The Skunk Affair of 1962
It was hard for Dan to believe that he had lost the directions to the Sewickley mansion. At twenty, he ought to be better at directions, especially to great potential party places like Sewickley, and a mansion anywhere. Even harder to believe was the array of listings in the white pages under the name Alexander Hamilton Chislett. Supposedly a direct descendant; maybe Hamilton had left enough of the first Bank of New York to pay for all the buildings these telephone numbers suggested: stables? The party would be too late for riding, but from the stories, you could not be sure about those people. The garage, no. The main house? Maybe. There it is: Dan remembered Roger told him it would be in the gymnasium. Dan thought he was kidding. Dan had met some rich guys at Negley Academy, but their own gymnasium? Hell, he thought, I’m really JV around these guys.
Dan’s father, a tax attorney, had known a little about the Chisletts—iron and steel—in both finance and demeanor, he had said.
As for the stories, Dan had been told by a number of his friends to watch out, that Alex was a son of a bitch and sometimes violent (could he really have gone after a guy on the open hearth of his father’s steel mill?). But every time they had met, Alexander Hamilton Chislett had been very deferential, “the soul of propriety,” Dan’s father would say. You are probably meeting him before the family’s legendary alcoholic gene kicks in, 11:00 p.m., I’m told, the thoughtful attorney said dryly. But Dan knew his father was not so secretly pleased that Dan was making these rich, if somewhat irresponsible, friends. Maybe that’s what law taught you.
After the slightly blurry phone-book research, things went easier. Picking up Billy, Dan’s best friend, and the drive were a breeze given the decreasing traffic, to say nothing of the decreasing six-pack under the front seat of his father’s ’61 Cadillac convertible. Cruising down Ohio River Boulevard, top down, the red and white interior leather flashing in the last of the sunset, Dan felt like he and these new friends, didn’t own but somehow controlled the city, or the worthwhile parts anyway. Maybe someday he would own a piece of it. Maybe that’s why his father was so forgiving. “Benign neglect,” Dan later laughingly called it to a therapist, after Senator Daniel Moynihan’s advice to Nixon on programs for the poor.
Two bad turns, and questions to locals—one even to a Sewickley black and white Chevy police car, Dan and Billy carefully kicking beer cans back under the car seat—and they were at the gates. Dan thought the success was his smooth politeness, but then thought again it was the Chislett name. All through, Billy, the faithful sidekick, was keeping up with the directions and discretely passing the crisp beers and muted moral support.
“Are you sure we were really invited?” Dan asked.
“You worry too much. What difference does it make?”
“A lot, I would think.”
“People don’t invite you to parties for only two reasons: they don’t know you or they don’t like you. If you go, they probably won’t know you any better at the end of the party. And they certainly won’t like you any better. So go.”
Once on the estate, some questions to a heavyset hired-hand type led them to the gymnasium, a freestanding building that looked solid enough to Dan to be maybe 1920s. When, he decided, all good things were made.
Then it was the usual for an all-guy party—keg, some pretty good foul jokes, yelling, and plans for getting laid. Without too much past success, as far as Dan could tell from what they were saying as well as his own experience. Except for the Chislett family having their own gymnasium (pool sealed over by heavy wood cover—There’s a newer, bigger inside/outside being dug out downstairs, one of Chislett’s kiss-ass buddies said), the evening was nothing to remember until they started home.
Alex Chislett lived up to Dan’s memory of him: polite, even gracious—almost as if he were watching himself. Which might have been the case, given Roger’s story of Alex being picked up two days ago by the Sewickley police. He had apparently been singing some obscene songs in front of some townie girl’s house near the business district; it was midnight and, luckily, Alex was just shirtless.
Right before they left, Dan was intrigued by a discussion that almost started when Roger asked whether everybody was a social climber.
“Right,” Alex said. “Name me one person who is not a social climber.”
“Yeah, I bet you can’t name one.” The kiss-ass guy jumped in.
“Queen Elizabeth,” Billy said.
Everybody laughed. And Ray felt warm being part of the smart guys from the city. Billy did that for them. But Dan somehow missed that they would not be talking more about the topic that interested them.
Aside from their love of beer and whiskey and their ability to procure it, Billy’s quick wit and Dan’s access to his father’s black Cadillac convertible were their chief tools in insinuating their way into the group. Both Dan and Billy had been at Catholic primary school. Both were acutely aware that, although considered, no Catholic had yet been accepted at the two best country clubs in the area. Almost by accident, they had found each other and some of the best socially connected people at Negley, their new prep school. Dan sometimes wondered how accidental it had been. Even at twenty, he noticed that drinkers tended to find and seemed to quickly like each other.
Finding the Cadillac was hard in the complete darkness of the summer and their drunkenness. Dan decided he had to take a piss and let go on a flower bed somewhat removed from all the buildings—but not from a skunk which, probably hit, let fly back all over Dan.
“Thank God the top’s down,” Billy said. “You really stink.”
“But my driving is still pretty good. I’ll just throw my shirt in the backseat.”
After about ten minutes, Billy said, “Forget your shirt, the skunk aimed lower.” At the next light, Dan slipped off his pants and threw them in the backseat. Dan loved how the night air felt against his skin as they drove on.
“Let’s get a pizza,” Dan said as they were entering back into the East End.
“Just have to push it,” Billy answered.
“All of us.”
Dan pulled up in front of the Pizza Pub on Walnut Street, waiting a few seconds for Billy to get out.
“At least keep your shorts on,” Billy said as he walked into the bar.
Ten minutes later, having driven around the residential streets, and taken his shorts off because of the implied dare, Dan pulled up again in front of the pub.
Billy was standing there; he came around to the driver’s side and pulled out a Camel pack. “Pizza, not done. Want a gret?”
Dan took the cigarette and the stares of some onlookers. Both pleased him. Billy flicked his Zippo on his pants and lit his own cigarette.
“How about that light?” Dan said.
“You got to come and get it.”
Nude, Dan got out of the Cadillac and walked the three steps to where Billy was standing in the middle of the street. Chuckling and shaking his head, Billy lit his cigarette.
“Jesus,” Billy said.
And with all the swagger he could muster, cigarette dangling, Dan got back in the car.
* * *
Around the corner, in what seemed like seconds to Dan, there were police cars—lights and no sirens, he remembered—in front and behind. And a police officer at his car door.
“Get out of the car,” the cop said.
“I don’t think…”
“I’ll do the thinking. Get out of the car,” the cop repeated.
Dan did as he was told. He threw away the cigarette.
“God, now he’s littering,” an older passerby said in what Dan could still identify as an offended voice.
Billy materialized out of the crowd, the pizza box held out in front of him like a shelf.
“Did you tell him about the skunk?”
“Shut up, kid,” the cop said, slamming the pizza box against Billy’s chest. Dan thought he could see some red on Billy’s shirt. Had he started eating that pizza?
“I was hit by a skunk and couldn’t take the smell. It was all over all my clothes.”
“Why did you get out of the car in front of the Pizza Pub?”
“I was just getting a light for my cigarette.”
Then there was an awful few moments, which seemed like an hour, of silence. Dan could not think of one word that would help him.
“Where do you live?”
“Around the corner and down six blocks.”
“Get in the car,” the cop said, “and go directly home. I catch you around here like that again…” The cop’s voice trailed off ominously.
Billy jumped in only seconds after Dan, and in five minutes more of silence, as if a word would break their luck, they were pulling the big car into the driveway and down into a back court.
“Why did he let us go?” Dan asked, confounded.
“Bringing guys like you, especially naked, into the station is not exactly what you get promoted to sergeant for,” Billy answered.
“Do you think he believed me about the skunk attack?” Dan asked.
“Oh, he believes in skunks all right.”
* * *
Although Dan was sure that Billy saw him, they never after mentioned the figure standing at the top of Dan’s driveway court as Dan turned the lumbering black car around; the lone man in silhouette looked to Dan oddly like a scarecrow in an empty field. As he approached, Dan could see it was Alex Chislett, who must have followed them all the way in from Sewickley. Alex never mentioned Dan’s nude appearance on Walnut Street or his nakedness now; nor did he mention the cops, even his own party. Instead, he started talking about how he had an address for a girl, an Asian foreign student, short on funds and willing to spend the night with the right guys for the right money. Neither Dan nor Billy ever brought up any of this again. Perhaps they thought this last part of appearance out of nowhere was too absurd, or maybe even a hallucination, or just not funny. Maybe neither wanted trouble with Chislett, or maybe each went to see the poor immigrant girl later that summer. They could have ridden in Alex Hamilton Chislett’s Mercedes, out of which neither the rich young man nor his army of workers could get the last of the faint smells of old beer, wine, sweat, even vomit, all making a sort of protective decomposing blight that seemed everywhere then.
Copyright © 2014 Jay Carson
A seventh generation Pittsburgher, Jay Carson taught creative writing, literature, and rhetoric at Robert Morris University for many years, where he was a University Professor and a faculty advisor to the student literary journal, Rune. Jay regularly presents, reads, and publishes. More than 70 of his poems have appeared in local and national literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. He co-edited with Judith Robinson a collection of Margaret Menamin’s poetry entitled, The Snow Falls Up. Jay has recently published a chapbook, Irish Coffee, with Coal Hill Review. A full-length book of his poems entitled The Cinnamon of Desire was published by Main Street Rag in the late fall of 2012. Jay considers work accessible, the problem-solving spiritual survival of a raging youth - and just what you might need.