Smart Girls Like the Cool Guys

I’m standing at a bus stop in New Bedford when someone behind me says, “Hey, you, pretty girl!” and when I turn, a guy with brown hair to his shoulders, tall and thin as a speed freak, is leaning against an empty storefront. He grins as his head dips forward, and then he lifts his backside off the window, painted white on the inside, to come toward me.

“I’m Pat. Pat Lewis. What’s your name?


He squints as his head tips to one side.

“You look Portuguese.”

“That’s right, I am. My last name’s Diaz.”

A bus pulls to the curb, but it isn’t mine, so I wave it on. Pat’s beside me, grinning still, and I can see when his mouth comes apart he’s missing some back teeth.

“I like Portagees,” he tells me. “I worked with lots of ’em. Most of ’em named Manny. Hard workers all of ’em. No such thing as a lazy Portagee.” He snorts. “But never bet a Portagee you can out drink him, cause you’ll always lose. Take it from me. I know.”

Pat scratches the back of his neck. His tanned forearm has a crude tattoo done in black ink that says “Born to Lose” above a nasty-looking dagger.

“That’s quite a tattoo you’ve got there,” I tell him.

He holds out his arm, twisting it to take a look as if he’s forgotten the tattoo is there.

“Yeah. I did it myself. Used a knife and ink. My arm swelled up wicked bad after, but it’s OK now.”

I bend to study the dagger’s jagged tip and crooked lettering. The tattoo bites so deeply into his skin I know I could feel its outline if I touch it, but I don’t want to do that. I think of how much it hurt as he carved the design and stopped the blood with a rag.

I shake my head.

“That must’ve hurt like hell. How come Born to Lose?”

He drops his arm and snorts again.

“Cause it’s true. Nothing’s gone right for me yet.”

“Maybe your luck will change.”

I lean forward to check the traffic. He does the same. I can smell his underarm, not dirty, just a little salty.

“How come I haven’t seen you before?” he asks me.

“I’ve been away at college.”

His long hair shakes when he laughs.

“OK, college girl, what’s your major?”


“So, you like to read books.”

“Uh-huh, you could say that. And you?”

“I fish, but I’ve been out of work since a cop totaled my car with his cruiser. The cop said it’s my fault so I got nothin’ from the insurance. You know how that is, right?” He shrugs because, of course, he knows I don’t, but I’m being attentive. “You planning to stick around for the summer?”

“Uh-huh, I live with my folks. I’ve got a job at one of the warehouses on Water Street. They sell men’s pants.”

Pat Lewis nods like he knows which warehouse I’m talking about, but I never noticed it until the day the unemployment agency sent me there. Dexter Textiles is in the city’s north end filled with factories and triple-deckers. There’s a bad bar on the corner where the air inside is cold and sour when the door opens in the middle of the day. The shipping guys eat fish and chips there on paydays, so maybe Pat goes there, too.

Through the warehouse’s back windows I can see across the dirty river to the town where my parents live. It’s a nice town with good neighborhoods like mine with small houses and people who know each other. Many of them came from another country, Poland, France, or some Portuguese island, Madeira or the Azores, like my grandparents. When my father was a boy, he used to swim and fish in the Acushnet River with his brothers and sisters. A silent movie star had a home then on its shore. But now no one is allowed to swim or fish the water now, because you could get sick from the poison the mills along the city side pour in the river.

“Maybe we can do something together,” Pat tells me.

He’s working his grin. He’s a fast mover. I’m used to shy college boys.

“Do something together? Maybe.”

“You got a phone number?”

Another bus swings to the curb. It’s the one I want and I step aside as a woman gets off. Pat is waiting for my answer.

“I don’t have any paper,” I tell him.

“Just say it and I’ll remember. I’m good with numbers.”

I say my phone number once and then get on board. Moments later, when the bus leaves and I am sitting toward the back, Pat bangs on the side and yells, “See ya” through an open window.

When he calls a couple of days later, I’m just home from my summer job at Dexter Textiles. My official job title there is picker, which means I choose pants from the shelves according to size, stack them on a cart and then take them to the shipping guys to pack in boxes. Right now, we’re working on a large order for commissaries at Army bases down South, lots of chinos and dress pants, heavy on 32 W 32 L, to sell soldiers bound for Vietnam. It’s hot inside the warehouse, worst where I’m working in the back, so a good day is when I can be near a fan or one of the open windows if I can stand the river’s stench. I’m the only college kid hired this summer. I get paid twenty cents above minimum wage, because the owner likes me. My plan is to spend hardly anything and put it all in the bank, so I can go in on an apartment with a couple of friends this fall.

I’m in my back yard watching my little sisters play in their inflatable pool when I get that phone call from Pat Lewis. I have to run into the house and I don’t recognize the voice on the other end of the phone.

“It’s Pat. Pat Lewis. Remember me? You was waiting for the bus and I came over to talk to ya.” He is yelling over a loud mix of voices and music.

“I’m at a party.”

“You remembered my number.”

“I told you I’s good with numbers.” He pauses. “Too bad I don’t got no a car, cause I’d come over and get you.”

“Get me.”

“Yeah. You like parties?”

Through the window I see one of my sisters slap the other. Now, they’re both crying. I have to get outside fast.

“Sure, I like parties. Maybe some other time,” I tell him, and then I hang up the phone.

On Saturday, I run into Pat at a coffee shop downtown. I could have gone to the beach with my parents and sisters, but it’s bad enough being home this summer than having to waste my best day off with them. This has not been a great summer so far. My friends are waiting tables on Cape Cod or driving cross-country to California. I work all day in a hot, dusty warehouse picking piles of men’s pants for soldiers, and then I wait for my family to leave for somewhere like the ice cream shack near the drive-in movie or a softball game so I can smoke pot in the backyard. I sit there watching the neighbors argue about their barbecue or some other stupid thing, goofing on them, and after my family comes back, I act like everything they do is normal. I bought a baggie before I left school, but I know it’s not going to last me the summer at the rate I’m going.

Inside the coffee shop downtown, the air smells like hot fat on the grill. I look toward the middle of the restaurant when Pat whistles at me from his booth.

“Hey, Lenora, come here.” He points a finger at the opposite seat. “Sit down.”

I dodge a waitress as I go his way. Metal dog tags dangle on a beaded chain around Pat’s neck and over his tee shirt. He lifts the tags as I sit down on the red, upholstered seat. The tags are fakes with peace symbols instead of his name and serial number.

“What do you think? Got ’em in a head shop yesterday.”

I like his smile, smooth and wide. His green eyes stay focused on me. I lean forward.

“They’re really nice.”

He grunts then sits back.

“Well, you won’t catch me dead in real tags.” He signals the waitress carrying a tray of food toward the rear of the restaurant. “You know why? I didn’t bother registering for the draft. They don’t know shit about me.”

“I thought you had to. My friends at school did.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what I heard, too. But I got it all figured out. They’re not going to care about some dumb, skinny fisherman from New Bedford. But if I get caught and do have to go to Vietnam, I’m joining the Marines, cause they’re the best.”

“The best. Really.” I open the plastic cover to check the menu. I find what I want and then raise my eyes at Pat. “How long have you been fishing?”

“Since I dropped out of eighth grade.”

I shut the menu then put it back in its holder. I study Pat’s face. He’s serious.

“Eighth grade.” My voice is almost a whisper. “They let you do that?”

He chuckles.

“Sure. They had to. I was sixteen already cause I stayed back twice. The principal cried when I brought in the papers signed by my mother.” His fingers play with the menu’s corner. “My first job, I repaired nets. Then I started fishing like my father and uncle. Good money if you like the work.” His head twists toward the back of the room. “Where in the hell is our waitress?”

“You didn’t like school?”

“Hated it.” He stands up. “Be back. Gotta use the toilet. If the waitress comes back tell her I want a burger with the works. Make it well done. No pink meat.”

The waitress takes our order while Pat’s gone, and while I wait for his return, I think about what he said. My parents didn’t finish high school either, but that was during the Depression, and many kids then had to drop out to work for their families. Most of the guys I know are sweating out the possibility of getting drafted and hoping their college deferments will keep them out of Vietnam. They worry about the lottery that’s supposed to happen this fall. They’ve been talking with counselors about ways to get out if they pull a low number.

Pat comes back to his seat.

“Now, I bet you really think I’m stupid.”

“No, I don’t think that. I just never met anyone who … anyone who’s like you.”

His hand stretches toward the front of my blouse and he drops something into the pocket. I feel a pill when I press the fabric.

Pat winks.

“For later,” he says.

The next time I see Pat, I learn about the girlfriend. It’s Thursday night, when all the stores are open late, and groups of kids circle the blocks downtown as if they’re on patrol. I’m talking with him and one of his buddies in front of a bookstore when a woman nearly half Pat’s height marches toward us. She’s wearing a black waitress uniform with grease stains on the apron so I’m guessing she’s just off her shift.

“I’m Terry. I’m his girlfriend. We live together.”

She digs her fingers into her hips. Her nails are painted a bloody red. I don’t dare look at Pat.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” I lie.

Pat’s dog tags bounce against his chest as he bends to talk to Terry in low, appeasing tones. I hear the words “baby” and “nothing.” Terry gives me a tight, crooked smile as she listens. Her eyes close into slits. She’s not buying any of it. I feel a twinge. I get lots of lurches and twinges when I’m with Pat. What else will he tell me? That he has a criminal record? That he’s collecting welfare? Both seem possibilities. I wave to Pat as I leave. I have to catch a bus home anyway. I’ve got men’s pants to pick tomorrow. This order is going to a base in Texas.

The next night, my parents are bothered when Pat calls after eleven. I’m in bed reading and listening to some DJ with a groovy voice on a Boston radio station when I hear my father’s voice. The tab of acid Pat gave me is hidden in the battery case. My father must have been kneeling at his side of the bed, praying, because he’s holding his Catholic missal when he calls me from the bottom of the stairs.

“Some boy says it’s important to talk to you,” my father says when I walk into the kitchen.

I lift the phone from the counter.

“Hey, it’s me, Pat. I just wanted to tell ya I’d like to see you more, but

I got this problem with Terry.”

“I can see that.”

“We’ve been through some heavy shit together. She had an operation last year. Female problems. And now that I’m out of work, she’s been bringing in most of the money ’cept what I make on the side, if you know what I mean.”

My father, wearing an undershirt and striped boxers, uses a thumb to hold his place in the missal. He’s watching from the doorway. I gesture, wanting him to leave, but he doesn’t. No boys ever call our house and especially this time of night.

“Look, Pat, it’s awfully late. We all have to get up early for work tomorrow.”

“Uh, OK,” he says before I hang up the phone.

I feel that will be the end. What am I thinking about anyway hanging with him? Pat admits he’d never finished a book. My last boyfriend wrote poetry. When school starts in a couple of months, I won’t see him again, I’m sure of that. I won’t even think about him except when I tell my friends stories about the guy I met this summer who has this strange tattoo and who didn’t finish eighth grade.

But a few days later after supper, a strange car is parked in front of my house, and Pat is at the wheel, honking the horn. My parents and sisters aren’t home, and I run out before the neighbors come from their houses. I lean into the open window of the passenger side.

“I thought you didn’t have a car.”

“It belongs to a Steve. You know Steve. The short guy I hang aroun’ with. He owed me a favor.” The corner of his mouth curls slyly. “Hop in. We’ll go for a ride.”

I think for a moment, and then I run back to lock the door. I get in the car’s front seat.

“Why don’t you move over?” Pat chuckles softly. “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?” I slide closer. “Ah, that’s better.”

Pat pulls a joint from his shirt pocket when we pass my parents’ church. He steers the car with his knees as he lights the end and then takes the first hit. When it’s my turn, I hold the smoke in my lungs until we reach my old elementary school, where my parents and sisters are watching a softball game in the field behind. We pass the joint back and forth until it’s spent. Pat tosses the roach out the open window, and as I check to make sure no one sees what he did, he rubs the skin between my knee and the hem of my shorts.

I let him.

Pat takes me to the ocean-most point of the town and parks so we can watch boats cruise through the harbor’s channel. I lean back after he works his arm around me. Other cars are in the lot, mostly older people or families watching the same thing, but a few kids are making out. Pat motions toward a boat he recognizes, a scalloper coming in with its load. He knows the captain, a real bastard, he says. I start laughing. He does, too.

“You’re stoned,” he jokes.

I speak, but stop, and then try again.

“What about Terry?”

“Terry, who? Oh, her? She moved out.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’m not kidding. She split.”

“When did that happen?”


“How come?”

“We broke up and my mother owns the place so I get to stay.”

“How was that?”

He shrugged.

“You don’t want to know.”

I like it later when he kisses me, and then again. This could go somewhere, but a cruiser pulls into the parking lot, and Pat’s eyes are on the rear view mirror as the cop at the wheel slowly makes a lap. He says we should head out, but he waits until the cop is out of sight before he starts the car. He comes toward me for a kiss.

“Nice,” he says.

My mother quizzes me when I get home.

“What are you seeing that guy for? A woman from bingo says he’s nothing but trouble. The whole family’s that way. His mother divorced his father, and then married his brother. Did you know that?”

No, I didn’t.

“This isn’t serious, Mom.”

“Lenora, don’t you know any other people you could be with? How about your
old friends from high school?”

I shake my head. I’ve lost touch with them all.

“Don’t worry, Ma, I’m going back to school.”

She gives me a wary smile.

I spend the rest of the summer with Pat and his friends. They pick me up after work a couple of times a week and we get high together. I don’t have to worry about having enough pot or anything else I want, because they always have plenty. Sometimes we go swimming or walk the grounds of a carnival or on Thursday nights we hang out downtown, but mostly we drive around. Pat’s friends don’t know what to make of me, but they go along because he’s the one in charge. Steve, a short guy with Italian blood, is the nicest, but he’s definitely a follower. If Pat wears something, Steve has it a week later like those cop sunglasses with the mirrored lenses.

Once in the car, Pat’s friends talk about how easy it’d be to rob a gas station in the city’s north end, not far from Dexter Textiles. They know one of the attendants, so they could work out something like tying the guy up in the back room and then later they’d give him some of the money. Pat tells them all to shut up, and after he says his friends are only kidding. They’d never do anything like that. Trust me, he says, but I don’t know if I should.

My parents won’t let me take their car, but Pat keeps borrowing Steve’s, and when he does, we find a quiet spot to park. He says he can’t bring me to his place, because his mother, who lives in the duplex next door, likes his ex-girlfriend too much. I don’t care. I don’t want to be Pat’s girlfriend, but I want the excitement, the slight danger of being with him. And then there’s the sex, the sex is great, like tonight when we spread a blanket in the scrub pine woods near the bay, Pat’s idea, but the mosquitoes are so bad we slap ourselves all over as we run back to the car. We stretch out on the back seat, lots of teasing and laughter, until we get into the heat of it. Then, afterward we sit with the lights off, listening to the radio and talking, making jokes again. He’s giving me his take on things and that’s another thing I like about Pat. He tells it to me straight. We’re talking about the war again, and when I use a word he doesn’t know, he glances sideway and asks what it means. He raises one eye and sniffs after I tell him.

“I know why you like me, Lenora,” he says.

“You do, do you?”

“Sure, it’s easy. Even a dummy like me can figure it out. Smart girls like the cool guys.” He nods. “You’re smart. I’m cool. Am I right?”

I laugh with him.

“Yeah, you’re right.”

Later, as we ride past a salt flat, pungent at low tide, Pat says he wants to visit me when I return to college.

“I got it all figured. I have a big deal in the works so I’ll have enough money to buy a good car. Then I can go back to work, and I could see you between fishing trips. What do you think about that?”

I have three weeks left, and then I’ll be back where I belong. I mailed a check for my share of the rental deposit last week. I thought summer would be enough for Pat, and then he’d patch things up with Terry after I go, but his voice is soft as if he’s testing me. I think about what my friends would say if he shows up.

I use a fingertip to trace his tattooed dagger over and over.

“You’d really want to do that?” At the next traffic light, he leans over to kiss my mouth. I close my eyes. I hope my friends will like him. “Yeah, come see me.”

Two days later after lunch, I’m sorting an order for a base in Georgia when the fire alarm sounds. I grab my bag and follow the foreman after he yells, “Hey, girly, better get out of here.” The sidewalk outside is busy with workers from Dexter and the other places in this building, a couple of sweatshops and a beer distributor. Cruisers and a fire engine have arrived, but there’s no sign of smoke, so people are saying someone must have pulled the alarm as a prank. Near me, a fat woman sits crying on the ground. She fell in the rush, someone was saying, and might have broken her leg.

Mr. Dexter announces a bomb threat was phoned in, so they have to clear the building while the cops search. It’s the law. We could be there a while so if anyone wants to leave, without pay, we could. The other owners must be saying the same, because people are gathered on the sidewalk, talking. Most it appears are staying.

I’m deciding what to do when Pat strolls through the crowd. He grins as he comes near.

“Hey, somebody called in a bomb scare,” I tell him.

He puts his arm around me. Behind us a siren sounds, and when I look, an ambulance slows to a stop.

“Come on, Lenora, let’s get out of here. Steve parked the car when we saw the crowd. Let’s go to the beach.”

His friends are waiting in the car two blocks away. Steve leans out the driver’s window. His fake dog tags with the peace symbols make clinking noises as they sway against the door.

“Hey, Pat, did you tell her what you did? Huh? Did you tell her about the call?”

I glance at Pat, then Steve.

“Tell me what?”

Steve deepens his voice, “I’m calling to tell you there’s a bomb in one of the boxes at the beer warehouse and it’s gonna blow this afternoon. I’m not kidding.”

The two other guys are laughing.

“Can you believe it?” one says.

“You? You did that?” I say quietly to Pat. “Why would you do something like that?”

Pat shrugs.

“It’s so hot today. I wanted to take you swimming. Come on, Lenora, you’re not mad at me, are you? I did it for you.”

Yes, I know Pat did, and as he holds the car door open, I smile, but inside I have that sensation I get from a certain dream. It’s the one where I’m falling overboard. The descent is rapid and steep, but I never get to the water, because the scare always wakes me first.

Yup, this sort of happened. 

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