Excerpt From Unpublished Novel

Chapter One
                In the dark, someone had once remarked, the room probably resembled a crypt in the Valley of Kings shortly after the funerary rites were concluded, as torches flickering wanly in air slowly exhausting its supply of oxygen barely illuminated figures so deep in slumber that it was not readily apparent to an observer that they were alive. The light bulb over the doorway was a dull red, changed from standard yellow months before for reasons intermittently recalled; the effect was to suffuse the room with a seedy glow, as if something was happening in there that the world should not know. On the right side of the room, disorder reigned. In the front corner, a desk was flush against the wall, and books, papers, cups, a small lamp, a small round mirror, a tube of saline solution, and at least a dozen pens were littered across its surface. The chair pushed up to it had several items of clothing hanging across its back. There were a few odds and ends sticking out of the closet next to the desk on the right; more clothes, a hockey stick, and, piled on the floor haphazardly, several pairs of footwear. At intervals of a few seconds, papers fluttered and rattled on the desk; an oscillating electric fan was operating somewhere inside the closet. Next to the desk, a twin bed stuck out perpendicular to the wall, bisecting the right half of the room. Two people, a young woman and a young man, were sleeping soundly in the bad, the woman nestled into the man’s chest, the man’s arm draped around the woman’s neck and shoulders; a single sheet was pulled up to both their chins, although the man’s right foot had emerged from underneath the sheet at the foot of the bed.  The woman’s light brown hair, still visibly wavy to a degree despite obvious damage from sleeping, fluttered almost imperceptibly with every pass of the fan. On the right side of the bed, a tiny refrigerator doubled as an end table; on top of it were a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, a Baby Ben alarm clock, and a large jar of Rolaids with the lid off. A tall dresser with five drawers was wedged into the far right-hand corner, and next to it were two small square dressers with two drawers each; on top of all three pieces of furniture were various components of a stereo system. None of the nine drawers were completely open, and none were tightly closed. The floor space between the bed and the dressers was covered with more items of clothing. The left side of the room sat in stark contrast to the right; a neatly made-up bed lay lengthwise against the wall; one large dresser had all drawers closed and a clock-radio on top, a folded towel hung neatly over the chair pushed in underneath an immaculate desk, and the closet door was closed.
                There was a muffled sound that repeated a few times. The man grunted after the second sound, and jerked upright after the third, removing his arm from the woman’s shoulders. He bent over and began pawing through the clothing on the floor as the sound continued, then, not finding what he was looking for, stood up, wobbled unsteadily, and began moving clothing around with his foot. Still not finding the object of his search, and continuing to hear the sound, he stepped toward the center of the room, and promptly fell forward as his right foot got caught in a wire snaking through the forest on the floor. As his body hit the ground, he discovered where the sound was coming from; he gave a small cry of pain as his shoulder struck a telephone unit hidden underneath jeans too small, he noted with his first conscious thought of the day, to be his. Flinging the jeans aside, he flinched as the phone’s ninth ring assaulted his eardrum with a considerably louder blast than he had previously heard, then picked up the receiver and muttered hoarsely, “Hello?” Hearing no sound, he said in a stronger voice, “Hello?” A dial tone now sounded in his ear; he clenched his teeth and grimaced. “Goddamn it!” he shouted, replacing the receiver, now aware that he had had an audience for the last few seconds of this burlesque.

                Steve Rizzo sat with his knees up, linking his hands on the far side of his knees. His black hair, somewhat short over the surface of his scalp, covered his neck in the back, and ended just short of his shoulder blades. He had a thick black moustache, and had a few days worth of stubble covering his cheeks, chin, and neck; his nose was long and straight. His teeth, when visible, were a dull white, much to his own surprise, as he smoked between two and four packs of cigarettes a day, depending on how long a particular day was. His most pleasing aesthetic feature was his eyes. The color varied, one day pale green, one day seawater blue, and most days an arresting blend that “hazel” did not quite accurately describe. The effect was magnified by a set of eyelashes that virtually every female he had ever been acquainted with had admitted being jealous of. The overall effect was attractive, to some; many who were seeing him for the first time, and who had not spoken with him, admitted assuming he was an empty-headed Rocky Balboa/Tony Manero type. The Italian part was correct; he was a full-blooded third generation American of Italian (specifically Neapolitan) heritage. He did not, because of the taunting he had endured about the size of his nose in his early teenage years, before the rest of his face grew into proportion to it, and because he was relatively short (five-foot, seven inches tall), consider himself overly attractive; he would on occasion grudgingly admit that there were others harder on the eyes than he apparently was. He had treaded warily among the opposite gender for all his 22 years; he was always quite sure that he had been the less attractive of the pair in any couple that he had ever been a part of, and he certainly did not consider himself as attractive as the young woman who now was giggling as she propped herself up on her right elbow in the bed.

                There was little debate among anybody gifted with the ability to see whether Valerie Tanzini was considered attractive. Even waking up after what appeared to be a hard slumber, with no traces of makeup on her face and hair flattened and twisted, it was readily apparent that she was very pretty. Her facial features blended together in a way that had garnered her admirers and attention since the seventh grade. She had entered puberty quickly in high school, but as she grew older, her body had become proportionate to her height; she no longer endured many comments about being unusually well-endowed. She did not work hard at maintaining her body, yet she was shapely, whether dressed in jeans or dressed up to go on the air at the college television station. Her legs were, not surprisingly, also in good shape and in proportion to the rest of her, again with very little effort on her part, a fact which earned her a fair amount of envy from the women in her circle, some of whom admitted it in her presence. Some, including herself, considered her height—two inches over five feet—a drawback, especially in crowds, but it did not seem to bother Steve, and whatever possible misgivings she may have felt months ago had long ago vanished. “Are we having a little bit of trouble?,” she asked him, smiling as she opened her eyes wider.
                “Trouble? Whatever do you mean?” He pushed off the ground with his hands, and wobbled unsteadily as he became upright. “Holy shit,” he grumbled. “If this is how I’m going to feel today, I’m sleeping until tonight.”
                She noted his look of distress. “Aw, are we a wittle bit hungover?”, she teased.
                He took a step toward the bed. “No. I’m a lot hungover.” He pulled the sheet off her, and eased back into the bed. “You might want to put your shirt on,” he mentioned casually as he glanced at the clock. “I have a feeling that was our favorite weasel on the phone.”
                “Would you be a dear and find it for me?”
                He grimaced. “You couldn’t have asked me when I was sitting down there, right?” He stuck his leg out of the covers, stuck a toe in the armhole of a dark blue T-shirt on the floor, and artfully kicked it up into the air in such a manner that it landed inches underneath her chin. “There you are,” he grinned. “For an added bonus, it’s even yours.”
                “I’m impressed.”
                “You should be.” He watched her sit up and then pull the shirt over her head. “Although I half-wish you had decided to sit there with everything hanging out. You would have been fueling old Douglas’ lewd fantasies for the rest of his life.” He paused briefly, before adding slyly, “Of course, you are already.”
                “Stop it, ” she said testily as she slid back under the covers. “You have no idea how disgusting it is to know he thinks about me that way.”
                He was grinning ear-to-ear. “You don’t relish being the object in his mind’s eye when he’s abusing himself?”
                She pinched him. “Shut up, will you?”
                “You ought to be flattered.” His smile vanished. “Besides, be grateful that he’s never actually had the gumption to whack off while you’re here. If you think it’s disgusting being the object of his desire, try a pretending you’re sleeping and that you don’t hear it.”
                She nuzzled up close to him. “You know, the first time you told me that, I about threw up,” she shivered. “I still don’t know why you let him do it.”
                “I don’t, either,” he said pensively. “The last time, I almost said, ‘I’m in the room,’ but when I opened my mouth, I could see—and hear-- he was about done.”
                She grabbed his penis in a most un-tender manner. “If you don’t change the subject, you’re not going to be happy.”
                He didn’t flinch. “I’m not happy now. I feel like shit, Gomer Pyle’s going to be calling back or knocking on the door any second now, and we’re going to your parents’ house for Easter weekend today.”
                She giggled.  “Before you graduate, I think I do want him to walk on us. I would love to see the look on his face.”
                “I’m almost sure,” he commented, “he would faint.” He allowed himself a wide smile. “Especially if it was real hammer and tongs stuff-- legs in the air, ‘Sweet Jesus, I’m coming!’, ‘Give it to me HARD!’—oh, yes, we must do this soon.”
                She smiled before shaking her head. “I would do it, too, except for one thing.”
                “What’s that?”
                “He’s not graduating. That’s all I’d need next fall, him running around telling everyone what a slut I am.” She jabbed him lightly with her finger. “Of course, with you not here, he’d be telling people it was him I was having sex with. And then I’d have to kill him.”
                “He is a weasel, but I think your fears are exaggerated a little. He’d never say that, because everyone would laugh in his face.”
                She said very seriously, “Oh, yes, he would. He was telling people before Thanksgiving that he and Becky McIntire were doing it.”
                Steve laughed. “Becky’s not picky, but she’s never gone that low.”
                “I don’t think anybody’s ever gone that low. I would bet a hundred dollars he’s still a virgin.”
                “It’s possible,” Steve nodded. “He reminds me of most guys I knew in high school-- forever talking, and never getting any.”
                “What a romantic thing to say.”
                “I don’t talk about us.”
                “How do I know that?” She propped herself up on an elbow. “Is that how you are? You convince me that you’re a nice sensitive guy, that you really do care about me, when really you’re just in it for the sex.”
                He reached down to the floor and, from underneath some clothes, produced a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray. He nodded at her, and she turned around and grabbed a lighter off the desk. He placed the ashtray on his stomach, and she sat upright. Both lit up. “I never claimed I was sensitive,” he said gruffly, knowing she was teasing.
                “You don’t care about me,” she said with mock seriousness, blowing a smoke ring as she said the words. “You’re just a typical male pig.”
                “And yet you’re here. What does that say about you?”
What does that say about you, he silently mused. I never thought that I would ever be in this situation, and yet here I am. He watched her blow another smoke ring. Definitely not a bimbo, nor just another pretty face. Yet I’m probably the only one, aside from a couple of her friends, that even suspects how deep and smart she really is, much less knows it.

                He recalled the evening they met like it happened the night before—actually, better than he remembered the night before, as he strained to recall details of the previous 24 hours. He allowed his mind to drift back to the early October night in Smoking Joe’s, one of the local meat market bars in this small university town. Steve did not go there to play the meat market; he went there to drink, heavily, as he did every time he went out. He was not averse to the idea of casual sex, but he was averse to actively seeking it. The ability to chat about nothing substantial, to feign interest in things that did not truly interest him, and the willingness to take advantage of a female whose judgment was alcohol-impaired that characterized a successful player were absent in his makeup. Even a few years before, when he was one of the Biggest Men on Campus in his high school, he had not played the casual sex game very often or with a lot of willingness. Since arriving at this college almost four years ago, he had been a spectator, for the most part, in the almost nightly hormonal frenzy, even though this institution was attended by almost three times as many females than males and he was approached more nights than not by females, many of whom were not obviously seeking merely any male in the vicinity. There had been a few times when he had allowed his better judgment to lapse—perhaps five times altogether—and, truth be known, for much of the previous four years he had either been more or less happily in a monogamous relationship or seriously mourning its passing. He arrived for his senior year unattached and with his wounds healed, if scarred over, but he had liked his new floor mates immensely, and the previous five weeks had been one long episode of epic drunken debauchery.

                For a change that evening, he was not heading a large group of the guys who lived on his floor into one of the local establishments. It was not unusual for the residents of the basement (or Basement, depending how one felt about it) of Yates Hall to go out on the town en masse, in a group of 15 to 20. This particular Tuesday evening, only he and his two closest compatriots, Jerry Goetz and Bill Holland, had trudged up the somewhat steep pathway from Yates Hall past the academic buildings to the edge of campus, where three bars were located scant feet from the end of the college’s property. Smoking Joe’s and the Continental Divide were next to one another, and owned by the same man; during the week, one or the other, but not both, were open. The third bar, The Necessity, was on the other side of the pathway and was a more pub-like establishment, with tables, waitresses, and a huge television room with a large-screen TV. That night, Jerry and Steve had quietly acquiesced to Bill’s desire to go to Smoking Joe’s; while Jerry was very much like Steve in his attitude toward womanizing, Bill pursued sperm deposition avidly, and had arranged to meet his latest lust object there that evening. Bill found who he was looking for immediately, which left Steve and Jerry talking alone against the wall in the less crowded room of the two large-rooms in  establishment. Not that either minded; Steve and Jerry shared a fairly cynical worldview, many interests, and fed off each other’s sense of humor with often-uproarious and contagious results.

                He had been so engaged when he saw her approaching him. He had noticed her before; if one wasn’t blind, it was difficult not to notice her. But he had also noticed that she was usually in the company of women he didn’t know or didn’t know well, and of those around her that he did know, he didn’t particularly like any of them, finding them to be vacuous and shallow, bubble-headed arm candy at best and forces of evil at worst. That she was also usually the object of intense attention from males didn’t cause him to think negatively of her; that came with the territory when one was as attractive as she was. But she always seemed to have time for them, and the truth was that he had dismissed her as a lightweight a calendar year previous, and really hadn’t given her more than a passing thought or glance since. She was alone at the moment, he idly mused as Jerry spoke about something, and began to snap to alertness as a sidelong glance told him that there was no one else in the vicinity. She smiled as she came close enough to speak, although she waited for Jerry to stop talking before she did so, he noticed. Funny, he thought now, how you remember little things like that; it was his very first recognition of the possibility that she might be something out of the ordinary.

                At the time, he smiled as Jerry finished whatever he was saying; it was apparent it was Steve she was approaching. She asked him if he was the same Steve Rizzo she had heard on the college radio station the previous weekend. He warily admitted he was, briefly wondering how she knew his name until he remembered that he was wearing a jersey with his name on the back. One of his friends among the Cellar Dwellers, as the residents of the basement called themselves, was Jim Chandler, who was a speech communication major. Jim was a frequent on-air personality at the radio station, and the previous weekend, to publicize some cause or another—probably Ethiopia, he strained to recall now; it was hard to remember that all big things started small, and this had been a month before “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—Jim had been on the air from Friday morning until Sunday night, about 60 hours all told. To support his friend, to help keep him awake, and for the hell of it, Steve and several other Cellar Dwellers—Bill, Randy Bloch, and Darrin Richards—had gone to the radio studio for a couple of hours on Saturday morning, and engaged in some on-air banter, an action that had become a regular occurrence in the months since. He had asked her why she was asking.

                She told him. She was a speech communication major, and she knew that she was going to have get comfortable in front of a microphone some day if she wanted to pursue a career, and she did want to pursue a career, but so far she still got very nervous whenever she knew she was being taped or live, and he had sounded so at ease that morning, in fact all of them had, but him most of all, and she knew Jim and Bill but she had never seen him in any speech com classes, and how did he find it so easy to be on the air without sounding nervous, and was he a speech com major, too, or maybe he wasn’t, and was there anything he could tell her about being more comfortable on the air? Or something like that, he now recalled. He had smiled wanly as she spoke that evening; long before she wound down, he knew he was going to regret having to tell her that he was not a speech com major. He did so, warily adding that Jerry was. She had politely but firmly said she already knew that, that she had just wondered how he had gotten so comfortable on the air, and she wanted to know how he did it. He had shrugged and said he had never really thought about it, but that he had never been particularly prone to nervousness, that in high school he had grown accustomed somewhat to the limelight, and that he hadn’t really thought about the fact that the college was listening to him the other morning, only that he was talking and having a good time with his friends, and that was maybe the secret if there was one. He distinctly recalled staring at her at that point; this was normally the point in a conversation with someone he didn’t know where he shut down, but something about her—something more than her looks—had piqued his interest. He had asked some question of her, she had responded (at some length, needless to say), and before he knew it, twenty minutes had passed.

                She showed no inclination to go elsewhere. Jerry took it upon himself to go the bar to get drinks for everyone—she drank screwdrivers, he noted approvingly, which was one of his own two mixed drinks of choice, although that night he was drinking gin and tonics—and upon returning, found someone else to talk to. He did much more listening than speaking, finding it easy to pay attention to her, and he could see after a few minutes that she was feeding off his interest in a very positive manner. When the time came to refill their glasses, he had volunteered while she went to the bathroom; he had noted her anxious look when she emerged and looked in the direction of the bar and seeing that he wasn’t there, and her relief at seeing him where they had been standing. “I think she likes me,” he remembered very clearly thinking. “And I am pretty sure I like her.”

                He learned a great deal about her that evening—about her friends (she lived in the next dorm down the hill, Frazier Hall, also in the basement), about her previous love life (she was definitely unattached at the moment, and had broken up with a boyfriend at home over the summer), her attitude toward men in general (she hated talk laced with innuendo and double entendres), her family (she was the only girl in a four-child family, and her father was a very protective Italian father), and, once she could see he really wanted to know, a slew of opinions on matters great and small, local and global, intellectual and emotional. He hadn’t said much concerning him; he remembered thinking as their conversation moved into the third hour that it was quite possible no one had ever paid her serious attention before. He had mentioned a few details about himself that she had professed a desire to know—chiefly his own relationship status (unattached, and for long enough to not be considered on the rebound) and his own ethnic heritage--she had been delighted to confirm he was what he appeared to be. They had had a rather detailed discussion of the various differences among the background of Italian-Americans; he learned that she, too, was a full-blood, of a family hailing from Piedmont, which accounted for her fair appearance, and that her father did not subscribe to the prejudices prevalent in Italy concerning northern and southern Italians. “I’m glad,” she had said smilingly, “that you’re not Sicilian, though. There’s too much of the Godfather stuff where I come from.” If you only knew, he had thought; his family history was a topic he broached only weeks later. She was almost local; she had grown up less than an hour from here, in Rochester, the nearest large city. He had grown up a few hours away, in a suburb of Binghamton. He had noted silently with some surprise that she had attended a high school which his high school had played a football game against, but chose to delay that discussion, too, for another day; his athletic career was still a dicey subject that he did not care to visit with most people.

                The hours passed very quickly; he hadn’t even caught a buzz by the time two o’clock came. When last call had been announced, he felt a momentary pang of regret, sure that even though they had spent four-plus hours in enjoyable conversation, she was just going to go on her way, and the most that might have come from the evening was someone he could nod to or say “hello” to as they passed in a lecture hall or in a crowd. Then she told him that she needed to go to the bathroom, asking him to not leave without her; it dawned on him that given a choice, she wasn’t going to just go on her way. He spied her emerging from the bathroom and making a short detour to say something to one of her friends, and then coming back to him. He noted some apprehension in her eyes, and asked her what the matter was. She had smiled weakly and said, “I hope you’re going to walk me home.” He had smiled, too. “I was hoping you’d let me.”

                He had reached tentatively for her hand with his as soon as they were in the chilly air, and she readily took it as they made the walk down the hill, past the lecture hall and library, to the residence quadrant where four dormitories formed a lopsided rectangle, with Yates and Frazier the first and second dorms encountered. He walked past his own floor; Yates was set into a hill, and at various points of the L-shaped building, the second, first, and basement floors had ground-level entrances. Frazier, farther down the same hill, also had varying points of entry, and Valerie, Steve recalled her saying earlier in the evening, lived in the Frazier basement. He walked up to the front door with her—the front door was supposed to be the only entrances to any dormitory open after midnight; although this rule was not rigorously enforced in Yates because the three floors that could be accessed from the ground were male, this was not the case in Frazier, and residents followed the rules religiously—and turned to face her.  Even though it was dark, he could see she was blushing, and he was aware that he could feel his own heart beating. “Well, I guess this is goodnight,” he began, then hugged her, still not sure if she wanted to be kissed. She did, and it was several minutes before they spoke, and only then because her roommate Nadine Chambers arrived in the vicinity. “Can I call you tomorrow?,” he had asked. “I’d like to see you tomorrow,” she answered, and they had made plans to meet for lunch.

                As far as he was concerned, they had never looked back. She obviously enjoyed his company, yet had not ever been in any real danger of making him feel suffocated. He liked her from the beginning, but he was also strongly aware that his experience in the Basement was both unlike anything he had ever experienced before and unlikely to be repeated in his lifetime; the camaraderie and sense of fellowship was remarkable, and he did not wish to sacrifice being a part of that for any reason, even for a wonderful relationship. Very quickly, she had realized how important his environment was to him, and she set on her sights on becoming an accepted part of it rather than seeking to separate him from it. Acceptance came easily and quickly, and by now everyone in the Yates Basement regarded her as one of them. She had also maintained her space, as well; she had been tight with Nadine, Kerry O’Donnell, and Mary Ellen Clark since the first week of her freshman year, and she had remained so. He had never attempted to interfere in any of her friendships, even though he had reservations (for different reasons) about all of them. At times, he reflected, he had almost bitten off his tongue on the subject of her friends, confining himself to rational and emotionally level analysis of what he privately called their “insanity”;” he had been rewarded, he supposed, when in the fullness of not-so-long a period of time, events proved him correct, and she came to share his many of his views of her own accord. He did not truly dislike any of them, and even could say he liked Nadine, but he felt that in addition to being Valerie’s boyfriend, he had proved to be her best friend, as well, and was sure she now felt that way, as well.

                He had been a good boyfriend, he felt, since day one. He had not pushed her to have sex with him, letting her decide when she felt she wanted to go there, and even though he had been a little frustrated for a few weeks before Thanksgiving, that hurdle had been cleared without rancor. He couldn’t recall ever having raised his voice to her; they had disagreed on a few things, most obviously his feelings toward some members of her family, but he had managed to keep his emotions under control, something he had considerable trouble doing concerning a not-inconsiderable number of others he knew. He had never been disrespectful, condescending, or patronizing towards her, an attitude he knew long before she told him so had endeared him immensely to her. Because of her looks, she had fought the bimbo stereotype since the onset of puberty, and even though he was well aware of how such ideas took root, and the inability of many to take the trouble to move past visual impressions, he still was astonished that anyone who had ever spoken to her could give any credence to the notion. He recalled confronting one of his friends regarding the friend’s views of Valerie, and had received the answer that “she seems to ask a lot of questions.” To him, that characteristic was a wonderful one; if she didn’t know something, she asked, and rarely if ever forgot an answer. Her grades were not quite as high as his, and she had to work harder to achieve them, but she still was an honor roll student, and unlike many of the other people around him, he never felt like he was talking down to her, especially the longer they stayed together. He had been emotionally supportive of her, allowed her to talk about what she was feeling without judging her or telling her she shouldn’t be feeling that way. Few days went by without him giving her some token of the genuine affection he felt for her; he had written dozens of notes, a few poems, and had bought several dozen roses one at a time.

                As he lay back in the bed, watching her smoke her cigarette, his mind returned to his original thought. What it says about you, he mused, was that you know a good guy when you see one. I could probably survive without you, but I wouldn’t want to. Their eyes met for a moment, and he was suddenly conscious of the last gulf between them, because she was about to say it again. As her mouth opened, he silently screamed, “I don’t know why I can’t say it, because I do. Just be patient with me.”

No comments: