A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
I sit on my deck with a fresh pot of tea, listening to soft music and straining to read my newspaper by dawn's wan light. When I hear Rosemary Clooney singing "Hey There” and then Doris Day’s "Secret Love” afterward, nostalgia sweeps over me, those classic ballads peeling away the decades the way a motion picture conveys time’s passage.
There she is -- a lissome goddess, tall and tan. A counselor at a girl’s camp near a two-lane Vermont highway in flyspeck Hortonia, a skip or two north of Lake Bomoseen.
With friends in tow, she shows up nearly every night at The White House, the only place of business for several miles around. It's a precursor to the smallest 7-Eleven you ever saw, holding maybe a dozen people if they scrunch.
Many more gather on the gravel outside the roadside store -- smoking, strutting, semi-surreptitiously sipping beer smuggled in from lord knows where. A six-pack is your entry fee.
But no need to worry about the law here. Billy Steele, the taciturn, good-natured Vermonter who owns the place, is not about to rat out an underage drinker. And the ranks of law enforcement are a bit thin, too. One state trooper appears to cover the entire 85-mile stretch of State Route 30 between Bennington and Middlebury.
The cop also ignores the obvious. Nothing suspicious here. This is, after all, a languid Vermont summer evening.
The Goddess is 19. Her imaginary throne in the center of the gravel lot is always surrounded by her "subjects" -- boys clustered in darkness, six feet deep. Most are teen counselors at neighboring boys’ camps. Bearing the twin stigmata of zits and hormones, they dream of possessing this vision, whose light brown hair they almost can touch.
Perhaps tonight she'll offer a little smile. Or a frown. Anything. Just please notice we're alive. We’re begging.
I'm 16 years old, and among that faceless crowd.
I've got a job, too -- as a dishwasher, not a counselor. As low as it gets on the summer camp employment ladder. My workspace, for three meals a day, is a cramped corner of an airless kitchen where we deal with the never-ending army of plates and glasses dirtied by smug rich kids who barely acknowledge our existence.
It's quite a step down from my job last summer, when I hauled garbage and transported laundry from this camp and its sister camp for girls -- joyfully dubbing myself a “sanitary engineer.”
The owner of this camp, a guy named George, lives in my hometown, West Orange, N.J. I'm friends with his son; two other pals, John “Duke” Dowd and Arne Anderson, also have accepted summer jobs at the camp.
Week after week, our nightly ritual after dinner has been to walk up a dirt road to Billy’s store and hang out there. Not too many alternatives for a love-starved soul in this remote wilderness.
One evening, a cloudburst sends denizens of the gravel pit a-running; the thinning of the herd leaves me alone under the roof overhang of Billy’s emporium, safe from the raindrops.
Well, it turns out, not quite alone. And not entirely safe.
For next to me slips The Goddess herself, sans court and courtesans. Though we stand only breaths away, our real life chasm is vast.
“Who are you?” comes the voice from Olympus, borne by a slight New England twang.
I struggle to reply. After all the nights of long-distance worshiping, for the first time I hear her speak. And, most astonishingly, to me.
"I'm Ronnie," I manage to croak. Then "Ronnie” again — in case she didn't hear.
She silently regards me head to toe, then up and down again. Finally, back up.
“You’re kinda cute,” she says, and leans in for a hug. “I’m Bunny.”
In that magic moment, the rain stops. A bright half-moon peeks from behind a storm cloud, hanging there as if the Earth has stopped on its axis. For me, it has.
Bunny takes my hand and commands, “Walk me home.”
En route, heart-racing, I try in vain to project an aura of calm maturity. But she prattles on. She is a Vermont native, she tells me, has just finished her senior year at Rutland High, with no grand plans for life beyond having some fun, then “maybe getting married.”
She squeezes my hand. It offers scant resistance.
“It’s going to be a great rest of the summer,” she whispers, after a chaste cheek-peck outside her cabin.
“And you need to know my full name. Yvonne Bunny Lena Mary Mary Matt. Just call me Bunny.”
She disappears before I can inquire about the need for six names, or why two of them are “Mary.” But nothing matters after “great rest of the summer.”
lt's an hour walk back to my cabin. My feet scarcely notice.
Next day, as Arne, Duke and I toil over the detritus of lunch, George -- the jolly, hale-and-hearty camp owner and father of our friend -- starts going all Dr. Jekyll over what he perceives as our dishwashing shortcomings. He punctuates his distress by flinging at us the contents of a pitcher filled with hot, soapy water. Bullseye.
In retrospect, our reaction seems choreographed. Maybe we expected some outburst; George seemed to be getting progressively surly — baselessly, we believed — toward his kitchen stalwarts. In sort of a slow-motion ballet, we strip off aprons and rubber gloves and throw them at his feet.
“Wash the damn dishes yourself, Fatso,” we shout, and storm off to pack our bags.
Bunny had been monopolizing my daydreams all day, as she had my night dreams all night. But they all quickly vanish. Our theatrical mic drop had left us in a pickle — 250 miles from home and, typically, short of cash.
As we trudge up the dirt road from camp, hoping to hitch a ride at Route 30, reality intrudes. Exiting in high dudgeon had been the proper thing to do, and heroically dramatic to boot. But, dammit, I am supposed to rendezvous with Bunny. Right here. In six hours.
“Forget it,” says Duke. “She doesn’t even remember you.”
“You’re not even a one-night stand, you’re one hour,” says Arne.
“Nonsense,” say I. “She loves me. Even hinted at matrimony.”
I leave Duke and Arne to guard our suitcases, and set off on foot to bid Yvonne farewell. When I tell her that our summer idyll, so full of delicious promise, is over, she seems genuinely sad, but avoids further talk of nuptials.
Instead, she slips me a note:
107 Temple St., Rutland, Vermont
“Write me,” she whispers. “I’ll write back, Ronnie. Promise.”
Cursing the gods (and all goddesses), I rejoin my friends. With some lucky hitch-hiking and bus-catching in Rutland, Boston and New York, we arrive home in New Jersey after midnight, exhausted.
At least one of us is heartbroken. We'd acted honorably, and our principled quitting would prove an important life lesson down the road. But now, for me, that’s zero solace.
When Arne, Duke and I next visit our friend, his father George greets us like long-lost pals. The Great Boys Camp Kitchen Massacre is forgotten. At least by him.
But oh, how often the radio seems to play Rosemary:
“Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes, Love never made a fool of you, You used to be too wise …”
“Once, I had a secret love, That lived within the heart of me. All too soon my secret love, Became impatient to be free …
Strangely, I don’t find it strange that the lyrics conjure Bunny so intensely that I simply must brand them “our songs.” Even though I barely know my crush and she has zero inkling we even have a special song — let alone two!
For a year we exchange letters, hers often containing a new cheesecake photo. In one she sits atop a six-foot snowdrift wearing only a one-piece bathing suit. I still have it someplace.
The following summer, she invites me to visit. It is a lovely reunion, but we realize (okay, she realizes) we will never progress beyond friendship. Correspondence continues sporadically, then she marries and I never hear from her again. That first "date" cheek-peck would be our only kiss.
A universal, unforgettable lesson: Heartbreak lyrics are the very essence of summer romance.
Fast forward 25 years. I'm in my Washington, DC office when a young man comes in seeking a job. Lucky him; I need a messenger to carry mail and other stuff between the downtown office and our staffers on Capitol Hill.
He slides a resume across the desk. I almost gasp when I see the address: 107 Temple Street, Rutland, Vermont.
My God! The kid lives in the very house Yvonne Bunny Lena Mary Mary Matt did. What are the odds?
He stares blankly when I drop her name, and I realize any last chance to find out about Bunny is gone. But the stupendous coincidence blows me away. How can I not give the kid a chance? After all, anybody can do this job..
Well, maybe not anybody. Irate calls begin almost immediately. The kid cannot find the Metro. He cannot find the Capitol. Apparently, he cannot find his butt with both hands. Bunny or no Bunny, I must fire him.
So it comes to pass that, the other morning on my deck 67 years A.B. (After Bunny), Rosie warns that love is making a fool of me, and Doris croons about secret adorati.
Their lyrics transport me aboard a magic carpet, lazily gliding back toward the summer of 1953 to a languid Vermont evening redolent of sudden rain.
Under the roof overhang, at Billy Steele’s everything mart, Yvonne Bunny Lena Mary Mary Matt will be there waiting.
Ronald E. Cohen was a senior executive at United Press International and Gannett News Corp. in Washington.
“It’s going to be a great rest of the summer,” she whispers, after a peck outside her cabin. “and you need to know my full name. Yvonne Bunny Lena Mary Mary Matt. Just call me Bunny.”