by Janice J. Heiss
Will they bury both her legs with her when she dies? . . . I wonder as the train arrives.
"Flossmoor. This is the Flossmoor stop. Watch your step," bellows the navy-blue uniformed Illinois Central conductor.
I take a backwards-facing seat for the thirty-mile train ride from the suburbs to downtown Chicago. Amy Kaplan. Wow! That's some forty years ago. Certain people stick like flypaper on the mind, I guess. But why? Because I still feel every which way about her? Because of all the broken pieces?
I was fourteen when I first saw Amy's stump when her skirt flew up. Her thigh hung down: a mutant, engorged tit. Metal hinges connected it to the fake bottom half of her leg. I looked away when Amy looked at me to see if I had seen it. But not before I saw her masking eyes.
In the summer, Amy wore sandals. Cream-colored man-made toes, with polished red toenails sculpted into them, stuck out like fused plastic forks between her sandal straps.
No one knew what had happened to her left leg. Rumor was that the old man with half a thumb who leered at little girls through his thick, dirty, bifocals while he sold fresh flowers on the corner of 63rd and Stony Island had something to do with it. Supposedly, he had stuck his fingers up her bermuda shorts while showing her a magic trick. She'd hated it so much, her leg had to be amputated. We were too old to believe this grammar-school tale. Automobile accident? Polio? Born broken? Poor, poor, rich girl. China doll fell off the shelf. Don't get cut picking up the pieces.
"Homewood, Homewood, next!" Almost immediately, the lily-white suburbs with their glimmering green, not-a-blade-out-of-place, crewcut lawns and their Christmas-card-perfect Cape Cod houses give way to a grainier landscape.
I always look forward to going to the Loop during my annual visit to my parents in Flossmoor. I reminisce on the old days, my girlhood shopping sprees at the flagship Marshall Field's, my parents' "borrowed" charge card in hand. What has changed most, me or this? I ask myself, looking out the window. More decay and pollution, like black-and-blue marks, blanket the landscape. The musk of steel from the wheels turning on their tracks takes me back to when the seats were stiff shiny wicker that crunched like potato chips . . .
Puppy love. "It's just puppy love," my big brother taunted me the night before Amy's party. "You've flipped over him." But I'd show my brother how dead wrong he was! He didn't even know all the facts—Art had asked Amy if I was coming to the party. Art and me—it had to be. He will be mine by the time I am Sweet Sixteen.
I couldn't sleep that night thinking about him. Art was fantabulous, the most! Something different about him. Sure, he was smart and Jewish making him eligible and acceptable to my family, which I pretended didn't matter. But he was also clever and creative and funny and sexy and nice too. Most importantly—all the girls agreed—you could talk to Art. I had never felt so close to a boy as during our few talks. And there was something else . . . Something that I just couldn't put my finger on.
"Hazel Crest, Hazel Crest!" blares through the intercoms. Less sky now. It changes from nude blue to a scribble of electric wires, telephone poles, billboards and street lamps.
Art, Art, Art, I will have a perpetual crush on you. The most perfect relationship? That lovable beefy body, that strong, authoritative nose, those crystal blue eyes.
Amy Kaplan just better keep her mitts off Art, I thought, as the train pulled out of the Flossmoor station on a late Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1960. I couldn't wait to get to the party. Amy was such a lucky duck to live in Hyde Park with her urbane parents. Though it often made me feel like a scuzzball user, I made friends with Amy our freshmen year as an in to Hyde Park. Amy's formal, candle-lit dinner conversations with her parents on art and politics was so far out compared to the Leave-it-to-Beaver scene in Flossmoor and I also got to be with the University of Chicago Lab high school clique where I belonged. Some kids had it all. Why couldn't Amy and I just trade places!
Why hadn't I transferred along with all my Jewish friends from Homewood-Flossmoor High, H-F, to the Lab High? I had zero social life in Flossmoor having nothing in common with the gentile jocks who belonged to high-school fraternities with names like The Kingsmen. Only the gorgeous blonde cheerleaders in the Coquettes or Diamonds sororities interested them.
What's wrong with me? I brooded. Why hadn't I taken the chance and transferred to the Lab? Was it because my parents would hold it over my head? "Such an extravagant kid, always costing us money, never happy!" they'd complain. Or because I was just a chicken?
As the train clacked on its tracks, Art and Amy, Amy and Art—I despised how those two names seemed to fit together—clacked back and forth in my mind, and I could practically see my blood vessels burst, one by one. I couldn't get the rumor, the silly rumor, out of my head about Amy and Art making out. Word was that Art had gone to Amy's at lunch time on a weekday when no one was home. He had felt her up inside her bra and even unfastened it, and they french kissed for almost an hour! Just the thought of doing those things with dreamboat Art made me kooky. It just couldn't be, it couldn't. Unless Amy let him—boys will be boys. Or, maybe because Art felt sorry for her just like everybody did. Darn it! Then I supposed I'd have to forgive him.
Amy denied the rumor when I asked her about it a day before the party. How could she do such a thing to her best friend! she vowed. I was her best friend though she wasn't mine. I'm your fake friend, Miss Fake Leg, I fancied saying to her, astonished I could be so vile.
"How can you be jealous of my mere friendship with Art when you can get any boy you want?" Amy declared, knowing it wasn't true.
I bet I'm gonna be the only one at the party not going to the Lab school, I thought, feeling sorry for myself. Why am I always in-between? Little Miss In Between . . .
If Amy continues to go ape over Art, she's gonna push me into the deep end. What a flirt! I should just tell her what a fool she's making of herself. She's not his type. He can obviously see right through her. It's so stupid the way everyone treats her as if she were their mom's fine china. If it weren't for her leg, she'd be Little Miss Social Climber. I just betcha she wouldn't be nice to someone missing a leg. I'm nuts to feel sorry for her! She's such a jerk!
Art loves Sherrie, Art loves Sherrie, I chanted to myself while twirling Bubbie's gold ring around on my finger for good luck. The last thing she had said to me from her hospital bed was, "I want you should grow up and marry a nice Jewish boy, my Sherrila." Bubbie had died of breast cancer the year before. She had gone so fast. The doctors had wanted to remove both breasts . But she wouldn't let them take her good one, the right one. "That's what killed her," Mom said.
I glance at my watch surprised to see that we have already reached the South Side of Chicago, past prairie now an unending ghetto of blacks, Greeks, Armenians, Russians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Cubans, and more and more. The train storms by laundry hanging crisscrossed in the humid, polluted Chicago air.
"59th Street/University of Chicago/Hyde Park." The Midway, a rectangular oasis of emerald grass, appears stretched tight as a canvas on a frame. How I had wanted to be a part of this cosmopolitan, academic community when a teen. Hyde Park, with its worldly intelligentsia and far-out artists hanging out in its bars and cafes, had everything that the blah 'burbs lacked. There's the Shoreland Hotel and the Museum of Science and Industry in the distance. My pulse quickens as I see these familiar sites.
I wonder if Amy still lives here. I wonder if she got married. Where, oh where, is Art?
The gothic spires of the University of Chicago appeared. How I love it here! Hyde Park is where I belong! My friend, Sandi Scheiman, and her sister, our chauffeur, were waiting for me in their idling car right outside of the Hyde Park station. As we arrived at Amy's brownstone and I began to tense, I silently hummed, "Tonight, tonight, won't be just any night," from West Side Story to get up my nerve.
The musty-hall smell of the Kaplan's caused my hands, though snow cold, to sweat. I felt a sense of dread as Sandi and I walked down the long narrow corridor—Captain Hook walking the plank?—with its dim sconces. This is a party, this will be fun, I tried to reason. A piece of notebook paper scotch-taped to the door read "Amy's Party," written with bright red lipstick. And then, right below, "Please don't go upstairs or you'll bother my parents." The colorful sign looked out of place in the ghostly hall. Anxiety wrapped itself around me like a boa. Art, Art Art, please, please.
The door opened wide. "Hi, Sherrie, hi Sandi," Amy's affected whine was magnified tenfold by her nasal, flat, South-Side-Chicago accent. Desperation read like neon on her face. Sandi and I followed Amy down a few steps, into the old building's low-ceilinged, subterranean rec room, a converted basement apartment, damp and fluorescent-lit, where she had all her parties. Halfway across the living-room size area, the faded black-and-white tiles that covered the rec room floor were worn down to the concrete foundation.
"Join the party!" Amy said in a bold, high-pitched, party-girl voice that fluctuated from breathy to shrill, her face flushed, sticking out her chest to show off how stacked she was. True, she had a perfect body except for the missing part, all curves and a lot on top just like the Playboy pin-ups. I felt puny in comparison. Still, what a show-off, how unbelievably pathetic, I thought, squirming, embarrassed for her. Why couldn't she just act normal? I remembered the time when I was three or four, when I tore the legs off one of my disobedient dolls and hurled them with her into the garbage. The doll's "waw, waw" as I pushed her down into the brown bag haunted me.
Amy grabbed the mic when she played hostess, in contrast to her typically timid manner in which she recoiled when spoken to, as if I had slapped her by simply saying hello. Whenever she cowered, I wanted to reach out and ask, "Are you all right?" as we stood in an awkward silence in which Amy seemed to grope for her identity by looking into my eyes. Help me, help me, I could almost hear her say. How? How? But I also wanted to dump her so I could associate with the cool kids.
I scanned the room, but no Art, so I ran to the washroom, my legs goosey.
"Hey, what's the rush?" Sarah "The Snob" Adelson—dressed in the exact same Villager outfit as me, yuk!—demanded as we collided at the door. Almost all of the boys had a crush on Sarah, the most beautiful girl in their Lab school class, who was in love with herself. Otherwise, that particular week, Paul Feinstein had a crush on Sandi Scheiman, who had a crush on Jeff Helfand, who had a crush on Phyllis Ellis, who had a crush on . . . and on and on.
Still, no Art or Amy in sight when I returned. What a bad scene! I wandered over to the girls' side to avoid looking left out. Anxiety flung me around like a moth at a light.
When not dancing, the boys and girls occupied two grazing areas at opposite sides of the room. Potato-chip smell with Tide vapor escaping from the adjoining laundry room wafted about. From the girls' sugary skin came "Cashmere Bouquet" and the always ubiquitous "White Shoulders." Floor level, an ensemble of bobby socks and saddle shoes, like little penguins, wiggled about.
"Do you know what's going on in the Back Room?" the girl next to me asked. From the rec room, a side door led down to a dank, spooky area named the Back Room or the Tunnel of Love which included a maze of cellars, tenants' storage space and a boiler/laundry room. I acted dumb and returned the question with my eyes.
"I hear that Amy's back there hosting another party," someone else responded. "Lipstick on Your Collar" came on next.
Turning away from the dance floor, we girls all talked at once:
"Clue me in . . ." Giggles.
"I hear that they're playing spin-the-bottle with her fake leg!"
"You're sick!" a few of us shrieked and then we all froze in unison, silence connecting us like a chain of paper-dolls.
"I heard there's a prostitute back there, that Amy hired..." Shocked faces all around.
"No, I think there's hoods from South Shore High back there who've crashed the party and they're drinking hard stuff." Perhaps Amy had invited those outsiders? To increase the boy-girl ratio, to make herself look more popular? That would be something she'd do.
Amy's hyena laugh broadcast her return from the Back Room, and all heads turned. Was she drunk? Unlikely. Only some of the boys drank. But, she often looked tipsy like a puppet on a string.
Yes! He was near, I could tell. As I turned slightly, I saw his pink oxford-cloth shirt, open as usual, an extra button at the neck, contrasting with his luminous eyes. Here he is, all that matters to me. He moved a few steps in my direction. Within touching distance, he pulled on me like a magnet on metal filings, back and forth, up and down, around and around, practically pulling me inside out. Our eyes joined for a moment. I sagged under the weight of his gaze. He smiled at me! I started to smile back, but caught myself. Playing hard-to-get, I returned a look of pleasant but vexing acknowledgment—I had practiced it in front of the mirror for months by imitating Vogue models—all the while my heart galloped, I was short of breath, dizzy, and nauseous, all signs of true love as verified by Seventeen.
"Arty, let's dance," Amy whined, cutting between Art and me like a knife. Watching them dance cheek-to-cheek to "Teen Angel", I knew that I could never listen to that song again.
The tension in the room was as loud as the music as we eyed each other, flirted, danced, drank cokes, discussed records, and some smoked cigarettes.
When "From Bobby Socks to Stockings" began to play, Art left Amy and walked over to the spread. But then, he made his move, cautiously, like a cat walking across an open, exposed plain. The closer he got, the more I stooped over to adjust for our half-inch difference in height.
"Hey Art, check out the dip, it's delish!" Amy broke in.
"God!" I whispered under my breath, reaching the breaking point, ready to kill her.
I glared at Amy, wondering what Art saw in her. Her blush-on looked like two wings ready to fly off her cheeks. Her thick black mascara looked like lampshades over her eyes. All her features seemed off, particularly her mouth, as if, in a game like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, someone had just missed pinning Amy's mouth on the right spot. It made her smile look plastic, fake. What's more, her Really Red Revlon lipstick made her lips stick out like a duck.
Though all her warpaint made Amy look cheaper than dime-store cheap, being rich counteracted this. She didn't have a fast reputation, at least not until the most recent rumor. The boys believed they could go far with Amy, but I don't think they ever tried. Probably felt sorry for her and didn't want to take advantage of her. Or, maybe they were afraid of her leg?
Next thing I knew, Art and Amy were doing the twist to Chubby Checker. To her credit, she never let her leg stop her. She turned like a top planted firmly on her axis and then, losing momentum, she wobbled from side to side.
In the split second that I turned away to hide my tears, Art and Amy vanished into the Tunnel of Love. I couldn't stand it. This can't be happening. I almost trampled my one and only on his way out and my way in to the Tunnel.
"Oh, hi!" I cheeped, stunned.
"Hi, Sherrie," he said, melting me.
"Wanna go back there? I'm, um..." I couldn't believe my words. I had never been so direct with a boy. I felt strong and humiliated.
"Uh, sure, uh, ok," replied Art, smiling his all-invitational, mile-wide smile.
"What's back there?" I ventured.
"I'm not sure. Amy wanted to show me but I decided to come back here," Art answered matter-of-fact.
He led the way through the black-cat-black, dilapidated dugout. My senses, razor sharp inside this void, increased my anxiety ten-fold. I imagined bouncing off the walls like an errant slinky, and I couldn't get enough air. Let me go home, I wanna go back to Flossmoor! No, no! You're crazy. Crazy. Art is all that matters.
Opening the squeaky door to the main cellar, we hesitated before this blacker hole. Helene Curtis hairspray wafted up my nose. A make-out room? Art brushed against me, causing my thoughts to scramble.
After groping around several rows of occupied chairs, we found two side-by-side. I could have sat there forever next to him in the dark, listening to the heavy breathing, fondling, kissing, whispering, and sighing all around us. Occasionally, a chair would creak, most likely a girl adjusting herself, replacing a hand wandering too far below the neck.
Art handed me a bottle making the rounds. Why hasn't he done anything? He's thinking of Amy or some other prettier girl. But, what will I do if he does make a move? I could hear his breathing. My underpants felt moist in the crotch. Oh no! Has my period started or what? I fretted. The hard card-table chair bruised my butt as I crossed my legs. I don't really know how to French kiss! And, what, oh no, if he tries to feel me up? I just couldn't . . . No one but Mom knew that I wore a padded bra, and even she didn't know that I stuffed it.
Art leaned toward me, his breath soft on my cheeks, and kissed me on the lips. Snow White. Something silky slipped off my body. But then, Art's mouth opened, a huge cave around mine. I sat upright, an obedient dog. While his tongue probed deeper, I felt Art's hands moving up from my waist. Oh no! What is he doing? Is he trying to go inside my blouse? I broke into a cold sweat while a molten ooze fanned out from my abdomen as parts of me I never knew existed flew out into the world like confetti.
A stark bright light-bulb, dangling like a spider from the middle of the close ceiling, suddenly lit up. Art and I broke apart. A stranger had barged in, turned on the lights, and run for it. Whew, rescued! I thought, too shy to look at Art with the lights on.
"Who's the closet case who did that?" a boy said, as we all tried to hide while reshuffling like cards in a deck. The boy cut the lights accompanied by laughs, groans, and an overturned chair.
"Now what?" a disembodied voice asked as we heard a wild stampede in the hallway and then a girl's scream—"Sher, Sher," I thought I heard— pierce the flimsy walls. Oh my God! Is it Amy?
I slumped in my seat, embarrassed. Up 'til now, I had never french kissed before except when I took a lesson from "professional" kisser, Robby Simon. Robby, after prying my mouth open like a dentist, had rudely stuck his tongue all over my tongue and down to my tonsils and then over all my teeth like a toothbrush and like he was counting to make sure he didn't miss one. I had tried to partition his saliva off so I could spit his out later.
"Sher, Sher," sounded the muffled voice again, now unmistakably Amy's.
Now, what is she doing! How I hate her! At the same time, here was my ticket out of the make-out room.
Art leaned toward me in the dark. "Is that Amy? Maybe we'd better . . ." he whispered, his concern irritating me.
"No, I'll just go and come right back. Is that ok if I, um . . . if you wait here for me?" I asked as I tried to stand on my legs, which acted like toppling bowling pins. Deep down, I didn't know if I'd have the guts to return. But, more than anything else in life—maybe even more than being with Art—I wanted to keep Art and Amy apart. I had never been so jealous in my life.
"OK," he said hesitantly. Was he wanting out too? If so, I would die.
Running blind, I followed the voice to a dingy storage space, a wan light leaking out its wood slats, its padlock open. Amy was planted on the floor on a shabby pillow next to a candle, her red plaid skirt circling her like a pool of blood. Tears streamed down her partially lit face, causing her mascara eyes, painted mouth, and pink blush to all bleed together into a scrim of muddy rain. I felt a blender of emotions, disgusted, sympathetic, confused, as I crouched down beside her despite not wanting to share any part of Art with her. Though I had responded to her, she felt like an intruder.
"Where have you been?" she accused, provoking me. "I thought you were my friend."
"What happened?" I sneered, startled by my viciousness.
"It's not my fault that some South Shore rats crashed my party! I told them to leave and they wouldn't." Sobbing, she gagged on her words.
I couldn't stand it any longer. How stupid did she think I was, trying to steal Art right from under me?
"It's never your fault, Amy, is it?" I countered. "Oh, poor, poor, Amy, everybody's 'spose to feel so sorry—" I taunted. "I bet you're lying. I bet you invited those hoods for some twisted reason of yours, I bet—" I felt giddy, a child at the top of the teeter-totter.
"I—" she cringed, shocked, but then started to wail.
"Cool it, cool it, unless you want everyone rushing in here!" I said. But then I noticed it.
"What happened?" I pointed in horror. "Where's your—?" How did I miss that?
"Where's Art? Please go get him." Amy howled, flopping around on the floor, a spastic raggedy ann. I could barely face her. So sad! Yet something kept me from comforting her. It was as if I didn't want to get too close, to get contaminated.
"Why? We don't need him. I can—?" I said.
"No, you're not my friend, you—"
"But, tell me first, or I won't get him—" I demanded. How could I go so low?
Amy lost it, and I was going to too. But I tried to hold my ground. "I'll never be able to trust you if you don't tell—" I said.
"Don't worry. I'll never talk to you again in my life. I'll never have you over again, never ever ever!" she screamed.
"Take it easy, please, and just tell me, Amy, what were you doing with Art in the Tunnel of Love?" I just had to know.
"If you don't go get him, you're going to really—" but she stopped mid-sentence.
"Art, Arty, there you are. Please, I need—" Amy sobbed. I almost fainted as I turned to see him standing right behind me. I prayed he hadn't overheard us.
"Are you all right? What happened?" Art, ever calm and capable, asked Amy, as he walked around me and bent down to her.
"Art, please, please, you have to help me, the . . . who crashed my party . . . ran off with . . ." Amy pointed to her missing part while crying crocodile tears. "And she not only won't help me, she's so, so hateful—" she said pointing a finger at me.
"Liar! Art, don't go alone, some of those tough guys. I'll go with —" I said, beet red.
"No, Sherrie, please stay with Amy, and take care of her," said Art, not waiting for my reply.
"No, Art, don't—" I pleaded, but he had gone.
Art found Amy's leg behind a bush in front of the Kaplan's while Amy and I stayed in the hell-hole together. She cried and cried while I stood apart, paralyzed.
I'll never forget when Art came back with that grotesque leg. It looked more scary off than on, like human road-kill. What's more, it was smeared with graffiti. No more pretending that it was part of a real leg. I wanted out, far, far away from Amy and that battered leg, but I couldn't leave Art and Amy alone together.
Yet Art paid no attention to me but catered to Amy who clung to him. Don't you remember what we were just doing in the make-out room, Art? I felt so lost, so excluded, that I just had to get away from these feelings, so I ran out crying.
"23rd Street, McCormick Place." Startled from my daydream, I jump up, banging my head on the overhang. A man now sitting opposite me glances over his book with a delicious smile. I beam back into his pool-blue eyes. His sensitive manner, that soft-pillow smile, remind me of who . . . ? But he goes back to his book, and I don't want to intrude. Clickety clack goes the train on its tracks telling me how spacey I am. Excuse me, But . . . I prepare to break the ice even if I make a fool of myself but wait too long, and he's out the door.
On the platform now, he locks hands with a kind-looking professor type, gray haired, probably in his late 50s, early 60s. His partner? Yes, that seems right. They look good together.
More awake, I put two and two together and stare out as the train embarks. The man turns back to look inside the train, and our eyes lock. He looks puzzled, as though he's trying to figure out who I am, but I'm almost sure it's Art! Is he raising his hand to wave?
Lake Michigan appears on the right. The immense Chicago skyline drops down like a gargantuan diorama. The midnight-black, air-conditioning tanks on the roofs of older buildings, Byzantine up-side-down tea cups, dot the skyline. Then it all disappears as we enter the tunnel.
Amy missed two entire weeks of school. Waiting for a new leg? Gossip spread like the seventeen-year cicadas. In the less lurid story that stuck, the South Shore hoods or whoever had run off with Amy's leg, after signing it like an autograph jacket with fake names and weird, lewd remarks, had tossed it into the bushes. But everyone was hush-hush when Amy returned to school. At least this is what I heard from my isolated outpost in Flossmoor.
"Randolph Station, Randolph Street, South Water Street, end of the line," broadcasts through the speaker. I recently learned that in the 1950's amputating one leg when a child was born with uneven legs was common practice. Is this what had happened to Amy? But then, how did they choose which one?
With Mom's designer tote bag in hand, I vanish into the crowd, just another suburbanite downtown for the day. A blast of muggy grime slaps me in the face, but I take it in stride as I start my special shopping day.
Copyright©2003 Janice J. Heiss