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.

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