Marla Rossi was serving as part-time hostess at her father Don’s restaurant—Rossi’s: The Place for Steaks—during her winter break when she first met dishwasher Johnny “Tall Guy” Mondello. Rossi’s was one of only three red-starred steak joints in the Chicago Guide, a restaurant that featured expanded hours on evenings of Blackhawks games, when hockey fans filled the dining area and cocktail lounge even though Chicago Stadium was thirty minutes away. Every member of Marla’s family had worked at Rossi’s. Her twin brother Bobby and his pal-cum-lackey Randy Golnick, who’d had a crush on Marla since Hebrew school, had served as busboys; before he had left the States for McGill University in Montreal, her older brother Franklin had been a deliveryman; whenever a cook was ill, a bartender had been fired, or the Wednesday afternoon fashion show emcee was hung over, their mother Ethel Rossi subbed. During the annual holiday party, eight-year-old Sanford “Santino” Rossi played violin.
“Tall Guy” Mondello had gotten his nickname from Marla’s father, who had been born Donald Rossman but had an affinity for all things Italian and had changed his name upon entering the restaurant business. Don Rossi had a bad memory for names, so he referred to just about all his employees via some aspect of their appearance or ethnicity: Raul “Puerto Rican” Jimenez, Tom “Irishman” O’Malley, Lynne “Blondie Waitress” Dellens. “Tall Guy” was five years older than Marla, a St. Ignatius College Prep dropout with a drooping mustache and a mane of blonde curls that he shook free of his hair net whenever he left Rossi’s kitchen en route to his Kawasaki motorcycle, to whose handlebars was affixed a portable cassette player upon which he blasted Mountain, Steppenwolf, and Iron Butterfly. Hardly the sort with whom Marla typically associated.
For the first fourteen years of her life, Marla Rossi had been as much of a model daughter as Don and Ethel Rossi could have desired—homework always done on time, flute practice every night, E’s and G’s on every Daniel Boone Elementary report card. During her freshman year at Mather, her parents chaperoned the April “Straight A student” trip to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox. But half a year later, in the fall of 1970 when Franklin Rossi had begun applying to colleges in London and Canada to avoid Vietnam, Marla began fantasizing aloud at the dinner table about where she would attend college. She said she was torn between attending the University of Chicago or Northwestern, both of which would allow her to return home for weekends and holidays, or heading to one of the coasts. Unlike Franklin, who had hitchhiked to San Francisco with two other members of the Mather quiz-bowl team, Marla hadn’t seen much of the world. But on that autumn evening when all six Rossis had been seated around the dinner table, and Marla asked her father where she should attend college, Don only said, “College is expensive,” then stood up and made for the door.
The full impact of Don Rossi’s statement did not register until the following night’s dinner when Marla asked for her father’s opinion of Oberlin, at which point Don asked why his daughter was asking questions he had already answered; when he said college was expensive, that meant he wouldn’t pay for it. After Don left for the restaurant, Marla argued with her mother, who told her to accept the situation “because your father’s your father.” She assured Marla that Don would pay for college, just at a cheaper institution, say, Northeastern Illinois or Triton. Marla told her mother to “go to hell,” the first time Marla had ever sworn in the house on Farwell Avenue.
Marla had long been aware of disparities in the ways her parents were raising her and her brothers. Franklin and Bobby took any damn courses they pleased in high school, while Ethel and Don Rossi had insisted she register for Typing and Home Economics. She knew Don wanted Franklin to become a “medical doccer” and Bobby to eventually take over the restaurant. Her little brother Santino Rossi would become a musician or actor just like their mother wanted. But in her case, careers were never discussed, just the “nice Jewish fella” she’d eventually meet. Bobby routinely raided the liquor cabinet, smoked pot with Randy Golnick right on the front stoop, had sex with his girlfriends in Chippewa Park. And yet, the first time she had ever told anyone to go to hell, Marla was grounded for a week.
In the past, Marla’s response would have been to work that much harder, study that much more. But when she understood that her fate had been preordained, she wondered why she had been trying to change a system that was already rigged against her. If Ethel and Don actually wanted her to become a girl with no greater ambition than to attend the cheapest college possible, marry the first suitable Jewish guy, and move to Morton Grove where she would become mother to a family of five, then that’s exactly who she would become. She would become one of those girls who actually embraced the life for which Ethel and Don Rossi had been preparing her—a girl who took Regular instead of Honors, liked Garfunkel better than Simon, Paul McCartney better than John.
And, if Marla would occasionally take ludes to anesthetize herself from the depression triggered by the thought that she may have achieved her pinnacle at age fourteen, if she would argue with Bobby who would call her a “disgrace to the Rossi name,” if she would have to puncture little Santino’s universe by informing him that life on Farwell Avenue had been happier before he had been born, Marla would tell herself that she was only becoming the person her parents wanted her to be.
Now a senior at Mather and a C student who had already been accepted by Northeastern, Marla had reinvented herself in just about every aspect save for dating. The tough boys who had known her in her previous incarnation—the athletes, burnouts, and motorcycle riders—found her transformation implausible. The shy, overachieving Jewish boys with whom she had attended Hebrew school, such as Randy Golnick, found her new guise frightening; clearly, this was no longer someone they could take home to break the Yom Kippur fast.
Marla had been waiting in the Rossi’s parking lot for her mother to pick her up and drive her home when she espied “Tall Guy” Mondello under the Rossi’s sign with its blinking, pink, crisscrossed martini glasses. Johnny was unwrapping a bandage on his right hand; once it was off, he looked at the hand, closed his fist, opened it, winced. Marla saw deep cuts on his knuckles; she asked what was wrong. Johnny didn’t look at her, kept opening and closing his fist. He said he had done something stupid, but he would survive. What had happened, Marla asked. Nothing big, Johnny said, someone in the kitchen had said something that set him off; instead of punching the guy in the face, he’d punched the wall.
What had made Johnny so angry? Ahh, what difference did it make, Johnny said, he just didn’t like people talking prejudiced about their boss. Don Rossi had given them their jobs; if they had a problem with him, they could either tell him directly or quit. Calling him a “cheap Wop Kike” was a bogus way to air grievances. Who had said that, Marla asked. Johnny said he didn’t squeal; what really mattered was that his hand “hurt like a mother.” He asked if Marla could light his “square.”
Once, Marla had been terrified of everything—crossing streets, lighting matches, upsetting her parents. Now, she could not only light Tall Guy’s square, but when Johnny asked if she had “wheels” or if she wanted a ride home, she asked to bum a square, got on the back of his “horse,” and wrapped her arms around him as he revved the engine and pulled the Kawasaki onto Western Avenue, “Mississippi Queen” blasting loud. At the corner of California and Pratt, Johnny asked if Marla wanted to go home right now or “throw back a couple highballs” at some “dive.” Marla asked which dive Tall Guy had in mind.
Riding on the back of Johnny Mondello’s bike as it whipped past Roband’s Drug Store and the synagogues of California Avenue, Marla had the cold, focused aspect of one consigning herself to a fate. When Johnny swerved around a corner at Howard Street, she feared he might turn into some alley, punch her with a needle, shoot her full of dope. She did not deserve such a fate, she thought, but perhaps her parents did. This is what you’ve done to me, she would tell them.
But once they had entered the PM Club, where Johnny shook hands with bartender Willie Bennison, whom he introduced to Marla—the first time she had shaken hands with a black man—it took a highball and a half for Marla to realize that Johnny’s intentions, if not honorable, were certainly not violent. She was even sorry that, after Johnny drove her back home, he assayed no more than a bourbon-drenched and cigarette-infused open-mouthed kiss; felt sorriest that the house was empty and no one could have seen her kissing Tall Guy before he told her, “Take it easy but take it, dad,” then sped off.
Marla had been in her bedroom, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, the closest thing to Mountain in her collection, when she heard the front door open, then two sets of footsteps, one quicker than the other, heading toward her room. Bobby didn’t knock, just threw open the door and demanded where the hell his sister had been. Santino Rossi stood outside the doorway, taking it all in.
What did Bobby mean where the hell had she been—what was it his business? Marla asked. Mom was the one who was supposed to pick her up. No, Bobby said, Mom was with Grandpa at the nursing home; Dad was working late, so Mom had told Bobby to pick her up. When he’d finally gotten to the restaurant, she was already gone; he and Santino had spent the evening looking for her.
Well, Marla said, she had been waiting in the parking lot for nearly a half-hour until she’d decided to walk all the way home. But then, she said, inventing wildly, she had seen members of the Popes hanging out in front of Woolworth’s and they had called her “every vile name imaginable.” When they started chasing her, she flagged down a cop car. The cops had wanted her to press charges, but she couldn’t identify anybody; it was dark and she’d been running too fast.
Marla smelled like whiskey, Bobby said.
Of course, said Marla; once the cops had started driving her home, she was still shaking, so they bought her a highball at the PM Club. Bobby had felt certain Marla had been making her story up, but was no longer sure—he’d heard of the PM Club, knew cops hung out there.
Well, Bobby said, just don’t tell the story to Mom or Dad, all right? Of course not, Marla said, then fixed her stare on her younger brother. “And you don’t say a word either,” she said.
Marla had succeeded in fending off Bobby’s accusations; still, in the weeks that followed, she had difficulty in trying to re-create her evening with Johnny Mondello, or, she fantasized, besting it, capping it off with a more satisfying conclusion than a highball-and-cigarette kiss followed by “take it easy, dad” and a plume of tailpipe exhaust. Her father’s restaurant was hardly the place for intimate conversation. And after winter break when she was back at Mather, she came to the restaurant only to celebrate Santino’s ninth birthday. En route to the washroom, she passed through the kitchen and handed a slip of paper with her phone number on it to Tall Guy, who just stuffed the paper into a pocket without looking at it.
Weekday evenings at the Nortown Library, some Mather girls gathered in the reference section, purportedly to study but actually to serve as one another’s alibis when one would want to, say, score acid or take a long drive with a boy from Sullivan High. Judy Hirsch, who enjoyed Marla’s presence because she remembered the high-achieving student Marla had been back at Boone and delighted in the fact that Marla had descended to her level, offered advice about pursuing Tall Guy, advice that always seemed so wrongheaded Marla assumed Judy was setting her up to fail. Judy would advise Marla to burst into Rossi’s near closing time and “plant one on him”; to write a note on good stationery assuring Johnny they were destined to be together; to tell her father to act as matchmaker—“that way it’ll be all legit.”
Instead, on the Saturday afternoon when Judy was serving as Marla’s alibi, Marla rode the el south to the Wilson stop, then made her way to the pale yellow brick building at the end of Marshfield Avenue. In the apartment vestibule, she pushed the Mondello button, and when the buzzer sounded, she walked through the dim lobby past dented, dark green mailboxes, and rode the elevator up to five. The flared jeans and cowboy boots she had borrowed from Judy seemed fake to Marla, who wondered if Johnny might laugh at her. But Johnny, who wore jeans and an open leather vest, no shirt, merely greeted her with a gruff “Hey dad,” before asking if Marla wanted to go out or just “hang here.”
“Here” was one of the smallest dwellings Marla had ever seen, one that, had it been hers, she would have immediately apologized for. She would have apologized for the mattress on the floor, the dirty clothes scattered around the laundry basket, the acrid odor of sweat and smoke. She would have apologized for the glass ashtray stolen from Rossi’s steakhouse, full of butts. Were the roles reversed, she would never have posed the question of whether to remain here or go out; the answer would have been obvious. But going out would have meant that someone might see her. Why didn’t they hang here, Marla proposed, then sat at the edge of the mattress. Johnny asked if Marla was sure she was seventeen.
During the Saturday afternoons that Marla spent in Tall Guy’s apartment, she would ask probing questions to which his responses proved disheartening. When Marla said that Johnny probably had slews of girls coming to his apartment, he said no, usually he went to their apartments because they had more room. When she said that Johnny had probably had a lot of women in Vietnam, Johnny said yeah, but there were better things to spend money on. When Marla wondered aloud whether Johnny’s promiscuity might have given him some diseases, Johnny said yeah, but never too bad. He told Marla that he liked hanging out with her—other girls always wanted him to commit; he hated that.
Frequently, Marla would fantasize about methods by which she could spend more time with Johnny. Hoping to legitimize her relationship to her family, at the Rossi dinner table, she made references to Johnny so that her father might say something encouraging.
What did Don think of his dishwashers, she once asked, did he have a favorite?
Like who? Don Rossi asked.
Maybe that Johnny guy, Marla said, he seemed nice enough.
Don said he had no favorites; bosses were bosses and workers were workers; a boss’s job was to not have favorites. Sure, Tall Guy worked hard, but, tell the truth, he was too “free and easy with the ladies.”
Soon, Marla rarely discussed Johnny Mondello with anyone save for nine-year-old Santino when she was babysitting him and would describe the curves and crannies of Johnny’s body, the odor of soap and cigarettes that “drove her wild.” She told her little brother that one of her favorite things about Johnny was that he didn’t try to pretty up their relationship with “lovey-dovey” talk—that was so old-fashioned. She said she didn’t care about getting pregnant; when Johnny inevitably left her, at least she would have something to remember him by.
On a cold Saturday afternoon in late April, a knock came upon the door of Johnny Mondello’s apartment. Johnny was in bed, naked, reading Siddhartha, listening to Blind Faith; Marla was just getting out of the shower. Slipping on his jeans that he always wore without underwear, Johnny walked barefoot and shirtless to the door, and opened it.
“Can I help you, dad?” Johnny asked.
Bobby Rossi was dressed in a white button-down shirt, black slacks, and black shoes, as if en route to a religious service. His hands were poised at his sides, anticipating a fight.
“You’re a Rossi. Start acting like one. Get dressed and get downstairs now,” Bobby said to Marla. He reached into a pants pockets, pulled out an envelope, handed it to Johnny. “That’s your two weeks pay from ‘The Don.’”
Marla, quivering, hoped that Johnny would speak on her behalf, tell Bobby never to mess with his sister again. But Johnny only counted the bills inside the envelope, nodded as if he felt the arrangement to be satisfactory, then returned to bed. Marla turned to Johnny—wouldn’t he say something? No, Johnny said, Don Rossi had always been good to him; he wouldn’t interfere with family business.
“Five minutes,” Bobby told Marla, then headed downstairs.
Marla tried to maintain her cool. “When any chick starts running after me, that’s when I rev my engines,” Johnny had told her. She dropped her towel, slipped in beside Johnny, threw a bare leg over his jean-clad waist, and said with a laugh that she hoped next time Johnny wouldn’t answer the door. Johnny pushed her leg away. Get dressed, he said, her brother was waiting.
Marla figured she could make quick work of Bobby. She would appeal to the sense of family loyalty about which he’d been yammering ever since he’d seen The Godfather. If that didn’t work, she’d threaten to inform their parents of the joints he hid in Cuban cigar boxes Franklin brought home from Canada.
“See you soon, dad,” she told Johnny, who flashed her a peace sign as she prepared herself to confront Bobby in the vestibule. But Bobby wasn’t there, not on the sidewalk either. In front of Johnny’s building, there was Don Rossi’s white Lincoln, flashers blinking, motor running. Don was at the wheel of his car, her mother in the passenger seat, Bobby and Santino in back. A rear passenger door was open and there was an empty space beside her brothers. Santino Rossi was staring at his gym shoes, an admission, Marla presumed, of his guilt—how had she been so foolish, entrusting her secrets to a nine-year-old? Marla made as if to run back for Johnny’s building, but the door had already locked behind her. When she finally got inside the car and closed the door, Don Rossi stepped hard on the gas.
In the weeks that followed, Marla sensed that she had been not so much grounded as placed on a supervised prison-release program. Library study sessions were eliminated. Marla could not make phone calls from either the upstairs or basement touch-tones, only from the kitchen rotary dial. Though Mather was not much more than one mile away from her house, either Don or Ethel drove her there. She could only go out with her parents or one of her brothers. If only there were some method by which she could legitimize her relationship, Marla would think in her most desperate moments, then not only could she have a real affair with Johnny, but perhaps Don could give Johnny a real job, something to keep him in Chicago and make him feel beholden to her.
Going with Tall Guy Mondello to the Mather prom, the first prom the school would hold since 1968 when the student council had deemed it inappropriate to engage in frivolous celebrations when a nation was at war, stretched plausibility, but Marla could not stop thinking about it the moment after the idea occurred to her at the Carvel on Devon when she went there with her brother Bobby and Randy Golnick.
Randy, sole heir to his grandfather and caretaker Avram’s jockstrap fortune, had been Bobby’s sidekick ever since Camp Chi, when Randy, who had recently lost both parents, had been the only boy impressionable enough to perform the acts Bobby proposed. Under Bobby’s command, Randy embarked upon late-night panty raids of girls’ sleeping quarters, gathered salamanders and slipped them into this or that counselor’s milk, dropped his drawers, mooned the Aleph campers. Bobby had matured since those days, but Randy still tended to do Bobby’s bidding. Whenever the pair would go out for pizza at Al Forno, Bobby would “forget” his wallet. At Carvel or The Buffalo, Bobby would encourage Randy, forty pounds overweight, to order thick malts, then spend the rest of the evening mocking Randy’s girth.
On this particular evening, while Randy sucked down a chocolate shake, Marla spoke to the two young men of the injustice of the fact that she was still technically grounded even though she was being a “model citizen.” She felt frustrated that she had no incentive to change her behavior—even if she found some wonderful boy to ask her to prom, no way would Mom let her go. Bobby considered his sister’s plaint. Nah, he doubted that, he said, Mom wouldn’t be that strict.
Encouraged, Marla discussed the topic with her mother, who confirmed Bobby’s theory. Sure, grounded meant grounded, but prom was prom and girls were girls; she understood what prom meant to a girl—who did Marla think would ask her? Some nice Jewish boy?
Marla assumed that Johnny Mondello was hardly the type to attend prom when he was actually in high school, let alone seven years after dropping out of St. Ignatius and going to Vietnam. But whenever Marla called him from pay phones during lunchtime, his objections were more procedural or economic than substantive.
“That would be rich,” he asserted, but said he didn’t have enough scratch for a tuxedo.
On Marla’s next outing to Carvel, Bobby Rossi was drinking a Coke while Randy Golnick was sucking down a vanilla malt fast enough to give himself a head-freeze when Bobby asked if Marla had thought any further about prom. Marla said she had, but still felt nervous about whether any guy would please her family. True enough, Bobby said, Marla did need to go with a gentleman, someone who treated Rossis the way they were supposed to be treated. He then smiled and made a broad, open-palmed gesture in the direction of Randy.
Bobby clapped Randy on the shoulder. “Hey,” he said, “if you like the girl, why don’t you just ask her?”
Marla tensed. “Because she’d say no,” she said.
Randy took a breath, looked to Bobby, across the table to Marla, then down at his milkshake. He made as if to stand, but Bobby pushed him back down. What was the worst that could happen, Bobby asked, excusing himself to use the bathroom; what was the worst thing that Marla could do?
“She could say no,” Marla said again, this time not smiling, but Bobby was gone before she completed the sentence, and now, here she was, sitting across the table from the obese heir to Golnick Athletic Support Systems.
Look, Marla finally told Randy sympathetically, he didn’t have to do everything Bobby told him. She knew her brother was making him ask her to prom, knew how uncomfortable he must feel.
No, Randy said, this had been all his idea.
Oh Jesus, thought Marla. Not sure whether to feel more sorry for Randy or herself, she said she felt flattered, but thought of him only as a friend and, besides, would never interfere with his friendship with her brother. She wished Randy luck in finding a date, asserting that she was certain plenty of girls would want to go with him.
Randy lowered his voice and told Marla to wait. He said he had been thinking about her a lot lately; she was the only Rossi who treated him with respect. Bobby didn’t consider him an equal; he was just some fat, rich kid to do his dirty work and buy him stuff. Marla was his true friend.
Marla felt as if Randy was just waiting for her to destroy him. Did he actually think that she would go to the Hyatt House with him? Let all her friends see her with him? Dance with him to “Nights in White Satin”? Randy interrupted: Let him finish before she told him yes or no.
Randy said that normally, he knew someone as pretty and smart as Marla would never let herself be seen with him at Carvel, let alone the Lincolnwood Hyatt ballroom. But he wanted to be a true friend to her too. He knew all about Tall Guy Mondello, had heard about the family’s efforts to keep them apart. He felt upset they were acting so unfairly. Why didn’t she go with Randy? They could have dinner with Bobby and his new girlfriend Judy Hirsch, then go to the prom. After the first dance, she and Randy would walk out to his car, and he would drive her to Tall Guy’s apartment; Marla and Tall Guy could then have their own prom together. Randy would pick Marla up in the morning and drive her to Little Louie’s, where they would meet Bobby and Judy for breakfast.
Why would Randy ever do something like that, Marla asked, stunned.
Because that’s what real friends do for each other, said Randy.
Marla couldn’t recall anyone ever offering to do something so noble. What could she ever do to repay him? she asked. Nothing, Randy said. Marla stepped around the table and sat next to Randy, embraced his thick body, felt his soft, uncertain hands patting her back. When Bobby returned from the pay phone, he was grinning proudly. “How’re you kids doing?” he asked.
The Mather prom was held on the last Saturday in May. In the weeks that preceded it, Marla spent an inordinate amount of time with Randy, whose presence proved so disarming to both Don and Ethel Rossi that they immediately suspended Marla’s grounding. Randy became a fixture at Rossi Sunday dinners. He watched Cubs games on the Rossi TV, helped Ethel with dishes. On evenings when Johnny Mondello was working, Randy would treat Marla to dinners at Henrici’s and Flaming Sally’s. But on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons, Marla would skip down her front steps toward the MG in which Randy would spirit her south to Johnny Mondello’s.
Marla had fretted that friends might mock her for apparently dating Randy, but their responses were worse than mockery; they were now overly solicitous, invited Randy and Marla to parties, dinner, bowling. Oh, she was going to prom with Randy Golnick, they would say, that was so great, so open-minded, good looks didn’t mean that much, Randy was sweet and he had money too.
Johnny Mondello had proved surprisingly acquiescent about wearing a tuxedo, dining at the Pump Room, dancing at the 95th; he pocketed Marla’s last four allowances plus some of her savings for the Drake Hotel reservations and the tux rental. Soon, Marla thought, she would be attending Northeastern; maybe she could shack up with Johnny, maybe he was looking for the middle-class comfort she represented every bit as much as he represented the escape from West Rogers Park she had been seeking.
Dressed in a cream-colored evening gown, Marla didn’t eat much as she sat at a candlelit table in Ray Foley’s restaurant, most of whose tables were occupied by formally attired teens. She worried that ordering only a chef’s salad with oil and vinegar on the side might raise Bobby’s suspicions; he had ordered prime rib. But Bobby applauded Marla for showing solidarity with her dieting boyfriend; Randy had already lost ten pounds since they had started “dating.”
Upstairs in the Hyatt ballroom, couples were slow-dancing to “Colour My World.” Prom had instilled a new decorum. Girls who gossiped about each other’s guts in the locker room now hugged each other. Boys who had called Randy “Fat Boy” or fired spitballs at him in Debate now shook his hand. This was a rite of passage, a step forward into adulthood, college, the military, Dad’s company. Those who still saw prom as outdated—chess players, Dylan fans, peace protesters, women’s liberationists—hadn’t shown up anyway.
Randy imitated Bobby’s every move. When Bobby took Judy’s hand, he reached out for Marla’s; Bobby put a hand around his date’s waist, led her to the dance floor; Randy did so too. As far as Marla was concerned, a slow dance with Fat Boy was a small price to pay for a night and a morning with Tall Guy.
The two couples reached the dance floor as the band started to play “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Marla let Randy hold her, rest his head on her shoulder, didn’t pull away when she felt his zipper poke her abdomen or when Randy whispered that he knew she was only here because of their deal, never would believe in a million years that she would love him, but if she ever changed her mind, he would always be there. When the song was over, she kissed Randy lightly on the lips; the look on his face almost broke her heart. Randy asked if she was ready to go.
In the car ride to Marshfield Avenue, nothing was said about the kiss Randy and Marla had shared. The momentary closeness had engendered a new, more permanent distance. Marla busied herself with a mirror, brushed hair that didn’t need to be brushed. Randy went over the plan they had discussed on countless previous occasions: He would drop her off on Marshfield, pick her up the following morning at the Drake, drive with her to Little Louie’s. For Marla, Randy’s speech passed in the same manner as the Perry Como music he played on his eight-track; noise to fill space and time.
When Marla stepped out of Randy’s MG, Randy said he’d see Marla the following morning at nine, and Marla said, “Yeah, nine,” then sprinted toward the front door of Johnny’s building, propped open by a broomstick as janitor Hans Schurfranz mopped the dim hallway with dirty water from a cracked gray bucket. Marla ran for the stairwell and zipped upward, two steps at a time.
Not until the third time Marla had knocked on Tall Guy’s door and received no response did she start becoming concerned. Johnny tended to show up late. But the fourth time she knocked, pounding hard with her fist, she did start feeling as though something had happened. She sat on the steps, knees to her chin, listening to the swish-swish-swish of Hans Schurfranz’s mop, to the elevator creak upward, then down, to the music emanating from other apartments, televisions, an out-of-tune piano playing Chopin. She knocked on Tall Guy’s door again. Tall Guy didn’t answer.
After more than a half-hour had passed and Hans Schurfranz had emerged onto Johnny’s floor with bucket and mop, Marla began suspecting that Johnny might not show up at all. But even then, she feared not her own hurt feelings, but the harm that might have come to Johnny. She thought of overdoses, street fights, motorcycle accidents. As Schurfranz dipped his mop into the gray-black water and slid it over the cracked linoleum floor, Marla asked if he had seen Johnny. Schurfranz gazed at Marla through filmy eyes as if through a layer of gauze.
That kid was gone, Schurfranz said, had left in the morning—was she here to see the apart-a-ment?
See the apart-a-ment. The words whooshed past Marla Rossi, at first meaningless before their horrifying significance registered. See the apart-a-ment. Yes, she thought, yes okay, yes, see the apart-a-ment. The door would open, she thought desperately, maybe Johnny would be in there, lying on the floor, perhaps, needle sticking out of his arm, perhaps, yes, she would see the apart-a-ment.
But save for an old gray onion in the refrigerator, a metal bed frame without a mattress, a detergent container by the kitchen sink, and a scouring pad on the shower floor, the apart-a-ment was empty. Where had he gone, Marla asked, trembling. Had he left any note or forwarding address?
Johnny had, in fact, left a note in an envelope in the apartment office, but the note was addressed to Hans Schurfranz, a half-sheet of notebook paper upon which was scrawled, “Take care of yourself, dad.” Johnny had enclosed a $20 bill, the surest sign he was truly gone.
Marla felt certain he had played her for a sucker, took what she had given him for the tux and hotel; he had even had twenty dollars to spare for the janitor. She didn’t know whether he had left without saying goodbye because he wanted to teach her a lesson, make her understand that no girl would ever tie him down, or because he had never given a damn about her.
But no, Marla thought as she held back tears and thanked Schurfranz for his trouble, no, she would not let Tall Guy defeat her. She was a Rossi and it was high time for her to be treated like one. She would call Randy at home, ask him to pick her up.
When Marla walked out of the building to find a pay phone, Randy’s MG was still parked outside. His seat was pushed back and he appeared to be sleeping, hands folded over his stomach. Marla rapped on his window and he opened his eyes. Marla was too grateful to wonder why he was still here. Randy didn’t seem to need to ask what had happened with Johnny and Marla didn’t tell him, but as he signaled a left onto Lake Shore Drive, she reached over and flipped off Randy’s turn signal and kept the steering wheel straight, leading the MG east toward the beach.
With the black lake visible out the windshield of the car whose radio played Perry Como, Marla put her arms around Randy, who was trying hard not to smile. She touched her lips to his, closed her eyes as she reached beneath his cummerbund, knowing that Randy was a boy who would not walk out on her, no, not in a million years. Never had Marla Rossi felt so in control.