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Fall 1996, Volume 13.3

Fiction

 

Stephen Saraceno

Garden


Stephen Saraceno (B.A., U of Massachusetts) is a former reporter for the
Boston Herald. His fiction and poetry have appeared in the Washington Review, Kestrel, Maryland Review, and Tampa Tribune. His short story, "Lives of the Non-Poets," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

 

I had read all of Salinger before I got to Amherst, even photocopied some of the uncollected early stories from the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. One of them had a corny illustration of Holden Caulfield running through a snowstorm holding two leather suitcases, his school tie flying out behind him as he left "Pentey" for the final time. Me, I never went to prep school. But by the time I got to college I think I must have read that story at least fifty times. I even started imagining I looked like the dark-haired boy in the picture—though I was blonde and a woman.

My first semester at Amherst I lived in a dorm called Valentine Hall. It was a dowdy, four-story construction of brick and wrought iron, built in 1942, with three floors of drafty freshman rooms, and a general dining commons below. The basement dinning room was for some unknown reason called "Garden," and I use to like to visit it during the lull after noon rush, sometimes when not even hungry, just to contemplate the faded EXIT sign and the blond panelling and the square, old-fashioned high ceilings. Sometimes, if I happened to snag a table alone down there, I would pretend I was Franny Glass, waiting to meet Lane Coutell, back in 1955. I never once imagined myself as the troubled, religion-obsessed, nervous-breakdown Franny, though. Just the bright and fresh and articulate side of her, a graceful young woman living in a college world infinitely more congenial than the one in 1988.

I was fond of Garden. But I don't think I would have gone so far as to actually take a job down there, if not for some typically indirect pressure from my father. For the first six weeks of my college career he seemed to phone incessantly, every Wednesday from 6:00 to 6:10 p.m., ostensibly to tell me about the weather in Chicago, or to ask about the weather in New England—but really to apologize for not sending cash.

"You wanna be able to dress as good as the other kids, don't ya?" he asked me once.

"Dad, it's no big deal," I replied. "All you need here is a suede jacket and a Black Dog T-shirt. This is not Princeton in the Nineteen-Twenties."

"What?"

"You know, like Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise?"

"Barry Fitzgerald?"

"Never mind."

"What?" He always seemed to fly off the handle at the slightest literary reference of mine. "What the hell you talking about, Lynn?"

I remained silent. I knew he didn't read.

"Don't you take that tone with me, young lady," he said, after a moment. "You might be in some fancy-Dan college now, but I'm still your father."

"Yes, Dad, I'll remember that."

"You damned well better. And you better remember you got three brothers home here working. Taking care of your mother, God damn it. You don't know how lucky you are."

Which always got me started, the way he said that. Because he knew just as well as I did it wasn't true. I had a very good idea of how lucky I was—not only to get a scholarship to an elite school, but regarding the more basic things in life as well—health and good looks and a family that hadn't kicked me out as yet. The thing was, I just didn't like to be reminded of it, every Wednesday as soon as the rates went down. So even on those nights when I would hang up early, as I so often did that first semester, grimly snuggling back into the bosom of my dorm life a thousand miles away—I still couldn't help but feel my father had just laid the last, best hope for the Vermillion family square on my padded shoulders.

 

Six weeks into the semester, I relented. I signed up for a dishwashing job in Valentine, specifically downstairs in Garden. It was an act not totally without its rebellious aspect, though, for by then I had learned that a campus job was the surest way of telling the wealthier students that I was on Financial Aid. Prior to leaving Chicago, my father had briefed me on the paramount importance of preventing such a disclosure. "You don't gotta apologize to no one," is how he put it. His tone, though, spoke volumes, and from it I clearly understood that he wanted me not only to collect a diploma from Amherst, but a husband.

So I signed on for the Noon and Night shifts—three lunches a week from ten-thirty to two, and two dinners, five to seven. The line manager put me behind the garbage window at first, unloading the bussed trays, separating the plates and silverware, spraying the whole lot down. After about a month of this—which I rather enjoyed, having done the exact same thing back home in a rundown cafeteria off Lakeshore Drive called Tracks—the manager re-materialized one day through the steam, untied my rubber apron, and ceremoniously moved me up to Server.

Here is where my troubles began. To my dismay, I discovered I had to be much more congenial than I had ever been back in the side room, where discourse was primarily limited to the hole in the wall from which the trays emanated. Now, as Server, not only did I have to greet the students as they slowly slid their trays past me on the guide rails—sometimes I had to ask their preferences. After which I'd solicitously serve up an entree or side dish, hamburger or hot dog, fruit or Jello—never quite knowing whether to initiate small talk, or, once initiated, how to stop it. To my vast relief, the students displayed no condescension. Only rarely did I get the sense I was serving them, or that they regarded me as anything other than a fellow student. But as the semester wore on, one person—an older man, or, rather, an oldish-looking student—chanced to become for me a constant reminder of my different status, my different station, there on the other side of the serving line.

His name was Scott Malapert. I learned this later, after I made the mistake of describing him, and the incident that took place, to my roommate, Frazer. She told me all about him—that he was "about a fifteenth-year senior" who drove a "Bimmie," made possible by the fact that his mother had developed the software application we both happened to have installed on our laptops. Frazer told me other things, and then, to my chagrin, proceeded to tell all our mutual friends about the incident. To make matters worse, she embellished parts of it with her own blossoming imagination (she had just then finished her first screenplay), and when I protested, she calmly replied that it was her prerogative—hadn't I originally refused to elaborate? When, a week later, the story came back to me third-hand, steamily distorted and with Frazer herself playing a major role, I took a silent vow never to confide in a roommate again. Nor in any other wealthy, bored person at Amherst who might lay claim to understanding me.

 

I remember the menu choice lay between pizza and pockets that day, the deli being closed in all three dining rooms upstairs. Scott Malapert came in during the quiet time before 12:20 classes, and I happened to notice him as he moved his tray along in reverse, starting way up near the register--piling on doughnuts and chocolate chip cookies and kiwi fruit. I recall getting an intimation (later confirmed by Frazer) that he was some kind of sports star, even though he looked physically slight and rather delicate-faced. He moseyed up to me. "Pizza?" I asked neutrally.

His lips pursed.

No one was standing behind him in line, and a tall stainless steel storage bin to my left effectively isolated us from the other servers. As his gaze lingered, sharpening into a leer, I remember blushing and being unable to repeat my question. I was not exactly inexperienced with such looks—having come from a neighborhood in Chicago where they seemed to have been passed down hereditarily—but never in my experience had I come up against one quite so confident, so arrogantly insistent on its own bored lust. I blankly looked past him, always my best policy. But on this morning it seemed to take more willpower than I had counted on, and just as soon as his eyes dropped, my own followed, spent. I believed I had won. Then I saw the top of his sweatpants, tugged down to form a V. I dropped my spatula, bent down, and when I finally stood up again, he was gone. I shivered the rest of the shift.

Afterwards I went back upstairs and straight to bed. Never—not even after the day in high school assembly when a classmate mentioned seeing food stamps on our family's bathroom hamper—had I felt so demeaned. I had no idea what action I might take officially. But as I lay there atop my threadbare comforter, a piece of down tickling my still trembling palm, I decided one thing I must do personally was to avoid Scott Malapert.

I slept till noon the next day. When I rose, I didn't dress, but instead padded downstairs in my robe and slippers, and quit my job. I felt terrible afterwards, thinking about my family, what my father would say. But as luck would have it, the Valentine phones crashed for three days, and when the system finally came back up again, my guilt had subsided. I decided not to call Chicago. After all, I reasoned, I was an old hand at economizing, and by staying in as much as possible I knew I could make do with the odd twenty or so my father might send after a good night of fares, or a tip from some high roller. Thereafter, whenever he telephoned, I made it a point to describe in excruciating detail my latest fictional wardrobe purchase—which, of course, always seemed to be getting lost or stolen by the next Wednesday. I decided I would not have him worry—either about my finances or my lovelife.

 

It was odd, though. I had quit my job in order to avoid Scott Malapert, but paradoxically, Garden now seemed to take on for me an even stronger allure of sanctuary. As the semester progressed, I found myself spending increasing amounts of time down there, chatting with friends, lingering over coffee, catching up on reading and tardy assignments. It always seemed to be about dusk down there, a cozy kind of umbrageousness, and I found myself growing fonder and fonder of the way the long green curtains revealed just enough of the terraced courtyard outside to make it seem infinite. During one unseasonably warm day, just after Halloween, I remember glancing out the window to see four football players in full practice regalia, perched in a row on the balustrade like big blue birds. They were each leaning forward on an elbow, their broad backs facing me, and from the discreet, intent tilt of their heads I guessed they were discussing some private subject, probably women. After realizing Scott Malapert was not among them, I let myself go for a moment, imagining I was Franny Glass crossing the platform toward Lane Coutell, the ten-fifty-two having just pulled in. I can't describe the rapture I felt then, just sitting there alone, embracing that framed infinitude, lost to the world.

But if I give the impression I was locked in some kind of fantasy chamber at this time, shy and reclusive, afraid of human contact—it is wrong. A person of my appearance, coming from my background, having dealt with the things I had dealt, could not be withdrawn. That person would not have survived. I knew I had to deal with the effect I had on men—and women as well—and I had long ago realized the consequence of ignoring them for too long was to risk blundering into some situation from which I might be unable to escape. Thus it was that even down in Garden—as deeply entrenched in my solitude as I ever let myself become—I would still be the first to wave whenever Frazer or a classmate or some other acquaintance happened by. It was natural for me, in a way, and we would bubble forth about this and that—school, dorm, guys—never letting the bubbles break to reveal anything truly personal. I considered myself deep—spiritually, if not intellectually—but still, I felt no contempt for such superficiality. For me it had always been the salve atop the deep and probably otherwise untreatable wound of life.

Just before Thanksgiving, though, when it first started to get cold, Frazer introduced me to a couple of English majors who lived on the warmer floor above us. We chanced to hit it off—all four of us compulsive readers—and thereafter, whenever my finances allowed, we'd make a night of it—hit a rock concert or a movie or just stroll downtown for some pizza. I became somewhat enamored of one of the guys—and, to a lesser extent, the other—for basically the same reason: they knew how to keep their distance. Looking back on it, we were together quite a bit that November, and a good deal of December as well, but only once in all that time did either of them ever come uncomfortably close. That is, I sensed I made them uncomfortable, and, fatally, that made me so.

We were sitting in Joe's Cafe, a shopworn Northampton bar frequented by Smithies, and, every now and then, women from Mt. Holyoke and their overdressed dates. For hours I had been comfortably shrouded in the fog of conversation, taking care to contribute my own hot air only when absolutely necessary—that is, whenever I sensed things might be clearing up enough for someone to actually discern me. The subject was books again. Most were novels I had not read, by writers from France or Germany or South America, whose names I had come across but did not dare ask how to pronounce. During a lull in the conversation I reached over to take a slice of pizza from our communal tray, when all of a sudden the pepperoni seemed to stand out in sharp relief. Salinger's name had been mentioned.

"The problem with Catcher," Frazer was saying, her tone carefully tailored to give the impression she had outgrown the author, though I knew that she hadn't, "the glaring flaw of the book is that it lacks true power. Now I'm talking implacable situations here—death, murder, rape—Jenson's class."

We laughed murmurously. Frazer tore off a big slice of extra-cheese and continued: "But you know, the damned thing just starts to resonate near the end, to sing, and then you're carried away on this poignant feeling of—I don't know what. It's like some sad ballad, you know? When it's good."

"I agree," said one of the guys—the plainer looking, the one I was most interested in.

We were quiet a moment. I felt my turn coming up.

"Have you read it, Lynn?" the other guy asked, with a handsome flash of teeth.

"Nope."

"You've never read Catcher in the Rye?"

"Nope," I repeated softly, mystifying even myself. Earlier that evening, the four of us had kicked around the idea of visiting the outdoor maze at UMass. It was an isolated landmark of hedges and chain-link fence, with a notorious, though perhaps apocryphal, reputation among Amherst freshmen. It might have been that the handsome guy's slightly more intimate timbre confirmed something for me: he was going to be the one to ask me to help him find the center, when that time came.

"But you have three copies of Catcher in your bookcase," Frazer said forensically. "I counted."

"Yes," I said. "I've started the book several times. But somehow, I don't know, the main character seemed like, too whiney for my taste? Like, he really didn't seem to have a reason to complain? He's in prep school, right? So what's the problem?"

"You think the wealthy are, like, all so damned happy?" the handsome guy asked. "Just because they're, like, wealthy?"

There was a slight note of mockery in his use of the word, like, and he had ended both his sentences with my characteristic upward inflection. I suddenly knew, with a sense of firm, irrational revulsion, that he himself was "wealthy."

"Nope," I answered again, but too quickly this time, cognizant that I was scrambling in a somewhat unseemly manner to justify myself. "I mean, like, everyone has it tough, right? No matter who they are. But I think. Money, like. It's power? And—I don't know. Sometimes—it like corrupts?" "And absolute money like corrupts like absolutely?" the plainer looking guy said. He said it like Lord Acton, but with a falsetto, Chicago teenage accent. All of a sudden I hated him too.

Over Thanksgiving my father noticed something wrong. Trying to get him off the track, I confessed to quitting my job in Garden, and hinted at great remorse. "You're all working so hard here," I said. "And I'm doing nothing."

"That's not true," my father replied, surprising me not so much by his words as his gentle tone. He was not a gentle man. "You're working a job yourself," he said, "just going to classes. Who the hell knows, Lynn. Maybe it ain't—I mean, it's not—not fair to ask ya to work two."

"You work two."

"Ah, Lynnie, not when I was eighteen-and-a-half I didn't! I was a hippie, man. I didn't have to work."

I smiled, feigning surprise, though I knew full well he had never in his life skipped so much as a haircut. I pretended to be consoled. And, after a while, the pretence took. I managed to get out of the apartment once or twice, see some old friends, even do some public library research for a paper three weeks overdue. Still, a strange lethargy remained. When everyone went off to visit my mother at the ward Thanksgiving night, I myself stayed home and slept. It was the first holiday I could ever remember not seeing her.

"Something bothering you, Lynn?" my father asked a few days later, on the trip to O'Hare.

I made a neutral sound.

"I was just wondering," he said—and then he blushed for the first time ever in my presence. "I just thought. Well. You might maybe have some problems a mother might help with."

"No, Dad. Oh no," I said hurriedly, not wanting him to say anymore, seeing how hard it was for him to get that out. "I know she'd help me if she could. It's okay. I've gotten this far without her."

"She loves you, Lynn. She just don't show it."

"I know, Dad. I"

The five-minute drive to the airport was the longest of my life. I barely made it onto the plane before I broke down. The tears continued the whole trip, and when I arrived at Logan, it was all I could do not to go straight to the ticket desk and book a return flight home.

You try, but sometimes it's no good. After I got back to campus, I spent virtually the rest of the semester down in Garden. The first week of December I foreswore all classes, telling myself it was a noble sacrifice, it would give me time to work three meals a day as Server, if possible. But I never worked a minute. Every time I fired up the resolve, the image of Scott Malapert would come dancing back before my eyes, calmly leering, his face sliding slowly up out of the frame. At length his features began to take on the likeness of Holden Caulfield, in the magazine illustration, with lips and eyelashes sensuously distorted. I started carrying copies of that story with me downstairs to

 

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