Return to Pittsburgh

A short story.

By ILAN CHAIM
December 18, 2018 16:01
Return to Pittsburgh

The Flying Blue Meanies. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

 
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Michael coaxed the big rented sedan up to 85 as he shot north on the Poconos extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He didn’t really care if a state trooper busted him for speeding. He was racing through the glaring August sunlight in a carefully controlled panic, his emotions surging between a desperate need to reach Lisa and the mounting fear that he was already too late to change her mind about leaving him.

He was driving smoothly by reflex, staying in the right lane except when he would signal and pull out to pass. Checking the mirrors again, he pushed the speed past 90. He burned up the highway with the radio silent, his ears filled with the muffled roar of his passage and a higher-pitched whine that at first puzzled him, until he realized it was the sound of himself moaning. It was a keening sound, between a wail and a scream, escaping from the pressure-cooker of his mind.

Immediately upon landing from Israel, he had taken a bus from JFK to Philadelphia, where his favorite aunt had rented him the car (at 19, he was under age). He had to get as soon as possible to the Poconos resort where Lisa was working as a waitress.
“Don’t try to see me when you get back,” she had written him in Jerusalem. “The gate has instructions not to let you in. Please believe me when I say it’s over.”

He refused to accept this, of course. He was not capable of accepting such a goodbye in a letter. After three years of the purest, the best, the First True Love, he would believe it was over only when she told him to his face. But as he surged up the highway, closing the distance, his anxieties about the impending encounter began to fester. On the rational level, his mind saw the futility; but in the aching pit of his guts he still yearned to see her once more and still hoped he could change her mind. They won’t let me in the gate, he thought, so I’ll park down the road and sneak in through the woods.

Two hours later, he parked the car off the road about half a mile from Harmony House and plunged into the woods, heading in what he thought was the direction of the resort. After 20 minutes of determined trekking, he was now hopelessly disoriented. The further he got from the road, the thicker the woods became until he found himself in a maze of tangled underbrush and closely spaced trees, getting scratched in the face by whipping branches.

He had begun the journey to the fateful showdown in his usual immaculate state; slacks, shirt, and cologne all chosen with particular care for whatever helpful effect they might lend the occasion. But now he was getting filthier by the minute; his hands blackened and sticky with tree sap, his right shin bleeding through his torn slacks where he had slipped and scraped his leg on a broken branch. It was hot and muggy and the air buzzed with stupid little gnats. His sweat-soaked shirt stuck to him.

Michael stood panting for breath, searching the trees around him for the moss that his Boy Scout training promised would be on their north side, when he sensed movement in the brush behind him off to his left. He held his breath and listened, his neck tingling with the electricity of fear. Suddenly he heard many branches being thrust aside all at once, in a thicket about 10 yards away. A bear! he thought, instantly paralyzed with fear.

He stood there holding his breath, looking toward the source of the sounds, unable to move a muscle, desperately praying that the bear would not catch his scent. Then, as the crashing sounds became louder and closer, an instinctive blind terror finally took over his body and he bolted, smashing through the woods as fast as he could, in what he hoped was the way back to the road. He was too terrified to look back as he charged with his arms spread in front of his face to ward off branches, certain there was something BIG crashing through the brush right behind him.

His reckless infiltration had taken him almost half an hour; the way back took about five minutes, but seemed to last forever. He charged through the last thicket of brush and burst onto the shoulder of the highway, skidding to a stop as he looked first to the right, where he thought he had left the car, then left, then right again. There was nothing but the two-lane country road, bordered on both sides by a now forbidding Pennsylvania mountain forest, in which, his mind insisted, a huge bear was lumbering inexorably towards him, homing in on his unmistakable scent of sweat and Eau Sauvage. In terror, he looked farther up the road to his left and saw, near the crest of a hill about a quarter of a mile away, the Ford sedan.

He sprinted up the hill, arriving at the car with the key in his hand, ready for the lock. Fumbling at it with a shaking hand, he finally heaved the door open and dived inside, slamming the door shut and smashing the lock down with his left elbow as he jammed the key into the ignition with his right hand. He felt a surge of adrenalin as the engine caught instantly and he laid rubber for at least 20 feet as he squealed onto the two-lane road. He continued making his escape with neck-jerking acceleration until he reached 70 and held that speed until his breathing returned to normal. Finally, he pulled off the road to repair the damage to his appearance as best he could, before what would now have to be a direct assault on the back gate of Harmony House. “If they don’t let me in,” he thought, “I’ll drive right through the fucking gate.”

Now cold as ice, Michael pulled up to the Harmony House gate. A muscular, crew-cut lifeguard type, whose Poconos mountain tan rivaled Michael’s own Mediterranean variety, bounded out of a little clapboard gatehouse, clipboard in hand.

“Yessir, can I help you?”

“Hi!” Michael smiled with false warmth, his hand ready to shift from Drive to Low, his foot poised to floor the accelerator. “Which way to the waitresses’ dorm?”

“Straight ahead, second right,” said the gatekeeper, as he raised the bar.

Heart thumping, Michael stood before the door to Lisa’s room and took a deep breath as he raised his hand to knock.
“She’s not there,” drawled a voice from the room across the hall. Michael wheeled around and saw, through the open door, a girl in a waitress’s uniform, brushing her hair with strong, stiff strokes. “She’s at her sister’s place down the road, playing tennis with Dick.”


Dick Golomb was the bell captain at Harmony House, the proletarian haven of the International Ladies Leather Goods, Plastic Garments, Handbags, and Novelty Workers Union. Golomb was the king of the summer staff in the power he wielded by assigning various jobs, including waitresses to high-tipping tables. Waitresses he favored, and who shared their favors back, could count on enough tips to offset a large chunk of their next year’s college tuition. When he had driven up from Pittsburgh to Harmony House to part from Lisa before leaving for Israel, Michael had immediately spotted Golomb eyeing her.

At the time, he assumed Lisa would follow their accustomed practice while living apart during high school (“When you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”) and select the bell captain as the logical best option for a summer romance. He himself had looked forward to playing by the same rules in Israel, but Lisa’s game had clearly gotten out of hand. A future stinking-rich orthodontist had usurped him, a philosophy major with years to go before completing his own doctorate. How could she be so crass!

Lisa’s older married sister, Gail, had a summer home about 10 miles from Harmony House, where she, too, had waited on tables before hitching her wagon to a rising radiologist. Now Lisa was enjoying an afternoon’s escape from the role of ever-smiling, ever-efficient waitress, playing the role of future Mrs. Orthodontist in a gleaming white, ass-clinging tennis dress which Michael adored, volleying with the suave seducer of the Alpha Omega branch of NYU. Michael had correctly pegged him the moment they were introduced at the beginning of the summer and had hated his guts ever since.

Lisa and Dick strolled up to the edge of the yard, and as Michael forced himself to watch, Golomb demonstratively planted a wet kiss on Lisa’s receptive mouth. Michael’s heart was no longer in his chest, but somewhere on the ground beneath his feet. Golomb smiled in his direction as he sauntered off, slowly swinging his racket. Lisa followed him with her eyes for a moment, then turned.

“Oh Michael!” she frowned, with a look combining annoyance and pity. “I warned you not to come.”

No kiss hello, wet or dry. She took his hand and sat down beside him. “I didn’t want it to end this way.”

“I didn’t want it to end at all.” His voice was a low croak, practically a whisper, but at least he was keeping the tears back. He forced himself to look into her eyes. They stared at one another in silence.

Finally, she looked down and spoke. “It’s just not right anymore, Michael. I’ve grown beyond you in certain directions, and you’ve grown beyond me. We’ll always be close in many ways, but it’s time to make it on our own.”

Time to make it with that asshole dentist. I can’t believe this is happening.

“Lisa, I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve only been away for six weeks. We’ve been together for three years...”

“Three wondrous years, Michael. And we’ll always cherish them. But it’s over. I wrote you a tremendously long letter, which is probably in Pittsburgh waiting for you. I just couldn’t get my head together to tell you everything in those silly little aerograms. I’m sorry.”

“Me, too.”

The silence was terminal as he looked into her green eyes for what he dreaded was the last time. He was bombarded by her freckles, destroyed by the scent of her tennis sweat. He had a lump in his pants beside the one in his throat. There was only one thing left to say.

“Here,” he said, reaching into his shirt pocket. “Happy birthday.”

The above is an excerpt from “The Flying Blue Meanies,” a novel in progress by a former Jerusalem Post editor.

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