie was born for strapless dresses. On the other girls they looked wrong, mostly dated, inappropriate, but the look was invented for Joanie. Dwyer stared at the small puddle of perspiration that had collected in her left clavicle. She had such strong tennis-player's shoulders. He offered her the "special" punch and marveled at the way her arm extended, graceful as any ballerina's.
Joanie had a smile brighter than all the bright lights in this room, and the thought of its shining on him and him alone was too much for Lyle Dwyer. He sipped nervously at the punch, which he'd made perhaps too strong. Joanie smiled brighter. Dwyer swallowed with some difficulty, and as Joanie looked at him for some clue to any further conversation, Dwyer's nose strained to pick up some scent of her.
The room was so warm, the air so filled with a hundred perfumes and the musk of youth alive. But as he leaned, in tiny increments closer to this gorgeous young thing, he detected the unmistakable richness of Joanie's expensive cologne. It had combined so completely with her natural female effusions to create a bouquet of such remarkable complexity that Lyle half-wanted to kneel in supplication at her feet, the better to smell some more. The room spun with Dwyer's thoughts and Joanie's big blue eyes grew larger and more wondrous. Dwyer found himself toppling ever so slightly and—as quickly—discovered Joanie's strong left arm steadying him.
"Whoa, Mr. Dwyer," said Joanie Snowland. "You've got a long way to go yet."
Dwyer's fat sweaty hand touched for a moment Joanie's hair, more intoxicating than any fine champagne, and the too-young but not too young girl whispered to him again:
She took his punch glass before he dropped it, set it neatly on the table behind them, and smoothly—so smoothly you couldn't notice—swept fat old Lyle Dwyer into her arms and onto the dance floor.
"Ooooh," moaned Lyle Dwyer, who must've thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
"Yeah," said Joanie. "I know. Easy." She maneuvered him away from the largest part of the crowd. The band was playing something old, that tune that goes "To know know know him is to love love love him...and I do.
Dwyer was almost on autopilot now, but something in him, maybe some atavistic memory of the first time he'd heard the song or whatever, made him bump Joanie with his pelvis, on the beat. The lights had come down for this slow one, so it was all unobtrusive. Joanie could feel his erection. Drunk as he was, he was there, and—weird—she was wondering if it was bullet-shaped like his head. She maneuvered him over towards the door.
"Hey," she whispered.
"Yes," came out all lazy and lovestruck from Dwyer.
"How about a little air, hunh Mr. Dwyer?"
"Yeah," managed Dwyer.
She might have been mistaken, but Joanie thought she could feel him getting bigger yet. She pushed away from him, grabbing him around the waist and pulling him towards the stairs. Lyle's hand now and again fumbled around Joanie's own waist, brushing her breast as if by accident.
Across the dance floor, Rog Davis, in a clinch with Roberta Eliot, watched Joanie and Dwyer disappear down the stairs.
Next: Comes the storm
the end of the beginning
telephone, for thee!
one thing you don't want is a thaw
our little life is rounded with a sleep
"Those suckers are alive!"
In the darkness the undead quarterback
highway to hell in a handbasket
fill 'er up and check the oil
hell hounds on my trail
are you on drugs or just having one of those days?
Freeman and me and the rest of the world