a short story
t was the winter almost everybody in our third grade class got the measles. While this disease was constantly of concern to my young mind, I must admit that at the time I had no idea what measles looked like. Those unfortunate enough to catch it were fortunate to be allowed to stay home from school until it was gone. My mother told me that measles were hot, scratchy red sores that you got from other people. I couldn’t understand how you could catch them if the people who were sick with measles didn’t come to school—yet every day another one or two of my classmates disappeared from our homeroom.
That was also the winter it snowed and snowed, with thick flakes that froze on my eyelids as I crunched along on my way to school. As this was before school busses were popular, and everyone had to walk, there were no days off for deep snow, even though in some places it came up to my waist.
As it was Saturday, my best friend Beebus and I had decided to spend the day making an igloo out of the snow. I can’t remember why he was called Beebus when his name was actually Robert, but that was his nickname. It wasn’t going to be a real igloo like I had read about in my geography book. We weren’t going to carve out ice blocks and stack them on top of each other like Eskimos did. Instead, using borrowed coal shovels, we had piled up a small mountain of snow in the corner of our backyard. I call it our yard because Beebus and I lived in the same building. We shared a two story house in a rundown neighborhood, where the space between the aging structures was only wide enough for a walkway. We were on the top floor, while Beebus’ family had the apartment below. The small, fenced-off area behind the house and between the alley and a garage was common to both families. As there was a war going on, our fathers had planted Victory Gardens in a corner of the space last spring, but both of them had been called away before the beans and tomatoes were ready to be picked.
Our first idea had been to make a snow castle. However, after struggling for most of the morning Beebus and I discovered we lacked the skills necessary to create the towers and turrets we envisioned our castle having. Besides the pile didn’t look like a castle at all, but was a natural igloo. We carved out an entrance, and then began hollowing out the inside. This was when I got into trouble.
The problem was my mother had a clear view of the backyard from our kitchen, which was why I seldom strayed from my own small corner of the world. I heard her window rattle up, and then her voice rattled down:
“Johnny! What are you two up to? ”
“Just playing, Mom. . . .”
“And what are you going to do with that pile of snow?”
“We’re making an igloo, Mrs. Starzinski. . . .” Beebus shouted up. Being a year older than me, he was in the habit of always answering for me.
“You’re not planning to go inside that thing . . . are you Johnny?”
“It’s gonna be our camp,” was my unwise reply. I imagined the two of us sitting inside in the semi-darkness making up stories, and planning and scheming all sorts of things.
“Now you listen to me . . . don’t you dare go in there. It might collapse on you, and then you’ll suffocate.”
“Awh, Mom. . . .”
“Don’t you awh, Mom me, Johnny. You come back in here just this minute.”
“Awh, Mom,”I repeated in a more pleading tone.
“Can Johnny come inside to my place to play instead?” Beebus asked, rushing to intercede on my behalf.
“Well, okay . . . but just for a little while,” my mother compromised. Then she gave me her usual warning: “But Johnny, you’d better come when I call . . . it’s going to be getting dark soon.”
This was how I happened to end up downstairs in Beebus’ apartment on this gray, winter late afternoon. His older sister Lilly was home alone as, besides her regular job in a sewing factory, their mother worked on Saturdays at a five and dime store in town. Their father was presently hunkered down in a damp woods in
awaiting a German counterattack. According to a pin stuck in a map hung up in
our kitchen, my father was more fortunate. He was at an air base in Mississippi
training tail-gunners. Belgium
Lilly had pulled a kitchen chair up to the enameled coal stove and was warming herself in front of the open oven. The stove was kept constantly lighted, being used as a source of heat as well as for cooking. In those days we all used coal—the mine was just across the street, its dark colliery towering above our house as the slack pile towered above that.
Lilly was in the fifth grade. I remember her now as being rather comely, although the word was not then in my vocabulary, and the word has since fallen into disuse, at least when speaking about young girls. Not that one might suffer disapprobation for using the word today, which one surely would; however, the teeny rock princesses who nowadays parade their bejeweled navels and tattooed arms up and down Main Street in the summer could hardly be referred to as comely.
“Mommy said I should check you for measles when you got home,” Lilly announced to her brother as soon as we came inside.
We had both taken off our boots at the door, and then our heavy coats, which we hung over the backs of chairs. I sat down. But Beebus, who had moved closer to the stove, was continuing to remove the rest of his clothes. He was already down to his long johns, which I didn’t know he wore, when he looked over at me. He gave me a self-conscious grin and then removed that last covering also.
“Stand still!” Lilly commanded her naked brother.
She began running her hands over Beebus’ skin, starting at the back of his neck, checking behind his ears, under his chin, working her way down his body.
I felt out of place just sitting there observing what was going on. Lilly kept glancing over at me to see if I was watching. I looked around the room, at the calendar, the clock, the crucifix hanging on the wall, but my eyes kept returning to the activity going on between the brother and sister.
As strange as their theater was I must admit that my main curiosity was still about the measles. If Lilly found them on Beebus I would finally see what measles looked like. But then it would be too late for me because I probably would have them too, having surely gotten them from Beebus.
Lilly shuffled her hand around her brother’s stomach, her index finger probing his belly button. Beebus’ penis seemed to be standing up straight, and was much longer, not like the time I saw it when we peed together in the woods. Lilly took hold of the knobby thing, bending it back, checking the underside, running her other hand around his testicles. Lifting up the whole set, she bent her head down low to give each item a closer inspection, her fingers smoothing the pale skin. The examination of Beebus’ privates was taking much longer than that of his other parts. I was sure she must have discovered something.
Suddenly I felt very hot in my own crotch. Oh my God, I thought, Lilly’s found the measles, that’s where they are, there between your legs, hot, itchy—I must have them too. But her hand abruptly moved away from her brother’s penis. She gave a perfunctory scan to the rest of his body, which apparently was not that susceptible to measles. His feet were ignored completely.
“You’re okay,” Lilly announced decisively. “I found no sign of measles.”
I was relieved. Beebus started to get dressed. Lilly turned to me:
“What about you, Johnny . . . want me to check you for measles?”
I didn’t know what to say. I though about the hot spot between my legs, but by now it seemed to have gone away.
“My mother checked me this morning,” I lied.
“Okay,” Lilly said. “But I think now you boys had better check me.”
That said she began unfastening the front of her dress. It was the kind of frock that no young girl would wear these days, and not too popular back then either, brightly printed cotton with a floral pattern, loose, with buttons down the front. It had probably been handed down to Lilly from her mother.
Now I must admit until Beebus had taken off his clothes in front of me, I had never seen anyone naked but myself. And I had not actually even seen myself as the only mirror in the bathroom, where I got undressed, was high over the sink.
Lilly finished draping her clothes over the chair by the stove and then turned around to us—completely naked.
“Come over here, Johnny, and examine me,” she commanded.
As I approached her bare body, I could feel the heat growing between my legs again. Or was it just the warmth from the coal stove?
My eyes were immediately drawn to that place where girls were supposed to be different. I blinked in confusion. There was nothing there. Where Lilly’s penis and testicles should be was only a fleshy slot that kind of looked like where you put the money in a soda machine. I just stared.
“Well don’t just stand there . . . come on, examine me.”
I heard the cry thrown outside from the kitchen upstairs. It echoed off the garage, and then rattled on Beebus’s window.
“Johnnnnnyyyy!!!!!” The cry repeated, louder, longer. I knew there would be one more.
Back then we didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t even have any telephone in our apartment, nor did Beebus. When my mother wanted to call the doctor she had to go to the grocery store on the corner and use the pay phone in the back by the boxes, where the butcher didn’t sprinkle sawdust on the floor.
All the mother’s shouted out the window for their children. I still remember the different sound of the calls. Grant, was a loud bark; Billy, a shrill note that went down on the end;
a kind of bubbly noise; and the two syllables of Beebus sailed out like insects
escaping a hive. Leon
By some unwritten agreement there were always three calls, no more, no less. If you didn’t respond by the third call you were in big trouble, and usually caught it when you finally did come home. If you were too far away to hear, which you shouldn’t have been, someone often responded for you, or “told on you” as in: “I think I seen him with some of the other boys down by the colliery, Mrs. S. . . .”
It was my third call.
“Coming, Ma!!!!!!!” I yelled up at the ceiling. “I gotta go now. . . .” I said to Beebus and Lilly.
“Hurry on home, momma’s boy,” the naked Lilly mocked as I headed out the door. “Beebus will examine me.”
As I slowly climbed the steep stairs to our apartment, my young mind pondered the muddled events of the past hour. I suspected Lilly imagined her fun to be perfectly harmless. What did I know then of the pleasures of the flesh and carnal life. The whole business seemed blurred, as cloudy as the gray afternoon. Lilly’s strange and suggestive maneuvering had offered me no meaning. While it was true that a great mystery had been revealed to my eyes, my first vision of the opposite sex, something that I would never forget, I still didn’t know what measles looked like.
* * *
Stephen Poleskie’s writing has appeared in journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, and the UK, as well as in the USA, and in the anthologies The Book of Love, (W.W. Norton) and Being Human, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published seven novels. Poleskie has taught at a number of schools, including: The School of Visual Arts, NYC, the University of California/Berkeley and Cornell University, and been a resident at the American Academy in Rome. He currently lives in Ithaca, NY, with his wife the novelist Jeanne Mackin.
* * *