Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub

Thursday, February 2, 2017

PINDELL HAS DIED

 
AN OBITUARY BY MARY ELIZABETH (LEACH) RAINES
© M. E. Raines, 2017

A while ago I got one of those phone calls you dread receiving. It started out, “I have some sad news…”
My caller told me that Pindell* was dead. He had died of a heart attack shortly before Christmas.
Here’s what Pindell’s obituary said: “Rick was a graduate of New England Conservatory of Music. He was a scholar, musician and a gentle soul.”
Rick? Who is that? We never called him Rick. We always called him by his last name: Pindell.
Pindell was the first genuinely crazy person I ever befriended. We were students at the New England Conservatory of Music together. I was a piano major, but I hung out with his crowd—the composers. This small knot of composition students at the conservatory were all guys, and they were all brilliant. Geniuses. While we did not have the words “nerd” and “geek” in our vocabularies back then, that’s what my friends were.
Pindell was the nerdiest and geekiest of them all. He was, as his obituary stated, a scholar, a musician, and a gentle man. He was also big, clumsy, funny looking, and weird, a guy with a complete lack of social graces who wore ill-fitting plaid shirts and thick glasses that were, just like the old cliché, taped together.
I have no problem with this. The reading glasses I am wearing right now as I type are duct-taped together.
Pindell and his friends, you see, were My People.

There are a few snippets about Pindell that stand out above all the rest. One memory is of a party at my sister’s apartment. At a time when most of us were still living in dorms, my older sister came to Boston and moved into an actual apartment. My friends and I thought that this was quite glamorous.
For some reason or another, she invited my friends to this party. I need to interject here that our parties were not anything like the college parties today. First of all, we rarely had alcohol. Secondly, while we did listen to a lot of music, the speakers weren’t very loud. Back then a person could always have a conversation in a normal tone of voice when music was playing, even at a prom. Our music was on vinyl, and what we ordinarily played were things like symphonies and operas. We didn’t smoke pot, either. We knew very little about it. The first time I ever heard someone say that she had smoked marijuana was at the end of my sophomore year (1967). I scarcely knew what the word meant; I had a vague idea that it was something illegal that the beatniks did.
Ours were the last of the days of innocence. The huge demonstrations and riots that welled up against the Vietnam War were still a couple of years away. The nearest we got to a riot was when a downtown Boston theater scheduled a 2:00 a.m. showing of the exciting new James Bond film, “Casino Royale.” As a publicity stunt, they announced that anyone wearing a trench coat could get in for free. Pindell, along with several of my other nerdy friends, donned their trench coats—because everyone had a trench coat back then—and walked to the theater. I had to get up early to open the school’s switchboard the next morning, and I remember how depressed I was that I could not accompany them.
Unfortunately, the theater had miscalculated, never guessing how many people would show up. Boston was a college town, the showing took place during a semester break, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do back then. Fifteen thousand kids, all wearing trench coats, showed up! Although I doubt that it was more than a little scuffle between a few of them, the newspapers reported that a riot broke out. My friends later told me that they were unaware of any riot. They were just standing in a massive crowd outside the theater, hoping against hope that they could get in to see the movie. They really liked James Bond. I still have the newspaper from the following day. On the front page of the Boston Globe is a picture of a police officer, his legs braced, holding back a snarling police dog who was on his hind feet, trying to lunge at a few of my terrified composer friends. The rioters. Including Pindell.
Back to my sister’s party. Her apartment had a bed in it and not much else. We all stood around the bed being jolly and party-ish. Pindell asked someone for a match, lit something that was not a cigarette, and began shaking it around. To my horror, I saw that it was a sparkler. (A sparkler is a hand-held firework that emits flames and sparks.) One imagines that Pindell, the party guy and former rioter, believed playing with sparklers would be a festive thing to do. I can still see him standing at attention, expressionless, dully waving his sparkler back and forth over my sister’s bed with the flames reflected in the thick lenses of his glasses, completely oblivious to the fact that several people were screaming at him to stop. The sparks from Pindell’s sizzling party toy burned several large holes in my sister’s bedspread, and the sulphurous smoke filling the room made us cough, but luckily the building did not catch on fire.

Another outstanding Pindell snippet occurred when a few of us went to a tawdry cafeteria across the street from the conservatory called Hayes Bickford’s. We went there often to hang out and chat. It was our version of a coffeehouse, a couple of years before hippie coffee houses came into their own. Hayes Bickford’s was the one place in Boston where street people, addicts, bums, the most wretched of the wretched, and, of course, students could go to get a cheap meal.
All of my friends were poor, and even at Haye’s Bickford’s low prices, we rarely ordered food; usually all we could afford would be a cup of coffee. We would stretch our cups of coffee out for hours on end as we sat at the cheap little tables and discussed music. The composer crowd always discussed music.
On this evening, our group sat down at a table that had not yet been cleared. In front of  Pindell sat a sloppy plate of leftover spaghetti and meatballs. Pindell picked up the used fork and began eating.
“Pindell,” I gasped. “What are you doing?”
He looked at me quizzically. He did not understand. “Eating,” he replied seriously. Then he turned his attention back to the plate in front of him, shoveling in forkfuls of the contaminated spaghetti with great gusto.
When he had cleaned the plate, he put his fork down and sniffed his armpits. Sniffing his armpits was something he was known to do. He didn’t try to hide the fact or to be sneaky about it. Pindell would raise one arm high in the air, duck his head, take a good strong whiff of his armpit, and then move to the other arm. Once again, it would have bewildered him had someone pointed out to him that this was just not done, so we didn’t bother. I will say this: his attentiveness paid off. He looked strange, but he never smelled bad.

I believe that, perhaps in compensation for some of his social difficulties, Pindell had a touch of the savant in him. Here’s an example. Like most of the rest of us at the conservatory,—especially the composers,—he had an enormous record collection. Once he and another friend named Herman were scheduled to give a talk in an advanced music theory class. Their presentation involved references to excerpts from a large number of compositions. In planning the talk, Pindell said that he would bring along his record player and records so that they could play the excerpts they would be discussing. Herman protested. He told Pindell that finding the exact spot to play on the record would chew up way too much time. One of the numerous short excerpts of music that they were going to reference in their talk, for instance, was from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” a five-and-a-half-hour-long opera!
Nevertheless, Pindell showed up on the day of the talk carrying a huge stack of records under his arm. Herman began to speak to the class, and when he mentioned the first musical excerpt, Pindell, who already had the record in question spinning on the turntable, lifted the needle and miraculously placed it on the precise spot where the measures being referenced began. Herman was astonished.
After Pindell repeated this with five or six different records, the teacher exploded. “What is going on? A magic show?” the teacher demanded.
Pindell did not understand the instructor’s excitement. Afterwards, Herman said to Pindell, “That was amazing! You must have spent a long time practicing where to place the needle for all those different pieces.”
Pindell was bewildered. “Why would I need to rehearse something like that?” he said. Locating exact segments of music on a record was something he had always been able to do. He was quite surprised to learn from Herman that not everyone possessed this ability!

The most poignant memory I have of Pindell occurred at that same party with the sparklers. When it was a little later in the evening and the smell of sulpher had dissipated, Pindell took me aside and told me that he had something to say. He then professed that he had feelings for me. His words sounded rehearsed. Stunned, I told him the truth as sweetly as I could: I was not attracted to him, and my feelings for him were more like the feelings one has for a brother. He took it well and it did not interfere with our friendship. While I was a little disturbed by his revelation—Pindell was crazy, after all—I was also moved and flattered. It took immense courage for him to share his feelings with me.

We lost touch after our conservatory days. Several years passed. The world began to change. Almost overnight taking drugs became commonplace, there were massive protests against the war in Vietnam, boys let their hair grow long, profanity became commonplace, kids largely stopped bathing, and a new group of people my age sprang up called hippies. It was then that I bumped into Pindell. It would be the last time that I ever saw him.
I was walking down a street in Boston. He was going the opposite direction from me. He looked wildly different. He looked, well…normal. He had lost weight, he was dressed neatly in professional clothing, his hair was expertly groomed, he had on a nice pair of glasses, and his eyes no longer darted here and there in the glazed, crazy way I was used to. No, he made pleasant eye contact and there was expression on his formerly wooden face. Even his voice and posture had shifted. This was not a man who would interrupt a conversation to sniff at his armpits.
“Pindell,” I exclaimed. “What’s happened to you?!”
He smiled in a benign, knowing way. “Two things,” he said. “Both of them have completely changed my life.”
“What two things?” I asked eagerly.
“I began taking LSD regularly, and then I discovered that I am actually a transvestite,” he confided. “I’m a different person now.”
Pindell is the only human male on the planet who has ever became normal and sane by taking LSD and wearing women’s panties.
Rest in peace, Pindell. I’m glad I knew you.

------

Please enjoy Mary Elizabeth Leach’s newest collection of short stories, now available in paperback and for Kindle, “The Man in the GPS and OtherStories”

*Pindell's name has been changed out of respect for the family that survives him. All the incidents and places related, however, including our friendship, are true.


Monday, January 30, 2017

VIRGINITY, ALCOHOL, MURDER.....AND ME


I suppose I could have had a wild party the weekend that my parents went away and left me home alone. Most teenagers who have an empty house to themselves would do that. Wild parties, however, weren’t my style. My idea of the most outrageously fun thing to do? I decided to cook a gourmet dinner for a couple of friends. Little did I suspect that alcohol and murder were afoot.
As for the virginity part of this title, let’s clear that up right now. Yes, I was, and so were my guests, but our dearth of sexual experience had absolutely nothing to do with the ensuing story. The virgin in question was not even a person. It was an appliance. A brand-new stove had been delivered to our house shortly after my parents’ departure. Nobody had ever cooked on it before. 
The stove was a virgin.
(Keep reading. I promise that this isn’t a cooking blog, and eventually you will get to the alcohol and murder bits.)
My father was a minister, my upbringing was strict, and my girlhood had been sheltered and naïve—well, up until the weekend in question, anyway. The year was 1965. I was a senior in high school, and I loved to cook! I couldn’t wait to break in the untouched stove; thus my decision to create an elegant feast.
The two friends I invited to join me for this splendid dinner were juniors in high school who were a year younger than me: clean-cut Janet, and even cleaner-cut Fred (not their real names). (Since those are not their real names, you know that trouble lurks ahead!) Fred, an excellent musician, was one of my piano students, for I was an accomplished pianist even in high school. This will be important later on in the story.

We planned to feast by candlelight. I felt incredibly sophisticated. The April night air hinted at romance, a perfect setting for our elegant dinner. Roast beef was the main course, for I was not a vegetarian in those days. It was the first roast I had ever baked.
As I removed the baking pan from the new oven, Janet lit the candles, and I carved the meat in the flickering candlelight. The meal was a superb, if cholesterol-laden, experience, and the three of us agreed that it was the best roast beef any of us had ever eaten.
Much later, when I turned on the lights in the kitchen, I saw to my astonishment that the roast was nearly raw. To say that I had cooked it would be a gross misstatement. We hadn’t known the meat was raw when we ate it in the dim light of the candles, however, and it had tasted fantastic.
Who knows? Perhaps our wicked scheme was provoked by the pagan stimulus of the bloody meat…or maybe it came about simply because we were three high school kids enjoying a rare evening without adult supervision.
We decided (hold onto your hats) to hike down the road so that I could buy some beer for us to drink.

I’d never had even a taste of beer in my life. My mother and father (the minister, remember?) were vehement teetotalers who believed that drinking alcohol was sinful. A lot of their prejudices are still imprinted on my hard drive. To this day, walking into a bar or a liquor store makes me feel slightly squalid and icky, the way most people feel about strolling into a porno movie or a so-called “adult” store.
I had just turned 18, and we lived in New York state where, in those days, it was legal for an 18-year-old to purchase and drink alcohol. Fred and Janet encouraged this scheme joyously, as they both had some experience with beer and were eager to imbibe.
The nearest place I could buy the beer was a little country store about two miles down the road. Fred, Janet and I would have to walk there. The store was located right next door to my father’s church office. After I purchased the beer, we planned to drink it along the side of the highway as we walked back home. The thought of doing this made me feel deliciously dangerous and wild.

It was not an uncommon sight in the 60s to see certain teenaged types walking along the roadside, swilling down alcohol. Very few of us had cars back then, so we walked on foot a lot more than kids today. The teens who drank on the sides of highways were not the nice kids. They were not part of my crowd. They were the tough kids. We called the tough kids hoods.
This is a "hood."
There were clear demarcations dividing the “nice” kids from the hoods. You could easily tell who belonged to which group by their appearance.
Take the guys. While nice guys had regular haircuts, hood boys wore their hair in a highly-greased and distinct style: on the tops of their heads they either hosted stiff flattops, like little spiky patches of newly mown grass, or exaggerated pompadours, while the sides of their hair were longer and were slicked back to form what we called a DA. The initials DA stood for duck’s ass, which in more polite circles was called a ducktail
The uniform of the hood guys consisted of very tight black pants, button-down dress shirts, and white socks with loafers.
Actually, okay, that was the uniform of the nice guys, too. Except nice guys tended to wear more plaid and V-neck sweaters and mock turtlenecks, along with pocket protectors so that their ballpoint pens wouldn’t leak ink through their shirt pockets. Also, their pants weren’t as tight.
Jeans were against the school dress code. Nobody wore them unless they were washing a car. And since practically nobody had a car, jeans were hardly ever seen.
Here’s what the hood girls wore: tight blouses or sweaters, and tight straight skirts that were so short they almost revealed the girls’ knees! Showing one’s knees was a pretty racy thing to do, but the hood girls were always shoving up against the boundaries of good taste. It would be another year or two before the mini-skirt burst onto the fashion scene, and even longer before girls were allowed to wear slacks to school.
Most teenaged girls of my generation, including nice girls, liked to line their eyes with black eyeliner, a-la Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Cleopatra. Even I did that! Hood girls did, too, but of course they overdid it and applied their eyeliner far too heavily. Their faces were plastered with globs of pancake makeup in pinkish-orange tones that rarely matched their skin tone (or anyone’s skin tone), topped off with smears of nearly white, ghoulish lipstick.

We liked our eyeliner in the 1960s!

While many of us sported some variation of a hairdo called the beehive, hood girls once again overdid it. They spent hours in the girls’ bathroom at school ratting their hair obsessively into massive, ludicrous beehives reminiscent of the wigs worn in the court of Louis XVI (but without the social status, of course); they possessed special long-tailed plastic combs for the task.

Now, that's a beehive!
School bathrooms were the domain of the hoods. All hoods, male and female, smoked in the school bathrooms. And, of course, they walked down the sides of the highways at night drinking beer, as Fred and Janet and I were planning to do on our exhilarating spree.
        
Only a few scattered houses sat along the stretch of highway we traversed, and there were no streetlights or sidewalks, so we had to fend our way through the scrabbly weeds on the side of the dark road. We were exhausted and cranky by the time we arrived at the store, for it had become a depressingly damp and chilly night, the way spring nights can sometimes get, and our destination turned out to be a lot further away than we had thought. The store was housed in a run-down, dismal wooden building, the closest thing to a convenience store that we had in the 1960s.
My spirits, however, were slightly boosted by the scenario to follow. Janet and Fred, being younger, decided that it would be best if they waited for me outside the store, lurking in the shadows, while I sauntered in ever so casually to buy a six-pack of beer. A six-pack! Wow, did that ever sound tough to me! I was excited. This was a big deal.
“Just go and buy the beer, please,” said Fred. “Hurry. I’m cold.”
I entered the store as nonchalantly as I could, but the moment I stepped over the threshold, I was seized with a self-conscious panic. Maybe you have to grow up in a strict, religious family that prides itself on its abstention from alcohol to understand the extent of my panic. It was one of those panics that builds on itself: the more panicked I realized I was, the more panicked I became. The grumpy owner, sitting behind a counter, shifted his attention from his newspaper and squinted at me with what was clearly a disgusted look as I trod, footstep by noisy footstep, over the wooden-plank floors.
Where did they keep the beer? Could he see how nervous I was? Would my hands shake when I paid for the evil brew?
My mind began to spin more anxiously. When it came time to purchase the beer, the guy would undoubtedly ask to see my driver’s license. Naturally, he would notice that my last name was the same as my father’s. The minister. Whose office was next door! Oh dear, why hadn’t I thought of this before! The next time he saw my father, the surly shopkeeper would doubtlessly say, “Hello there, Reverend. I saw your daughter this weekend. She bought a six-pack of beer.”
What would I say to my father when he confronted me with this information? How could I explain? Why hadn’t this thought occurred to me before we set out on our quest? Like many other people of my generation, I was more terrified of my father’s wrath than just about anything. Fathers could be more wrathful in the 60s than they are allowed to be today.
My heart began to pound in horror at this imagined confrontation, as though it were banging frantically on the inside of my chest, begging to be let out. Trapped in a mounting state of self-consciousness, I found it curiously difficult to move, not unlike a cornered rabbit. My legs felt as though they were partially paralyzed.
‘C'mon. Get a hold of yourself,’ I thought. ‘Act like you’re just looking around.’
Breathing deeply, I shuffled stiffly over to the shampoo section, where I stood pretending to survey the various products as I composed myself. The store owner continued to watch me with a taut frown.
What was wrong with that man? Hadn’t he ever had anybody else in his store who was intensely interested in hair products?
And where, oh where, did they keep the beer? As I fingered the bottles of Breck and Prell shampoo, I glanced covertly around at the shelves and aisles. I didn’t spot any beer. Meanwhile, the store owner’s x-ray eyes were peering critically at me, watching every move I made.
Finally I snatched a bottle of cream rinse from the shelf. (Cream rinse was the name we used for what is now called conditioner.) Like a criminal hoping to appear normal, I felt that I would appear more innocent if I bought something unrelated to booze. I strolled toward the counter.
“Is that it?” the man demanded loudly. His voice made me jump. He sounded like he was yelling at me.
“No,” I gulped, flushing. “Do you have…um…any…um…”
Looking around frantically, I suddenly spotted something miraculous. I was saved! Right next to me, within arm’s reach even, stood a gleaming bottle of daiquiris! The sight made me giddier than a nun spotting a portrait of Jesus in her scrambled eggs!
I’d heard of daiquiris. They had alcohol in them. They drank daiquiris in the movies. There was a frosty picture on the label of the bottle showing an elegant cocktail glass brimming with the heady, tempting, frothy drink! How elegant it looked!



I made a fast decision. I would buy the daiquiris instead of beer. Surely Janet and Fred would rather sip on daiquiris than cans of beer! I knew that I would. Daiquiris were much more romantic. What a lucky find!
Rejoicing, I snatched up the bottle, steeled my nerves and turned back to the counter. To my delighted surprise, the guy never even asked to see my license. As soon as he had taken my money and put the cream rinse and daiquiri bottle into a brown paper sack, he returned to reading his newspaper. My luck was changing, and fast!
I emerged from the store triumphantly. As the screen door banged shut behind me, Fred stepped out of the shadows.
“My god, it took you long enough,” he exclaimed, his voice curdling with annoyance. Janet just huddled against the cold.
Triumphantly, I thrust the bag at her and watched as she uncrossed her arms and took it from me. First she pulled out the bottle of cream rinse. She held it up, staring at it blankly. It was pink.
“Cream rinse?” she said finally, her voice expressionless. “You got us cream rinse?”
“No, no, no,” I giggled, “that was just a decoy.”
Janet and Fred looked at me, not understanding. Both of them came from families who drank.
“So where’s the six-pack?” asked Fred.
“I got us something much better!” I crowed. “It’s in the bag. See for yourself.”
As Janet pulled out the bottle of daiquiris, I chortled with satisfaction.
Fred gazed at the bottle, dumbfounded. “I thought you were going to buy beer,” he said.
“But wouldn’t you rather have a daiquiri?” I replied gleefully. Sticking out my pinky, I pantomimed sipping from an imaginary cocktail glass.
Fred looked at me with astonishment, and then stepped closer. My piano student wasn’t smiling, and he was not making me feel comfortable. Carefully enunciating each word as though I were a very young child, he said, “You bought a bottle of daiquiri mix.”
“Yes,” I grinned, jiggling my feet around in a little happy dance. “Cocktails!” I pantomimed sipping again.
“No. Cocktail mix,” he repeated. “You got cocktail mix. Didn’t you know there’s no alcohol in cocktail mix? It’s just juice! You bought us juice.”
It took a minute for this to register. My happy dance stopped. All that effort had been for nothing. I couldn’t even mumble an apology.
With a disgusted tsk, Fred turned on his heel and stomped towards the store.
“Hey, where’re you going?” I called meekly.
He didn’t answer, and disappeared behind the screen door. Janet handed me back the cream rinse and stood there miserably, banging her arms across her body in an effort to get warm. She avoided eye contact with me.
Moments later Fred returned. He was holding a six-pack of Schlitz beer.
“Can we please go now?” sighed Janet. “It’s a long way back. I’m tired.”
“You’re only 17. How did you buy beer?” I asked Fred as we began heading back down the highway.
“They don’t care,” he said. “Don’t make such a big production out of it. It’s just beer, for god’s sake.”
        
I ignored their churlishness. It had been an awkward quest, but at last we were finally there! We were walking down the highway, being tough. Acting like hoods! I wished I had thought to put on a little more eyeliner.
The Schlitz beer had a brand-new device on it called a pull tab so that you could drink from the can without using a can opener. I had never used a pull tab before and didn’t know how. Fred had to open mine for me. Taking my newly opened can of beer from him eagerly, I took a quick swallow…and immediately winced. It tasted horrible! It was sour and bitter and sharp, like carbonated old dishwater with a tin-can pungency thrown in for good measure. This was what beer tasted like?
Maybe I was wrong. I took another sip. It was even worse than the first.
I couldn’t drink any more, and handed my can over to Fred. We continued our walk, shivering and kicking at weeds. Janet and Fred swigged on their beers in silence. There was nothing even remotely romantic about this.
“Damn,” I said, hoping that maybe swearing would help make me feel tough. It didn’t work.
Janet finished her beer only a short distance from my home, and handed me the empty can. Rather than carry it back, I tossed it onto the edge of the road. Like something a hood would do.

Aside: At that exact moment we were walking past the house of a high-school friend of mine from band who had a younger brother. 

Me in H.S. band with, yes, my bassoon, not looking especially cheerful.
This younger brother of hers was cute, but he was just a kid, so I never bothered to get to know him.
I think my friend became a psychiatrist. I’m not sure. I am sure about what happened to her brother, though. He became the head of a major film studio and for years was considered to be one of The Most Important People in the movie industry. As the author of several unproduced screenplays, I have more than once regretted the fact that I did not cultivate a relationship with this little brother person when I had the opportunity…but hey, who ever pays attention to their friends’ kid brothers, cute or not? Sigh.

So I tossed away the beer can. In those days littering was not illegal. It would be half a year before Ladybird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act. There were not yet any national campaigns to clean up litter, and few people saw much of anything wrong with throwing an empty can onto the side of the road—few, that is, except for my parents, who were outspoken opponents of the sad stretches of garbage which used to line our nation’s highways and parks and campgrounds. Our family took pride in cleaning up litter. They even had a motto! “Always leave a place better than you found it,” they would say as they cheerfully went about cleaning up debris from picnic sites, and national monuments, and…well, you get it.
Throwing that beer can into the bushes was a supreme act of rebellion. I expected to get a little buzz from it. I didn’t. As soon as I threw the beer can away, I felt lousy about it. I feel lousy about it to this day…that, and not getting to know the little brother occupying the house behind the bushes where I threw it.

Our party was deflated, and as soon as we got back to the parsonage, Fred and Janet left. Wearily, I brought the leftovers of my elegant dinner back into the kitchen and turned on the overhead fluorescent light. It was then that I saw that that the roast which we had eaten so rapaciously was bright red, with trickles of scarlet blood still oozing out of its sides.
As a vegetarian, I am shy about admitting this sordid aspect of my past, but thanks to that night, I developed a taste for very rare beef that stayed with me for the remainder of my meat-eating years. Sometimes I would even consume raw beef in the form of beef tartar...and I liked it.
I have, however, never acquired a taste for beer.

A year after our failed attempt to be hoods, when I was a college freshman, feeling much older and wiser (and no longer a virgin), I returned to my home town and visited Fred. Fred borrowed his father’s car and drove me to the beach, where we parked and talked and watched the ocean until it was past-due time for him to get the car back home.
Just before turning the key in the ignition, for some odd reason he kissed me. It took me by surprise. He looked at his watch, then at me, and kissed me again. And again. And again. We both liked it very much.
“Wow,” he exclaimed with regret as we drove back. “I never realized you were like this!
That was the last time I saw him. We said goodbye in a lusty daze, and I returned to college.
The next time I heard from Fred, I was in my 20s. He wrote me a letter. In it, he said that because of the musical coaching and encouragement I had given him, he was now traveling across the country on a nation-wide concert tour. He enclosed a program together with the glowing, ecstatic letter, in which he stated,  “Everything I am today I owe to you.”
Not long afterwards, so I am told, he got married. And murdered his wife. He shot her during an argument, and ended up in prison. I always hoped it wasn’t our spree of drinking beer on the highway that night that corrupted him.

© 2010 by M. E. Raines
Copying or reproducing in any form prohibited by law
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Sunday, January 8, 2017

THE VIOLINIST


by Mary Elizabeth Leach (Raines)

Her playing was ecstatic. Can a soul have orgasms? His did when he heard her music. He wanted to plunge himself into that ineffable rapture, to merge with it.

So he married her.

Every morning, upon awakening, even before coffee, she would single-mindedly grab her violin and begin her day-long practice. Morning sex was out of the question; in fact, so was any sex. Her violin case stayed in the bedroom with them. That instrument was her life, her sole focus. Him? He was as inconsequential as her toothbrush.

He'd thought he was marrying beauty. Instead, he married an obsession.


Story and illustration copyrighted 2017, M. E. Leach, All rights reserved

Like this story? Read more: The Man in the GPS and Other Stories by M. E. Leach, now available on Amazon.com.

Friday, June 24, 2016

THE MOVIE STAR WHO WANTED ME, AND HOW I WAS SAVED BY COMMUNISM

THE MOVIE STAR WHO WANTED ME
(AND HOW I WAS SAVED BY COMMUNISM)
by
MARY ELIZABETH LEACH RAINES


Wow! A movie star wanted me. Me!
And yes, I mean “wanted” exactly in the sense that you’re thinking.
I had never thought anything like that could happen to me, although I’d certainly dreamt about it. All of us—at least those with normal hormones and reasonable imaginations—have entertained the fantasy of having a romantic encounter with a movie star. Even movie stars themselves sometimes get crushes on other movie stars.
     Robert Redford (you’ve heard of him, right?) tells of a time when he was a starving young artist in Rome, before becoming an actor. He spotted Ava Gardner and her entourage in a restaurant, and went a bit gaga over seeing the famous temptress. Gardner noticed, called the smitten young man to her side, and gave him a little kiss. 
     In the films he's made since that time, Redford has kissed many of the world’s most desirable actresses, and in his private life he is happily married—yet, what does he talk about with a moony smile and a far-away look? Having a crush decades ago on a movie star who acknowledged him and actually gave him a smooch! We can all fall prey to fantasies about those we see on the silver screen, you see.
     And now it was my turn.

I had become the object of desire of my very own bona-fide movie star, whom I shall call Chad. Chad was a genuine star, too, not just some minor actor who’d spoken a few lines in a B film.

     Maybe you’re thinking Chad was ugly, and thus easy to get. I’m not superficial in the least, but hey, let’s get real: being attractive increases a person’s odds. Ava Gardner would probably not have summoned an unknown Karl Malden and given him a kiss. (For those who don't know, Karl Malden was a first-rate actor, now deceased, who possessed a bulbous nose and an unfortunate face.) Not every lead actor is good-looking, especially if he’s straight.
     My movie star, however, was both beautiful and completely heterosexual. In fact, he was so handsome that there were stories of women who’d keeled over and fainted when they saw him take off his shirt on the giant screen. Maybe a few guys, too. I presume that they fainted from lust, although, to be fair, the theater might have been overheated.
     All females know Chad’s type. You usually see him on the covers of romance novels: that kind of chiseled, masculine man who makes any woman passing by want to drop both her grocery bags and her pants, fling herself down on the sidewalk, open her legs and cry, “Take me now!”
     When he fell for me (hah!), Chad was definitely not a kid any more, but still gorgeous enough to cause massive major-league drooling. His thick hair was perfect, tousled to just the right aw-shucks degree, yet fitting for the finest black-tie affair. His clothing revealed just a bit of bare chest here, just a ripple of an arm muscle there. His lips seemed designed to curl around the rim of a champagne glass, and his charming grin revealed luminous white teeth befitting a toothpaste commercial. If he chanced to glance at a woman, his bedroom eyes twinkled as if he knew all her secret fantasies—and liked them.

In Chad’s most famous film, he’d had numerous love scenes with a well-known and very beautiful actress, whom I shall call Linda.
     “Chad,” I once asked him, “what was it like kissing Linda in all those romantic scenes you had together?”
     Well, I’ll tell you,” he replied slowly, a great big likeable grin spreading over his face. “The very first scene where we were supposed to be in a clinch was when we were sitting in a car. The cameras started to roll, so I kissed her. After the director yelled ‘Cut,’ Linda looked at me, looked again, and then turned to the cameraman and hollered, ‘Retake!’”

By this point, you are probably frantic to know all the finer details of the affair I had with Chad.
The movie star.

Except that I didn’t have one.
You see, by the time I knew him, Chad was nearly 90 years old. Granted, he was the hottest nearly-90-year-old man I’d ever met, but the age difference was still daunting. He could have been my grandfather.
     He had reached the pinnacle of his stardom during the 1940s. This explains why women in the cinemas fainted when they saw him shirtless. Women tended to do that more in the 1940s than they do now. Today a shirtless man would have to be playing a guitar and screaming into a microphone to get that kind of attention.

     Chad’s Hollywood career had been cut short because he was a member of the Communist party; he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and no one would hire him to star in any more films, or so he claimed.

     In addition to being a Communist, Chad tended be a little quirky. He was, for example, the only self-proclaimed nudist I have ever met. I personally never saw him strip down, but in his younger years, he apparently frequented nudist camps. (Which makes me wonder if Communists have nudist camps…hmm.)
     Another quirk was that Chad had once been what they called a Muscle Man. He worked out and lifted barbells long before it became popular to do so, and it certainly served him well in his senior years. His excellent physique was one of the reasons the producers wanted him to take off his shirt in the movies; he was just about the very first actor who ever did that.
I’d met Chad through our mutual friend, Bob, who happened to be my landlord in a funky little compound in Hollywood. A group of unusual film people lived in this compound, including a world-famous porn star, a professional Santa Claus, cameramen, actors, script supervisors—and me. We were all friends. There was a shared central patio where we would have picnics and parties. Chad, being Bob’s best friend, was welcome to any event we held.
     Even from inside my house, I could always tell when Chad had arrived, because I could smell the pot. Among his quirks, you see, my would-be boyfriend was what they call a stoner. An inveterate pot-smoker, he proudly grew his own marijuana and he would always light up a joint the moment he entered our patio. I personally hate illegal drugs, and am not even all that crazy about the legal ones. Everybody else in our compound pretty much stuck to booze to get their jollies.
     Except for Chad.
     Who was almost 90, remember?
He continued to smoke pot until one eventful Labor Day, when he showed up late for one of our festive outdoor potlucks. Squeezing into a seat next to me on the bench of the picnic table, he silenced everyone and then he made a dramatic announcement to the group:
     “Guess what, guys?” said Chad.
     “What?” I shouted. (Chad didn’t hear too well.)
     “I’ve stopped smoking pot!”
     “You’re kidding me!” I said.
     “Why would I be hitting you?”  he replied, confused.
     I raised my voice, shouting directly into his ear, “You really quit?”
     “Yeah, I did. I found out smoking pot is bad for my health.”
     We applauded boisterously, and everybody fawned over him for awhile. Meanwhile, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a big white handkerchief that contained a strange loaf wrapped in tinfoil. Was it some kind of weird hors d’oeuvre for the potluck? 
     While I was still wondering what this foil-wrapped goody was, Chad stuck it in his mouth and took a huge bite.
     “Yup, I stopped smoking pot,” he continued, looking very self-satisfied and chewing voraciously. “Now I eat it instead.”
     As the 13-year-olds say: Eeew.
     Perhaps Chad had misinterpreted the term POT-luck.

Chad and my landlord, Bob, were about the same age. Like Chad, Bob was a vehement Communist. The two had been friends for decades and both were deeply entrenched in the film business. Bob wasn’t a star, though. He had only done a little acting; his main job was as a script supervisor. He had been trained to do this by John Ford, and had worked with a long list of the giants of film, including John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart. And Chad, of course.
     Years ago, someone had given Bob a huge paper-mache head of the actress Bette Davis. The piece was worth a great deal of money, but Bob, being a good Communist, made a deliberate point of not paying attention to the material value of things.
     We had a metal stake in our patio garden and Bob worried that someone might trip and fall on it, so one day he brought out the huge Bette Davis head and placed it on top of the stake, kind of like a protective knob.
     “Bob,” I cried, “it looks like you’ve impaled Bette Davis’ head on a pike in the garden!”
     Bob had known the actress well. A strange smile crossed his face.
     “Good,” he said, and walked away.

Chad and Bob were quite serious about their Communism. They used to get together with a couple of other Hollywood geezers—a famous photographer and a well-known set designer—and the four old men would have meetings that involved a lot of lengthy and intense conversation, head-shaking, wine (pot for Chad), despair, and occasional yelling.
     These aging cronies, all of whom had been blacklisted to some degree or another by Hollywood, embraced Communism with the idealism of fresh-faced freckled Cub Scouts. I always suspected that if there were ever to be a Communist takeover, Chad and Bob would be among the first to be lined up against the wall and shot. Having a Communist for a landlord was very handy, however, so I didn’t complain. Communists—at least the naïve ones—feel guilty if they charge too much for rent, and they readily share things like appliances and household tools. I wasn’t about to rock the boat.
     Besides, it was Communism that saved me.
     Let me explain. Chad still hadn’t asked me out. He had told Bob of his lusty intentions, but I wasn’t supposed to know anything about his longings yet. I dreaded the day when he would reveal his passion to me, because then I would have to reject him. For all his quirkiness and marijuana, he was sweet and I didn’t want to hurt him.
     Chad, it turns out, had been taking prescription pills for high blood pressure. The medicine had an unfortunate side effect. It made him impotent. He confided in Bob that he was planning to discontinue his medication so that he could fulfill his manly duties with me. Unfortunately, doing so would seriously jeopardize his health. What to do? It was a dilemma.
     After Chad shared his secret with Bob, the latter naturally ran straight away to knock on the door of one of my friends in the compound and tell her the whole story. She, in turn, came right over to my house and told me.
     This is how I learned that a movie star wanted my body.

A week passed, and the day I’d been dreading finally came. Chad stopped by and asked if I would come outside and sit with him; he said that he wanted to share something with me. I walked to the patio with a sinking heart. Rejection stinks no matter which side of it you’re on. Bob was also waiting there. I sat between the two of them.
     Chad began to court me in earnest. His way of doing this was unconventional. As soon as I sat down, he grabbed a long, musty, yellowing piece of paper and thrust it under my nose.
     “Read this,”  he demanded. Then he sat back with an anxious sigh and waited.
      The paper he handed me must have been well over 50 years old. It had been painstakingly mimeographed, which is the way documents were duplicated in the days before copy machines, and it was crammed with columns of words, words and more words that had been typed in tiny crooked print extending nearly to the edges of the page. There were capital letters and exclamation marks sprinkled excessively throughout the narrow columns. I’d guess that about 2,000 words had been jammed onto that one page.
     While Chad squirmed with anticipation, I politely scanned a few of the sentences. Now, I am a good reader. I will happily read Thackeray or Sir Walter Scott, for example, and enjoy them. I have a volume of Melville on my night table. Trying to make sense of this stuff, however, made my head ache. It was incomprehensible. Typewritten letters formed shrill, ranting sentences that were both illogical and mad. The experience was as unpleasant for my nose as it was for my brain, because the paper beneath my gaze reeked of mildew.
     When I looked up, I saw with dismay that Chad had brought along a huge cardboard box full of similar decaying papers. They had been stored in his garage for years. The poor man had carried all of these tedious, tiresome manifestos to the patio in the hope of sharing his beliefs with me. He imagined that after I read them, I would be inspired to see politics in his way, and become an ardent convert to Communism.
     He was deluded, of course, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Before I could figure out how to tell Chad diplomatically that it just wasn’t going to happen, Bob reached behind me and nudged him. The two began conversing over my head as though I wasn’t even there.
      “What’s the matter with you? Are you f**king nuts?” yelled Bob, who did not endorse diplomacy in the same way that I did.
      He yelled because of Chad’s hearing loss, although Bob was somewhat prone to yelling regardless.
     “She doesn’t want to read them,” he shouted. “You’re never going to get her that way.”
     “I’m never going to get her in the hay?” replied Chad.
     Close enough.
     “She doesn’t want to read them,” repeated Bob in exasperation.
     “Need them?” asked Chad.
     “READ them. She isn’t going to READ them,” screamed Bob. “Look at her. She doesn’t like them!”
     “No?” Chad seemed surprised.
     “NO!” Bob shrieked.
     “Oh,” said Chad sorrowfully. “That’s too bad.”
     He paused to think for a moment.
     “Well,” he finally said, speaking over my head to Bob as though I weren’t present, “I can’t be with a woman who doesn’t believe in the Party.”
     As easily as I had been snagged, without even saying a word, I was off the hook. Like I said, I was saved by Communism.

Although it may have been absurd to consider having an affair with Chad, I did enjoy him. He was easy on the eyes, and he told good stories.
     Like this one. When he had been a muscle man, he used to own a gym. His clients had included the movie stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the days before they became famous.
     Chad fondly recalled a time when he was giving Kirk Douglas a rubdown and, as a practical joke, applied kerosene to Douglas’ testicles. Apparently his poor victim had run naked through the gym, screaming at the top of his lungs.
     Chad laughed and laughed as he told that story. It made me wonder what would have happened to me had I been naked and at his mercy.

Fortunately, that never happened, although I confess that my heart always beats a little faster whenever I watch him take off his shirt in his old movies.

© 2010, Laughing Cherub & M. E. Raines
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