Wednesday, June 16, 2010


There is, of course, more of the "Johnny" story to come. (Whether anyone is reading it, I am leaving up to the Fates and their sisters, the Whims.) But I had to make note of today's Sound.

Home from shopping, hot and sore a-foot, I plopped before the computer and signed on You-Tube for a tad of refreshment. Who would it be? Ah well, Callas. "Casta Diva."

It was glorious, of course. But the whipped cream on the scoop of delight was reading some of the comments by other Tubers, some notes in Italian, one in Russia, one in (I think) Finnish, and one in English from a Greek, who was proud to share Callas' heritage, and told us that every time she swam in the clear blue Aegean, she could feel Callas in her ears, because La Diva had requested her ashes to be dispersed in those waters. Oh, my.

A great muchness of our modern electronic trappings irritate and intimidate me. But connecting for a moment with a dozen or so other lovers of the Callas gift, across time and boundaries, penetrating language bars and barriers, in such a blood and bone, nerve-ending level of our human lives, well, that renders some of the other annoyances very minor key indeed.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

CHRISTMAS SURPRISES (the Johnny series continued)y

I don't know what kind of teacher Jim was. And I certainly couldn't judge his results from my contact with Johnny and Beverly. Their minds were molded long before he pranced up to their front doors.

I could understand where Beverly got her hot-house nuturance. Her father, Sterling, taught high school history, and directed a church choir somewhere in town to earn a few extra dollars. In his dark, cramped back bedroom, he accumulated an expensive hi-fi system and stacks of records, which he played behind closed doors and at an lower and lower volume, under pressure from Mrs. W. He was enamored of Zinka Milanov, a Metropolitan diva of great renown. It's clear to me now that music was Mr. W's air hose, the one thing that kept him from drowning in the murky, submerged world of his wife's household.

Beverly had a high thin voice, pleasant enough for the gentle folk songs he occasionally sang. Her parents had bought her a small dulcimer, and with her long, pasty-white fingers she would weakly pluck away and trill about Barbara Allen or Lord Randall. Beverly's hands were pale and weak, yes, but also beautifully shaped, with well-tended fingernails (polished in natural shades only). The rheumatoid arthritis that had twisted and knotted Johnny's hands beyond usefulness had left Beverly's intact.

Unlike her father, Beverly did not give her heart to an opera diva, nor t a handsome tenor. No.

Nor did she settle on a popular balladeer--Sinatra, Perry Como, or one of the young pompadors such as Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vale, Fabian. No. Her heart flew out of her delicate, unfledged body straight to a local guitar picker and singer, Lonny Hendrickson, who played around town in various bands and had, at 21, his own half-hour television show.

I was there on Christmas Eve the year Beverly was eighteen and at full boil about how wonderful Lonny Henrickson was. She had learned several of his sad-sack ballads and would croon them softly while brushing her ill-tempered Peke, Boo-Boo, or applying a fresh coat of lacquer to her perfect, unendangered nails. Her father had developed a full litany of put-downs on Loony, as he persisted in calling the singer, and after delivering these, he would walk out of the living room shaking his head, and seeking the rarer air of his bedroom and the comfort of the oxygenated Milanov.

This particular evening, however, Mr. W. was very present in the living room, tinkering with the lights on the enormous tree Beverly always insisted on having, or bringing Johnny and me more perspiring bottles of Dr. Pepper. He was even talking animatedly to Boo-Boo, who regarded this unusual attention with breed-standard Oriental coolness. Mrs. W. was actually in the kitchen, getting reacquainted with that room and , God help us, baking, or doing a no-oven version of baking. As I recall, the piece de resistance of the evening involved combining Rice Krispies, marshmallows, peanut butter and possibly molasses in a baking dish and then quick-freezing the glop for thirty minutes. An alien in the kitchen, Mrs. W was producing a steady, non-festive clatter of falling pans, slamming door cupboards, sharp yips whenever Boo-Boo get underfoot, and an occasional shrill shriek.

"Mother?" Beverly would call when the din grew too loud.

"Du calme, Beverly, du calme. I am rising to the occasion, never fear!" She enjoyed reminding us that Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she rather uncannily resembled in appearance if not in character) was also quite hopeless in the kitchen.

Johnny and I didn't mind the noise, but we were nervous about the possibility that we would have to eat whatever resulted from this rare "rising to the occasion." Johnny was far too polite to refuse any food he was offered. I, being ambulatory, could always pocket an inedible creation, disappear into the bathroom and dispose of the problem there.

Mr. W. continued to tinker and wisecrack in the living room, so restless as to seem a tad intoxicated. Since the man drank nothing stronger than sanka in public, if Zinka's cherished records shares space with a flask of something back in those dim recesses. Mr. w. actually giggled a time or two. Good heavens! Were Jimmy Joe's tics contagious?

Then the doorbell rang.

The doorbell never rang at the Wainwright house. No one came through the gate and up the broken porch steps. In fact, once I saw a small, hand-written sign thumb-tacked by the bell, reading, "DO NOT RING BELL! Sickness here! Please phone if absolutely necessary." (No phone number was offered.) Some years passed before I figured out that the sign was probably there to slow down bill-collectors.)

"Now WHO could that be?" said Mr. W., much too cheerfully. He looked around at us with wide, dramatic eyes. Did he expect the three of us (at eighteen, remember) to shout "Santa Claus!"?

He paused to let the excitement mount. When it didn't, he flung open the door.

Lonny Hendrickson stood there with a large box in his hand.

He wore Levis, a Western shirt, a bright red vest with mother of pearl buttons, and a fringed buckskin jacket. He and Mr. W. wore smile-for-the-camera grins. Beverly, Johnny, and I were frozen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

O-HO, JIMMY JOE: Graduation Night

Johnny and Beverly didn't have any "graduation" as such--they had simply finished the curriculum set for that semester, had taken and of course passed their tests, and received, via Jim but signed by higher-ups, their high-school diplomas. All four of us felt that some ceremony, however slight, was called for.

Even the word "slight" overstates it. But we did out best. Somehow, Jim and I, quietly supported by Johnny, had persuaded Beverly's mother to let her come out in the Nash for a trip to a drive-in for a hamburger and milk shake. I think we only got her permission because she couldn't figure out how SHE could accompany us in a single car. Mrs. Wainwright's absence from the outing made it special, made it even slightly dangerous, uncharted and uncaptained. Lord knows Jim was no captain; I was the original mutineer, and as for Johnny. . . . Well, Johnny was one of the few people I have ever known who was indeed captain of his own soul and, at the same time, totally free of the need to officiate in the lives of others.

So we set off for a drive-in a few miles from home base. Ours would have been a pallid celebration indeed, except that that particular evening was also Prom Night at two local high schools. The streets were full of carloads of seniors, coming and going; old, battered Chevies were packed with boys in alien tuxedos and girls in ballooning prom gowns, skirts billowing up and all but obscuring the drivers' view of the road. Car windows were down that balmy Tucson spring evening, and kids called back and forth to each other, merrily to classmates, jeeringly to enemies from the rival school. Some seniors were looking forward to college in the fall, either at the University of Arizona in Tucson (the Wildcats) or at the State College (not yet Arizona State University) in Tempe (the Sun Devils). Yells resounded: "Get lost, Wildcats!" "Go back to Hell, Sun Devils!" Students who didn't yet know how to find a restroom on their future campus were nonetheless, on that night, rabid loyalists, fierce and proud.

The fever got to Jimmy Joe, who began leaning out his window and screaming, "I'M A RAMBLING WRECK FROM GEORGIA TECH!" A block later, his cry was "HOOK 'EM, HORNS!" The more he yelled, the redder his face got, and the wilder his giggle. Not to be outdone, I rolled down my window and leaned out, pointing wildly at the tire on a passing car and calling, "YOUR WHEEL'S COMING OFF!" (Hot stuff from Dorothy Parker's would-be successor.)

Beverly, embolded in the dark back seat and untethered for the first time in years, rolled down her window and started waving her handkerchief at the passing cars. ("The Glass Menagerie" come to life before our very eyes.) Beverly's lovely strawberry blonde hair whipped around her face in the wind, and her soft, never-tainted-by-direct-sunlight complexion must have been a quick vision in oncoming headlights, for boys started calling back.


"TAMMY SUE!" she screamed, and waved her hanky again. She became drunk with her own daring. Johnny sank back against the seat, breathless with laughter and embarrassment. Mostly embarrassment.

We pretty much quieted down in the drive-in itself, no longer so bold, or so anonymous, with cars parked fender to fender around us and the occasional police car patrolling the perimeter on the watch for underage drinking. But Jim hissed in a stage whisper to alert us that both couples in the adjacent car were involved in heavy necking, as we called it then. In fact, what they were doing was clearly heavy duty "petting," but all four of us were too straight-laced to use that word in mixed company. We sat stiffly, facing the brightly lit interior of the drive-in, but we nearly injured ourselves trying to see out of the corner of our eyes whatever might be going on to our left. We were as curious as kittens.

We paid almost no attention to the burgers and shakes that had been the putative reason for the outing. Eventually, the car-hop came, Jim paid, our tray was removed, but still we didn't pull out. Then suddenly the steamy car beside us took off; then Jim followed at once.

And following was clearly what he had in mind. As the Pontiac ahead turned left and then right, heading further into the desert foothills, Jim kept with them. Beverly quickly rolled up her window and slumped down.

"What are you doing, Jim?" she whispered.

We could see every tooth in Jim's narrow mouth as he giggled.

"Don't!" Johnny said. In the Fifties, certain East Coast gangsters frequently spent their winters in Tucson, just like the Cleveland Indians baseball team. There had been several incidents , large newspaper banners, occasional unidentified bodies found in the dry riverbeds in Pima County. I guess if you're accustomed to dumping your victims in the nearest river, you continue that pattern, water or no. Saves on cement, perhaps. I could tell that Johnny was envisioning headlines as Jim shadowed the Pontiac north on Campbell Avenue.