Chapter Four (Fifteen Mile)

— — —

Donna didn’t think quite so much of herself when I first got to know her. She was a new kid, from a different school. She didn’t live in the same district as the rest of us. No one knew why that was, but we suspected it was something sinister, something adult, a situation of some sort. She didn’t fit in. I found out later that it was simply more convenient for her to go to our school because of its proximity to her dance studio, but there was still something sort of fishy about her — like she had webbed feet or something. Damn! That was our first conversation.

I broke my collarbone is how it all started. I was playing football on Tommy Malden’s front lawn. Paul Grey and Jimmy Mattern were tackling me. I was trying to gain an extra yard or two, as if so much depended on it. I heard the bone break. It was a muffled crack, like sitting on a couch with a pencil in your back pocket. Dr. Steinberg put a figure-eight cast under my arms and around the back of my neck and referred to my broken collarbone as a “fractured clavicle.” When the cast was ready to come off, Donna McKechnie and her mother happened to be in the doctor’s office.

Donna and I were both sixteen. I was six months older than her. We were in the same homeroom. And if you think she was hot as Cassie in A Chorus Line, you should have seen Donna McKechnie when she’d just turned sixteen, and was wearing a modest red plaid skirt and a lacy white blouse buttoned up to the indentation at the base of her throat and dangling a dusty black penny-loafer off the ends of her toes in the waiting room of the only orthopedist in town. Her calves rippled under a pair of white tights. Muscular thighs. Sparkly brown eyes. Dimples. Waist like a wasp. Her breasts were small but not so small that they didn’t cause the tiny translucent buttons to have to strain some against the buttonholes up the front of her blouse.

“What are you here for?” she asked.

“Fractured clavicle,” I said smartly, hoping to sound as though I was someone with whom she could discuss her own medical condition if she so chose. “I broke my collarbone,” I said then, in case she thought “fractured clavicle” was too technical. “The thing’s been itching like crazy. It’s driving me nuts. What about you?”

“I have webbed feet.” Her eyes sparkled with inexplicable mirth.

The comment was meant as a sort of inside ballet joke, I found out later. Dancers walk like ducks. It has something to do with the gyrations they do — the positions, the repetition. Their pelvises become deformed. Their feet turn out. They walk like ducks. Ducks have webbed feet. Ha, ha. Joke. Funny, funny. But I thought she really did have webbed feet and for some reason the idea of primordial little folds of skin between her toes, or anyone’s toes, was mildly repulsive.

— — —

It was my father furthered our friendship. He saw a picture of her in The Royal Oak Tribune, all dressed up in a medieval costume like she might have been Cinderella. One of her legs was bent up behind her at an awkward angle. Her arms were over her head, hands relaxed, fingers touching. He thought she was pretty cute and dared me to call her up. I didn’t, not for a long time, but I did start paying more attention to her in homeroom. She seemed sad, like she didn’t have any friends, but also aloof, like she didn’t want any friends. The thing that cinched it was that I saw her riding to school with Larry Burlison one morning.

Larry Burlison was one of the local hoods. He kept a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeve of his white T-shirt and drove kind of a cool car — a gunmetal gray ’52 Hudson Hornet, lowered, and fitted with some sort of custom exhaust system which made it purr like a kitten — but car or no car, if Donna McKechnie would be seen in public with Larry Burlison, she’d be seen in public with anyone. So I called her up. We went out on dates.

By February of 1959, we were making out in the back seat of Ron Metcalf’s dad’s Olds ’88, listening to Chet Baker sing “My Funny Valentine.” After that, we were mostly on our own. Once we knew that all we really wanted to do was make out, we stuck to ourselves and listened to make out music — Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole and “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”

Donna used to come over to my house. I used to go over to her house. We sat in the car. We didn’t care where we were. She had a big mirror in her basement. The mirror had a bar in front of it. There was a couch across from the mirror. We used to sit on the couch and watch ourselves hug and kiss and neck and pet. We cut school and took the streetcar to downtown Detroit — sat on benches by the Ambassador Bridge, snuck into Briggs Stadium and wandered the marble hallways of the golden-domed Fisher Building, talking and talking and necking and talking — we talked and necked ourselves silly. And even when we did go to school, all we ever did was write each other love letters. She had a favorite pen. It was a fountain pen with lavender ink. Later on, whenever anyone talked about “purple prose,” I always thought of Donna and the lavender ink in her fancy fountain pen.

I used to go to her dance studio with her. I even played the part of the director in one of her recitals. Everyone was auditioning for me. It was like “A Chorus Line.” I read somewhere that Donna had had a hand in the writing of “A Chorus Line.” The mirror she danced in front of in “A Chorus Line” was very likely the same mirror she used to dance in front of down in her basement, and the premise probably came from that dance recital where I played the part of the director — hey, I was Michael Bennett before Michael Bennett was Michael Bennett. Ha!

Back then, though, Donna McKechnie was just another sixteen-year-old kid taking dance classes at The Rose Marie Floyd School of Dance. She worked up a sweat. It soaked her tights and leotard and dripped down her throat. She flicked salty drops of sweat into my face from the bottom of her chin with the backs of her fingernails and laughed with her eyes and sucked in her cheeks and made her lips move in and out like a goldfish. She was Mitzi Gaynor. I was James Dean. Nobody understood us. They called it puppy love.

When she changed back into her street clothes, she always put on extra perfume. The perfume was L’Aimant, by Coty. I don’t think they even make it anymore, but if they do, go down to the cosmetics counter at Macy’s sometime and take a whiff of L’Aimant, by Coty — it smells like Donna McKechnie when she was sixteen years old.

At some point I finally saw her with her shoes and socks off. There weren’t any primordial folds of skin between her toes, thank God, but her feet were all gnarled up with corns and bunions. They bled. She couldn’t dance in toe shoes. She thought she’d never be able to dance, period; that was all she ever really wanted to do.

— — —

Our teenage romance went on and on, getting more and more tempestuous. By Easter we were going steady…and breaking up…and going steady again. The first time we broke up was because I put my hand down the front of her blouse. She took the chain with my class ring on it sullenly, solemnly, off from around her neck and put it into the palm of my wayward hand. I threw it over my shoulder into the back seat of my father’s lime-green ’57 Plymouth Belvedere. We had a tearful chat. She crawled over the seat, found my ring, put it back around her neck…and from then on it was okay to put my hand down her blouse.

The next time it was her panties. They weren’t even panties, actually, but the bottom half of a white terrycloth bikini bathing suit she had ordered from an ad in the back pages of a McCall’s Magazine which turned out to have been far too “risqué” to wear in public, so Donna wore them for panties. This too had its price. Off came the ring. Out the window it flew. And we had to spend the next twenty minutes in a tangle of blackberry bushes looking for the thing again.

Toward the end of June, Donna thought she was pregnant. I was watching Rod Steiger slur his way through “Al Capone.” I had just turned seventeen. She found me in the theater. I never saw how the movie ended. We had another of our tearful chats, during which it was somehow concluded that we were going to get married. Then she wasn’t pregnant. We were going to get married anyway. Then we weren’t. We were too young. She and her mother had too much invested, and personally, I didn’t think much of the idea of working at some crappy job the rest of my life in order to buy baby formula or whatever. So we weren’t. Then we were again. I’d go from one crappy job to the next, twenty-four hours a day, buying baby formula by the boxcar. We were in love. We couldn’t live without one another. We would die if we couldn’t be with each other forever. It was fraught.

— — —

All that fraughtness came to a head one night toward the end of August. We were going to go see “Imitation of Life” at the drive-in. I parked my dad’s car in Donna’s dirt driveway. The McKechnie’s lived on Fifteen Mile Road. Out in the sticks. I went in the back door, up the stairs and into the kitchen.

Her mother was doing dishes. It was around seven. The sun was still up. The kitchen was dim. There was a small, open window above the sink. Because of the angle of the sunlight, her mother’s face was wrinkled in ways I’d never seen before. Usually she looked pretty cute. She’d only been around sixteen when Donna was born. Her husband hadn’t been much older than seventeen, himself. Her mother’s hands were shiny and red from the dishwater. The hem of her skirt was unraveling. Her blouse wasn’t tucked in all the way around. She looked like Donna would look after we’d been married for twenty years. The family dog was asleep at her feet — some sort of flop-eared Maltese Pomeranian.

Donna came into the kitchen. She was wearing a skirt the color of celery and a white sweater with fake pearls around the collar. We didn’t say anything to her mother and she didn’t say anything to us and we didn’t say anything to each other but just walked silently down the back stairs. She led the way; it was like a dirge, like a death march.

I didn’t open the car door for her. She slammed it when she got in and stayed as far away from me as she could get — slumped down, with her arms hugging the front of her white sweater. That was anathema, by the way. Back in the summer of 1959, the girl didn’t sit by the door. She sat by the boy, as close as she could physically get. I made a quick U-turn and squealed the car back up the driveway. I wasn’t going to work myself to death the rest of my life for some…dame…who was going to sit next to the god damn door on our way to the drive-in movies.

Hot August dust invaded the inside of the car when she jumped out. Good riddance, I sat there thinking. The celery-colored skirt went down maybe six inches or so below her knees, which made it awkward to run at full speed, but she ran as fast as she could, in through the back door and up the stairs. I sat there with my ears ringing the way they do when you’re pissed off and brokenhearted at the same time. It was over. Done. All she wrote.

Then I heard the dog squeal and right after that, I heard Donna screaming — nothing intelligible, just screaming. Her mother was looking out the kitchen window at me with a sort of plaintive, helpless expression. My inclination was just to throw the car in reverse and get the hell out of there, but it would not have been chivalrous to have done that, so I went up to the door again. Donna came back down. She had composed herself. She got into the car again and we ended up at the drive-in movies after all.

“Imitation of Life” was the saddest movie ever made. It was about some colored girl trying to pass for white — trying to be someone she wasn’t, trying to leave her humble past behind her and make a name for herself. It was a total tearjerker. We cried and cried and kissed each other’s sopping, sobbing faces with the fatal certainty that our true love we knew for a fact would last for all eternity, was doomed forever. Dead. Impossible. Hopeless. And the more doomed it was, the deader, the more impossible, the more passionate our sadness grew and the sadder our passion became.

We ended up in the back seat with most of her clothes tangled up in a tear-soaked wad around her eighteen-inch waist. I don’t know whether we ever found the bottom half of that terrycloth bikini bathing suit she wore for panties or not. They may still be stuck up behind one of the heater hoses, sitting in an abandoned junkyard somewhere, rotting into dust — the faint odor of doomed true love and L’Aimant, by Coty, still lingering after all these years.

Somewhere along the line, the movie must have ended. My car was the only one left in the lot — and the cop shining his flashlight through the steamed-up window wasn’t in any hurry to turn it off. What a dick! Well, I guess you could hardly blame the guy. I mean, who, if they ran across Donna McKechnie when she was still sixteen and all but stark-ass naked in the back seat of a ’57 Plymouth, wouldn’t keep the flashlight on a little longer than absolutely necessary?

“What do you kids think you’re doing?”

“We’re engaged,” I said. “We’re going to get married.”

“Well. Better see to it you do, then.”

We put on as many of our clothes as we could find, got back up into the front seat again, and drove out of the bumpy drive-in movie parking lot.

Then I had to stop at a red light. That was the thing I remember most of all. There weren’t any cars anywhere. I thought about not stopping, but I stopped. Donna jumped out of the car and ran. I parked on someone’s front lawn and chased her. She could really run, too, even in that skirt. I caught up to her, yeah, but we were pretty far away from everything by then. We were out of breath, panting, sweating, still trembling some from the brouhaha back at the drive-in.

“Let’s just go back to the car. I’ll take you home.”

“I’ll take myself home.” She turned and ran again. I grabbed her wrist. “Don’t touch me!” She looked frantic. A porch light went on.

“People are going to call the cops or something, okay?”

“I don’t care!”

“Would you just listen a second?”

“No.”

“I love you.”

“Shit!”

That was pretty definitive back in 1959. When the boy said, “I love you,” to the girl and she said, “Shit,” there really just wasn’t all that much left to say. She took off again. I didn’t try to stop her. She hadn’t even bothered to throw my class ring anywhere, this time. She might still have the son of a bitch, for all I know. Maybe it’s hanging around her Tony Award. I doubt it, but, hey. I mean, who knows? Not me.

When I got back to the car, some old guy in a frayed bathrobe was standing there with a ten-gauge shotgun. The engine was still running. The driver’s side door was still open. The headlights were shining at cockeyed angles up into the limbs of an elm tree. The guy hoped I had a good explanation for the tire tracks on his lawn. I didn’t. I had no explanation whatsoever. I got in the car and drove away. If he was going to shoot me, he could just go ahead and shoot me.

I went home and waited for Donna to call. I had it all pictured. She’d be skittish and scared and cry and beg my forgiveness and make it up to me in ways neither of us had ever thought of before. She didn’t call, however. I kept waiting. School started. I thought we’d be in the same homeroom again. We weren’t. She was no longer enrolled in school. I broke down and asked at the office sometime in October. Then I saw her early one morning. She was riding with her mother in their old bronze Chrysler New Yorker. They were headed in the opposite direction from the school, going south on Woodward Avenue, toward Detroit. Her mother looked sleepy. Donna didn’t see me.

I still kept waiting for her to call. Whenever the phone rang, I got palpitations. It was never her. Finally, around Christmas, Donna came back to spend the holidays with her mother and gave me a call. That was a surprise. We went to the Shrine of the Little Flower for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Neither of us was Catholic. I found out that during the four months I’d been waiting for her to call, she’d gone with a friend who was auditioning for the traveling company of Guys and Dolls and ended up getting the part herself. Then she dropped out of school, went to New York and — blah, blah, blah — the rest is Broadway history.

After mass was over, we parked in her driveway and talked some more, then started making out a little, like for old time’s sake. Pretty soon, she started to cry and, naturally, I thought, hey, hey — but then she stopped right in the middle of kissing me and started sobbing uncontrollably.

“What’s the matter?”

“I miss Michael,” she said.

That was it. There’s only so much a person can forgive. Who the fuck was Michael? I didn’t even ask. My poor heart was utterly crushed and broken forever.

— — —

I did manage to see her a few times as the years went by, but she kept getting more and more uppity every time. It was like “Imitation of Life” all over again, like I was part of some humble past she wanted to put behind her. One of the times I saw her, she was in San Francisco with the traveling company of “A Chorus Line.” She and Marvin Hamlish were sitting in the orchestra seats at the Curran Theater. He wanted to know what she was like in the back seat of a ’57 Chevy. I told him it was a Plymouth. Another time I saw her, she was prattling on about how she was going to marry Michael Bennett. I presumed Michael Bennett had been the Michael she’d been crying about in her driveway lo those many years ago, and it pissed me off a little that I’d been aced out by some fag, but I didn’t mention that either.

The last time I saw her was around twenty years ago. We were eating ice cream cones in Sausalito. I told her that when it came to women, I sure knew how to pick ’em. She took that as a compliment. I’d meant it as a compliment. Since the last time I saw her, Donna had married Michael Bennett in Paris and had divorced Michael Bennett in New York. That was kind of a sore subject. I asked her if she got anything good out of the divorce. The question pissed her off. She told me I was like a crass tabloid reporter. She got extra uppity about it, like maybe she thought I was going to go on “Geraldo” and tell the whole world how she used to ride around in Larry Burlison’s ’52 Hudson Hornet. I don’t know what the hell she thought. And, frankly, I didn’t care much. I had troubles of my own by then — which I’ll get to soon enough if I can somehow manage to get back to how I got to know Elliot Felton.

Note:

The Multimedia version has music by Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Nervous Norvis, Chet Baker, The Monotones, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Jackie Wilson, Tommy Edwards, Brenda Lee and The Platters, but this voice only video ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: