Volume 32, Number 2

Möbius Strip Summer

Richard Harkness

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
—Edward FitzGerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Seems like yesterday, that long-ago summer of uncertain futures when Betsy showed up out of nowhere. The memory tape of my life always pauses here on rewind.

I had come home from college to a summer job at the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant located just outside of town. The sprawling complex of buildings employed brigades of civilians to manufacture military ordnance, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam assured a ready welcome mat for college students seeking summer work.

Unlike my high school buddies, I was paying my own way. My dad was out of the picture and illness took Mom shortly after the start of my freshman year in college. My weekly splurge was plunking a quarter in the vending box outside the dorm and pulling out a plump Sunday newspaper (And oh, how I savored it!).

So here I was back in the little town where I grew up, believing that if you honestly tried, things would turn out for the best. The sober truth: I wouldn’t have the funds to finish my final year in college. With my student loan maxed out, even with my part-time job in the college cafeteria, something else would need to turn up or I would have to drop out a semester to work full-time. With the subsequent loss of my student deferment, the specter of Vietnam, so long in the background, nudged ever closer. My work at the ammunition plant was a nagging reminder.

Our supervisor promised a cash bonus to anyone who came up with a more efficient, cost-saving way to do a job, so I stayed alert for ideas.

The most exciting thing I’d done so far that summer was reread the adventure classic Treasure Island. My high school English teacher said I had a bent for writing, and I fancied that one day I might try my hand at crafting such a daydream-stirring tale. It struck me that there were no girls in that novel, and the availability of girls around town was about as meager.

My romantic life had stalled in a dead calm until one afternoon when I was shooting pool—honing my skills for the local money games—in the Hilliards' private playhouse next to their outdoor swimming pool. The Hilliards, my employers in summers past, owned the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. Mrs. Hilliard—pudgy, elderly, and now widowed—had charitably rented to me—for less than the going rate—a small upstairs bedroom-bath in her big house across the green.

Clad in my swim trunks, I was lining up a shot in the corner pocket when the screen door creaked open. When I looked up and saw her, a warmth fluttered across my face. Like a newly discovered spring rose in full bloom, Betsy appeared before me in a one-piece red swimsuit filled out in all the right places. We stared at each other for a long moment. I had rarely seen her since her junior-high school days when we attended the same Sunday school class at the Presbyterian church. She was strikingly pretty, and now she was a woman, a ripe nineteen.

“Hi Nick, it’s been a long time.”

"You’re behind the eight ball," was all I could blurt, breathless.

"That’s bad luck, right?" she said and smiled.

We talked, and it turned out that she, her two-year-old son and her stepfather were moving in down here at the playhouse until her stepfather could get back on his feet (It seemed that drink had done him in). He was the Hilliards' adopted son. Betsy's mother was away for some undisclosed reason. Betsy's boyfriend, Jack, her child's father, had issues, and they had temporarily separated. I remembered that Jack had been a year ahead of me in high school.

"Let’s go for a swim," Betsy said.

I felt renewed. The day was luminous, the sun beaming from a sky clear as the crystal pool water. She slipped in at the shallow end, I dived in at the deep end, and we came together on opposite sides of the middle railing. Buoyed by the cool water, we cheerfully recalled less weighty times. When she climbed out of the pool, rivulets of water followed the slopes down her long, tanned legs. I asked her out to a movie, but she said it wouldn’t look good the way things were. As I was leaving, dripping water along the hot concrete walkway, she said they had been invited up to the big house tomorrow evening for supper. "Afterwards we could play cards if you want," she offered.

I said sure, casually as I could with suddenly quickened pulse, and closed the chain-link gate clumsily behind me. Through the neatly manicured hedgerow I caught a glimpse of someone jumping on the trampoline. I shaded my eyes to see better and realized it was Betsy’s stepfather. He was a frail-looking man with deep-set, fatigued eyes, wearing a white T-shirt. He made grunting noises as he bounced and looked like he was frothing at the mouth. I had never much taken to him, so I ambled the long way back to the big house across the lawn. Barefoot, stepping gingerly to avoid stickers, I thought I had made it home free when a hidden burr hobbled my final step.

At work the next day, my mind meandered to Betsy. The assembly line conveyor belt moved at a rate that required you to stay steady at your job. Falling behind would jumble the ever-advancing conga line of items and force a line stoppage, an event sorely frowned upon. My task was to tighten the protruding metal screw on each fuse that trundled by and to visually check its small glass window. If the marker showed red, I would set the unit aside for an inspector to pick up (I never knew why, nor did I ever spot a red marker). The fuses were about the size of the nozzle on a fireman’s water hose. From here, K line, they went to D line, where they were fitted into bomb casings. Elsewhere, on some secret line, the fuses were activated.

To work there, you had to be a native-born United States citizen. We had our mug shots and fingerprints taken and were assigned badges with ID numbers. Indoctrination films cautioned us not to talk about our work to anyone, including other employees, for fear of spies. We all wore the same drab khaki uniforms with protective eye goggles, along with rubber-soled shoes to prevent static electricity or a ground for electrical current. There was a constant chatter among the workers—mostly women—seated along the assembly line. Jokes that once made me blush were tame compared to some I heard the women tell that summer. Women and men seemed to blend into something close to neutral, with equality of the sexes long before such an idea became fashionable.

That evening (at last!), Betsy and I were alone together on the back patio of the big house playing Hearts. Mrs. Hilliard's cook brought supper out to us (it seemed I was side-beneficiary of the welcome meal prepared for the new lodgers). The sticky heat was made breezy by the silent swish of a ceiling fan. The air held the sharp tang of chlorinated pool water mixed with the dreamy fragrance of magnolia and honeysuckle, and long velvet shadows hugged the contours of freshly-mowed lawn. We had baked chicken and potato salad and chilled lemonade in deep green glasses, with ripe honeydew melon slices for dessert. Our eyes met as I was savoring the latter, and juice squished out over my lip. By the time we finished supper, crickets and tree frogs were in full chorus, and lightning bugs weaved fiery trails down by the hedges. Betsy and I went into the living room. Stout, matronly Mrs. Hilliard whisked herself upstairs to read, cooperatively leaving "you two young people alone." She was a very strict and moral person, and did this only because she honestly thought we were just going to play cards and talk. For all I knew, that's exactly what Betsy wanted to do. But I had hopes.

We chatted leisurely, our voices blending with the hum of the window air conditioner. Her powder-blue terrycloth shorts brought out the rich tan on her thighs. She toyed with the cards. When I noticed she had removed her promise ring, my heart did a cartwheel. Other than the soft illumination from the lamps on either side of the couch, the room was dark, especially the niche between the grand piano and draped doors leading to the patio. I had my eye on that.

"Sorry things aren't working out for you and Jack," I said, and immediately regretted bringing up the subject.

She looked up, coyly at first, then her round, wispy-green eyes acquired a depth, and an uncertainty beyond the moment. I guess she didn’t know what road her summer was taking either.

"He brought home more than visible scars from Vietnam," she said. "He’s undergoing hypnotherapy."

I said lightheartedly that Dr. Collins, the dentist, had tried to hypnotize me, but I had never gone under, although I had always wanted to. Betsy said she thought she could put me under if I wanted to try. Sensing that this could be a lead-in to find out what was on her mind first, I submitted.

She switched off the nearest lamp. I hoped fervently that Mrs. Hilliard did not hear the pronounced "click" or see the light diminish near the stairwell. I sat on the floor with my back against the couch, and she knelt in front of me. With those eyes, a touch of rose-pink lipstick and long, rich tobacco-colored hair brushed down around her shoulders, she was ravishing, an enchantress.

"Close your eyes," she commanded.

I obeyed.

"Relax your body, Nick," she said in a soft voice. "You feel your entire body going limp."

This was not wholly true. She came closer. The delicious whiff of perfume caused my nostrils to constrict briefly, cutting me off in euphoric mid-breath. As she murmured, I could feel her face move closer to mine.

"You just want to sleep. You feel soooo sleepy." Her voice was soothing as evening rain.

As she repeated words to this effect, I felt her lips on my cheek, a soft, sensuous brush of them, like warm silk. I tried not to react, for fear she might relent, but my eyelids went into spasm to thwart me as I tried to keep them shut. Her body drew closer. I was by now faintly embarrassed for continuing to play this role. Her lips made a playful passage to mine, and when she reached them, I could no longer pretend. I meant to reach out slowly, but my arms jerked, encircling her roughly. She didn’t resist. I kissed her neck passionately, felt her breathing heavily. Oh, good Jesus, this was what she wanted! I reached under her blouse, which was loose at the waist, found the outside of her brassiere cup and fondled its fullness gently. She had been well developed since junior high. When she didn’t resist, I inched methodically up the bra strap, then slipped it slowly off her shoulder. At that precise, tantalizing moment, a voice blared out behind me as abrupt as a musket shot and just as uninvited.

"Betsy! Get down there and take care of that screamin' brat of yours!" Her stepfather’s voice was ragged and thick with liquor.

She started, and we quickly broke clean. She made hurried adjustments and was up and past me without a word. I sat there with my head bent down, not from shame, but frustration. I didn't even look to see if her old man were still there, waiting for a run-in; I knew he wouldn't be. I wondered how long he had skulked there, frothing at the mouth. I wished he'd been more of a voyeur and just watched. I wanted her so badly I wouldn’t have cared. To me, he became Billy Bones, as villainous a scalawag as ever unfurled the Jolly Roger.

I trudged up the stairs to my sanctum, too wound up to sleep, and clicked on the old TV. As if to prolong my torture, a Gilligan's Island episode sputtered on. I must have fallen asleep finally, because I dreamed. I’d rather have dreamed, like Ben Gunn, marooned on Treasure Island, of cheese, toasted mostly, but instead came the image of hungry jungle tendrils whipping out from Vietnam to ensnare me.

Mrs. Hilliard’s gaze ensnared Betsy and me from then on, though we still saw each other for a swim or to play Hearts out on the patio. Someone else was never far away, so this was all we could do. My prospects for getting alone with her withered, and I tried to occupy my mind with other things. At least until I could work out the details of a new plan I had jelling. Betsy had become the X marks the spot of my summer quest, and I was determined as kudzu not to let my rummy nemesis broadside me again.

Meanwhile my buddy Doug and I wheeled around in his snazzy new gray Mustang. The car was his prized possession and he kept it spotless. Doug, tall, square-shouldered, wiry, had put college on hold, despite parental protests, to sock away coins working at his dad's auto repair shop. He'd heard that his flat feet would keep him out of the draft. We made the thirty-minute drive to Shreveport now and then to catch a movie. Doug's favorite was the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice with its wistful theme song crooned by Nancy Sinatra. We also saw Don't Make Waves starring Tony Curtis, and I’ve often wondered whether that was the last movie Sharon Tate made before meeting her gory fate at the hands of the Manson clan.

With Mrs. Hilliard we watched CBS-TV coverage of the Warren Commission's report on President Kennedy's assassination (Mrs. Hilliard: "If Nixon had been re-elected, no one would have disliked him enough to shoot him!"). We saw news film of Ho Chi Minh avowing that his people would fight another twenty years if necessary. That week marked a somber milestone: The tally of Americans killed in conflict had breached ten thousand. Sentiment was growing that the country had enmeshed itself in an ill-begotten and unwinnable war. We watched a baby-faced soldier from Olive Branch, Mississippi give an unpolished but heartfelt eulogy for a fallen buddy. At the same time, in Paris, wise and polished men in expensive suits continued their protracted debate over whether the negotiating table should be round, oblong, or square.

One afternoon after work I walked by the kitchen and overheard Betsy and Mrs. Hilliard talking. Betsy said something about Jack phoning and asking to see her again.

"Don’t do it, Betsy," admonished Mrs. Hilliard. Then she added a bit sarcastically, and more candidly than I gave her credit for, "He thinks if he makes love to you one more time, you’ll come running back to him."

"He can’t make love to me anymore."

A dish shattered on the floor.

I had one foot on the stairs when Betsy came out of the kitchen, moist-eyed. She stopped, and we looked at each other for a hushed moment, expressively, as if we each were hurriedly surveying roads merged and roads diverged. I took hold of her arm as she passed and whispered for her to make up an excuse and be under my window that night at nine.

"But he’s watching me, Nick."

Blast Billy Bones! "Can’t you get a girlfriend to pick you up and drop you off around the block?" I knew I sounded more desperate than I wanted to.

We could hear Mrs. Hilliard moving about in the kitchen.

Betsy pressed close and kissed my lips fully, deliciously. "You have pretty eyes, Nick," she said and smiled, brushing past me in short denim culottes.

At a quarter of nine a pebble clinked against my bedroom window, and I raised it. I looked down at Betsy from my second-floor room.

"Nick, I’m here. Come on down."

"No. You’re coming up," I said.

"Mrs. Hilliard will see me come in."

"No. I mean this way."

I had tied bed sheets together end-to-end and anchored them to a heavy oak bookstand pushed against the wall. I threw out the free end and watched it plummet with length to spare. My heart soared. Betsy put her hands on her hips and looked up in disbelief.

"Nick, you’re crazy!"

"Crazy for you," I chuckled, lusty as a buccaneer with booty at hand. "Come on up. Climb!" I was quite pleased with my resourcefulness.

She grabbed hold and began pulling herself up.

"Put your feet against the side of the house," I instructed. "Like walking." I had never climbed anything this way, but had seen it done on TV.

She couldn’t get traction on the slick surface, and one of her sandals slipped off. She had made only slight progress when she spoke, the pain evident in her voice.

"Nick, my arms are tired. I can’t make it."

"Hold on," I said, and began tugging desperately from my end. I had to lean back from the window to pull, losing sight of her. Suddenly the effort required lessened dramatically, and I heard a scraping sound followed by a thud. I looked out and saw her on hands and knees on the ground. Abruptly an outside light came on. I saw the whites of her eyes, and it looked like she was crying.

"Are you all right?" I asked casually, trying to conceal the emotions that were ripping apart my insides.

"I’ve got to go, someone’s coming," she said with a sniffle, standing up and brushing herself off.

She vanished into the night like a lost dream.

The next day after work I passed by Mrs. Hilliard on the way through the kitchen. I aimed to nab Betsy and lobby for mercy.

"Betsy left a note for you in your room," she said.

"Anything wrong?" I asked, affecting an innocent expression.

"Jack came by about noon, and she packed up and went with him," she said with resignation.

Ascending the stairs was like walking the plank. With a sinking feeling, I closed the door behind me and sat on the bed next to the pastel blue envelope with "Nick" scribbled in big letters. It was weighted with the eight ball from the playhouse pool table. Sunlight streamed through the window blinds, projecting stripes across the quilt. The stripes looked like stockade bars. The leaky faucet in the bathroom dripped, hollow seconds trickling away, liquid heart beats lost in time. She had been my only hope for salvaging this one last regular summer before whatever lay ahead. The envelope looked very final. I tore it open and pulled out the matching sheet of paper. The writing tilted daintily to the left and the dots over the "i's" were circles.

Dear Nick,

I enjoyed seeing you again after all those years. Wish Jack and me luck. We’re going to try again.

Luv you, Betsy

P.S. So close and yet so far...

I smiled inwardly. She had done the best she could. Betsy had won my admiration, and I hoped she could regain her footing. I haven't seen her since.

I returned to college that fall. Just as my funds we're drying up, the cafeteria manager received special permission from the dean to allot me ten extra work hours a week, which enabled me to squeeze by to graduation.

A multitude of years has intervened since that especially frustrating summer, but time has a way of glamorizing the past and granting a bungee-like pull to memories that evoke it. Maybe replaying long-ago times was the mind's way of letting you live twice. Now I'd give almost anything to reopen youth's sweet manuscript to the slow, lazy summer days and nights of that never-to-be-recaptured era in my life. Though I can think of one thing in particular I would do to improve on it.

Speaking of improvements, I did come up with an idea for the ammunition plant in hopes of winning that bonus money. I suggested they make use of the principle of the Möbius strip, an application of a branch of mathematics known as topology, for the assembly line conveyor belts. By a slight and inexpensive alteration (a 180-degree twist), the usable surface area would be increased twofold, thus cutting wear and tear in half. I had gotten the idea from an issue of Scientific American. The supervisor scrunched his brow and promised to take it up with management. Nothing seemed to come of it, and I left for college shortly afterwards.

Later that year, I read in the newspaper that the federal government was field-testing a new model for ammunition plant conveyor belts based on the Möbius strip, which, according to GAO estimates, could save taxpayers 50 million dollars annually, provided the war continued.

I can't finish without mentioning Doug. He got drafted and sent to Vietnam that winter, despite his flat feet. Two months short of his allotted stint, the Huey medevac chopper he piloted was shot down during a run to rescue wounded. He came home in flag-draped casket with honor guard, soldier of a better day. Doug was an only child and his mom, our high school English teacher, would press his Purple Heart close and call it her bronzed heartbreak.

Sorry, old friend, you missed the chance to live twice.

By the way, I never received the bonus money. I never said I was lucky.