Herman belonged to a group whose members claimed association not by choice, but by unhappy circumstance. These boys, high school sophomores all, had bonded through their utter failure to connect in any way—any way—with their lovelier female classmates. This condition was due almost entirely to their physical peculiarities—they were considered obese, and/or creepy, dwarfish, cadaverous, snaggle toothed, pimply, etc. Consequently, they didn’t seem to exist at all in the girls’ luminous eyes. If a boy were foolish enough to direct the most innocuous inquiry—for example, asking the time of day—at one of these young temptresses, he would get in return a crushing silence that would plague him for weeks.
One such awe-inspiring girl was named Paula Kalitsky. While Paula wasn’t cruel, her blond, soft-skinned allure, and the way others surrendered to it, had conditioned her to ignore certain aspects of her environment, like a fighter who is too powerful to notice the pitiful pokes of a weakling. Herman, for one, found Paula interesting beyond her looks: she seemed unusually thoughtful and quietly determined; in a school infested with cliques, she gave the impression of going her own way.
“Perhaps there’s more to her than just the usual series of triumphs,” Herman mused.
Of course, Paula had a boyfriend. How could she not? Each moment of her puberty had seemed to add sublime elements to the gifts she already possessed. Her skin glowed, her body had blossomed, and her mouth and chin had assumed a sensual boldness. And she’d grown tall enough so that it was all impossible to miss.
“You could be as independent-minded as Jesus,” Herman observed, “but if you look like that, you’ll have a beehive full of guys buzzing around your ass.”
So, the surprise wasn’t that Paula was dating, but rather the type of guy she had connected with. Instead of the usual jock or slick operator, Paula was involved with an individual named Baxter, one of the roughneck farm boys who occupied an especially menacing fringe of student life. Though he was among the handsomer members, Baxter otherwise fit the standard profile: beefy, brutish, non-academic.
Coincidentally, Baxter had once exchanged words with Herman, who ordinarily avoided the farm boys as he would a posse of apes.
“You fucking, jerkoff, pipsqueak cocksucker,” Baxter had growled.
They’d been in the auditorium for study hall, a period when students were expected to be quiet and productive, aims seldom met. Popular activities included flinging pens, pencils, water balloons, an occasional smoke bomb, etc. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” was Herman’s attitude toward unruly behavior. He flung a pencil toward the back of Engelberg’s head but Herman’s aim—as typically occurred—failed him, and the instrument caromed off the back of Engelberg’s chair. To Herman’s horror, the pencil arced upward and—defying laws of physics—soared toward the large head of Baxter, who sat about a half-dozen seats to the right.
The pencil fell short and its sharp point thwacked into Baxter’s armrest, on which it stood, embedded and quivering, like a dart. Baxter’s head swung around, and the hoodlum locked eyes with Herman, who couldn’t help but produce a simpering, guilty grin.
As Baxter approached, Herman croaked: “Ah-sah-sah-sah-sah-sorry.”
Herman’s eyes pinged around in frantic search of Mr. Dunbar, who was allegedly in charge of the study hall. Of course, the bastard wasn’t here. Teachers are like cops, Herman thought, never around when you need ‘em.
Baxter loomed over a cringing, wormy, perspiring Herman. Baxter said, “Here’s your pencil, asshole,” and carefully handed it over, eraser first.
Baxter walked on, apparently more interested in what lay ahead than he was in pummeling some kid whom he outweighed by 60 pounds.
Later, they revived Herman in the nurse’s office, where they had dragged him after he fainted, his pencil caught in a death grip.
In biology class, the teacher, Mr. Grover, often paired his students up for laboratory assignments. Paula and Herman were in the same class, and Herman couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he and Paula were ever assigned as partners. If so, it would be like a cataclysmic shift in the space-time continuum—as partners, they would have to speak, the vast differences between them be damned. Of course, it had never happened. Herman inevitably was paired up with another dull guy, or some homely girl—the female equivalent of himself, he had to concede, if he were being honest.
In those days, the mid-1970s, girls still wore mini-skirts, sweetly tormenting Herman and hapless guys like him. All that exposed flesh, all that fire surging through male blood, with nothing to be done about it except to burst. One morning during a fetal pig review, Paula seemed determined to set this worst-case scenario in motion. She wore a black mini-skirt and a silken white blouse; her rich hair swirled to her shoulders, and her bright cherry lips teased at a range of erotic possibilities. Herman sat across the aisle from her, and among other claims on his attention, he could hear her conversation with the boy she was paired with, Winston, only an average fellow, but apparently rating her notice.
“The liver’s here,” Paula said. “We need to seal it open.”
“How the Christ we do that?” Winston said.
Paula laughed. “With the scalpel, dummy.”
“This is seriously disgusting,” Winston said.
Herman couldn’t agree more, as he surveyed the slimy organs of his own pig.
But Paula responded, “Don’t be such a pussy.”
“So the gall bladder’s behind it?” Winston said. “This green stuff? No way the human one’s green.”
“What difference does it make?” Paula said. “What matters is that it works, if you’re lucky.”
“So what is it, like a sex organ or something?”
“Helps you digest food,” Paula said. “Breaks down fat. Didn’t you read the assignment?”
“Well…” Winston said. “Depends what you mean by read.”
Herman had fixed his eyes sneakily on the upper flanks of Paula’s legs, and marveled that he couldn’t see any of her undergarments. How close can you get, he wondered: my God, it’s an art form. What he saw was a length of perfectly shaped, shimmering skin; and he felt as if his metabolism was transforming, like he was a reptile growing an extra limb. Everything inside him itched and burned. Herman thought he heard in the background a man’s voice that he should heed, but he felt too annihilated to focus.
“If you can’t keep your eyes on the task at hand, I’m going to slap you silly,” Paula said.
That came through loud and clear. Herman experienced a failure to breathe, as most people do when caught in a shameful act. His body, already fevered, contended with a blistering attack of self-loathing. There’s no getting past this, he knew. The disgrace would mark him forever. He wheezed, glanced up, and saw Paula had actually been talking to Winston. He relaxed and took a long, restorative breath. Praise fucking God, Herman thought. He noted that Winston seemed to be taking Paula’s threat with smirking good humor; Paula, too, was smiling. That sight, awesomely beautiful, excited Herman further.
But how much further could he go? He felt like an athlete who has given his all, yet still more is required.
“And what purpose does it serve, Mr. Herman?”
Mr. Grover was standing about 10 feet away, looking directly at him. The teacher was a short man with a pockmarked face, but he had a witty, sardonic disposition, and students generally liked him. So, Herman knew that the son of a bitch would have his peers’ support during this particular exchange. He decided he had two choices: to stand mute, or to offer a lame “what?” or “huh?” He chose the former, as it would buy him time. Maybe the goddamned bell would ring or something.
Herman stared at Grover for a few seconds, then looked down at his fetal pig.
“We’re discussing the gall bladder, Mr. Herman. But as you must have been paying attention you doubtlessly know that.”
Herman heard titters, each one like a slow drop of Chinese water torture. The moment was becoming insufferable, and then it occurred to him there might be a lifeline to grab.
Mr. Grover grinned wickedly, and he executed a jolly half-bow, as if he lived for moments like this. “That’s color not function, but it’s a start. Would you care to elaborate?”
Herman pretended to consider. He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Helps you digest food? “Breaks down fat?”
Grover spun away with a flourish. “I knew you could do it, Mr. Herman. You may not look like you’re awake, but you can’t fool me.” More guffaws. “Okay, let’s examine the bladder!”
Herman couldn’t help but look at Paula, and was surprised to see her regarding him with a faint grin, her blue eyes glittering. Then, one of those great, jeweled eyes winked at him.
Herman turned away, mortified, as discombobulated as a speck of dust adrift in the vast universe.
But if there had ever been a notion of an unlikely friendship, it was squelched soon enough. Paula returned to ignoring Herman, as if the biology lab moment had never occurred. And really, it hadn’t. What was that, anyway? She had probably just been gazing through him, as if he were transparent—or wasn’t there at all.
As time passed, Paula’s detachment evolved into something even vaguer, and she effectively disappeared. Herman heard she had enrolled in a program that enabled juniors and seniors to take a majority of their courses at a local community college. This program was aimed at the more independent and mature students, providing them opportunities for part-time jobs. So once 11th grade was underway, Paula was barely seen.
As a result, Herman retained just one tangible memory of her during their final school years. The setting was their senior class trip, during which students were delivered to a nearby hotel and allowed, unofficially, to run amok. Before dinner, as Herman and some classmates gathered outside the dining room, he glanced up at a balcony nearby and noticed Paula standing there, smoking a cigarette. He hadn’t seen her for some time.
Though others were milling nearby, Paula was clearly alone, puffing impatiently and peering over the railing. She wore a mid-length dress with a muted pattern; her hair flowed close to her eyes and was swept behind her ears. Herman thought that she appeared a little taller and slimmer than he remembered. She was still very pretty, but that’s not what seemed most meaningful. Paula looked marooned and ill at ease, as if she were inside a glass booth. She might have felt too mature to engage with her classmates, or maybe she wished to still be among them. Possibly, she felt both.
Herman watched Paula take a couple of more drags. He couldn’t recall whether she had smoked before. Herman wasn’t pious about such things, but it wasn’t a great look for her: all that filth polluting her body. It wasn’t sad, exactly, but Herman wished he hadn’t seen her. He didn’t notice Paula again that evening, but the fleeting image of the girl on the balcony stayed with him.
A couple of years later, as a college student, Herman had edged into a druggie phase. Marijuana, mescaline, and Quaaludes were his chosen drugs, useful for numbing the tensions that too often raked through the pit of his stomach.
One evening, home for summer vacation, Herman was driving around with his old high school friend, Engelberg, who was in a similar rootless situation, and for his own reasons craved the same type of medication.
The pair stood on the front porch of their drug dealer, Maxwell, who grinned and said, “Engelberg, you look like you could use a meal. Unfortunately, this ain’t a restaurant.”
Maxwell’s business had afforded him a house, designed like a medieval castle, alongside a lake in the country. Herman and Engelberg sat on a couch as Maxwell settled onto a large leather chair. The living room was wide, with a yellow carpet and marble fireplace. Maxwell ran a tight ship: the place had a sparkling, upper-middle class feel, free of the usual doper stench and debris. In fact, there was a faint odor of pine needles.
Engelberg, who was a bit shorter and slighter than Herman, said: “Thanks for your concern. But we’re not here for food.”
Maxwell was a large man just beginning to develop a gut. His dark hair was short for the times. “Well, my advice is, stay away from the coke. It’ll make you even scrawnier. I ain’t got none anyway, but it’s my advice, nonetheless. What I do have is some mind-blowing sinsemilla that’ll put you in a wheelchair.”
Herman was looking around. A bay window provided a view of the lake and the lush greenery around its perimeter. Across the way, a pleasure craft was tied to a dock. Herman considered that he had never been on a boat and took a moment to regret his choices in life. Inside, near the window, a couple of crystal vases held flowers vivid with color.
Herman said, “You growing your own stuff now?”
“Hell no. That’s legitimate. I got a roommate.”
“How much?” Engelberg said.
“Eighty an ounce.”
“Jesus,” said Engelberg.
“It ain’t a load of seeds and stems. You can go to Stop and Cop for that shit. Anyway, you don’t want it, you know where the door is.”
After being challenged to take it or leave it, Herman and Engelberg chose to take it. As they rose to depart, Maxwell said, “Frick and Frack were just leaving.”
The remark was directed at a young woman who had entered the room. Tall and regal, wearing a halter top and shorts, she lifted a vase and slowly, delicately sniffed its contents. She then glanced out the window, turned and strode through a door, with no indication she gave a damn at all what Frick and Frack were up to.
There followed a moment of reverential silence.
“Nice, huh?” said Maxwell.
Herman and Engelberg traded surprised looks. Then Engelberg offered a hungry grin. “Oh yeah.”
Herman smiled weakly, feeling shook up.
The woman was Paula.
Herman’s druggie phase didn’t last long; he went on to graduate from college, and then become an accountant. Sometime in the early 2000s, he was killing time in his office at the end of the day, looking at a newspaper. As he skimmed the obits—with some disquiet, as he now sometimes discovered people he knew—a name jolted him. He read it again: Paula Kalitsky. After yet another look, the name turned out to be Paul Kalitsky. And a photo showed a craggy, middle-aged man with a crewcut— a retired forklift operator, union guy, devoted husband, father, and churchgoer.
Among Paul’s surviving children was one Paula Burke, whom the write-up noted lived locally. Herman’s face flushed with the residue of old excitements. Of course, he had thought of Paula over the years. How could a guy like him avoid it? He would be as likely to avoid thinking of his next breath, or the oddball impulses that made him tick.
Herman was curious about what might have become of Paula, and he entered her name on a search engine through his computer. He found nothing that seemed to tell him anything, then he put the notion aside.
Some years later, a local school district became one of Herman’s clients. One day he met with the district’s finance chief regarding its Technical and Career Focus program for at-risk kids. They walked out of the man’s office and as they navigated hallways, Herman noted the fluorescent lights, wall-mounted phones, and bulletin boards crammed with notices, all spinning a retro mood. Of course, it reeked of school days, and he recalled, as in a daydream, being naked in the gym locker room, an experience that had often made him want to vomit. How many years had passed, and still he flinched?
They stopped at a room full of desks and laptops, with a large whiteboard and screen at one end.
“Here’s the one who makes it all happen,” the finance chief said. “Let me introduce you.”
From a large desk near the whiteboard, a middle-aged woman arose. She approached the men with a professional, if palpably false, smile, hand outstretched. She was tall and plump with a pale, full moon face and short blond hair. She wore a pinstripe blouse, dark skirt, and a green unbuttoned sweater. Reading glasses and a photo I-D dangled from cords around her neck. She had the clipped walk and bloodshot eyes of someone with too much work. The eyes were blue, and Herman noticed a flash of chiseled elegance around the chin and mouth.
He had seen those features before.
The finance chief said, “Dr. Burke, this is our CPA, Tom Herman. Dr. Burke is our TCF principal.”
“Paula,” she said, shaking Herman’s hand.
“Tom. You must be busy.”
“You’re the one who keeps us all in line?” she said.
“I think Stu has more to do with that,” Herman said. “I just help where I can.”
Dr. Burke’s eyes wavered, fixed on nothing in particular. “Glad to know you’re part of the team.”
“Me too!” the finance chief chimed in.
“Another happy client,” Herman said.
“Nice to have met you,” said Dr. Burke.
The encounter was befuddling, as Herman was thinking this could not be the same person, but guessing it probably was. Well, he could manipulate the bullshit professional grin as well as anyone, and he sustained his, focused on keeping the meeting routine. Clearly, she didn’t recognize him, not that it would have mattered if she had, at this stage of their lives. It occurred to him that such an exchange, with the same individual 40 years ago would have been more than he could have dreamed of.
“Persistence, my boy, persistence. That’s what makes your dreams come true,” Herman told himself as the two men returned to the hallway.
“She does a fantastic job,” the finance chief said, and then he chatted about other matters as Herman’s grin congealed into a dazed, lop-sided hole.
On Facebook, Herman’s high school class had created a dedicated reunion page, which he had joined and occasionally scanned, due to unwholesome curiosity (he had never considered attending a reunion—fuck all those miserable bastards).
Herman saw on the site that Paula Burke had “liked” some item, then he clicked through to view her page. The page was sparse, with a few photos of her, all recent, in which she looked as matronly as she had at the school district office. The page’s most recent entry had been posted a couple of weeks before, in which a young man named Tim Reardon sent Paula his best wishes for her birthday. A photo showed each one draping an arm on the other’s shoulder.
Reardon looked to be in his 30s, with long brown hair under a woolen cap. There was stubble on his face. His message read: “Happy birthday to my wonderful mom! She’s overcome so much and been so courageous. And she’s stayed kind, caring, and loving through everything. I love you, mom!”
Reading that stung Herman, erupting from a place deeper than tears. The sensation dissolved slowly, leaving a lingering echo of sorrow. He remained in place for several minutes, then closed his laptop and stood.
Herman was in the den of his home and looked at the doorway leading out, momentarily confused about who or what—if anything—awaited there.