Over the next few months the four of us grew close and did everything together. We spent most of our time after school at Sherry’s. Sometimes we’d go to my house but that meant Mom was always around. Once Mom got to know Sherry she began to like her more. Sherry knew how to work everyone around her little finger, and she preferred to be wherever our mothers were not.
There was only one month of school left and an entire summer lay before us. We were looking forward to spending our free time together. Liz and Gabby began admiring Sherry more. And Liz became enthralled with Sherry’s popularity.
Since Sherry’s arrival, our pranks began to get more exciting. We’d strip the sheets off the clothesline from one neighbor, run them next door, and hang them on the other neighbor’s line. We’d steal the vegetables from gardens after it got dark out, then early the next morning we’d set up a produce stand several streets away and sell the vegetables. This was how we’d get our money for the bus and to go to the movies. And it was Sherry who showed us the burning-bag-of-dog crap trick.
Fanny was the old spinster who lived across from Liz. Fanny always seemed to have something to complain about with all the neighborhood kids. So, Sherry would collect all the dog crap from the neighborhood and gather it in a brown paper bag. She’d light it on fire on Fanny’s front porch, ring the doorbell, and run. We would hide behind Liz’s house and watch, as Sherry would nosedive into the Azaleas to keep from getting caught. Naturally, Fanny would stomp the fire out. Oh, how Fanny’s carpets must have smelled!
Sherry also introduced us to the fine art of applying makeup and wearing the hippest clothing. We would get ourselves decked out in her trendy clothes and strut around Liberty while our fathers were at work. This is also how we got into the ‘R’ rated movies at the mall.
I was always thin and for fifteen still pretty unshapely. I basically wore a bra to prevent the teasing in gym class. But Gabby was built better, and even though she was petite she completely filled out her bra. Liz was also busty, but her weight had much to with that. Sherry was put together nicely and was every teenage boys’ dream. Liz was never able to join in the wardrobe sharing, but she enjoyed putting all that crap on her face to hide her complexion problem.
The more time we spent with Sherry, the more I noticed Gabby and Liz wanting to do everything like her. I was beginning to feel as though my rank as senior friend was slipping.
Once school let out for summer, we got a real glimpse of what Sherry was actually like. Both her parents went to the deli each day, leaving her house free for us to do whatever we wanted. Off the back of her kitchen was a large deck overlooking the path leading to McNurney’s Pond. We’d sit out there sometimes for hours just listening to Sherry tell us about how things used to be in Brooklyn. It was those very stories that motivated us to want to get as far out of Liberty as we could when we grew up.
Sherry wasn’t raised an orthodox Jew like most of Liberty had expected. Instead, her folks were much more like leftovers from the sixties. They were free spirited and far too lenient. They would, however, attend temple on occasion. I remember Sherry talking openly to her mother about most subjects. For the rest of us, our mothers used scare tactics and had brainwashed us about the naughty side of boys. But Sherry would change that line of thinking too.
One afternoon, she invited Danny and Gary to come to her house and they, in turn, brought Sean and Butch. It amazed me how quickly Sherry had befriended these boys. After all, we had known them since grade school. In no time at all, they became regulars at the Rosen household.
Sean was very cute. He had blonde hair and green eyes with hints of gold specks in the center. Gabby had her eye on him for months. Butch was your typical redheaded boy. He was what we called a ‘husky’ in those days. We figured his parents must have been on acid when they named him - Herman Oswald Butcheviwietz (Butch-ev-a-whits). Everybody called him Butch, for good reason. They’d come by day after and day; we’d talk and flirt a bit. Then we’d play Spin the Bottle.
I liked Gary, but he never seemed interested in me. I did my best to hide my feelings and Gabby knew this. Instead, Gary seemed exceedingly mesmerized with Sherry, but then, who wasn’t?
Danny was Sean’s older brother. He was in a few of my classes at school. He was okay but he certainly wasn’t Gary. Gary had dark hair with a wild wave to it. His smile was perfect.
One afternoon, Spin the Bottle was getting too predictable so Sherry upped the ante, “You want to make it a little more interesting?” she asked. We eagerly listened.
“You eva play strip poka before?”
I knew I had never, and was darn certain Gabby and Liz hadn’t either. But the boys played it off as if they were seasoned pros, nodding their heads.
“Oh sure,” they bragged.
Sherry began to explain the rules to us. Since none of us had ever played poker, I think it was Danny who had suggested we modify the game by keeping the same rules. Instead of cards, we’d use the Spin the Bottle concept, and in lieu of kissing the person, you would have them remove an article of clothing instead. Liz’s face turned raspberry red when she heard what we were about to do. There was only one rule – anyone who didn’t want to play, didn’t have to, but they had to leave the house. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of us sitting in our skivvies being ogled from the sidelines. Peer pressure kicked in and no one backed down, not even Liz. As much as she was frightened by the thought of stripping in front of the boys, I think Sherry’s rejection would have crushed her even more.
We went downstairs to Sherry’s family room for more privacy. We sat boy, girl, boy, girl. I just kept thinking, glad I wore my pretty bra. Not much to hold in it - but at least I had one on and not my tank top.
Sherry rummaged through the garbage until she found an empty bottle of Rolling Rock Beer. "I'll go first" as she quickly wiped its mouth off and swirled it in a circular motion. It pointed to Gary. I cringed with jealousy when I saw the excitement on his face. I could tell he was interested in Sherry.
“Okay, your shirt,” she said.
Gary ripped it over his head in a millisecond. Then it was his turn. He spun it, and we watched as the green neck landed on Gabby. “Your shirt,” he grinned. Gabby looked at me hesitantly, then over to Sherry. Gabby slowly pulled her blue shirt over her head and tucked it under her knees, revealing a pink, lace bra with a tiny tattered bow in the center.
Butch became giggly, and the boys began whispering to one another. Gabby spun it, and it pointed directly at Liz. It was an unspoken given that we girls requested small articles of clothing from each other. “Your flip flops,” Gabby chuckled. Liz spun it and hit Gary again. Being that he was wearing sandals, shorts and presumably underwear, she called for his shorts. We laughed at Liz’s ruthless determination. It seemed so out of character for her. Gary unsnapped his shorts and pulled them down. Surprisingly, he wasn’t wearing any underwear and there he sat, proud as a peacock in nothing but sandals.
I had never seen any boy’s anatomy before besides my little brother Jack's, but that didn't count, and the curiosity overwhelmed me. So, I strained my eyes a bit using my peripheral vision in order to gain a quick peek. Gary’s abdomen was lean; little vertical ripples adorned his lower midsection. I imagined what it would be like to touch him.
After several more spins Sherry was sitting in her bra and gauchos when Gary’s bottle found her again. I was still fully clothed except shoes and socks. “Your shorts,” he smugly said. Sherry stood up and slithered out of her long denim gauchos almost as though she were giving him a private lap dance. I could see the other boys grow eager, as I became increasingly uncomfortable. Sherry tossed them to Gary. Her shorts landed right over his shoulder. I knew my chances with Gary were blown after that. Sherry had him exactly where she wanted him. She made it quite clear - what Sherry wants, she gets.
Our game ended abruptly that afternoon when we heard a car pull onto the driveway. We scurried like rats in a maze to find our clothing everyone but Liz and me.
We felt such anticipation going to Sherry’s and each day would be another adventure. A year before, who would have ever thought we’d be sitting half-naked in what was once our vacant lot.
Sherry taught us many things that year, mostly about the birds and bees and things that she did with her old girlfriends back in New York. She talked so openly about her body with a confidence I had not found yet. Mom had 'that little talk' with me several years earlier. I remember her bringing out some pamphlets probably to help make the delivery easier. Instead, it was awkward and goes down in history as three minutes of my life I can't have back.
I had also read Judy Blume’s, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? which was required reading of any teenage girl back then. As young girls we talked about our bodies and the changes they were undertaking, though, Gabby never talked about it; she seemed aloof whenever the subject came up. Until one afternoon in June, when we were at Sherry’s house, Gabby screamed from the bathroom for someone to call a doctor. I came running to see if she was okay. She was sitting on the toilet with her shorts down around her ankles, tears streaming down her face. My heart broke for her, as she had no idea the transition in which her body was taking.
“Are you okay, Gabby?” I asked.
“I’m bleeding,” she cried, as she motioned to her stained panties. Within seconds Sherry and Liz were in the bathroom doorway. “Gabby, didn’t your mother ever tell you about menstruation?” I asked.
“Menstra- what” she questioned. I had assumed with older sisters Gabby had learned about this sooner. This explained why she never shared in our conversations regarding this matter.
Sherry began rummaging through the bathroom cabinet and threw a tampon at Gabby. “She can’t use that!” I snapped. As wise as Sherry was, she had no idea this was Gabby’s first period. “She won’t know how to use that. It’s her first time!”
Liz took the cue and politely excused herself allowing Gabby some privacy to figure this out. I asked Sherry to leave what felt like it was becoming a bathroom convention. And she did.
I assured Gabby everything would be okay and briefly filled her in on what a menstrual cycle was as best I understood it. Then I told her she needed to talk to her mother. That seemed to upset her as though she couldn’t talk to her own mom about it. So,there I sat, on the cold tile floor of Sherry Rosen’s bathroom, explaining life’s processes with my best friend Gabby.
July was only weeks away and Liberty was preparing for the Bicentennial. Our town was hosting the largest countywide celebration for July 4th, 1976. Mom and Mrs. Townsend were on the planning committee. We girls were looking forward to it as well. We knew with our parents being actively involved with the festivities, we would have more freedom and a later curfew. We also knew Sherry would come up with some nifty idea to liven things up. She always did.
Sherry arranged to get some beer from her brother that night and we were going to meet the boys out behind McNurney’s Pond for more serious fun. Things were beginning to get predictable so we thought the beer would spice up our evening. The pond was deeply hidden behind a moss covered path less than a half-mile or so, directly in back of the Rosen’s property. The path also branched off in another direction as a short cut to the little league.
Drinking was something we had never done before but like everything else, Sherry would eventually get us to try it. Our plan was in motion. Once our parents headed to the festivities for the evening, we would meet at Sherry’s, put the beer in a duffel bag and bring it out to the woods near the pond for later that night. The boys would meet us there just before dark with their own stash. That would leave us plenty of time before the scheduled fireworks. Yes, it was definitely a plan and one that was supposed to be harmless.
The loud, electronic alarm sounded as she entered the stale, barren room. There was a stench beyond reason that I didn’t recognize. I stared at the Plexiglas window waiting to see her face again. I was growing impatient.
The guard announced, “step forward!” She came in wearing a rundown county issued jumpsuit with stains around the sleeve edges. She was still overweight but no more traces of a complexion problem. I watched as the male guard frisked her rather roughly, as though from her cell to the meeting room she would be stashing a rifle. She had been placed in the county jail one day earlier and humbly wore ‘inmate 41698’ across her chest.
She immediately sat on the small chair adjacent to me and her face was careworn. Her eyes remained her most distinguishable feature. They glistened as she looked at me.
“Hi,” her voice was soft, almost inaudible, “thanks for coming, Pepper.” I forced a smile on my face and just shook my head. “As soon as Mom told me, I was on the next flight. I came straight here.”
The guard stood only four feet away. I’m quite sure he overheard everything between us. “They think I killed him.” Again, I looked to the guard, choosing my words carefully. “Why now, after all these years?”
“Something to do with motive and DNA,” she answered.
“Will you make bail?”
She simply shrugged her shoulders. “My lawyer’s working on it.”
“Who’s your attorney?”
You’ll never believe it,” the curves of her mouth puckered and she managed a small grimace, “Gary, Gary Angeli.”
My eyes widened. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. I knew he had become a successful lawyer in Liberty, but I didn’t think Liz would request his services, not after the history we had. Twenty years couldn’t have kept me from remembering Gary. He was our Spin the Bottle partner, the guy who I had hoped would have to remove it all in a game of strip poker.
“What about,” I stuttered when I mentioned her name, “Sherry. Did you tell her yet? She has a practice in New York City.”
Liz’s eyes were filled with tears but beyond them, I could still see those ice blues eyes, and I knew without doubt she was innocent.
“I’m sorry to say this, but I almost feel if it weren’t for Sherry, I might not be in this situation.”
“You don’t mean that, Liz.”
“Come on, Pepper. You know as well as I do, we wouldn’t have done half the crap we did if it weren’t for her.” I understood where Liz was coming from but to blame Sherry for Liz’s arrest didn’t seem quite fair.
The murder had gone unsolved for two decades. Why did they suspect Liz now? How could they have found out about her secret? I was as confused as she was. Other than Liz, we were the only three who knew. We would never tell a soul - we pinkie swore on it for God’s sake. I couldn’t help but think of all the good times we had with Sherry too, not just the mischief we may have gotten ourselves into on occasion.
“She didn’t make us do anything. We always had the power to say no.” My choice of words didn’t sit right with her. I could see her look down to the floor - ashamed, embarrassed or hurt. I couldn't take back what I has said and felt that pang of Catholic guilt.
“We were teenagers for Chrissake! Why didn’t I just stop it?” she scolded herself.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Liz. We’ll get you out of this.”
“We’ll?” Liz had a puzzled look on her face.
“I called Gabby and she arrives tomorrow.”
“Other than a sporadic Christmas card through the years, we had lost touch,” Liz mentioned.
Gabby’s dad had gotten stationed back to Texas a few years after all this happened sometime in 1978. She was the first of us to move away. She and I kept in touch regularly till about my sophomore year at Boston College. After that, the letters were scarce. She mentioned she was getting married. I couldn’t imagine any commitment at twenty, let alone marriage.
The last I had heard her marriage wasn’t a good one. He had gotten physical with her. She finally mustered up the strength and left him. She’s remarried now and has four kids - one from the first marriage. I explained this to Liz but nothing seemed to register. Her face was blank. She had greater concerns.
My heart ached seeing Liz again. Of all of us, she was the one who seemed to have the ideal family. I remember envying the life I thought she had.
“Pepper?” she whispered, breaking me from my thoughts. “We’ve got to find out what really happened?”
I nodded, “We will.”
“Did you tell anyone what Sherry did?” I whispered low enough, hoping the guard couldn’t overhear us. Liz lifted her hand to the glass and placed her right palm up to it. Then she pressed her pinkie against the glass. I brought mine to meet hers. A gesture we had done so many times before. “No,” she confirmed, “but if I absolutely have to, if it means clearing myself, I’ll tell what Sherry did.”
The Rosens had eventually moved back to New York after Mrs. Rosen passed away. It happened while I was away at college. Sherry was going to Hofstra at the time when Mrs. Rosen suffered a massive heart attack. I remember coming home for the funeral. It was the only time I had ever seen Sherry cry.
The last time I had seen her was at her wedding ten years ago. She had married a nice Jewish man named Saul. He was an architect in the city. From what I can see, they were like oil and vinegar. But when Sherry piped out the orders, he obeyed. She had that influence on people. It didn’t surprise me that she chose a career in law.
“I’ll call her today, Liz. She may be able to help Gary.”
I tried to assure Liz everything would be okay. She was just thirty-four years of age and arrested for a murder that happened in 1976. Her entire life she had been trying to put her past behind her, and now it was all being rehashed.
I drove back to my parents’ house. They remained in Liberty in the same little home on Justice Drive. Mrs. Townsend still lived five houses down; mom and she remained close through the years. Liberty wasn’t the same after the Bicentennial celebration since the killer was never found. Parents never allowed their children to go McNurney’s Pond swimming anymore. And the streets that used to be filled with children became deserted.
Back at my house, I put in a call to Sherry’s law firm. She was in court, and the receptionist said Sherry would get back to me. I gave my maiden name in case she didn’t recognize my married one. I told her the grave nature of the situation, and she assured me I would get a call back by the end of the day. I explained that I was an old friend looking to get her home number, figuring I’d say hello to Saul in the meantime. “You mustn’t be that good of friends,” the receptionist remarked, “she divorced Saul in eighty-eight.”
“Wow! I didn’t realize.”
“Apparently not,” the snotty voice spat back.
I couldn’t believe Sherry’s marriage only lasted two years.
After a brief visit with Mom, I took a slow walk down to say hello to Mrs. Townsend. I figured it would help the time to pass. It could be hours before Sherry returned my call. As I walked by Gabby’s old house, I saw three young boys playing on top of a dirt mound. Their faces were smeared with mud, and their clothes were soiled beyond recognition. They managed to smile and wave as they shot imaginary guns at me. That home had many owners since the Sanchez’ moved. My parents were friendly with each family, but as Mom and Dad aged, the neighbors always got younger.
As I got closer, I could see Mrs. Townsend was hanging sheets on her line. I gave a quick wave to catch her attention. She stopped momentarily unfamiliar with me from a distance. As she stepped towards me, I yelled, “It’s Pepper.”
“Oh, Pepper!” She ran up from the backyard. We embraced. I had stopped by on rare occasions when I came to visit with my family at the holidays. But it had been years since my last visit. She asked me about my husband and the boys.
I had married my college sweetheart, Collin, the year after we graduated. Collin worked for channel 11 nightly news in Massachusetts. We met while I was interning there. I later worked my way up to the morning anchor, and he worked his way to producer. After years of mixed schedules, we decided to start our family. We were eventually blessed with our first son, then a few years later we had twin boys. My hands were more than full. Here’s the clincher - I traded my career from delivering the news to diapering babies. I became a stay-at-home mom, the one job I swore I’d never do.
The boys are all busy now, and I carefully juggle my time between soccer, basketball and running them to friends’ houses. In a few years, I will be back to work full time, but for now I’ve become my mother.
Mrs. Townsend loved hearing about Collin and the boys. She offered me a cup of coffee. I accepted and we went inside. Everything looked the same as it always had. Twenty years later she still had Mary Kay products lingering around the house. We sat at her kitchen table. It was dark pine, covered with deep scratches from heavy use. The walls were olive drab with an obnoxious wallpaper pattern. She placed fresh cinnamon rolls on the center of the table. This was the Mrs. Townsend I remembered most.
She asked me how Liz looked, knowing I had just come from seeing her. She was also on her way to see Liz but was waiting for Gary to arrive first.
“I wanted to talk to you about that, Mrs. Townsend.” Her hands trembled as she filled my cup, a sure sign she was maturing.
“I think she may need another attorney.”
“What for?” Mrs. Townsend asked.
“Well, Gary’s…Gary. Don’t you think she should have a good criminal lawyer?”
And then I suggested Sherry’s name.
“I haven’t seen her in years, Pepper.”
“She’s practicing criminal law in the city. This is right up her alley. I called her to explain the situation. We discussed it in detail, but Mrs. Townsend was comfortable having Gary so I didn’t press the issue.
Being in her home again brought me back to my youth; the photos on her piano; the dated furnishings and the aroma of fresh baking, all soothed my senses as I recalled days gone by and of course a time I will never forget.