To Flaming Youth

by Gary Beck

My best friend Steve and I finished our junior year of high school without the usual desperate need for it to be over. He attended a New York City public high school. I was enrolled in the prestigious private school that the men of my family had attended for the last one hundred and fifty years. My academic standing was high and I was the number one player on the varsity tennis team. Steve was in the top percentile of his class and was a pitcher on the baseball team, because the school didn't have a tennis team. He played tennis almost every day at a prominent tennis club that sponsored high-ranking juniors.

When Steve got off the train our greeting wasn't as urgent as it usually was. We were both pleased to discover a new maturity in each other and our ongoing friendship grew even deeper. We automatically fell into our old daily routine of a morning run and tennis practice, and we prepared for the eighteen and under regionals. If we did well, it would improve our national rankings and make us more desirable at Yale. We were both getting tired of the junior tournament circuit, which we had been playing since we were seven. Tennis parents of the other players and hypocritical lectures about good sportsmanship from people who only cared about winning were becoming particularly aggravating. We decided that we would at least continue to play until college. Our admission to Yale was certain, but it couldn't hurt to bring a sports reputation with us.

We sailed on Long Island Sound almost every afternoon with the Germayne twins, Ginnie and Melody. They were identical redheads, with long curly hair, green eyes, freckled pale skin and strong athletic bodies. They were striking rather than pretty, but they were very spirited. Steve had slept with both of them last summer, but they weren't jealous or possessive and we had a lot of fun together. I was still tortuously shy with girls and much too timid to try anything with Melody, though I really liked her. After a few weeks we had become inseparable and they accompanied us everywhere. Our live-in maid, Dahlia, interrogated us with her usual suspicion.

"Do I have to warn those girls about you?"

"That won't be necessary," I answered placatingly. "We're just friends."

"Then they're in trouble."

"You'll probably have to protect Randy from them," Steve quipped.

I glared at him, but he pretended not to notice and Dahlia didn't say anything else. The girls had decided to train with us and they'd meet us in the morning for the two and a half mile run to the club. For the first two weeks they could only run about a mile and they'd walk the rest of the way. After that they'd casually play tennis for a while.

Steve and I would go through our standard drill: fifty backhands, fifty forehands, fifty forehand and backhand volleys, fifty overheads, fifty lobs and fifty serves. We'd take a short break, then play three practice sets. We were still fairly evenly matched, just as we had been ever since we were ranked in the ten and unders. Despite years of efforts by Dad and other coaches, winning was still not as important to us as playing well. This was a fatal flaw for tournament tennis, where the only thing that mattered was winning. When we practiced together, we always went all out and tried to win every point. When we played each other at tournaments, we'd let whoever needed a boost in the rankings win. A lot of the juniors hated to play us, because we seemed to play our best in the early rounds, often beating the top seeds who were supposed to be better than us. Then we'd generally lose in the next round to lower ranked players who we were expected to beat. We tried to explain our attitude to some of the juniors, but they didn't believe us. They considered us spoilers.

Our feud with Andy Klassen had gradually faded away, but we had no fond memories of each other. When we met in tournaments, Steve and I made special efforts to beat him. He was currently ranked number 6 in the country in the 18 and unders and his father drove him harder and harder in the quest to be number one. We had to admit that he had become a pretty good player. It drove him wild if we ever managed to win a match from him, because we were ranked in the 400's. His father would get even crazier if he lost, cursing us and threatening Andy. Mr. Klassen had never forgotten the confrontation years ago at the club, when Steve was seven. So for years, whenever they played, he would hover around the court, doing anything he could to distract Steve. We always officially protested, but the tournament officials were either too embarrassed or intimidated to control him. We never let him upset us any more. We had seen lots of tennis parents who were even crazier than he was. We cherished the occasional win against Andy and reminded each other that it was only a game. Somehow, the Klassens always brought out the best in us and the worst in them.

Ginnie and Melody had been playing club tennis since they were seven, but they never took it seriously. Once they started running with us, they began to get more interested in improving their game. After Steve and I finished our practice sessions we gave them lessons and they improved rapidly. They entered the club tournaments and actually won some of them. We played mixed doubles with them and one of our teams got to the finals in almost every club tournament we entered. Many of the local parents were reassured that we were too preoccupied with the Germayne twins to get their daughters into trouble, so a lot of them were much friendlier to us. The twins drove a red Jaguar convertible and they chauffeured us everywhere at high speed, which added to our enjoyment and irked the state troopers who chased us and gave them speeding tickets. The car was quite conspicuous, which made it easier for others to keep track of our whereabouts, so we'd take my Ford convertible when we didn't want to be noticed.

The Germaynes had a huge beach house on the Sound and kept a couple of boats in the water all summer long for their guests. We used their twenty-eight footer regularly, often staying on the water after dark. Sometimes after getting underway we'd break out a joint and get high. Steve would go below with one of the girls and I'd stay on deck with the other. One cloudy, overcast afternoon we were really stoned and we weren't paying much attention to the weather. The girls were listening to Elvis Presley on the radio and we were teasing them about their taste in music.

"Do you girls really think he can sing?" I asked condescendingly.

"He's number one on the charts," Ginnie answered.

Steve made some suggestive moves. "That's because he shakes his hips and makes horny girls think about sex."

Ginnie smacked him playfully. "You have a dirty mind, Steve. Don't you think so, Melody?"

"Absolutely filthy. If he was a Mexican, he'd be feelthy."

A summer storm suddenly blew up. The moderately sedate Sound turned into the fury of the Atlantic. Before we knew it, we were tossing up and down in eight-to-ten foot seas that broke over the bow. We barely managed to keep into the wind, which was getting so strong that all we could do was run with it. We should have been terrified. Instead, the thrill of danger was so exhilarating that we howled at the storm, like wild beasts defying nature. The waves got bigger and we finally decided to put on life jackets, which we never did before. Well, except when we sailed with Dad, who insisted that everyone wear a life jacket, or not sail. It was too rough to do more than try to run with the wind and hold on tight. I saw that Steve and the girls were as hyped as I was and I yelled: "We should sing songs about storms." We didn't know many and ended up repeating the first line of 'Stormy Weather' over and over, and cackling like maniacs.

Visibility was near zero, rain was coming down in sheets and our best guess was that we were heading east. We had never moved so fast under sail and it was exciting. The girls kept shrieking, "Faster, faster!" Suddenly, a large shape loomed out of the rain and the Bridgeport ferry zipped by. We had a glimpse of terrified faces, but before we could even wave they were gone. Most of the passengers were tourists who only wanted a pleasant boat ride and a nice day on the beach. They were getting more than they bargained for.

The storm raged on and on. We were still having a blast, but we were getting tired from the struggle to keep the boat under control. The sky got a bit lighter and the waves diminished, but it was still rough. I hadn't been relieved at the tiller and Steve and the girls kept giving me contradictory orders and laughing like loons. I ignored them and tried to maintain my dignity, but I wasn't too successful. Just then, without warning, we slammed onto the beach. We barely had time to brace ourselves before the boat broke apart and we were thrown to the sand. We lay there stunned, too shocked from the impact to move. The rain was still falling, though it was tapering off. We called back and forth until we located each other. Once we were together, we checked each other for injuries. By some weird coincidence we had nothing more serious than scrapes and bruises.

A surf fisherman was standing nearby, frozen in place, with his eyes bulging and his mouth wide open, surprised at our dramatic appearance. He watched us examine each other then asked, "Where did you folks come from?" which we thought was hysterical.

Ginnie answered him, speaking in a deep, sexy voice, "From the moon." This struck us as so funny that we fell down and roared with laughter. This profoundly offended the fisherman, who packed his gear, grumbling and complaining.

"A man can't be left alone to fish in privacy, even in a storm."

This provoked further gales of laughter from us. Steve finally asked him,"Where are we?"

He continued to pack and mumbled sullenly, "You're on Crane Neck Point."

"We don't know where that is," Ginnie said playfully, "because they forgot to give us a map when we left the moon."

"Don't you crazies know anything?" he yelled. "It's on the north shore of Long Island."

We laughed wildly when we realized where we were. Ginnie started going around in circles, searching for something. I asked her what she was looking for. She answered forlornly. "My mermaid's tail. I lost it when we crashed on the beach."

The fisherman had enough and headed for his car. I asked him, politely, "Please call the state troopers and tell them to send help."

He snorted. "I'll send keepers for you escapees from the loony bin."

I felt badly about offending him and I reached into my pocket. "I'd like to give you some of our wet money."

But he refused and drove off, shaking his head, muttering something about, "The nuts you meet on the beach these days."

We had crossed Long Island Sound, the longest sea voyage any of us had ever taken. Then we were shipwrecked on a foreign shore without losing a single crew member. Magellan couldn't have done better. We were wet and cold, but exhilarated. We huddled together, trying to get warm, until the state police arrived and took us to their barracks. They gave us blankets and hot chocolate, then called our families. We hadn't given a moment's thought about anything since the storm started. It didn't occur to us that our parents had been frantic with worry once they realized that we were out on the boat, caught in the storm. They only relaxed after the state troopers swore we were uninjured after our miraculous escape.

Mr. Germayne sent his chauffeur, Tim, to take us home. Tim was thoughtful enough to stop on the way and bring us dry clothes. By the time he got there we were driving the troopers mad with our explorations of their files and games of hide and seek in the barracks. The girls kept trying to make sexy radio calls on the short-wave system. When the troopers tried to stop them, they yelled, "Help. We're being molested." The troopers were very happy to see the last of us. We said, "No, thank you," when Tim offered to take the ferry. We had enough sea voyaging for the time being. We dozed during the long roundabout ride back.

When we appeared before Mr. Germayne, Steve and I pleaded innocent to nautical negligence. The girls swore that they were in charge of the boat because they were better sailors than we were.

Mr. Germayne was skeptical. "Do you expect me to believe that you girls were in charge?"

Ginnie never looked more convincing. "Daddy, we handled the boat. The boys crewed for us."

"I'm reluctant to believe you, Ginnie. I think you're trying to protect them."

"Not at all, Daddy. Call the Coast Guard station and ask them if they broadcast a storm warning."

"I will. You better not be deceiving me."

We waited nervously to see if Ginnie's Coast Guard explanation worked. The Coast Guard officer explained that the storm came up without warning. "They were lucky to escape serious injury or drowning, Mr. Germayne. We've already had several small boat fatalities reported." The girls described how well we behaved in the face of danger, exaggerating our efforts to convince 'Daddy.' Mr. Germayne decided we were innocent. He shook our hands and assured us, "You are always welcome in my home." My family was a lot more difficult to convince.

Dad was very suspicious of our role in the boating mishap. "If what you say is true, this would be the first time in living memory that you two were innocent. I find it hard to believe that you weren't negligent in some way."

"Dad. I swear we were caught in the storm without warning. We were lucky to get off the boat alive."

"That's true, Mr. Pierce. We did our best in a difficult situation. Without the training you gave us we might not have made it."

"He's not kidding, Dad. It was dangerous out there."

"Were you boys drinking?"

"No, Dad."

"No, sir. We wouldn't do that. You taught us never to drink while handling a boat."

"That's right, Dad."

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm missing something? Did you leave anything out, some tiny detail that might reveal that you aren't the saints you claim to be?"

"I don't know what else we can tell you, Dad."

"Mr. Pierce, why don't you talk to Mr. Germayne? He knows what happened."

"I talked to Phil before you got home. He thinks you're heroes."

"I'm sorry that you don't feel that way, Dad."

"I didn't say that. I just want to be sure, before I give you a reward."

"That's great, Dad. What kind of reward?"

"We'll have to discuss it, but it should be something special. Bravery should always be recognized."

"Sounds good to us, Mr. Pierce."

Ginnie and Melody told everyone at the club that we were heroes. Melody described our epic struggle against the sea in elaborate detail, lingering on how we climbed the mast to reef the sail and were almost swept overboard. Andy tried to start a rumor that we deliberately wrecked the boat to impress people and the weather wasn't really that bad. But some of the club members had been sailing that day and they agreed with Melody's description. Coincidentally, someone on the ferry had recognized us when they passed our boat and they confirmed our story, even elaborating on the fury of the storm. This greatly added to the growing myth of our epic voyage across the Sound.

Dahlia, of course, wasn't the least bit impressed with our nautical exploits. "Anytime you boys have your parents and those gullible club members praising you, I know you did something wrong."

I said with injured dignity, "Now Dahlia, sometimes you have a very petty and suspicious attitude."

"I've known you both for a long time. There's no way you could be innocent."

"We're hurt that you won't believe Dad and Mr. Germayne."

"You may bamboozle them, but you sure won't fool me."

"Bamboozle. What's that?" Steve asked innocently. " Drunken bamboo shoots?"

"Are you making fun of the way I speak?"

"We wouldn't do that, Dahlia," I replied.

Steve nodded agreement. "You know we'd never tease you."

She stared at us doubtfully. "Yeah. Only if you thought you could get away with it."

"We respect you too much to make fun of you," Steve said.

"That's right. You've always been honest with us and tried to teach us about social injustice. We wouldn't do anything that would offend you."

"You've always been a very good friend to me, especially when I first came here when I was seven years old."

"You little manipulators. You could charm the skin off a snake."

"We mean every word of it," I insisted.

"How about we take you sailing with us, so you can see what it's like?"

"The last time a white boy asked a Negro to go on a sailboat, my ancestors ended up picking cotton in the Massa's fields."

I laughed. "That's very funny. Did you make that up?"

"You're not too old for me to take down your britches and tan your heinie."

Steve said with mock concern, "If you're thinking about white ass, you need a new boyfriend, Dahlia."

She pretended to be hurt. "This is the thanks I get after all the years I took care of you."

Steve quickly tried to soothe her. "You know we're kidding. We'd never hurt you."

"You're family," I added.

Dahlia looked at us appraisingly and said, "Boys, we should have a serious talk."

I rolled my eyes at Steve. "Can we do it another time?"

"Why? Are you going somewhere with those redheaded devils?"

Steve said in their defense, "They're sweet kids."

"That's not what I call them, racing around in that flashy car, smoking that stuff all the time..."

I tried to be nonchalant. "What stuff?"

"You know what I mean. I don't mind if you pretend you're innocent, but don't be thinking that I'm dumb."

Steve nodded knowingly. "We could never fool you."

"Then don't waste time trying. I want both of you to spend a little time thinking about social issues. Next year you'll be going away to college. You'll be young men with an opportunity to help change the world. There are all kinds of problems to deal with, but I'd like you to help my people in the struggle against racism."

"What do you want us to do?" I asked.

"For now, learn about the system and how it oppresses the Negro. Then when you're out of college you'll be able to help."

Steve agreed. "That sounds good to me."

So did I. "Sure. We can do that."

Dahlia smiled sweetly at us. "Not to change the subject drastically, but you better watch your tomcatting, or you'll get the local girls pregnant and their daddies will cut your things off with a dull razor."

My imagination jumped. "You have a very graphic way of describing things."

"I hope you get the message."

We really didn't take that threat very seriously. Steve had been pillaging the daughters of overly indulgent daddies since he was thirteen years old. He never came close to getting caught. Somehow, in our very well-to-do community, parents couldn't imagine what their children were doing. Mr. Germayne would never believe that his precious daughters smoked dope and had sexual relations with young men. Other people's children did things like that, not the offspring of the wealthy. They were too well protected to do the things that only happened in less privileged communities. We had learned that the children of privilege often behave much worse than poor kids. They rarely get caught because they do it in nicer places. Steve certainly took advantage of his opportunities and I was eager to start.

Lorna was back from her first year at Finch College, an exclusive New York City school for the daughters of the wealthy. Finch prepared young ladies for their future responsibilities. Mother and her sister went to Finch. So did Grandmama. Mother had given Lorna a number of good schools to choose from, but she didn't consider anywhere else but Finch acceptable. Mother was very happy with the choice, though she worried about how safe Manhattan's Upper East Side was. Grandmama was also happy, after it was repeated loud enough for her to understand. It was hard to tell sometimes if she was losing her hearing or her mind. Mother gave Lorna a new car and promised to pay for her junior year in France. I compared the benefits of going to Finch to going to Yale, and I decided it was time for a serious conference with Mother.

Lorna had matured in the last few years. She was slim, blond and as tall as Mother, with the same glacial good looks that made her difficult to approach. A year in New York City had made her very confident and she only dated men who were already established in a meaningful career. Undergraduates were always stopping by or phoning, eager to date the aloof beauty, but she wouldn't even give them a straw of hope. Her favorite line was, "You're a bit too young for me. At this stage of my life we just don't have enough in common for us to spend time together."

Most of her suitors rapidly deflated and slunk off. One pre-med student from Harvard was quite persistent. He sent flowers, small gifts, books and tickets to cultural events. In a losing effort to capture her interest he offered seats on the fifty-yard line for the Harvard-Yale game. I tried to swipe them for me and Steve, but Lorna wouldn't allow it. I couldn't help but admire her toughness, because she wouldn't give an inch. Mother was a little concerned that Lorna was too arrogant and she suggested mildly, "Perhaps you should go out with him once, just to find out what he's like."

"Mother, I know he's like all medical students: ignorant, ill-educated and horny."

"Lorna, do you have to be that crude?"

"You know what I mean. He spends all his time preparing for medical school. He hasn't the faintest idea about anything except anatomy and pills. He'll be in school for five or six more years. Then he'll do an internship somewhere in a ghastly emergency room. Should I wait for him, mend his socks, or become a nurse?"

"That's not quite what I meant."

"Am I wrong?"

"No. But you could just go out and have fun."

Lorna shook her head impatiently. "I go out with men who can give me what I prefer, sophisticated company. I'm not interested in boys whose only concern is their urgent needs."

"Don't you think that's a bit calculating?"

"Not at all. I know what I want. You were the same way."

"I wasn't that ruthless."

"Bullshit."

"What?"

"You heard me. You knew exactly what you wanted and you didn't waste time with anyone who couldn't give it to you. That's how you selected Dad. Didn't he work out satisfactorily?"

"Very. But I don't know if I'd phrase it that way... This is the most direct conversation we've ever had."

"Does it bother you?"

"Not at all. It's refreshing. Let's go somewhere for lunch and we can continue to get reacquainted."

"How about the club? I'd like to see how the boys are doing."

"That's fine. But don't call them boys anymore."

"I've been hearing wild stories about them carrying on with the Germayne twins."

"I hope you won't encourage gossip."

"No, Mother. But I'll find out from my friends what they've been up to."

Mother and Lorna got to the club and stopped by our court to say hello. They watched for a while as we finished a doubles match against two good players. Steve did a little showboating to impress Lorna. We won the last point on a leaping overhead by Steve, shook hands and joined the Pierce women. They looked like sisters together. Steve always had a secret crush on my older sister and he went out of his way to be pleasant. Mother asked Lorna teasingly, "Shall we invite them to join us for lunch?"

"Do they know how to use utensils?"

"Of course we do, sister dear. That's what tennis rackets are for."

We walked to the terrace and sat down. Lorna started questioning Steve.

"What have you been doing during the past year?"

"Well, the usual school work, though I've been reading a lot of American history. I played baseball for the school team, but I don't think I'll go back."

"Why not?"

"The coach is really childish. He doesn't teach skills, but he drones on about 'never quitting.' With a little practice, he could be a tennis parent.

Lorna smiled understandingly. "We have enough of those. Anything else?"

"I started writing poetry."

The three of us looked at him in surprise.

Mother was the first to ask. "What kind of poetry?"

"Sort of a romantic style, Mrs. Pierce."

"You mean like love and girls and breaking hearts?"

"No. More like Byron, Keats and Shelley, though not as good. I've been very involved in trying to write about the vast and powerful forces of nature, but it may be a little imitative. I was particularly influenced by Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage."

This was an entirely new side of Steve to all of us. Mother and Lorna were very involved in art, but they didn't know much about poetry. Neither did I. They were impressed. The idea of Steve, the wild, seducing satyr, communing with his muse and writing poetry took some getting used to.

Lorna was looking at Steve differently. "What do you plan to do with your poetry?"

"Just write it for now, Lorna. Maybe after a while I'll try to publish some in periodicals. I'm not doing it for a career, or to make money."

Mother was also trying to understand a new side of Steve. "Why are you doing it?"

"I don't exactly know why, Mrs. Pierce. One day some lines just started going through my head. When they wouldn't go away I started to write them down. Later I decided it was poetry."

"Would you read some of it to us?" Lorna asked pleasantly.

"Sure, Lorna. When we've got some time."

"How about tonight?" she asked.

Steve was agreeable. "If you like."

Mother made it official. "After dinner then, so Dahlia can join us."

"Sure, Mrs. Pierce."

"Randall, did you know Steve was writing poetry?"

"No, Mother. He's a very mysterious guy. You never know what he'll do next."

"I'm getting the feeling that both of you may have your little secrets."

Lorna nodded wisely. "They always did, Mother. They're just not kids anymore."

_______________

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway and toured colleges and outdoor performance venues. He currently lives in New York City, where he's busy writing fiction and his short stories have recently appeared in numerous literary magazines.

To Flaming Youth
© 2006 by Gary Beck

 

 
     
     

 

 



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