So I'm Not Lady Chatterley, So Better I Should Know It Now A Story
That was the summer her mother kept badgering, “Be a little modern. Smoke a little.” Which really meant, in her mother’s back-hand fashion, it was high time she got married and got out of there. Or, more precisely, that it was high time she got out, moved around the corner into, maybe, one of the flats over the butcher shop, and started producing . . . babies. They should have a little pleasure in their old age.
It was also the summer the family took a flat on the Avenue and her room, even four flights up, joggled with the streetcars and flashed with sharp pin-points of light, was an agony of sound and movement, and it was no use pretending like Virginia Woolf. It was the summer of her last year in college, the summer when, all men gone—or at least those without ulcers and families—she’d been awarded the “lobster trick” at the United Press and was, finally, from midnight to eight, anyhow, a newspaperwoman. It was the summer when she’d first discovered that, in Boston, there were plenty of mothers who violently forbade smoking and the daughters did whether or no, that her Irish friend from Salem (lace curtain) had been happily knocked up by a V-12 student from Harvard, happily because he was rich, too, and they would get married, leave Boston forever. That her tight-bound New England friend, frail and fragile, stood pining for her professor—at a decent puritan distance—whilst swooning through D. H. Lawrence, and insisting that she swoon, too. That the only fellows available for dating, in any regular fashion, were guys on the order of Leslie and Maynard who liked their own company better. It was the summer when she’d changed her name again from Dobkie to Dora to Dolly, and still felt there was something not quite right about the “Dolly,” she wasn’t the type. When she’d finished her first weeping opus titled “Mid Alien Corn” which was somehow related to herself and the Biblical story of Ruth in an obscure, symbolic, and highly rhetorical way. When, among newspaper people, she was gently learning to swear again, having—if not fully forgiven, perhaps reasonably forgotten—the days when the boys under the street lamp called her “queen of the shithouse.” It was, in short, a summer of war, and of girls approaching womanhood in a time without men and a place fast loosening an outworn restraint.
She was nineteen, and the family was worried. Not since adolescence when her father had cracked a boy over the head for keeping her out after midnight, and her mother had spent all the following week talking marriage to the boy’s grandmother, had she brought anything eligible around for inspection. She was too much with books, she worked too hard, it wasn’t natural, she would die an old maid. And there were times, that summer, when she was afraid maybe they were right.
The battle of Moe Schlepp began in early June. Like he was the last man.
“Faege had a letter today,” her mother timidly opened the door to her room as she sat studying for finals. “Her youngest is coming home in August. For furlough.”
Dobkie-Dora-Dolly stayed with her books. She knew what her mother was pushing.
“He’s a Private . . . First Class.”
Her kid brother, who’d had to fake his age to get in at all, was a Seaman, Ordinary, and her big brother, who had a nagging wife and four snotty brats, was a taxi driver, plain. At that rate, Faege’s youngest was pretty good pickings.
In July, when she was working midnight to eight, taking classes in summer session from eight-thirty to noon, sleeping from one to five and studying in whatever hours were left, her father, sneaking in from a pinochle game, stopped her on the stairs as she was leaving for the office. “You remember Schlepp?” he said.
She remembered all right. Schlepp was one of his pinochle partners from the Workmen’s Circle. Also Faege’s husband.
“His boy, Moe, is coming home next month.”
“I know already.”
“How come you know?”
“Oh. . . .” He shook his head, his mouth puckering and a frown furrowing. “He’s not like the others,” her father offered.
The others were the rest of the Schlepp boys, five of them, all built like icemen, big, fleshy, with huge red hands.
“He don’t talk politics,” her father said.
Old man Schlepp was a soapbox orator and the boys generally tailed along. At least before the war. She had a fleeting vision of the whole red-faced Schlepp clan, in the middle of Franklin Field, with handkerchiefs, sweating and exhorting.
She raced for her streetcar. “I’ll be late.” Then turning to her father, who still pondered on the stairs, “Stop worrying. I’m not a freak.”
The summer was unendurably muggy and hot. She liked working nights, because it was cooler then. She was losing weight fast, which was all to the good; she had a tendency to heft which the family found “rosily blooming” but which left her aching for a little consumption, her ideal was Margaret Sullavan with a desperate, throaty, come-and-protect me voice. Sad, sagging circles were beginning to loop beneath her eyes and her face was turning the color of a stale, hard-boiled egg from the lack of sunlight and fresh air. On her, however, she felt it looked interesting. With the amount of reading she’d done, she figured there must be somebody, somewhere who would at least find her interesting. The trouble was, even traipsing around on streetcars and subways half the night and wandering through the sailors on Scollay Square, nothing ever happened. She was ripe for something to happen.
Looking back in later years, it seemed as if it had all been telescoped into that single, short, poignant summer. In truth, of course, it hadn’t. There were the years before, years when, fleeing from the youth under the tree, the shock of physical fact, she had burrowed in, walking the city sidewalks with steel arch supports and lisle stockings, trembling. With time, as she reached out, the years when, clutching a box seat ticket, she sat in the dark of the Colonial Theater and began to believe. And still later, as she rode the subways from Newspaper Row, the wobbly movement into high heels and the tottering at the top of the stairs.
That summer, in late July, her brother, the taxi-cab driver, met her one morning as she left the office, bound for school. They drove down Commonwealth Avenue, broad and Bostonian, a clean coolness at 8 A.M.
“Chaike sent me,” he said. Chaike was his wife. “She’s arranged a little tâte-à-tâte. Something special.”
“Moe Schlepp,” said Dolly.
“But he’s just your type, a bookworm,” said her brother.
“I’ll find my own worms,” snapped Dolly. And inside she was thinking, an accountant, or worse, an engineer. In her family, books meant, not education, but vocation. It was all well enough intentioned; they were seriously searching—really combing the territory—for a high-type, clean-cut Jewish boy with white collar prospects and limited expectations as to dowry and female glamor. “Tell Chaike,” she said, “that I’m planning to elope with a Connecticut Yankee.”
Which wasn’t so funny, since her Irish friend, Meg, actually was planning to elope and within two weeks, did, in the dark of a summer’s night, riding a motorcycle across the state line and into the wilds of rural Connecticut.
The night that Meg eloped with Buff, she and Lydia, her Puritan friend, met in the bar and grill they called “Ptomaine Tavern.” It was a newspaper hangout, cobwebbed on the narrow block between the press associations, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Post. Lydia worked the 3:30 to midnight, on much the same basis as Dolly got the midnight to eight. No men. At midnight, Lydia generally stopped off for a few rounds of beer. It wasn’t a matter of gay abandon; she was hoping it would fatten her up. Whatever Dolly’s notions of romance were, Lydia, bone thin, wanted a bit of plumpness for her professor, however remote the possibilities might be.
Dolly had a night off, and she felt edgy. She didn’t need the beer, she wanted very much to get drunk. “You can’t get drunk on beer,” she kept repeating, it being the third round, and she already quite giddy.
“Have you read Lady Chatterley’s Lover yet?” said Lydia, six books on the bench beside her.
“It’s banned in Boston,” said Dolly righteously. “Along with The Decameron and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”
“Oh, Dolly, you must, you simply must. . . .”
“I’m tired of reading,” said Dolly, a drunken candor suddenly overflowing. “I think I would prefer a little something in the flesh.”
And gray eyes searching brown, together, they wept.
The family took a room at the beach for the month of August—in one of those porch-fronted sagging seaside hotels where all the city neighbors, suddenly denuded and with knobby knees, bulging breasts, in dripping bathing suits, absurdly played the same pinochle and poker games and argued with the same butcher as if the entire neighborhood had, at one shot, been thrown, sweat, torment, turbulence and all; into the same hotel. She refused to go. Her work, she said. Work, she knew, was sacred. Not so sacred for a woman, but sacred enough. Her mother hedged, perplexed. Finally, said her mother, “I’ll leave the sheets off the parlor, maybe you can entertain, private, on Sundays, when there’s no school and you’re not working.” Her mother was a huge battleship of a woman, but Dolly confused her, and she always appeared querulous, uncertain, eyes dodging, when confronted by her daughter. “Faege’s youngest. . . .” her mother began again. But Dolly cut her short. “I haven’t the time.”
So she stayed in the city, alone. The house was a little frightening, but she was hardly in it, except for Sundays, and she treasured the quiet, not that she was antisocial, just that the years of elbow rubbing, of loud and vocal humanity each pinching the next to make certain they were still alive, had left her with a desperate, inarticulate longing for separateness. And at the same time, as her body stirred with a new awakening, for a shared separateness, for one other.
Even Lydia, stiff, purple-veined Lydia, wrote passioned letters to the boy-from-next-door, who was, at the moment, in France. Dolly was sure it would all come to nothing, but at least Lydia was getting it off her chest.
Which was the reason, she supposed, she ever got hooked into that lousy USO picnic sponsored by the ladies of Junior Hadassah. She could beat Lydia at the passioned letter game any day of the week. Only, she needed a serial number.
She should have expected what happened; normally, she would have. But these weren’t normal times. She knew the Junior Hadassah type—nine to five secretaries with a lunch hour spent at the cosmetic counter of Filene’s Bargain Basement, True Confessions hidden under movie magazines, slacks on Sunday over gilt high heels. And long engagements, very long, very respectable engagements, with bewildered young men wearing the family’s seal of approval. She bore them no ill will, but she had, unfortunately, outgrown them. From the vantage point of her midnight maturity, they seemed, servicemen escorts as well, incredibly young. It being Sunday, and she being tired, she found herself a rock, and went to sleep.
She woke to the ping of an acorn on her head. Then another, matched by a singsong refrain, “Giant oaks from acorns grow, yo-ho.” Ping, went the acorn again.
Bending stealthily round the rock, she caught a glimpse of a slumped khaki shoulder flipping a handful of the seeds, desultory and desolate.
“Not on my head, they don’t,” she stood up, shaking her hair.
He was leaning against the rock, a crummy, paperbound book propped against his knees. His gray face was lost behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and his fresh, whiffle haircut stood screaming on edge. The uniform was a mistake, she decided, and went back to her berth.
She sensed him standing over her, though her eyes were closed. Opening them, she took a quick inventory, a Halloween skeleton rattling around in his big brother’s soldier suit, and she closed them again. But he stood fixed. “So say something,” she said, finally.
He extended a limp hand. “Moe Schlepp, Private, First Class.”
As she said before, she should have expected it. Anyway, they hid there behind the rock, tossing acorns around, and moping. The paperbound book was Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
“Any good?” she asked, feigning innocence.
“So-so,” he mumbled.
“How come you’re reading it then?”
He took his glasses off to look at her better. His eyes, she noted, were a nearsighted green. “Lady,” he said, “you ain’t in the army at-all without you’ve read Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
On the beach below, arms and legs shining copper in the sun flashed tense and solid through the shifting sand. A multicolored ball hung in the air, suspended in aching brilliance against the more muted tones of lake and sky. And the sound of laughter, bouncing toward them, the fresh, clean smell of openness.
“Who’s the black-haired beauty in the lemon bathing suit?” he asked, his eyes on the girl who at that moment had leaped to catch the ball.
“Engaged,” said Dolly, “to my kid brother.”
She herself was vaguely considering a tall, sensitive-looking blond in white.
“Engaged,” said Moe, “to my niece.”
They smiled, tentatively, at one another, a quick understanding established. Then the usual conversation as to what each did in real life, the pathetic parrying into hidden corners. He wasn’t an accountant, or an engineer. He wasn’t anything. “Ping-pong champion of Tallahassee, Florida,” he said, when she asked him, with her candid bluntness. And she answered, in the same spirit, “I keep house with a teletype machine, nights.”
He was chewing on a dried-up blade of grass, sort of musing and gazing, at nothing in particular, altogether too dreamy for a guy with five older placard-marching brothers. Plus the father.
“Looking for a bluebird?” she said.
“No,” he said, and he was serious. “Just looking for myself.”
“He went that-a-way,” she gestured, flippantly, toward the docks. It was a silly thing to say, but after all, he’d left her hanging there, hadn’t he, way out on a limb, looking, maybe, for herself?
There was a long pause while he looked, she supposed, some more. Finally he pointed, at a tangible speck on the lake. “We’ve missed the boat,” he said. The afternoon excursion. She was quite happy to do without. “Maybe we can be athletic and rent one of those little items.” He didn’t sound particularly eager.
“Ever been in one before?”
“Nothing like the present,” he said. “Like we should wet our feet at least now we’re here.”
It was an old rowboat fitted out with a second-hand outboard motor. He had the right idea okay, shoved off neatly, but the motor wouldn’t start. “Here,” he said, “you work the lever,” and he showed her how, “while I get us moving with the oars.” She was never sure later exactly why it happened, or what she’d done wrong. But somehow her finger got wedged into the jamb, crack went the lever, and the mashed finger-tip hung torn and bloody in mid-air, the nail split wide open.
They got her patched up at the first-aid station, and he bought her an ice-cream cone, worried and apologetic. She laughed it off. “Anyway,” she said, “it’s my left hand. I can still peck at the typewriter with my right.” At her home, they parted, if anything even more hopelessly gay than before, beneath the bantering, an innocent despair. “So we’re not meant for each other,” they grinned, “so you go your way, I’ll go mine.” But she didn’t want to see him again, and that was for real. She didn’t even want his serial number, for letters. He was being shipped overseas in two weeks, and she had the feeling he didn’t know any more about guns and fighting than he did about rowboats. She had the really awful feeling, like in a Greek play, that it was absolutely hopeless from the start.
To avoid him, not that he was particularly persistent, he seemed as willing as she to forget the whole business, but to avoid even thinking of him, of the war and of all their lost youth, she went further out of her way than usual, to keep herself busier—Shut-it-out, shut-it-out, shut-it-out—busier, if that was possible, than ever. At school, she added more hours to her already heavily accelerated program; at the office, she took on features in addition to the overnight desk. With all the strength of a wounded animal, she was running away. No one in pursuit, particularly, except her own pain.
Only he kept popping up, fated, Moe Schlepp, Private, First Class, the ghost of her conscience, the other side of the coin.
She was interviewing Sally Keith, the strip-tease dancer who did it with tassels. She had talked to her momentarily in a mirror-covered, powder-littered cubbyhole of a room backstage, shocked to find her so young, she couldn’t be much older than herself, yet already and for many years, she knew, a headliner and a sailor’s byword. It was show time. “Stay, and catch the act,” said Sally, “we can chew the fat again later.” So she caught the act.
She stood timidly in a doorway, at the very edge of the man-crowded room, hugging her pencils and paper tightly in her hands and in full view of anyone who cared to see, they shouldn’t mistake her for one of the girls in the line. The lights were on Sally. Otherwise, there was darkness all around, the feeling of too many people pushed together into too small a space, a heavy, labored breathing, and the smell of urine absolutely choking her, reminding her of tenement halls and her father’s broken-down shop with the broken-down toilet in the back. It seemed like hundreds of heads in front of her, most of them in various states of balding, but plenty of healthy, young ones, too, belonging to the vast unknown and unnamed in battle dress who aimlessly walked that neon-lighted square on the long, lonely nights when she, with typewriter, sat.
Sally peeled slowly, the music thumping behind her. It took forever, Dolly thought, about ready to run again, for her to get down to flesh and gauze. Then the music stopped. And Sally stood there, stark, raving, naked. The tassels were a violent purplish-blue, embroidered in the center, with long silken threads, dangling from her white breasts. She twirled them, grinding, faster and faster, till all that was left was a circle of color, like one of those kid’s toys that sends out sparks. A round of whistling, stamping applause, here and there men jumping and shouting, then the house lights went up, and Sally was gone.
She elbowed her way through the excitement, wishing her boss all kinds of damnation, wishing herself anywhere but where she was. Somebody grabbed her round the waist and started dragging her toward a table. And who should intervene? Moe Schlepp.
He had an empty beer bottle in his hand, and probably would have tried to use it.
“My Galahad,” she said, bitterly.
“Well,” he flung the bottle idiotically in erratic little circles, “what in hell are you doing in a dive like this?”
“I might ask the same,” she blurted, close to tears.
They crawled out into the night. She forgot about “chewing the fat” with Sally again. She’d caught the act, which seemed, to her, quite sufficient.
He walked her back to the office, past the all-night penny arcades, the narrow, gaping movie houses with their continuous shows and their painted posters, the hamburger stands and the fish carts, and the shuffling of drunken feet. On Newspaper Row, it was, as always at this hour, deadly quiet. In the daytime there would be large crowds gathered before the chalk boards, lined faces and folded arms, waiting for the news. Was that the summer Rome was taken? But now there were only dim lights in empty city rooms, a lone green eye-shade with rolled sleeve occasionally bent over a single, littered desk. On the street, only the one-legged newsboy called “Niggy” hawking the latest editions to the black and silent night.
“Seems to me you can do better than sitting around ogling cheap floozies like Sally Keith,” she said, hitting below the belt.
“Got any telephone numbers?” his eyes pierced hers.
She rang for the night janitor. “Listen,” she said, “take care of yourself. I mean it.” And she shook his hand. “I got work to do.”
A few nights later, she ran into him again on the streetcar, shortly before midnight, on her way to the office. At that hour, in her neighborhood at any rate, the cars rattled their empty way to the city, driven by unseen motormen behind curtained shrouds, and nobody, but nobody, was ever in them.
He lay stretched out on one of the double benches at the back, hiccuping, and reading.
She sat down opposite, and he tipped his hat. “Welcome,” he said. “Will you join me on my wagon ride to hell?” Hic.
Then he tottered over, cross the wooden slates, and handed her the book. “For you,” he said. “Enjoy it.”
It was a brand new, Modern Library edition of The Sex Problem in Modern Society.
“Moreover,” he said, and he had to hang onto the straps above to keep from falling completely, “I bought it in Boston. Not banned.”
She hated him at that moment, as much as she hated the city that had bred her, and all the stinking flesh that had warmed her, for never having allowed her either childhood or girlhood, or the comfort of not-knowing. She wanted to walk out and meet life pure in heart, with illusion and belief, and a reverence for the mystery that was her birthright. But it wasn’t given so; perhaps it wasn’t given to any in that time and place. There was no innocence, and there were no young.
The whole city lay clouded in humidity that summer, like one great big Turkish bath. And she, too, denuded, vulnerable, unable to see beyond the perspiring mist.
When she stopped off for a beer with Lydia before going up to the office later in the week, Moe sat there, ensconced, in a corner of the booth.
Like a bad and broken record, Lydia began the introductions again.
Dolly waved her off. “Enough,” she said. “We’ve met.”
“Let’s drink to him in that case,” said Lydia, “for he’s off to the wars tomorrow.”
Dolly stiffened. Had she then so successfully drowned the passing days?
His hand brushed hers.
There are those for whom conversation is just so much cheap lace. Moe and Dolly, in the pathetic inadequacy of their human frames, in the void they both recognized between the felt and the expressed, were of those.
Knowledgeable, with a candor shorn of any ornament, their hands clasped and held.
He stayed with her, in the office, through the night. Such a long night. While she took the fight results and clipped the morning editions and the desks stood empty all around. “This is being a newspaperwoman?” his eyes mocked her. “What did you expect . . . Broadway. . .?”
In the morning, they went home to her room over the streetcars, as the sun rose and the day opened slowly to the heat. On the stairs, faces flushed, they awkwardly edged past Mr. Teitelbaum, the second-floor tenant, heavy and lumbering and still dazed with sleep, as he stumbled on his way to the factory where he would stand, choked, and even more dazed, in the steam of the afternoon, pressing pants. “Tell me,” says Mr. Teitelbaum, “how’s the family?” Grimacing, “Fine, everybody’s fine, thank you for asking,” they climbed upward, to that room with its fading flowered wallpaper and its view looking out on steel tracks and concrete walks and murky shops and peeling billboards and the drugstore cowboys on the corner, what was left of them.
They stood in the doorway, uneasy. “You want something to eat?” she said.
The kitchen stared white and barren.
“Got anything to drink?” he said, turning away from her.
She was burrowing in the pantry. Sometimes her mother kept a crock of cherries fermenting beneath the cupboards, for the holidays. She dragged it out.
He laughed. “It takes two Jews to salute their virginity in Passover Wine.”
The crock was too heavy to move. So they sat there, in the moldy pantry, Indian fashion, with legs crossed, gulping.
“God, it’s sweet.” His mouth was a wry, downward turned purple.
“I don’t feel so good,” she said.
“To tell you the truth, neither do I.”
He held her as they unbent. She was wearing a thin cotton, sleeveless dress, and her arms burned. His uniform felt coarse and heavy against her skin.
“I’m going to take a bath,” she said, wildly.
“Ashamed?” His eyes caressed her gently and softly.
“Yes,” she said. “I don’t think I like my body very well.”
In her room, the sun beat through mercilessly. They pulled the torn yellow shades, but it only seemed to heighten the light, turned persimmon now and coursing through every corner. In the center, the bed spotlighted, waiting, like the stage before Sally Keith walked on.
Moe found some blankets in the closet and draped them over the windows.
“Thanks,” she said, understanding that he understood.
“It’s okay,” he fumbled with the buttons on his jacket. “I got feelings too, you know,” and he grinned. “Like maybe Moe Schlepp, Private, First Class, ain’t exactly Mellors.” His chest stood bared, a sickly blue, hairless and in-caved.
Beneath the covers, they hid, wet and sweaty, eyes closed and blood pounding. With all their bleak honesty, for all their tutored courage, who had told them and how were they to know that blunder, and ineptitude, and this moist despairing willed effort were also part of youth, and that their nakedness notwithstanding, they, too, stood innocent before the joining.
For her, there was pain, and nothing much else. Blood on the sheets, and they would have to be washed. Her family.
For him? “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “So I’m not Lady Chatterley. So better I should know it now, than later.”
In the fall, she left Boston and went to New York City, armed with college degree, newspaper guild card, and a little experience. She still didn’t know any better, if she wasn’t queen of the shit-house, or Lady Chatterley, who she was, nor did she ever find out for sure. And since Moe died in the war, she supposed he never found out either. But she hoped that somewhere, before he died, if only on a German field with a German fraulein, bestial and uncaring, he’d had it where he wasn’t sorry.