It was a working class neighborhood of bungalows and small colonials, tiny, tidy yards, a place where 'getting away' meant a weekend at the lake or three hours on the road to visit the grandparents. For the kids, days at the amusement park or at the ballgame stood out on the calendar like islands in an ocean. Almost as compelling were the simple words 'sleeping out,' the chance to concoct some sort of structure to serve as a backyard hogan for the night.
This night, that shelter would be Michael Rittman's new four-person tent, and the boy couldn't wait to host its first overnight event.
The evening's agenda would include the usual glut of Kool-Aid and chips and a marathon game of rummy. In honor of the tent's maiden voyage, however, plans expanded to pilfered cigarettes, firecrackers, and Billy Henson's father's latest Playboy magazine, depending, of course, on the nervous boy's following up on his promise to procure the sacred text, rifling through his dad's underwear drawer, the local archive for Mr. Hefner's work.
It was a hot, humid night textured with the whirring of window fans filling backyards along Park Lane. Rittman was busy stretching out his sleeping bag and consolidating the pretzels, chips, and candy that the three had brought. Wrapped carefully in tissue and hidden in his small brown bag were six Lucky Strikes which he had pilfered over the last three days from his mother's two-pack-a-day habit. Plans had called for Alex to lift a similar supply from his father's packs of Viceroys and Billy to draw down his share from the small table by the television in their living room.
Meanwhile, in the Henson's kitchen, just forty feet of grass and a porch away from the backyard retreat, Billy and Alex were mixing up the Kool-Aid for the night—the universal mead of sleeping out: one grape pitcher, one cherry.
Scoops of sugar, at least half again more than called for on the packet (the boys liked their beverage strong) formed small mounds in the bottom of the glass containers. Trays of ice cubes, poured by Billy earlier in the day, had already filled a bowl in the small freezer of the Henson's Amana refrigerator, still called an "ice box" by his parents and not infrequently by Billy and his two sisters: Rita, 17 and Barbie, 14.
Alex carried out the tedious process of stirring the grape mix with a long wooden spoon, slow work considering that the drink was not ready until every crystalline granule had disappeared into the purple elixir. He had worked the stir into a dancing vortex of sweet twists turning the liquid toward a motor oil hue when Barbie Henson walked in from the living room wearing a light pink pair of pedal pushers and a cream-colored blouse.
"Hello, Alex" she smiled, passing her brother who was hard at work un-sticking the ice cubes that had formed into a cloudy gray mass in the bowl.
"Do you need help with that?"
Alex Allen hadn't decided whether or not he thought Barbie Henson was pretty, but he realized that he found himself looking at her for longer periods recently. She was short—the whole Henson family was short—with tight, curly dark hair and light blue eyes. She had a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and she seemed to smile a lot. Barb would be a freshman at McKinley High next year, and she had begun to look, to Alex at least, much more like a high school girl than the girls who went to seventh grade with him last year.
"No, no thanks. I think I'm o.k. here," he managed as he flicked the spoon harder.
"Well, let me mix up the cherry, then, o.k.?"
And before Alex could answer, she had put the other pitcher under the faucet and had begun to fill it with cold water.
"Burp! We can get the Kool-Aid," Billy huffed, wiping the back of a cold, wet hand across his forehead. "We don't need your help."
"Oh, no problem," she almost sang, smiling at Alex again. "Just giving you a woman's touch."
Her brother thumped the frigid bowl down loudly on the table and strode over to the sink. "Here, let me do that," he said, grabbing the pitcher.
Barbie stepped back and slapped Billy's shoulder. "Insect!" she spat out. "You're going to get the pitcher all dirty."
"It's going into a tent, genius. We don't need it to be clean."
"Well, at least wash your hands," she added, extending the towel that had hung suspended from the drawer.
As Billy gave his hands a cursory wipe, Barbie walked over to the fridge, pulled open the door, and leaned in to extract a piece of pie left from dinner. Alex watched.
She closed the door and looked back over toward the Kool-Aid vintners. "Have a nice time, Alex," she smiled brightly and turned to walk back to the living room.
Alex's gaze followed.
* * *
"So, what do you mean you didn't get any cigarettes?! Did your dad quit smoking or something?" Mike scowled at Billy Henson as he set the grape Kool-Aid carefully on the cutting board that they used as a table top.
"Well, he was gone till Wednesday, and I…"
"I got eight from Pete," Alex offered as he withdrew a white tissue square from the small shopping bag he brought. He smiled at Mike. "So, what does that give us?"
"Fourteen, Mike nodded.
"Fourteen!" Billy nearly yelled. "That'll do, no?" He spun to look at both friends.
"I thought we were shooting for a whole pack, Billy," Mike answered flatly.
"Yeah," Alex chided. "This means only five-five-four."
"Four cigarettes—in one night?! Are you kidding?"
"We wanted a full pack, William," Mike added as he shined his flashlight across the tent walls, looking for mosquitoes. "And now we don't have that."
"Well," Henson's voice grew even more sheepish. "I did get these." And he reached down into his jeans pocket and withdrew its deepest contents.
Mike turned a flashlight on his friend's left hand. The circle of light fell on his chubby palm.
"What the hell is that?" Alex erupted in laughter. Rittman just shook his head quietly.
In the spot if light, seven Marlboro cigarette butts sat uncomfortably exposed, none of them quite half a full cigarette length.
"Are you freaking kidding me?" Mike puffed out.
"You brought a handful of nasty old butts?!"
Alex Allen leaned back on his elbows, giggling.
"Well, dad was gone till Wednesday, and by the time I got around to grab a couple up, he was gone again, and there was nothing but the ashtray sitting on the table by his chair. If my mom hadn't said something about cleaning the living room, I wouldn't have thought about it at all."
"So, I'm supposed to light up one of Art's used butts?"
"Luckies already struck," Alex managed, still laughing.
"Well, o.k., then, I'll smoke 'em. You guys don't have to. I will."
"No shit you will, Billy. Geez, if I figured we were bringing butts, I could have brought a carton from my mom."
"Oh, like she leaves anything behind to smoke anyway," Billy managed.
Alex laughed harder.
"This isn't about my mother's butts, Billy."
"I sure hope it isn't." Alex chuckled. Mike glared at him, giving Billy hope that the stream of conversation had meandered away from him.
"Well," Alex said after a bit, "at least you got the magazine."
Henson's hope waned.
"Holy shit!" Mike nearly yelled. "Are you kidding?"
"I didn't get the chance…"
"You're serious, aren't you?" Alex said, no longer laughing. "You didn't get your dad's Playboy?"
"It wasn't there, Alex. When I went to get it, it wasn't there."
"Did you look…"
"I looked through the drawer, Mike. I even looked in the other drawers in the dresser, even under the dresser." He turned toward Alex. "I found it there once, on the floor under the dresser, so I looked there too."
"Shit!" Mike spat out tightly.
"Maybe he took it with him," Alex said.
"Sure! I bet that's it." Billy's voice rose. "He must have took it with him, else it'd be in the drawer like usual."
The tent fell quiet before Mike managed weakly, "Yeah, that's probably what happened. Your old man probably took it with him."
Billy laid back on his pillow, exhaling slowly.
"So, did Richie bring the firecrackers down before the game, Mike?" Alex asked as he positioned his flashlight pointing up the right side of the tent.
"Oh, hell! I forgot," Mike sat up, reaching for his shoes. "I'm supposed to go up there to get them. What time is it anyway?"
"Hell, I've got to get to Short's house right now. He's probably wondering where the hell I am.
"I'll go with you," Billy offered.
"Let's all go," Alex added.
Mike shook his head. "No, Alex. You stay here?"
"In case Billy's mom or someone comes out to the tent. Somebody's got to be here. It's probably best if that's you. Just say we went over to my house to get something."
"All right. See if he's got any cherry bombs, o.k.?"
"I'll ask," Mike smiled as he crawled through the tent flap with Billy Henson scrambling behind him, carrying his Wagon Wheel tennis shoes.
Though he was almost never allowed to sleep out, Richie Short was usually a pretty reliable source for firecrackers though no one was certain where or how he got them, and Richie never told.
Among these four boys, Richie Short's parents were the youngest, probably in their mid-thirties. Alex's father was fifty-one, Mike's forty-seven. No one knew just how old Henry (Hank) Henson was, but prevailing opinion, fueled by Billy's woeful sense of his own family chronology, was that he was forty-eight. One thing was certain, though, Mr. Richard Short clearly had the boys' favorite parental nickname, by far, 'Dick Short.'
Firecrackers had become something of a sleeping out ritual, though the ordinance was "never to be discharged in the two-block neighborhood of Park Lane and Orchard". Thus, midnight forays elsewhere were favored features of these evenings. The previous month, on the summer's first sleep-out, the target had been the bulldog logo at midfield of the McKinley High School football stadium, four blocks north along Turney Road.
For this night, the goal had been determined in the bottom of the sixth inning of Mike and Alex's little league game when Kenny Koski, the obnoxious, green-toothed first baseman of the rival White Sox, hit a two-out, two-run homer to defeat their beloved Senators. Koski lived three blocks down Park Lane. It would only be a fifteen minute walk.
"Do you really think Short has any cherry bombs?" Billy whispered excitedly as the two scouts headed down the driveway.
"Shuddup," the answer faded out along the side of the house.
Alex leaned back. The air was cooling. But it was still hot in the tent. It would be a sticky night.
He had just grabbed his flashlight, scanning the walls for mosquitoes—finding and smushing two along the top of the tent— when he heard the Henson's screen door swing shut quietly.
He heard steps on the porch.
Alex did a quick turn, pushing the cigarettes further under his pillow. He smelled a sweet…
The tent flap opened slowly. A cream-colored sleeve reached in and then the top of a head of curly dark hair appeared. A bright pink band now stretched just above the forehead.
In the flashlight-illuminated tent, Barbie Henson looked almost ghostlike.
"Hey, Alex," she beamed as she crawled into the boys' space.
"So, where'd my insect brother and Rittman go off to?"
"Mike had to go…"
"Uh, I don't know..."
"Relax, Alex. Your secret's safe with me."
Her mouth seemed fuller, more red. As she entered, she placed a copy of the McKinley President, the local weekly paper, off to the side, atop Mike's blanket. She closed the flap behind her.
"What's that there?" Alex managed, his heart speeding up.
"Just something I want to show you, Alex. Hey, would you pour me a Kool-Aid?"
"Cherry, please," she purred.
As Alex turned to reach the pitcher, he felt Barbie moving closer to him. When he turned back, her knees were touching his.
He poured a cup and turned to hand it to her.
"Aren't you going to have one too?"
"Sure," and he turned back to the pitcher.
"This is good," Barbie cooed. "Cherry is my favorite."
Alex felt his mouth drying. I actually could use a drink he thought as he filled a second paper cup.
When he turned back again, Barbie was leaning toward him. The cherry drink glistened on her full lips. The top three buttons of her cream-colored blouse were undone.
Alex could feel sweat forming on his forehead and in his palms.
"Alex," Barbie breathed heavily, "would you like a cigarette?"
"Uh, well, I don't really..."
Barbie rose up on her knees; her breasts now no more than a foot from Alex's face. He could see the lace of her bra.
He closed his eyes. He felt as though he had a fever.
She reached down into her pants pocket and extracted a Marlboro, a whole, new Marlboro, and a pack of matches. She sat back down, placed the cigarette in her very red mouth, and struck the match.
The small, shadowy world of the tent exploded with light and a sharp, almost sweet smell. It mingled with her perfume for a scent unlike Alex had ever experienced. He knew at that moment he would never forget it.
She held the match to the end of the cigarette and slowly sucked the flame into the tobacco. The end glowed with the heat. She leaned closer to Alex and blew the smoke at him.
He closed his eyes again, feeling the warm blue air wash past his face.
"Here," she held the cigarette out to him. The filter tip was ringed with red. She passed her tongue slowly over her lower lip. Alex Allen had never inhaled a cigarette before. None of the boys had, at least not that they knew. For them, smoking was simply holding the smoke in and trying to look cool as they blew it back out. They knew that people breathed in the smoke, but they weren't sure why.
"I, I…" Alex found it hard to speak.
"Here, let me show you," she smiled.
She placed the cigarette in her mouth again. "See, it's easy. Just close your eyes and breathe in with your mouth." And Billy Henson's sister closed her blue eyes, puckered her mouth, and slowly drew the hot, sweet smoke into her lungs.
Alex stared, hypnotized.
Exhaling, she smiled, surrendering a soft sigh.
"See?" She finished and handed the cigarette to Alex.
Of course, Alex had seen hundreds of people smoke. His dad often. Mrs. Rittman almost incessantly. But he had never seen smoking like this before. He had never seen anything like this before.
He took the cigarette from Barbie and nervously placed it in his mouth. The red ring on the filter was still warm.
She rested her head in her left hand and smiled at Alex.
He closed his eyes and drew in a quick, short breath. Unfortunately, he breathed with both his nose and mouth, and the Marlboro fell, though still sticking to his lower lip. His eyes flew open as a small ash dropped onto his thigh.
Laughing, Barbie reached forward with her left hand to grab the cigarette. With her right, she brushed the ash from his leg.
"You're silly," she said, and her fingers touched his lower lip. Her right hand remained on his thigh.
"Here," she handed it to him again. "Don't be so nervous. Just breathe it in. It's really all very natural."
The touch of her hand on his leg was like nothing he had ever felt. He knew he should move it, but with every second he was growing more powerless to do so.
He closed his eyes again and breathed in the smoke. He could feel the hot air, the sweet taste of the tobacco, fill his mouth, his chest. But the back of his throat caught most of it, and he erupted in a loud, gagging cough. Smoke blew from him like an explosion. He could not catch his breath.
Barbie leaned back, still smiling and shaking her head.
"That's exactly what I did the first time, Alex."
He drew hard to catch his breath and nodded.
"Yeah, I've heard that before," he sputtered. Barbie took back the cigarette, and Alex took a long drink from his Kool-Aid.
She leaned forward again. Her hand was still on his thigh.
Alex could see more of her bra. Oh my God, I am heartily sorry……..
"I said I wanted to show you something."
Alex stared blankly at the girl.
She leaned back and picked up the newspaper. A smile came over her face that made Alex think of the times he slid cigarettes from his dad's shirt pocket as he slept on the couch after dinner.
She brought the paper forward. It was the edition that came out the day before, and it had a story about the Senators with a picture of Alex sliding safely into home.
He nodded. "I got a couple copies of that….."
Before he could finish telling her that he had bought three copies down at Fay's Drug Store yesterday afternoon, she had opened this one up.
There between the sports page and the classified ads was the latest edition of Playboy.
She looked at him, drew on the cigarette, and smiled.
Alex Allen had never seen a girl with a Playboy before, and he had never thought of looking at one with a girl before. That idea opened his eyes even wider.
"Alex?" she said, moving so that she now sat right next to him, "Have you ever seen Playboy before?"
The boy could barely breathe. He certainly could not speak. He did feel himself nodding though. Oh my God, I am partly sorry…….
"Do you like it?"
"I, well...I guess… I…"
She flipped to the center of the magazine. There, a nearly bare young woman with large, perfect breasts sat in a lounge chair with her mouth open, dangling a cherry just above her extended tongue. Her leg was crossed to reveal her right thigh right up to the waist.
Alex breathed hard. He felt Barbie's left hand reach for his right thigh. She turned toward him so that her lips nearly touched his right ear.
He felt as if he would explode.
She rubbed his thigh slowly, and she breathed into his ear with hot, almost humid words.
"Do you like this picture, Alex?"
He felt himself nod again. He could feel her breast press against his upper arm.
She said with greater urgency, now almost squeezing his leg.
"Any time you want this, Alex. Any time." His heart pounded so hard he was sure it would burst.
"Do you understand, Alex?"
He nodded slowly, breathing like a man who had just run a marathon. Oh my God, I am hardly sorry…….
"Any time you want."
All at once a firecracker erupted down the block. Alex jolted as if he had been stabbed.
Barbie withdrew her hand, slapped the magazine closed, and slipped it back into the newspaper.
The sound of footsteps came from the driveway.
Barbie pushed back toward the flap.
She took a last, long drag on the cigarette, then tossed it into her Kool-Aid cup. Alex reached over and put the cup inside his.
The flap opened.
"Barbie?! What the hell are you doing here?" Mike Rittman asked as he peeked into the tent.
"Burp?" Billy exclaimed behind him.
"Just stopped to show Alex his picture in the paper."
"But he said he has a copy already."
"Yeah, I got it yesterday," Alex managed, still sweating and very hot.
The two boys waited as Barbie backed out of the tent.
"Remember, Alex. Any time you want that picture, just let me know. It's all yours."
And she was gone, footsteps on the lawn, up on the porch, the snap of the screen door.
"Did you get the firecrackers?" Alex stammered.
"Yeah, moron here couldn't wait to shoot one off up the street."
"Yeah, we…I heard that. Any cherry bombs?"
"As a matter of fact, yes—one major cherry bomb; it's got Koski's name all over it."
"Cool," Alex offered.
"You o.k. Alex?" Mike looked at his friend. You're sweating something awful."
"I think it's the humidity tonight. We might want to leave the flap open, zip the screen down."
"Yeah, that's a good idea. Did you have one of the cigs?"
"Yeah, couldn't wait, I guess."
Mike nodded. As he reached to pour himself a grape Kool-Aid, he looked down at the
two cups and the cigarette butt, the Marlboro floating in the red drink.
He looked over at his friend, squinting, but he didn't say a word.
Alex smiled awkwardly. "Let's play rummy," he offered.
"Yeah, sure," Mike managed, skeptically.
"Sheesh," Billy said, screwing up his face. "Burp sure stunk up the place."
"No kidding," Mike nodded. "How did you stand it, Alex?"
"Yeah, it was pretty bad, all right." Alex said sheepishly. "It was pretty bad."
He closed his eyes and slowly drew in a long, deep breath.
"It was pretty bad."
John P.(Jack) Kristofco has published seven hundred poems and sixty short stories in about two hundred different publications, including: Folio, Rattle, Bryant Literary Review, Cimarron Review, Fourth River, Stand, The MacGuffin , Sierra Nevada Review, Blueline, Slant, Snowy Egret, and Clackamas Literary Review. He has published four collections of poetry (most recently "The Timekeeper's Garden" from The Orchard Street Press, at orchpress.com) and is currently putting together a book of short stories. Jack has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. He lives in Highland Heights, Ohio with his wife Kathy.