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.

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