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MERCILESS BEAUTY

by Todd Klein

I don't think Gil knew quite what to do with Carolyn when she showed up on his parents' doorstep that summer of of 1970. He'd written to me about her from his university in Kansas — tall, blonde, intelligent, but troubled. Moody. The unacknowledged but undoubted leader of the group of friends he'd fallen in with from his film and drama classes. They weren't going together or anything, but he'd given her his home address and in a vague way suggested she might come east for a visit that summer. Suddenly, she did.

I believe Gil's parents assumed the worst, but they didn't ask. They let her stay on a cot in the basement rec room. Perhaps they were secretly pleased, as Gil had never shown much serious interest in women up to then. Gil's sisters were scandalously delighted with the arrangement and showed her off to their friends like a two-headed calf.

Word of Carolyn traveled fast through our own group.

"Did you hear what she did to Andy?" Lisa asked me one Monday morning at our summer job. Lisa's older brother Adam was my age, but she was in the group because she was dating Karl, another of our high-school friends. We worked in Andy's dad's shipping company.

"Andy took her swimming at the Country Club pool, and he must have tried something, out by the raft. Well, she got his suit off in the water somehow, and left him there!"

I laughed, startled at the thought of the suave young Republican in such a fix. Andy was the leader and organizer of our circle, as well as, technically, Lisa's and my boss this summer.

"For how long?" I asked, when I could talk.

"She went home with it!" Lisa gasped. "He had to get out in a towel. I've never seen him so red in the face!"

When Andy came in later, nothing was said, but he must have known from the grins we tried to hide that we'd heard. He was subdued, and didn't try to lord over us as he usually did. I'd never seen Andy taken down so thoroughly.

Gil called my house that afternoon and left word with my brother that he'd be driving over with Carolyn that evening. I should mention that I hadn't seen Gil yet that summer because our houses were separated by the ten-mile drive around Sligh Mountain, and neither of us had our own car. He'd apparently gotten his mother's Buick for the visit. After what I'd heard, I was curious, but apprehensive. When I saw the car pull in the driveway, I went out to meet them.

"James, my great friend and companion, allow me to introduce Carolyn Ashe, a classmate and co-conspirator in the adventures of the past semester." That was Gil. Partly his personality, partly a steady diet of amateur theater and old movies. We'd been swapping books since we'd met five years before, and I admired his ease with all sorts of people, his strong actor's voice and command of language, and his courage to be outrageous in public, though he often embarrassed me as well.

"Carolyn," he continued, "James Hartman is the talented artist and gifted musician whose many accomplishments I've described to you."

"Oh, Lord," I said, rolling my eyes. "I can imagine. Art student and knows a few guitar chords is more like it."

She took my hand briefly and said with a quiet smile, "Gilly does go on, doesn't he?"

Inside, Gil introduced Carolyn to my parents and answered their questions about his school at some length (all our parents loved him), giving me a chance to look at her better.

Standing slightly slouched, Carolyn was still a bit taller than Gil or I, with a large-boned, almost masculine frame that carried a little too much weight. Her face was her best feature; a good profile with a strong jaw and high cheekbones, her skin quite pale, with an almost translucent quality that blended into waved light-blonde hair and pale brown, almost tan eyes. In all I wasn't greatly impressed, especially when she caught me examining her and fired back a chilling glare.

Escaping my family at last, we went up to my room to listen to records and talk. I probably put on Ladies of the Canyon and The Who Live at Leeds, my favorites at the time, while Gil would have insisted on playing the rudely hilarious Spike Jones Murders the Classics. Carolyn and Gil shared stories about school, full of in-jokes I didn't get, but amusing all the same, and I explained the paintings I was working on.

When we'd relaxed a bit, I got out my cheap guitar and went through my pitiful repertoire, from Peter Paul and Mary to The Beatles. Carolyn came and sat next to me and tried to sing along. It wasn't very successful, but our eyes met a lot, and I began to realize what a nice smile she had. Her singing voice was low and rather sexy. I noticed when her hair brushed against my shoulder, and she noticed me noticing. There was definitely something going on that I hadn't anticipated. I was nineteen and had barely been kissed, a fact I would have been mortified to admit, but I was definitely interested in the attention I was getting, even though it made my hands shake.

Finally Gil got impatient with us. "Enough of this rough music. Let's go out and perambulate in the fields before night's upon us."

We went across the road and slowly climbed through the fallow farmland that ran up to the beginning of Sligh Mountain. I should mention that in our part of west central New Jersey, what were called mountains would hardly pass for foothills in most places. I doubt there was more than 400 feet of elevation from where we stopped to the highest hilltop, but when we turned around and sat down, there was a nice view of the sun setting behind row on row of further "mountains" to the west.

We talked some more, and joked and laughed. It might have been about the war, but the war hadn't touched any of us personally, except for the brief excitement of the student strike. It might have been about last summer's Woodstock concert, or Nixon, or any number of problems in the world. But I think mostly we talked of our cultural travels — new vistas that were opening to us in college and in our own explorations. The Marx Brothers. Wuthering Heights. Gilbert and Sullivan. The Pre-Raphaelites. And of course our own bright dreams of the future.

In a momentary pause, Carolyn said to Gil, teasingly, "I like this one, Gilly. You should have brought me here first." Then she laughed when I blushed.

"Be careful, James," Gil advised me, straight-faced. "She's been known to bite." She pummelled his shoulder for that one.

The sun slid below the hills, and in the stillness, a wood-thrush practiced its fluted call among the trees behind us.

"Gilly…shouldn't you call your mother and tell her we'll be a bit later than we thought?" She stared at him meaningfully and nudged him with her foot. Gil turned to me, but I simply grinned, letting him decide.

"I suppose I must," he answered, getting to his feet. "What time shall I tell her to expect us?"

"We'll be along in a few minutes. Before it's really dark."

As he trudged off, I was struck with pangs of guilt.

"So, why did you decide to come here?" I asked.

She smiled kindly. "Don't worry about Gil, James. We're just friends, and that's the way we both want it."

She lay back on the ground with a sigh, and began to tell me. "I live with my Mom. She left my Dad when I was small, and I don't remember him much. She works hard, and we did okay until a few years ago, when the boys started to ask me out. Since then we've been fighting all the time." I could hear the pain in her voice. "I guess it made her feel old or something. Now she's started dating again too, which is pretty weird for me.

"Anyway, we had a really bad fight a few weeks ago…I don't want to say what about exactly, but I had to leave and stay with my friend Jane. Mom threw me out."

I listened, with the growing feeling that we were getting into deep water, but I'd had family problems of my own, so I felt somewhat prepared. "Does she know where you are now?"

"No. I sent her a letter telling her I'd be at Jane's for the summer, but then I had this idea…I've always wanted to meet my father. I've talked to him on the phone a few times, but he would never come see us. Afraid my mother'd have him arrested for all the child support he owes, I guess."

She looked at me briefly to see how I was taking this, then went on. "I think he's living somewhere in New York City, and I sent a letter to his post office box saying I was here last week. I'm waiting for a reply."

I didn't know what to say that wouldn't sound sappy, so I just took her hand and let the subject rest.

A moment later, my attention was drawn to a commotion down the hillside. Cawing loudly, four or five excited crows were swooping and diving on something flying over the field toward us.

"Look — they're mobbing a larger bird. A hawk or an owl!"

But even in the dying light, it seemed too dark for either. It glided up to a dead snag almost over our heads, a scraggly bundle of black feathers, and peered down at us with a bright eye. The crows circled, beside themselves. I looked at Carolyn, and for a moment thought I saw fear and recognition in her eyes. Then the crows closed in, and the dark form slipped under the trees and flew uphill out of sight, with the crows following.

"Did you see that — how much bigger than the crows it was?! I've never seen one before, they're rare in this area, but that had to be a raven!"

Carolyn smiled at me, having regained her composure. "You're ravin', all right…" Putting a hand on my shoulder, she pulled my lips to hers.

Continue with Merciless Beauty