A graduate of the University of Maryland, my articles and stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Fate, Danse Macabre, Storyteller, One Million Stories, Inside Outside Literary & Travel Magazine, Spilt Infinitive, Whistling Shade, Whistling Fire, Storyteller, The Battered Suitcase and Danse Macabre.
A Party North of Baltimore
She wrote letters to me on heliotrope paper with line drawings of horses in the margins, and they always smelled of sandalwood. I never failed to recognize those large, rounded letters that thankfully never featured the dreaded circle—or worse yet, a heart–over the “i.” After her greeting, which was usually a wry commentary on my last letter, there was a bit about what she imagined I was doing, a section of news and gossip from her school, complaints or anecdotes about friends and teachers, her hopes for the immediate future, and an effusively affectionate close. Each letter was a package far more revealing than she could have guessed. No text message or email could be as sensual and electric as a letter like that.
Liz was a girl I met at the beach when I was seventeen, and with her wavy walnut hair, sly smile, and dark eyes she was impossible to forget. The brief time we spent together jolted us both with its hormonally charged atmosphere, and we began an intriguing correspondence that left no doubt in my mind that she would welcome a visit to the private school her parents dumped her into. One night in late January I found myself with the time and the money to get there.
I played in a country-rock band that didn’t get many gigs. Most were in coffeehouses where we’d play for a few dollars. Dave, our bassist, was always trying to scare up work for us, and one time he landed us a peach—playing the national anthem at a regional martial arts championship for a hundred dollars each.
As we rehearsed our version of the Star Spangled Banner, we felt that it needed a special something to give people their money’s worth. We put together a country-rock version and, after some deliberations, agreed that tacking on “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” followed by an injection of the Looney Tunes theme would add fizz to the solemnities.
When the night of the martial arts championships finally arrived, the hall was jammed with fans, and as the crowd swelled we waited in our corner for the signal to begin. At last a voice echoed on a squeak of feedback over the PA system—“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for our national anthem.”
Silence dropped over the crowd like a karate chop. Our tongue-in-cheek dressing up of the national anthem suddenly didn’t seem like such a clever idea after all. With trepidation bordering on despair, I counted out the cadence. The pedal steel guitar swirled and whined, the drums and bass pounded, and the guitar was a wall of distortion. We had no choice but to press on while the crowd stood stoically through the ordeal. When we lurched willy-nilly into our surprise ending, they continued to maintain their patriotic stance. Even during the Looney Tunes I only noticed a few jaws grinding. They were a tough bunch.
The organizer paid us and hurried us out into the windy parking lot. We were at large in the great big world with a hundred bucks each in our pockets. After Dave drove us to my house, Mark, the guitarist, and I felt restless. The night was young, my parents were out of town, and we didn’t have school for the next few days. Surely the world held some adventure for us. “Hey,” I said. “Why don’t we go up and visit Liz in Massachusetts?”
Mark said he was game for anything. The trip would take all night, and the fact that we had no transportation almost slammed my idea shut. Hitchhiking in the dead of winter was out of the question.
However, Dave, our bass player, not only had a car—which was why he ended
up taking all our equipment home–but he was the kind of person who could be coaxed into anything with a little persistence. We walked to his house, circled around to the back basement window, and peered in to see Dave sitting with a bowl of popcorn watching television. I tapped on the glass and he leapt up to open it. “What the are you guys doing here? My parents are asleep and I’m watching ‘Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.’”
“Forget that, man,” said Mark. “We got invited to a big party just north of Baltimore, but we need a ride. It’s gonna be great, all night, with loads of bands and chicks and everything.”
“But I wanted to see ‘Revenge of the Swamp Creatures,’ and I’m really tired.”
The use of the past tense on the word “wanted” let me know we had him. “Come on, man, they’ll show it again. But this party is once in a lifetime. You took in the equipment, right? So you can sleep on the way up and I’ll drive. We’ll wake you when we get there.”
After some groaning and eye-rolling, Dave grabbed his coat, keys, and wallet and crawled out the window to join us. “This better be good if I’m missing ‘Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.’” Mark and I slapped five with our eyes.
By the time we got on Interstate 95, Dave was already snoring in the back. When he finally roused himself with a snort, dawn was beginning to flush the New York City skyline. He sat up and banged his head on the inside light. “Where are we? Where’s this party? Oh my God, are we in New York?”
“We told you Dave, north of Baltimore. It’s some town in Massachusetts.”
“Massachusetts? Do you know how far that is, you idiots? It’ll take hours! Get over and let me drive. This is crazy.”
I wasn’t entirely surprised when he took the wheel but continued heading north. “Now I’ll never get to see ‘Revenge of the Swamp Creatures.’”
We bought a box of doughnuts and hot chocolate at the next rest stop, and stayed awake by keeping the radio on a fuzzy but reliable station that played the same songs over and over—“Heart of Gold,” “Poor Pitiful Me,” “American Pie,” and our hometown hero Nils Lofgrin’s “White Lies.”
As light began to fill the world, so did a thick downpour of snow. The cold was brutal. By the time we arrived in the village where Liz went to school, we were delirious from lack of sleep. We pulled into the icy parking lot of a church and fell asleep sitting up. Snow coated the car like breading on tempura chicken as we slept, and we woke up a couple of hours later enclosed in a frozen cocoon. Dave let loose a string of Anglo-Saxon-isms that would have made a longshoreman proud. “I can’t believe I gave up ‘Revenge of the Swamp Creatures’ for this. What are we doing here, anyway? I assume there’s no party.”
“Hey, we’re the party.” Mark slung his arm over my shoulder. “He wanted to visit his girlfriend. You can understand that–it’s for love. It’s romantic, isn’t it? Like one of our songs.”
We dug out Dave’s car by hand, then drove to a nearby doughnut shop for breakfast. “They have school today up here, so Liz will still be in class. Since it’s a private school, we can’t just go strolling in. We’ll go tonight, but we’d better be careful.”
Dave snorted again. Until that day I had no idea that he knew Anglo-Saxon or was even capable of snorting. “Oh, great plan. You tell me some lie about a party, drive my car all night into a blizzard, and now we have to sit around freezing our asses off until tonight. You didn’t even tell her we were coming, did you? Good thing I happen to have my Monopoly game in the car. We’re going to need it.”
Seven games of Monopoly, three dozen doughnuts, and several gallons of hot chocolate later, it was time to make our move. We were greeted at the school entrance by a map of the campus. “That’s Liz’s dorm, the one right in front of us,” I said. “Come on, let’s check it out. This is going to totally freak her out.”
Dave cut the engine. “I’m not going anywhere. If we get caught in a dorm in a private school for girls, we could get in a lot of serious trouble. Especially me, since I turned eighteen last month.”
“Suit yourself. If everything’s cool we’ll come get you.”
We saw only a couple of students out tromping through the snow, and with our long hair and thick coats we could pass as girls from a distance in the dark. We hurried as fast as the snow allowed and tried the door. It was unlocked. “Okay,” I said, “her room is two-twelve so it’s probably on the second floor. Let’s run for it before anybody sees us.”
I stuck my head in, listened, held my breath, and ran to the stairs. We leapt up three stairs at a time, dashed down one hallway, and stopped, out of breath, at the door to 212. I had to hold back a laugh. “I can’t believe this. We must be nuts.”
Mark rapped at the door, and a face I hadn’t seen in months peered out at us with eyes that swelled to the size of basketballs before spinning like those fruit things in a slot machine. Her hair was longer and shinier than I remembered, her skin like cream, her lips juicy, and when her eyes stopped spinning they glowed like embers behind her black-rimmed glasses. The overalls she wore couldn’t hide the shapely form beneath.
She grabbed my collar, jerked me inside, pulled my face to hers, and let me know that our surprise visit was very welcome indeed. Mark slipped in and Liz kicked the door shut behind us. “Oh my God, I can’t believe this! You’re insane! I love you!” She flung herself at me with renewed energy and nearly knocked me to the floor.
Just when I thought she was going to suck my tongue out, another female voice emerged. “Is this the guy you’ve been telling me about? Who’s the other guy?”
Liz turned, her arms still holding me tight. “This is him, and that’s his friend Mark. You guys, this is Linda.”
Linda was slender, with a mass of curly blond hair and a thin face. She also wore overalls. Her face burst into a smile brighter than a summer afternoon, and she took hold of Mark and hugged him close. “Oh, thank you for coming. Thank you!”
I felt like I’d slipped into a dream. Sitar music buzzed in the background and smoke from the sandalwood incense was dense. The two beds swarmed with stuffed animals and the walls were crowded with psychedelic mandalas and posters of rock bands. Mark and I found ourselves locked in a room at night, in a snowstorm, with two beautiful girls who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. For a few moments the universe split wide open before us and I forgot about Dave shivering in the car outside.
At last Liz let go and danced a jig with Linda. “I can’t believe this, oh God, this is amazing! You can’t believe how dull and awful this place is. There’s absolutely nothing to do, nowhere to go, everybody’s a moron, and now you guys show up like angels. Come on, you’re staying here with us tonight! Nobody will ever know!”
Dave no longer existed. I may have swooned. Unfortunately, it was also at that moment that a large fist pounded on the door from outside. “Elizabeth, Linda, open this door immediately!”
Ecstasy morphed into terror. The joy in those girls’ eyes froze into panic. I was hurled from a world of bliss and into a bad comedy routine as Liz shoved me to the back of a closet and Linda stuffed Mark under a bed. “Don’t make a sound and don’t come out till I tell you,” Liz gasped.
Those moments in the closet were some of the strangest I had experienced in my life, but they didn’t last long. The door flew open, an arm shot in, and a grip like an elephant trap slammed around my arm and flung me out into the light where I was confronted by a white-haired little man in a suit. His eyes were twin flamethrowers and his face a red-hot frying pan. Mark dangled at the end of his other arm, looking more amused than frightened.
“You young ladies don’t leave this room; I’ll deal with you later,” barked the man. “As for you two hooligans, I’m taking you to the police.”
Thousands of terrible possibilities raged through my head as he towed us out into the swirling snow. Arrest, incarceration, Dave back in existence and frozen to death in his car. Mark was nonplussed. “I guess you guys don’t take any snow days up here,” he said in a calmly conversational tone. “Everybody’s already at school anyway.”
“You be quiet!” The man dragged us into a small house with Persian carpets, antique furniture, and Impressionist prints on the walls. A grand piano stood in the center of the main room. “Now you two, don’t you move! Not one inch! I’m going to call the police. Don’t move.”
I stood, afraid to even shift my weight, while the snow melted and formed a puddle at my feet. Mark sauntered over to the piano and stroked the curve in the body. “Man, this is a beautiful piano. Beautiful.” Before I could say anything, he sat on the bench and played a bluesy run. “Listen to that, man. Sounds like a cathedral.”
“Holy crap, man, are you nuts? That guy’s gonna kill us.”
Mark let his head go back and he closed his eyes as he began playing one of his new songs. “The cops can’t do much, and they can’t arrest us for playing the piano. I can’t believe the sound on this thing.”
The man returned, and I was certain I saw smoke gush from his nostrils. “You two are really in for it. The police are on their way.”
Mark kept playing. “Sir, you have a beautiful piano. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
The man stomped over and slammed the keyboard cover down on Mark’s fingers. “It’s unlikely you ever will again, not in prison. Now you two listen up! I hope you’re proud of what you’ve done. Your two young lady friends are confined to their room for the rest of the semester. This entire campus is now surrounded by the police, and they’ll be watching every move you make. You won’t see them, but they’ll see you, all right. You leave this school, this town, immediately, and never, ever come back. If you don’t leave right now, the police will place you under arrest and I’ll make it my business to have you two put away for a long, long, time.”
Mark and I glanced at each other. The man’s voice had subtly changed. That threatening tone was less certain. He again grabbed our arms, led us to the door, and pushed us out. “Remember, the police are all around. You’d better get out of here right away. Your lady friends are locked into their room, so you can’t go running to them.”
We plowed out into the snowy blackness while the man watched from his doorway. Mark turned to me with a smile. “Hey, you don’t really believe the cops are around, do you?”
“He said they . . .”
“Why would they come out here in the middle of the night in a snowstorm and hide behind bushes? Think about it. The cops probably told him they weren’t going out unless they had real criminals to catch. He must think we’re idiots.”
I didn’t want to admit that I was, in that particular instance, an idiot. “I guess we’d better go anyway. What else can we do?”
“Yeah, Liz and Linda probably really are locked in their room. I’m sorry we got them into such trouble.”
I felt a flush of shame. “Me too. It seemed like a good idea. It was fun for a few seconds, but then it turned weird.”
When we got to the car, Dave was huddled under his floor mats on the front seat, sleeping. While we climbed in and told him what happened, he started up the engine. “Well, this is just perfect. You guys blow your gig money to drive up here, spend five minutes with a girl before getting thrown out and ruining her life, we haven’t gotten any sleep, I miss ‘Revenge of the Swamp Creatures,’ and now we have to drive all the way back home in a snowstorm. I can promise you one thing. We have another gig in two weeks, and this time I’m staying home after it’s over. I’m gonna watch TV, I’m not opening up any windows to let anybody in, and I’m definitely not getting talked into going to any more parties north of Baltimore.”