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The Agony and the Ecstasy Part 2 - Bitter Rice


Harry Buschman

(The following piece puts "Steeplechase" in perspective. "Steeplechase" was the end of an era for me and millions of other young men whose childhood was interrupted by the sound of hob nailed boots.)

Phil Miller, all of eighteen, and with six months to go until graduation, was getting married -- and I needed a suit. You can't be a best man without a suit. I was seventeen without a dime to my name, and the only way I was going to get a suit was to ask my father for the money.

"What do you need a suit for? You're seventeen years old, you don't need a suit. I don't own a suit myself, and I sure ain't goin' to shell out no $18.50 for a suit for you if I don't have one. You look fine just the way you are."

I expected that, and I dreaded having to explain why I needed a suit. "I'm going to be a best man, Pa."

That was a fact. I should have broken the news more gently, but I had not yet reached the age of diplomacy. Diplomacy would have been wasted on my father anyway, he was a blunt man and he always knew when he was being manipulated. After all, it wasn't as though I had to tell him I was going to be a groom. When I thought how close I had come to being one it made my blood run cold.

I think it happened the very same Saturday night under the boardwalk in front of Steeplechase. Phil, the smart one, the one who knew all the answers. Phil, at the age of eighteen was going to be a father. There he was, a senior caught in the middle of the most profound depression the world had ever known was marrying Pearl Elefant, a girl everyone knew was a 'good sport'.

"Who do you know's gettin' married?" he asked.

"Phil Miller, Pop, he's a senior .... he's been here once or twice."

"Is he that skinny blond kid with the glasses?"

My mother was more understanding .... "It's his best friend, Fred .... besides it's time he had a suit."

My father had a habit of thinking and talking at the same time, and the talking part of him would often get ahead of his thinking. He reminded me a lot of my old friend Ernie, whenever Ernie used to talk ahead of himself, I remember his mother would stop him and say, "Ernest .... first you'll think, then you'll talk." My father's lips were moving and I could tell his thinking processes were doing all they could to catch up.

"Too young to be gettin' married .... kid in high school .... where they gonna live .... how they're gonna get along?"

Mother knew the story .... "it's to give the baby a name, Fred."

"What baby? .... they ain't married yet .... how can there be a baby?" Then his mind finally caught up with his mouth and all he could say was, "Jesus Christ!"

He lit up his dead cigar and eyed me warily, "That ever happens to you, I'll .... I'll .... " But he had never made plans for what he might do if that happened to me, so he and his voice trailed off to the bedroom where I knew he kept an old black leather wallet with the house money.

He came out again and mumbled .... "Come on, let's get a suit, we'll have it cut full, maybe I can wear it too."

Phil and Pearl beat the stork by seven months, and it really wasn't much of a wedding. The priest married them in the vestry behind the altar where they keep the wine and the wafers. Other than the few grains of rice that was thrown at them at the church door there was no reception. I remember the rice being gritty underfoot and wiping my feet in the soft grass before walking home alone. I thought to myself this was one attraction Steeplechase never mentioned. They drove off to Atlantic City in his father's De Soto. Phil had to be back in school on Monday.

For the duration at least, they were going to stay with Pearl's mother, father and two sisters above Esposito's candy store. Pearl's father got Phil an afternoon job as a loader at the Wonder Bread bakery with a chance of getting a truck route for himself, some day. He was enthusiastic about that. I don't know why, it didn't look like much of a future to me.

I soon lost track of Phil and Pearl. Phil had no time for fooling around, and Pearl, in her confinement, (a polite word we used for pregnancy in those days) rarely left the house. The baby was still-born, (another polite word we used for an infant born dead). My father's words, ("If that ever happens to you .... I'll .... I'll") kept coming back to me, I could hear them as clearly as if I'd said them myself.

Another friend gone. Yesterday's friendships seemed so unbreakable; today's were fragile, quickly terminated and left a bitter taste in the memory of them. I was growing up and the world was closing in on me. People said there was a war coming, a big one -- bigger than the one my father fought in.

Steeplechase was a door that opened wide for just a moment. Then it slammed shut forever.

My father was getting gray now and there was a stoop to his shoulders I hadn't noticed before. He talked only about the old days -- how things used to be. He was only forty. He had more than fifty years to live and he would spend those fifty years trying to remember how things used to be. In time his memory would fade, exhausted perhaps from chasing his mouth for so long and he would remember nothing .... not even me.

©Harry Buschman 1996

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