There were rumors of improprieties, but Hershkowitz opened his cottages that year, and the families came for the summer as usual.
I should have started by saying that my memory is not wholly clear, about the details that is. I was eight or nine, and it was long enough in the past that facts gather their patina of nostalgic accuracy without regard to what might actually have happened. But with the onset of this summer, of each summer, I find myself thinking back to my last year there….
Ten small white cottages formed a wide arc around a spotty green lawn, punctuated with white-painted wooden Adirondack chairs, a couple of folding bridge tables that stayed outside in the weather all summer awaiting sunny day games of Mah Jong and gin rummy, and a clubhouse of sorts up a small rise towards the woods and the blueberry bushes. Walkways of dirt and gravel were fringed by diverse flowers in no particular order. Tiger lilies predominated, and they always made me sneeze.
Our cabin, as always, was number ten, so we had no neighbor to the East. Like the others, ours had a small kitchenette, two bedrooms, and a sitting room with a Formica table letting out onto a screened porch. The porch screen door slammed on a tight spring to outwit the wasps and flies, but those who passed inside promptly got blasted from the orange DDT sprayer we kept on a chair just inside the jamb.
It was hard to sleep some nights. We brought a large fan with us from the City, to stir the stagnant heat. Set up in the front room and facing into the two bedrooms, most of the airflow was trapped and wasted in an eddy of looping torpor outside the rooms. We sweated on top of our sheets, scratched our mosquito bites and tried to fall asleep to the crickets.
We kids rolled out of our beds and onto the lawn early each morning, sometimes with bats and gloves, sometimes (informed by invisible signal) carrying small tins to fill with blueberries for pies or to be served over ice cream. We would walk to the hotel kitchen to buy a glass bottle of milk for a nickel, a collar of cream floating on top which shrank as the summer wore on and the cows stopped providing that rich fatty froth. Rainy days brought out Monopoly and Parcheesie boards, or decks of pinochle cards, spread over the floor of one of the cabins.
Each Friday night the fathers would drive up Route 17 from the City, cars steaming and over-heating as 17 snaked slowly through the clogs at South Fallsburg and Monticello, joining their families after a week of working in their offices or stores. We were kids; no one of us imagined our dads, midweek in the fuming City, playing evening poker without carping wives, smoking forbidden cigars in Brooklyn living rooms with couches protected by plastic covers, or even doing things with their secretaries that would have no resonance in our minds.
Hershkowitz was a real person and a caricature of himself, short and balding with steel gray strands combed straight across his forehead, pasted to his skull by ubiquitous beads of sweat. A compact fat man in his fifties, his bearing was not improved by baggy white short sleeved shirts, long dark trousers, white sox and black tie shoes, even on the hottest of days. His belt-end whipped free, unengaged by his trouser loops when he waddled past.
At dinner, or hanging around the mothers’ Mah Jong tables to grab a cookie, we kids were aware that Hershkowitz was viewed that summer under some sort of a titillating cloud. Questions were asked, too oblique for our full understanding, but with connotations of impending excitement. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to involve the slot machines.
We all knew that the one-armed bandits in the club house were illegal. We were forbidden to play our nickels in them and had to restrict our gambling to early mornings when only children were out into the day. We often saw the town police cruiser, a black Hudson with white fenders and one round blue light on the front of the roof, parked near the club house, the cop inside talking to Hershkowitz; but the slot machines were always in their place after the cruiser lurched away in a light spray of dust motes.
“Five bucks a week,” my mother would opine, without being asked, through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Nah, gotta be ten at least,” countered Pauline as she loudly racked her tiles, soaps to the left, winds to the right.
There was something more, some undercurrent we did not understand. Glances at night towards Hershkowitz’ rooms on the second floor of the club house, where the yellow lights burned late most evenings, shadows occasionally painting the rolled-down shades.
Some nights, I would turn onto my side, perspiration running down my neck onto my pillow as I searched for the coolness of sleep, and stared through my window at Hershkowitz’ windows, imagining the activity within, those imaginings limited by my nine year imagination.
It was August, still in the heart of the summer, the days when you could see the tides of heat hover over the blacktop of the road, the nights where the fireflies could be coaxed into empty mayonnaise jars with air holes punched in the lid, a bed of browning grass in the bottom to create a proper home for our glowing prisoners. It must have been a weekend night, because my dad was sitting on the screened porch, his cigar smoke further complicating the moisture-saturated air, filling the bedrooms with stale after-smell of dime Phillies. At one point, all of Hershkowitz’ rooms lit up, and a few cars pulled into the lot behind the club house, away from the cabins.
“Party time,” said dad. My mother grunted.
“Put away the cigar, will ‘ya, Harry?” My father ignored her, not mentioning that her cigarette smoke was a pretty much constant feature of our family’s breathing experience.
That night there were many shadows on the Hershkowitz shades. I could not sleep; it was particularly hot, particularly smoky in my room; the snoring of my parents mixed with the sound of the fan did not help, and my dad had placed the fan directly into his own doorway that evening, so nothing kept the mosquitos from finding my arms and legs on top of the thin chenille blanket. The moon lit the area behind the club house, although from the angle of our end bungalow I could not see moonlight bouncing off chrome bumpers or tail fins.
I did not know how late it was. Well after bed-time, well before dawn, almost at the point where the moon would disappear into the trees, when I jumped at the voice just outside my window screen. “Scootch? Scootch, you in there?”
“Yeah. Shit, Stevie, that you?” I was now upright in bed, not fully aware of what was happening.
“Who else? Hey Scootch, come out here, we gotta go look.”
“Ya kiddin?! Look at what?”
Scoooootch….” Long, low, coaxing. “Scootchie, get out here, will ya?”
“Yeah, yeah, gimme a min.”
I pulled on shorts from the floor, stepped into my Keds – forget the sox –unhooked the corners of my screen and lowered it onto the ground outside, straddled the sill and stepped down onto wet grass and weeds. Stevie, vaguely silhouetted by the fading moonlight, was at the corner of the bungalow, looking up at Hershkowitz’ windows and I moved to him, tall weeds wetting my legs to match my sweat-sogged T-shirt.
“Watcha lookin’ at?”
Stevie just kept looking up.
“My mom’s over there,” he whispered.
“What? Over where?”
“My mom’s over THERE!”
“How do ya know that?”
“She went over after she tucked me in. Said my dad had to work the weekend in town. Told me I’d be fine, she’d be back in a little while, wanted to take a walk….” Stevie paused. “Too hot to sleep.” Another pause. “Watched when she went into the club house and then the lights came on upstairs.” Something like a sigh. “She didn’t come back.” Long pause. “Gotta go over there.” Very long pause, then “I’m scared. Ya gotta come with me.”
“Yeah now, whattaya think, dickhead?” No sarcasm, just a statement of the obvious. Stevie began walking, along the edge of the grass rather than right down the open walkway. I followed silently. Too late for the crickets, too early for the birds, the wet swish of grass was the only sound over our breathing.
* * * * * * * *
My father stayed through Monday to help us pack for the move back to Brooklyn. The police had wanted to talk to Stevie and me, what we saw, what we remembered of the other parked cars. Stevie wouldn’t talk, or couldn’t. His father had come up the next morning, unshaven and gray and not looking at anyone. He spoke to my folks, gave me a tight little hug I did not expect, and then went back to his bungalow to stay with Stevie and pack their stuff.
It was exciting to talk to the police. The nightmares came only after we were back in the City for a while. I told the cops I was sad I had to go back to Brooklyn while it was still the middle of the summer, but I was mainly sad for Stevie because I was sure not having a mom was a bad thing to have happen. I told them all I had seen, of course, not that I really understood it. In my head, it was just like a series of big photographs in the Daily News.
There were the chairs, I told them, the red colors, Stevie’s mom sort of sitting up but with her head drooping down, and Mr. Hershkowitz who was on the floor and I thought he was sort of naked but also he didn’t seem right ‘cause he was bent in sort of a strange way I could not describe and that some stuff on his body might have been sort of missing but I wasn’t really so sure about that last part, it was all so fast.
We pulled away in our Dodge coupe, which by the way was very cool, bright green, one of the first cars manufactured after the War although I guess I did not know that at the time. I was on my knees in the rear seat, looking backwards through the oval rear window at the neat circle of white cabins through the haze of the road dust. It was the last time I ever saw the place; after that we went each summer to a hotel in the Poconos. I remember seeing Stevie’s father dragging a garbage can out of his front cabin door; could be wrong, but it looked like there were woman’s clothes hanging out over the sides, flapping in the wind.