Max Gorecki was the black sheep of my father’s Pennsylvania cousins. The men were coal miners, auto upholsterers, or heavy machinery operators. His female cousins worked until they married, except of course, Maxine. As the receptionist at Harriman Chrysler out on 309; she drove her Plymouth fast; smoked; drank; and, worst of all, according to her mother, was divorced before turning thirty.
Maxine hung around her father’s neighborhood tavern, which despite state law, was open even on Sundays. Though the front door was shuttered, locals knew to stroll through the vegetable garden; duck beneath the grape arbor; and, use the side door. Once inside it could have easily been a Friday or Saturday night.
Our weekend trips to Hazleton usually started with my father showering off metal dust from the foundry; loading us and the suitcases into the car; and, then stopping at some highway restaurant for dinner. Since it was Friday the choice was simple – fish; even when my mother was pregnant and Dad had to pull over several times so she could leave puddles of flounder along the side of the road.
We would follow Route 46 as it meandered past dairy farms in western New Jersey; along Heartbeat Highway where the thump-thump of car tires on the concrete roadway mimicked a human pulse; through the Delaware Water Gap and the Poconos often thick with silver fog that made car headlights nearly useless; and finally, on out to the hilly streets of Hazleton where his cousins awaited our late Friday night arrival.
Following a Saturday afternoon of raucous reminiscing in the yard outside the tavern, the extended Gorecki family moved inside for dinner. The long table was piled high with rings of kielbasa, steaming bowls of bigos, and for dessert, mountains of chrusciki.
After coffee and vodkas, Maxine cranked up the jukebox and began moving around like no other woman I knew. In skintight black Capri pants and a white blouse tied at her midriff, Maxine didn’t so much dance as slink and writhe, bump and grind. Every so often, her mother would yell at her in Polish. Though I didn’t understand, her dismissive wave made clear it wasn’t complementary. Maxine’s father, Joe, looked from behind the bar; shook his head; and exhaled a lungful of cigarette smoke, which some dozen years later would send him to a hospital down state where he succumbed to emphysema.
“Wanna go for a ride, Jimmy?” Maxine winked.
“Can I go, Dad?”
Looking up from his Rolling Rock, he asked, “When will you be back?”
“I’ll have him at Genetti’s by eleven,” Maxine answered for me.
“Okay,” Dad grunted.
“Be careful, Jimmy,” my mother cautioned, trying to mask her discomfort about my being with Maxine. But, she wouldn’t countermand Dad, especially in front of his family.
“Come on,” Maxine called, halfway out the door, keys jangling in her hand.
I was still settling into my seat when she sped away from the curb and grinned, “Wanna head up to Jeddo?”
“What’s there?” I asked, though not really caring.
The ride through Hazleton was fast. We flew across the sloped intersection of North Locust Street easily doing fifty. The front wheels of Maxine’s Plymouth went airborne before coming down hard on the pavement. Suddenly, the wail of a police siren filled the car. Maxine glanced in the rearview mirror and yelled, “Shit.” Then, after looking over at me, apologized. We both laughed.
The cop strolled up along Maxine’s side of the car; leaned in her open window; and said, “Geez, Max. Will you please slow down?” Maxine smiled; said something about seeing him next week; blew him a kiss; and, we were on our way. A few sharp turns and Maxine had us cruising up Route 940 towards Jeddo. She played the radio the only way she liked it, loud. Maxine spun the chrome knob until she found WKOL, the local rock and roll station. She pulled a Winston from her large black purse and flipped the top of a Zippo lighter to ignite an orange flame that engulfed the end of the cigarette.
“Hey, Jimmy. You smoke?”
“Once. Didn’t like it,” I replied.
“Good! S’bad for ya’,” Maxine said.
“Then how come you do it?” I asked.
“I do a lot of stuff that ain’t exactly good. But, when you’re my age, you can make up your own mind.” Maxine said. Then, she asked, “Going to college?”
“Yeah, in the fall. Where’d you go?”
Maxine laughed. “Didn’t have the brains for it.”
We neared the Stewart’s Drive In where waitresses in short skirts roller skated out to the cars; took orders; and then, returned with burgers and hot dogs and milk shakes on trays they hung from car windows. Maxine slowed while leaning on the horn. “Hey, Phil. Phil,” she shouted out the window. The man behind the counter waved as we whistled by.
“Is there anybody you don’t know?” I said.
“Not really,” she grinned and sped up to beat a changing traffic light near the Bucyrus-Erie maintenance yard.
Motels, gas stations, and used car lots slid past my window as the aroma of that Winston and her perfume roiled beneath my nose. Though I had never been farther west than Harrisburg, I wanted Maxine to drive all the way to California. I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than a road trip with this woman who knew just about everyone and everything that was really important.
Maxine had been married to Paulie Salamone, an oiler on a big coal shovel outside of Mahanoy City, but they split up after a few years. Usually you don’t learn the true reason people’s marriages fail, only the story they want known. All the same, I asked, “Cousin Maxine, how come you got divorced?”
She took a long drag on her cigarette and sent a plume of smoke out the corner of her mouth. “We just didn’t get along.”
“That’s it?” I said.
“Yeah. That’s it,” Maxine echoed. “He liked to come home; put on the TV; and, watch bowling with a beer in his hand. Me, I gotta go out and have fun.” I was glad stick-in-the-mud Paulie was gone.
“Hey Jimmy,” Maxine said. “How about Angela Park instead?”
With a roller coaster, batting cages, and rows of booths offering games of chance few people ever beat, it was the only amusement park this side of Allentown. “Yeah!” I said, relieved at not being the third wheel at some unnamed friend’s place in Jeddo. She matched my enthusiasm with a sudden acceleration and we sailed up the highway towards a flickering glow in the night sky. We were in the parking lot and out of the car in what seemed like seconds. Then, Maxine spun and said, “From now on, drop the Cousin thing, okay? Just call me Max. Got it?”
“Got it,” I repeated.
That simple request changed everything. I was no longer her younger second cousin, but a contemporary. She paid my way in and bought a handful of ride tickets. “Let’s do the roller coaster first. Wanna’ sit up front?”
“Sure.” As my answer rang out, I wondered if I should have been more cautious. Too late.
“Hi ya, Rocco,” Max yelled over the calliope music blaring from the loudspeaker. “Busy tonight?” With her arm coiled around my shoulder and mine around her waist, she asked, “Me and my buddy Jimmy want to sit up front. Can you help us, please?”
“No problem, Max,” Rocco said while ushering people from the brightly painted cars. “Wait over here.”
“Okay,” she smiled and whispered in my ear, “He’s a good sport.” Her hot tobacco breath was intoxicating. Then, Max kissed my cheek. My chest, which puffed out when she said I was her buddy was now about to bust my shirt buttons. Max was warm to the touch and the bare skin below her knotted shirt was enticing. I was incapable of lifting my hand from it, even if I wanted to, which I didn’t.
The roller coaster ride was a blur of twists, turns, and drops that had my stomach in my throat. All the while, Max hugged me tight. I couldn’t tell if she was protecting herself or me. It didn’t matter. Then, we found the Wild Mouse with its steel frame, hairpin turns, and steep inclines. The seat in the two-person car was little more than a narrow vinyl-covered plank several inches off the aluminum floor that we straddled. Max told me to sit in front; and, then pulled me back against her; bringing her legs up around my sides. I was feeling parts of a woman about which I had only dreamt. The images in my mind were racing faster than this crazy ride and my thoughts were unmistakably sexual.
Despite the damp night air of northeastern Pennsylvania, sweat broke across my forehead. Max’s arms circled my waist while my hands gripped the chrome handles as we hurtled down to what I thought was certain death. We lived to ride the Ferris wheel. Atop that great hoop rimmed by lights, some blinking, others burnt out or broken we could see clear across the valley to Hazleton’s modest skyline. Round and round this machine spun. It slowed as we neared the top and our car rocked when Max pointed out the different sections of her hometown. To me, they were all just dark patches with few streetlights and even fewer headlights.
“It’s great up here,” Max shouted. “Feel like I can walk right out into the air.” She was just crazy enough to try. So, I pulled hard on the bar locked across us until it was our turn to hop off.
“Thanks Bill,” Max called to the guy in a greasy tee shirt who yanked a large handle that set this whole contraption in motion.
“You know him too?” I asked.
“I used to work here,” Max said as she led me to the games of chance.
“How come you only know the men?” I questioned.
“Get along better with guys,” Max laughed, then blew a cloud of blue smoke towards a row of blinking lights. I didn’t say what I thought.
We spent the rest of the night tossing rings over green coke bottles; throwing darts at balloons; and, watching huge wooden wheels spin to numbers other than the ones on which she and I placed our money. Wherever we sauntered with our arms locked around one another, men gave me envious looks. Women offered Max something different and not always approving. It was clear Max wasn’t bothered in the least. Actually, I think she enjoyed showing off the eighteen-year-old guy she snagged.
“We better get back, before Freddie blows a gasket.” She never called my father anything but.
Hoping to stop time, I said, “I got one more dime.”
“Okay,” Max relented.
Leaning close to the strip of black canvas on which numbers were painted in bright yellow, I looked for some significance, but found none.
“Max, what’s your birthday?” I said.
“I don’t tell anybody that,” she snapped.
“Not your age, the day. You know, the tenth, eleventh.”
“Oh, the eighteenth.”
I put that last coin on eighteen, just as the cigar-chomping barker gave the spoked white wheel a big pull. It clacked, tickety, tickety, tickety….tickety, until it slowed: four…nine…eighteen……six.
“Don’t worry, Jimmy. We’ll come back,” Max said, trying to ease the final loss. I knew we wouldn’t and even if we did, it wouldn’t be the same. Max winked at the guy behind the counter. He dug in a small box and tossed something to her.
“Georgie says you get a consolation prize.” Max dropped a two inch long red plastic box into my upturned palm. The larger end was capped with a milky white cover; the smaller end had a circular opening. I pointed it towards a bare lightbulb overhead and peered into the hole.
Inside, a color slide of a dark haired woman seated on a bearskin rug glowed brightly. Wrapped in nothing but a white fur stole that almost covered her very ample bosom but not her backside, the woman wore fuzzy pink high-heeled slippers and held a glass of champagne in her hand. Her lips were ruby red and her eyes big and brown.
“He musta’ got a good one, eh, Georgie?” Max chuckled.
I snapped out of my fascination and turned to Max. Now, I won’t say the two women looked alike, other than both had brown eyes, long brunette hair, and breasts that refused to be ignored. Yet, for me, that woman in the little red viewer became Cousin Max.
“Let me see,” she said, holding out her hand. “Not bad. But, don’t let your mom see it. Okay?”
“Thanks, Max,” I said.
“Hey,” she grinned. “You won it.”
“No, I mean for everything. For taking me here and stuff.”
“Anytime, Jimmy. Anytime.”
While the ride from Hazleton was loud and exhilarating, the one back was quiet and melancholy. In what seemed like a blink, we were at the far end of Genetti’s Motor Lodge parking lot. My father’s black Ford Fairlane was outside of Room 37. The lot was dark, especially in the deep shadow of the billboard behind which Max had parked. We sat silently. Then, Max took my hand in hers. She looked over and pulled me close, pressing my head to her chest. The soft fullness stirred me. Max kissed the top of my head; all the while stroking my neck.
I pulled back just far enough to see a tear roll down her cheek.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Max whispered. “It just felt good being with you tonight. If only…” Her sentence hung like an unfinished painting.
Mere inches separated our faces. Unwilling to express what I was really feeling, I said nothing. Instead, I leaned forward and kissed Max on the mouth. My hand went to her bare midriff; hers clasped my neck. Our mouths remained sealed for what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only seconds until Max broke the kiss and the spell. When she did, I felt her tongue dart across my lips leaving the taste of tobacco. I wanted more.
Her hand dropped to my chest and she said softly, “Come on, Jimmy. You better get inside or we’ll do something we shouldn’t.”
Twenty-nine years have passed since the night I learned what it was like to be with a woman who relished being a renegade. Maxine’s mother passed away in a nursing home, her brother took over the bar; my hair is no longer coal black; and, my own son, Lucas, is now nineteen. Though much has changed, Cousin Max looks the same. I still have that little red box to prove it.
Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Second Hand Stories Podcast, Route 7 Review, The Write Place At The Write Time, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Bull & Cross. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of the textile industry.