Young Fred Riesberg met him at the train station of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He was jovial and properly a little embarrassed -- although it was hard to tell with him, his heavy acme had given him a difficult adolescence or vice versa, as well as an uneasy look below his rumpled greasy blonde hair -- because he had neglected to order a ticket for the Student to be held at the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Station in Chicago. The Student had gone there with his satchel and trumpet and a couple of dollars, confident of the ticket. He had prevailed upon the Stationmaster to put in a call to Moen's Lake Resort, reached a crude character, Mr. Fred Riesberg, Senior, who claimed no knowledge of the affair, asked why the Student couldn't pay his own fare, and begrudgingly let himself be billed for the ticket. Once on the train -- how he loved trains, and this one, heading for the wild fishing lakes of Wisconsin -- he was again happy.
They headed into the cutover country, once a splendid blanket of virgin timber, now scrub growth; still, he hardly knew the difference. As for the settlements, put them together with the woods and give them back to the Menominee and the Wisconsins. No authentic Rhinelander would have his namesake: low charm, low culture, low life-style; only an anthropologist could love the settlements, while for half a century now the populace had been assuring each other so angrily how superior they were to what they had left behind in the Old Country that they were self-anaesthetized, amnesiac, place-proud. He loved it all: the trucks clacked over the rails "lake-Tree, lake-Tree, lake-Tree..!"
He hardly knew Fred Junior at the University; he knew Jack Bracken who played clarinet in the Band and Jack had asked him whether he would like to join him as a waiter at the summer resort of Fred's father. The wages: $7.00 per week plus board and room and tips. What could one lose, he would save at least enough to pay the $50 of his tuition come October, and how the Student loved the woods and lakes! The trumpet went with him everywhere; it had nothing to do with the job.
The job was no picnic! Jack was as awkward as they come, inexperienced in the kitchen, and on the slow side; he was very large, handsome, taciturn, kept to himself on the other side of a partitioned long room, this being the second floor of a shack below which slept the maids, two plain-looking country girls dressed in the flowered stuff of the Montgomery Ward Catalogue. The two waiters, Jack and himself, served twenty tables, more or less; if the occasion demanded more tables, they brought them in and attended them too.
Luckily, when he arrived, no more than a dozen tables were in use by Guests of the Resort. Still he was scolded for being late by Fred Senior, Aunt Hattie Riesberg, and Chef Josephe Solaire, respectively responsible for the whole Resort, the Service, and the Cuisine. He was, of course, not late at all, but they were of the type of born scolders, the disgruntled drunk of an owner, the hulking old Swedish maiden Aunt, and the black frenzied Haitian. And Jack, who had arrived a week before, had been annoyingly both clumsy at his tasks and imperturbable to reproach.
The work was interminable. A lady from the State Government stopped by one day on an inspection tour to find out whether their hours were excessive, their wages too low, and their working conditions too severe. After hearing their confidential testimony that all of these were the case, she left and was never heard from again.
At six o'clock of a morning Jack and he were up and at it. They put bottles of fresh water upon the tables, memorized the menus that the fickle cook had settled upon for the day, opened up the doors leading upon the Lake and let in a breeze from the rear windows. Screens, of course, covered all openings, but they had to go about swatting the insects that had broken in during the night. They ate breakfast, a good one, May, the Chef's wife, saw to it: oatmeal, bacon and eggs, pancakes with 90% phony maple syrup, toast butter and jam, coffee with sugar and cream. Ordinary food like this cost almost nothing in Wisconsin in 1937, besides which it was the birthright of everyone to eat a big breakfast. If the first Guests came in during their own breakfast, they immediately stopped, wiped their mouths, buttoned up their white jackets, and walked briskly through the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the dining room. The table had already been set the night before. It was necessary to say "Good Morning!" to exchange small talk, and fill the water glasses. Then came the ordering.
Breakfast in America is the most complicated meal to serve, and it is a pain to cook, too, because the cook must satisfy every nuance of individual taste. You can tell much about an American's character by observing the details of his breakfasting. A great roast for dinner, or a grand Irish stew, or fried chicken or prawns, with the roast potatoes and canned peas, or the tomato and lettuce salad with Heinz mayonnaise, or the boiled polished white rice and butter, or the brussel-sprouts and mashed potatoes: all of these could be readily prepared ahead of time or mostly so; it was table d'hote; as an entree there was a canned soup or some slivered celery and carrots, perhaps some canned asparagus with mayonnaise sauce by a fancy name, and following the main course the Guests would be served ice cream or a fruit pie or both, and, to top it off, coffee would be poured into the cups that had stood all the while upside down on their saucers, while the diners sipped from glasses of tap water with ice cubes. There were also barbarians who drank coffee from beginning to end of the meal. To extend the complications of this main meal of the evening would only bore you.; they were few.
And the lunch was even simpler. In the first place, there were not so many people to serve. They went out optimistically to fish, and, whether the fish were biting or not, there was an urge to keep on fishing and skip lunch. Too, one could go venturing to other places, historic landmarks where an Indian and a Frenchman had slit each other's throat in 1781, where the first party of German immigrants had collapsed in holy horror at what lay ahead, and, more entertainingly, the biggest bar in the Lakes Region, the smallest lake, the biggest lake, the lake where the biggest muskie had been caught (in 1929), the shores of cold Lake Superior, greatest of the Great Lakes and only sixty miles due North, and other such attractions that would keep them from arriving back for lunch. If they could not imagine such an expedition, they need only ask their waiter, who would in any event be considerate enough to suggest the enormous possibilities of adventure that lay within a day's distance from Moen's Lake.
But now breakfast. That's another story. Steaming hot coffee might be ordered once or several times in the course of the meal, which began with juice or fruit, continued with hot or cold cereal (one of a dozen crispy, crunchy, gritty, flaky hoked-up grains whose Brand names had fans as loyal as those of the Milwaukee Baseball Team, half of whose members had endorsed one or the other cereal), and moved into the main course which to the foreign eye may appear to possess a certain sameness, but which has infinite nuances each the fetish of a particular guest. Take the egg: one, two, or three; boiled, fried, or scrambled; if boiled, one minute, three minutes, five minutes; if fried, both sides, sunny side up, well done or lightly; a particularity to butter as the medium was to be respected, but the chef used bacon grease ordinarily or lard, and resented a butter order which forced a change of pan, so he would snap at the Waiter who had more than once brought back the eggs fried in butter but tasting slightly of another fat to the occasional fussy connoisseur; scrambled eggs presented the same problem, and these, too,might be ordered wet or dry; then came the bacon, which could be ordered crisp or not, or if not bacon, ham, or perhaps sausages, or corned beef hash, or none such; Furthermore, toast was prescribed, allowing four types of bread or a sweetroll, and three types of cooking: light, medium and well-done; with or after these came the pancakes, which could cool rapidly unless kept in the oven but then grew limp; and, with these, butter and the small jugs of "maple" syrup; then coffee once more.
You may not have quite realized that there have already surfaced seventeen variable egg dishes, the failure to produce timeously and correctly any one of which marks an, incompetent,a foreigner, even a possible traitor. After which enter the complications of the meats and the breads; my algebra ends with well over 200 choice combinations. The menus of Chinese restaurants, which make so many dishes out of so few basic materials, might be outdone by the American breakfast menu if this were ever to be reduced to writing.
With all this went the table talk, for Americans on vacation in the archetypical resort like to feel at home, exchanging pleasantries, gossip, medicinal therapy, and tall tales of big fish and long drives North or West with the waiters or anyone else within hailing distance.
One tableful came in from Chicago for several days, who were belatedly recognized by the Riesbergs as Jews, whereupon a sporadic discussion paralogized whether there had occurred a lapse in age-old exclusionary custom for which the Riesbergs should feel guilty. The Student opined that they were only behaving as normal people should, and reported furthermore that the Guests were conducting themselves nicely. Once again he noted that these had an interest in his being a Student, a different species than the animals about, a special interest that he was at the University of Chicago, and then, they, Guests and Waiter, talked of the subtly-perceived signs of anti-semitism at the Resort.
There came afterwards a handsome couple who also found a friend in the waiter, and who had an uncommon worldliness, he by the fact that he gave the Student a generous tip of two dollars every several days, that he demanded his eggs be scrambled in butter and no fooling (he sent them back, to the rage of Josephe), that he was working the territory and an even larger one as a salesman for Wrigley's Chewing Gum Company (whose owner possessed also the Chicago Cubs Baseball Team!), and that his wife, this John Caldwell's wife, Mildred, was an infinitely sinuous and sexy dame, dressed to the nibs, with bright brown eyes and glossy black hair. They talked regularly of the state of the world. He went out to sell. She bathed and sunned.
Affairs take a while to germinate. And a smart man like John Caldwell supersalesman knows just how long. One evening, without apparent reason, the Student found himself strolling along a path beside the Main Lodge where the Caldwells had their rooms and met Mildred Caldwell. It was evening and she had been with her husband at the bar where she had in fact left him to go out. Hardly a word was said before they clasped each other as tight as twin plums and kissed. They separated and she went up her stairs without saying a word. He followed her. They met again in the hallway and stood there embracing for as long as it takes to exhaust a great bubble of sucking and swishing and plunging air. He had a mouthful of black hair from her slender neck and a handful of lifted petticoat when she pulled away, saying, "Watch out, not now," and gave him her big smile and he staggered down and slunk into the shadows. Physically tired, as usual, he slept, but not before figuring out the exact method by which he would find her in the hot mid-afternoon of his freedom. Maybe, too, he could row her into a hidden cove that he knew -- but, no,everyone would see them leaving and returning.
No matter, for he was up against a man of experience. The next morning, John Caldwell appeared cool of manner. The same night the usual tip was not forthcoming. The next afternoon, John and Mildred Caldwell, the Resort's snazziest couple, departed.
The Riesbergs didn't like it, but he rode their horses anyway, in keeping with a promise of Fred, Jr., upon their first meeting. They were tended by a little girl called Sis, who wore boots and a pith helmet, and was well-stacked and smiled bluely, warmly, through thick glasses. Hardly had he learned to ride when he decided that to gallop was de rigueur among Hollywood dream cowboys like himself. He went running over rough ground heedlessly and his horse tripped and tossed him neatly over his head, the classic fall, the somersault, the sitting upon the ground wonderingly, the elation of being still whole, the looking backwards to the horse, who was standing there, head down, looking at him! She was a shapely and solid grey beast, looked like Sis, he thought. Smelled better than Sis. Sis was cute, but the Parisian perfumeries had not yet persuaded society of the seductiveness of sweating horse smell.
One guest complimented the Student on his swimming ability, which was demonstrated daily off the wooden pier between two and four in the afternoon when the exhausting routine had paused before the dinner call, and said "I betcha you can swim across the Lake," and hearing a "Sure thing" in response, offered to accompany him in a rowboat in case he began to founder. They left at the crack of dawn so as to get back to serve breakfast; the student was in a hurry, made it easily to the other side, and speaking up to the rower, said, "Is it all right if I swim back?", then proceeded back at a good pace, almost entirely by the breaststroke, and upon arriving triumphantly suffered the congratulations of the puffing sore-armed rower and several bystanders to be interrupted by old Aunt Hattie, who sharply reminded him that his services in the kitchen were sorely missed. She was the original spoil-sport, but how hard she worked and that brother of hers, old Fred, how he drank and raised hell around the place, nor was there any Mrs. Riesberg to be seen, she having left for parts unknown and replaced at this time by a fine-looking woman of a certain age.
This one had plenty going for her still, "Frenchy" Duvall, who had functions in the social end of things well out of reach of Aunt Hattie. The only time she appeared in the kitchen was when she came running through the cluttered area as a kind of obstacle to keep the fierce and bellowing Fred Senior from catching up with her and beating her up. Old Fred was having difficulty getting his girth through the aisles of pans and stoves and sinks, but to make matters worse the Student took it in mind to call a halt to the proceedings and implanted himself in front of charging Fred.
"Stop it!" he commanded.
"You can't beat up a woman like that!"
"Who says I can't?" inquired the Boss.
Old Fred glowered at him, shook his head from side to side like a confused bull, "Well, she deserves it,..I don't know. You mind your own business."
He shambled out. The kitchen staff, Chef Josephe, Fred, Chef's woman May, Chef's helper Billie Jason, said not a word and tried not to notice his passage. Afterwards they argued about how long the Student would last. Actually, although their arguments were impressive, the incident built the Student deeper into the structure of the resort; tally it up: Frenchy, whose life had not been without its ups and downs, who owned some larger notoriety, was the kind of woman who would be most grateful to a cavalier; the blacks, so habituated to injustice and suppressed whenever they were inclined to take a public stance, were secretly pleased and impressed, particularly quiet handsome black May with whom the Student kept up a respectful relationship -- he loved a warm, uncomplaining, hard-working woman, who insensibly conveyed a reserve against machoism white or black -- despite the mad jealousy of Josephe, who was not above brandishing his huge razor-sharp cleaver at anyone who offended him, claiming all the while "I'm Haitian, I'm not like these ordinary nigras. We got the worse tempers in the whole world, and we ain't responsible for what happens!". Old Fred behaved himself for a while, took a drink or two less, and that served the general welfare, too.
In fact, I think old Fred did not resent the Student: No one was hurt, no one acted contemptuous of anybody, and Frenchy was even nicer to him afterwards. Anyhow Fred had in the Student a good worker and larger plans in mind. He asked Jack and him to work the tables at the Big Lodge on Saturday nights where a fiddler and a piano played country music, or what else can you call a squeaky thumpy melange of Wabash Cannonball, Springtime in the Rockies, Trink - trink- Brüderlein trink, and Some one of these Days You're gonna miss me, Honey.
The Guests came in and a lot of local traffic from Rhinelander and other resorts around, each lake having its one or more spas and there being a hundred lakes within a hundred miles around, you could splash your way from one to the other. The tables would fill up with drinkers and the waiters, Billie Jason, Scotty Burns, Jack Bracken, Freddie Jr. and the Student composing the lot, would receive five bucks for the night and that was it, plus their tips, and they made change out of their own money and they had better not make a slip or else they would be the ones who paid for it, and, of course, it would be the Student who slipped -- else why would I tell the story? -- so that when this noisy, smart-alecky young gang around a table got high, and he had been serving them gin fizzes and cuba libres he noticed he had short-changed himself by a couple of bucks, but when he went back to claim the money the guy who held it denied it, and an argument ensued. The Student retired to the bar fulminating and demanding what he should do to retrieve the money and readying himself for another confrontation because he hated to lose out on anything, especially money right now -- and this is what I mean about old Fred: he generously replaced the missing money for the Student's pocket and told him to never mind the bastards and take another table, and so the incident passed with the Student earning a few dollars of the evening.
They went out after the dance, he, Scotty, and a couple of girls from one of the tables. He had practically never drunk alcohol, had just smoked his first cigarettes -- what an amazing seizure, those first drags! -- had hardly known such stupid people, but this was his night for unprincipled and unguided learning, for, to boot, he had hardly ever driven a car; but the girl who owned the car felt that it was a man's job to drive, so, gay from a pint of sloe gin, he lit a cigarette, took over the steering wheel, and headed into the darkly silhouetted and curvaceous hills, swinging the wheel helter-skelter at the asphalt as it dimly offered itself to his eyes.
"Are you sure you can drive?" she asked incredulously.
They survived. One would think that he would be frightened and ashamed forever. He wasn't. The same vices and perils failed to turn up in the same combination again, that's all. He did give the car keys to Scotty on the pretext of getting into the back seat with the girl.
The same Scotty was a pain in the ass. A perky, curly blonde, sturdy lad from Northwestern University, he thought he had to sing "Wave the Flag for Old Chicago," in a Yiddish accent, nothing personal, mind you, for Scotty wouldn't fight; he just joked aggressively. He cleaned the cottages with Jim Daugherty, another gem, this one a local rough-cut, also inclined to joke and sneer, more crudely than Scott, such that the Student called him out one night back of the Main Lodge when he threatened to "beat your brains out," and he slunk away into the shadows of night. With this, the Student began to imagine that he possessed some stigmata that would face down ruffians.
When he saw a poster advertising a barn dance at a nearby resort, he decided to attend and got Billie Jason to go along with him. He liked Billie better than the others. Billie was affable, modest, and an admirable physical type all-around. They had a drink, hitched over to the place, and, what with one things and another, and there being little in the way of dancing, the Student began to exchange dirty looks and growls with several types across a counter.
"Hey, Billie," he said, "look at those guys; they think they're tough, eh?"
Now Billie was probably twice as strong and fast as anybody in the barn -- which is why the Student felt confident and was sniffing the air for action -- but Billie was smarter than he was and knew that they'd better get out while the getting was good, "C'mon, le's go." The Student got the point: he might be able to bluff his way out at any stage of the action, but a black man wouldn't get a break. He wondered whether they should dive through the windows, but that would be to admit something had happened that hadn't -- not yet. So he led and they sidled out along the wall nonchalantly, while the others hesitated, until they entered the darkness, and then walked fast and far to find a ride home. Which goes to show, as they say, that there is more to surviving in the real world than the best of schooling can afford.
For the next Saturday night's entertainment old Fred announced around and about the area an Amateur Night -- when every tootler, drunken singer, imitator of movie stars, tap dancer, and ballroom couple were invited to perform. The mellow tones of the practicing trumpet had wafted to his hairy ears, also, and he specially asked the Student to perform, even though it seemed to the Student that he would be a ringer, stepping off the floor and out of the waiter's role to play songs. Nevertheless old Fred was most enthusiastic and hopeful, and wanted to know what the Student could possibly play to entertain the crowd. They settled upon "Stardust," which the Student thought to be one of his more effective renditions, and "Melancholy Baby" which was old Fred's favorite -- "Will you be my Melancholy Baby, Cuddle up and Hold Me Tight? " The evening came and at the appropriate moment when they were running out of contestants from the floor (of course it was understood that, no matter what, the Student, as employee, would not be eligible for the prizes, the candy and wine), the Student went back of the bar and fetched out his horn and came to the fore and blew away with a few chords from the piano: "Sometimes I wonder why ta ta ta tahtah tah.. dreaming of a song, the melody haunts my reverie, the stardust of a song.." and, man, use that great Louis Armstrong ending, run it up to culminating high "C" at the end instead of quitting low down. Great applause! Calls for an encore, too.
So then "Melancholy Baby," maudlin, stretching into tenderness, pulling out those last measures of longing for "yoooouuuuu!" More applause, old Fred red-faced, in his cups, nostalgic and enchanted. He couldn't wait for next Saturday when he might hear it again. He made sure it would be played no matter what. And so it went week upon week until, when the Student announced that it was time for him to leave Moen's Lake Resort, old Fred was sad and asked, "Can't you stay for a couple of weeks more?"
"But there isn't much work to do in the dining room, Mr.Riesberg."
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter, there's always something to do."
"Nah, I think I had better get back and get ready for college. I'm sure sorry to leave."
So he sang out beautifully "Melancholy Baby" once more, with an extra repeat for Old Fred, who was on the verge of tears and so sorry to see him go, and with him the summer, the fall and the long winter, and what to do with oneself, with no one at the bar, and the shadows of the pines long on the Lake before the afternoon is half over.
Besides, the Student had an arrangement for his return. He had just met a woman out of nowhere, Sharon O'Grady, who owned a late model Studebaker coupe, was sophisticated and a beauty from face to ankle, who kissed him with a fullness of passion, sending him into a mighty state of heart-thumping and sexual excitement, and promised to drive him back to Chicago, where she intended to go anyway. But wouldn't you know, in the end she said she had to change her plans, and he wound up on the train for Chicago, sexually frustrated once more. He did love trains, though, and he had $200 cold cash in his pocket to show for the summer's work.