Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub

Sunday, January 8, 2017


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

Friday, June 24, 2016



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
All rights reserved
Copying, excerpting, or recording in any form is prohibited.
Please feel free, however, to link to this story.

Friday, February 19, 2016


 by Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

On January 15, Aaron B__  passed away at his home in Santa Monica, California following a long battle with cancer. He was 79.

I found this online. It was the obituary of my longtime friend. I was sad to see that he had died, and I was appalled that such bleak words wound up being the final summation of his life.
Anyone reading such an obituary would form a picture of someone exceedingly dull and, well, gray: an elderly man, wrinkled, decrepit, seriously ill, declining helplessly into nonbeing, the victim of a malignant disease. As I looked at the words, I wanted to scream, “No! That’s not who he was!”

The first time I noticed him, I thought Aaron was the coolest guy I’d ever seen. We met at a writer’s conference in Santa Barbara, California. I was 28 years old. Aaron was not only kind, interesting, and talented; he was a smooth talker, oozing more confidence than anyone I’d ever met. His garb was what cool guys wore in the 1970s: aviator sunglasses, an expensive black leather jacket, and a shirt that opened part-way down his chest. His lean, strong body was always just a little hunched over as though he were constantly poised for that most intimate of embraces. I was sure that a man like him would never look at someone like me.
Even without Aaron’s presence, this Writer’s Conference hosted a pretty spectacular group. Ray Bradbury, the great science-fiction writer, was there. So were Charles Schultz, who wrote the comic strip Peanuts, Joan Didion, Ross MacDonald, Maya Angelou, Alan Pakula (who was writing All the President’s Men), Eudora Welty, and Alex Haley (the author of Roots). Eva Marie Saint, the famous actress, showed up. I went to a party with academy-award-winning author Budd Schulberg, who wrote On the Waterfront, and one night I had a wonderful sexy argument over dinner with best-selling author Gay Talese about whether women would ever pay for male hookers the way men pay for female hookers. I argued that yes, women would. Talese said no, they wouldn’t. He was right. But I was young.

That week I wore the low-cut polyester sundresses that were all the fashion rage, and flirted with abandon, and drank far too much liquor, and also chain-smoked, because everybody chain-smoked in those days. It was all a ruse, of course, for in truth, I was dreadfully naïve.
An enthusiastic conference-goer, I always sat dead-center in the front row when the authors spoke. Once while in my usual seat awaiting the entrance of a speaker, feeling ultra-chic as I held a cigarette in one hand and a plastic cup of rosé wine in the other, an older woman came up to me and whispered, “Honey, your boob is out.” I looked at her quizzically. “Your boob’s hanging out,” she repeated in a slightly more vicious tone of voice. “Did you want it like that?”
I looked down, and sure enough, I’d pulled a massive Janet Jackson! My right breast had somehow tumbled out of my dress and lay exposed, a little bare apple, for the whole world to see. I was embarrassed and quickly tucked it back into my sundress. Throughout the rest of the conference, I kept looking down at my chest and rearranging my halter straps compulsively like someone with a weird tic.

Aaron entered the picture one night when some of us attending the conference met in a cottage to read aloud to one another from our work. A few days later, he casually invited me to go for a ride in his cop-magnet red Mercedes. We went first to a posh restaurant overlooking the Pacific, where he bought me my very first margarita. Then he took  me to a lemon orchard.
I’d never seen a lemon tree before, much less an entire orchard of them! Aaron drove over a rutted dirt road and only stopped when we were deep inside the rows of lemon trees. When we got out of the car, it was whisper silent, more still than just about anyplace I have ever been. Neither Aaron nor I said a word.
Instead of speaking, he looked into my eyes and slowly walked to the nearest tree. He reached up and twisted a lemon off a low-hanging branch. Not taking his eyes from mine, moving closer, he plunged both thumbs into the lemon and ripped it in two. I don’t know how someone can rip a lemon in two and make it seductive, but it was the most sensual thing I’ve ever seen anyone do. Aaron handed me half, and then slowly bit into his part of the lemon, sucking the tangy juices, eyes still locked on mine.

Here is the way his obituary should have read: Aaron B___, a man who could wordlessly seduce a woman by ripping a lemon in two with his bare hands, died today, and the colors of the world may never be quite as vibrant or bright again.

© 2016, M. E. Raines

Author's note: this is an abbreviated version of a longer obituary written several years ago. Aaron's talents weren't only in seducing women, although that was certainly the joy of his life. They included being the author of two books, actor, film producer, restaurant owner and gourmet chef, outstanding artist, ex-con (yes, he went to prison for a few years for some complex white-collar scheme he'd gotten sucked into), and much more. What a man!  

Thursday, December 18, 2014



For a while, I lived in Hollywood. During my time there, my dating life was almost non-existent. 

Here’s why:
  1. I was not thin.
  2. I was not blonde.
  3. I was not a member of the Academy.
  4. I was not rich.
  5. I had never had botox or lip plumper, and I possessed my original breasts.
  6. I was not bi-curious.
  7. My idea of doing drugs was to take an aspirin if I had a headache.

That said, I did become the focus of heightened sexual attention one night. It was, as they say, waaaay cool! I was at a party and my becoming an object of lust was completely accidental. It happened like this:

Sometimes by chance, everyone in a room stops talking at the same time and there is a space of awkward silence. We’ve all been there. At the party I was attending, just such a gap occurred—a surprise lull in the flow of chatter. All conversation suddenly dropped away.

Well, almost all. Except for mine. I happened to be making a comment to another party-goer at that very moment. As the other sounds ceased, my remarks were amplified, projected boisterously into the otherwise dead room.

Here’s what I said: “I can get really kinky.”

Everyone heard me.

My declaration was followed by several seconds of stunned silence—reverence, perhaps. (It being Hollywood and all.) Then it was as if someone had turned on the floodlights. In a flash, I became the object of intense and fascinated scrutiny by more than a few turned-on party-goers. I felt sexy! I felt desirable! By golly, it was fun.

They liked me. They REALLY liked me!
But it didn’t last long.

My short sweet burst of popularity came to an abrupt end when the truth about my purported kinkiness emerged. I had only been describing what happens to my hair when it’s humid outside.


Even though my love life was sparse in those years, it wasn’t totally devoid of romance. (For proof, see my previous post, The Movie Star Who Wanted Me.) Occasionally I even dated. Once, for instance, I met a man in a café, and we went out to a nightclub the next evening. He was a well-mannered and good-looking European man who held some promise, even if he was a tad dull…dull, that is, until the end of the evening, when he managed to turn the conversation to a new topic.

My would-be beau began telling me, with animation, about certain women he knew who enjoyed wearing dog collars. That's right. Dog collars. As he spoke, his pupils grew larger—and maybe other parts of him as well. There were some clear hints that he enjoyed being the one who held the leash.

I imagine he was looking for Ruff-Ruff sex.
My response was that I needed to go home (alone!) and do some drugs right away (please note what my propensity for drugs entailed in the introductory paragraph, #7).

Okay, so I was mostly dateless when I lived in Hollywood. I was, however, well entertained, for I lived in a strange little compound populated by movie and TV folk who were themselves somewhat kinky.

In this eccentric show-biz community, for instance, lived Gary, a cameraman from the original Twilight Zone series who wound up committing suicide by hanging himself; we found his body swinging from the rafters. But that’s a story for another day, and yeah, probably not the most shining example I could give of being entertained.

So, okay, another resident of our compound was Santa Claus. Well, actually it was an actor named Harry, but he looked exactly like Santa, with the requisite round tummy, twinkling eyes, snub nose, white beard and jolly laugh.
Harry had started out playing Falstaff in the theater, and had gone on to earn a modest living with bit parts on TV shows like Cheers, Knots Landing, Batman and Night Court. It was when he reached his senior years that Harry found the perfect niche. He became a professional Santa Claus, and enjoyed modest success playing Saint Nick in a number of movies, commercials and TV shows.

Not long after I’d moved into the compound, my landlord, Bob, and I were chatting one afternoon on the street in our favorite spot next to the garbage cans (more about that later), when Harry-aka-Santa came down the steps of his apartment. He walked over to a parked car, where a friend of his emerged.

Lo and behold, Harry’s friend was another Santa look-alike, right down to the cherubic smile and rosy cheeks! The two were the same height, the same heft, had the same white flowing hair and beards, and were even dressed in identical garb. Both wore purple t-shirts. I couldn’t tell one from the other! Confused, I looked at Bob.

“All the professional Santa Clauses in Hollywood know each other,” he said. "They belong to a club."

As I watched, the two Santys hugged. Their hug grew in intensity. They wrapped their chubby arms around each other in an embrace and, belly pressed against belly, gave one another an extremely generous and lengthy kiss. Full on the lips. My jaw dropped and I stood there by the garbage bins, dumbfounded.

Although it may have made my story spicier if I were able to relate having had an affair with Santa Claus, this was not to be. Harry, as it turns out, was quite gay. But at least I can say in all honesty that—hold onto your hats—I saw Santa kissing Santa Claus.

The aforementioned garbage bins from our complex were a favorite gathering place of ours. Whenever cops came into the neighborhood—frequently—or a movie star disembarked from a limo at the studio across the street—also frequently—we would stand by the garbage cans to stare or gossip or exchange greetings.

It was also a fantastic place to hunt for treasures. Most of them were contributed by Lotsa Lotty, a member of our community who had at one time been a famous stripper and porn star.

In her heyday, she’d possessed silicone breasts the size of human heads. Now, decades past her prime and flat-chested after a double mastectomy, she buzzed around the compound in her bathrobe, glasses and curlers, sweeping the sidewalk—for she was a compulsive cleaner—and chattering into her telephone headset.

As a newcomer to the compound, I’d become alarmed one day when I heard groans and screams coming from behind Lotty’s closed door. I ran to Berta, the former Broadway actress who lived across the patio, and breathlessly suggested that we should call 911 because Lotty was making funny noises.

Instead of responding to my panic, Berta sank back onto her divan—Berta spent most of her days reclining on her divan—and murmured, “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. Lotty really needs the money.” 

It turned out that Lotty, no longer in demand as a porn star, earned her living by doing phone sex. I grew accustomed to seeing her standing at her kitchen sink, ferociously scrubbing a frying pan and waving cheerfully at me through the open window, while crooning words into her headset like, “Oh yes, yes, whatever you want, baby…oooh, ahhh, it’s huge…

Back to the garbage bins. Even in retirement, Lotty often received gifts from her still-avid fans, for she had become a kind of cult figure. Her philosophy was easy-come/easy-go, and she despised clutter. Thus, whenever she grew tired of something, or if a gift wasn’t quite to her taste, she discarded it immediately, regardless of its worth. Lotty would even throw out expensive clothing when she got tired of it, despite the fact that she could have made a tidy amount of cash taking her used garb to a shop that specialized in reselling the clothing of former stars.

A person could find anything from designer pocketbooks to jewelry to appliances lying on top of our garbage cans, waiting for some enterprising scrounger—or me!—to give the unwanted stuff a new home.  

One day I noticed a hair dryer sitting on the garbage cans. It was a big hair dryer. I needed a hair dryer, and this one looked as good as new. Snatching it up, I took it home and tested it. It worked wonderfully and immediately joined my bathroom appliances.

It wasn’t until some weeks later that I had the opportunity to ask Lotty why she had thrown out a perfectly good hair dryer.

“Oh, it’s because of one of my phone-sex clients,” she said. “He likes to call me up and ask me to ‘do it’ with my hair dryer while he talks to me. One day he sent me a new hair dryer to use, so I threw out the old one…”

By association, my hair may be even kinkier than one would ever want to know.

(c) 2011, M. E. Raines
Copying or reproducing in any form prohibited. Please feel free to link to this article.

See Mary Elizabeth Raines' newly released novel, UNA, on Amazon

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


So today I went to a fabulous jazz concert. 
Granted, the small audience was mostly over 70. 
Granted, they acted super-white, sitting rigidly upright without the least bit of head bobbing or shoulder swaying, and that even included the two black guys in the audience. 
Despite this setting, the trio put their hearts and souls into the music, and man, were they world-class performers!

Now, it is humanly impossible for me to sit still when there is good music, especially jazz, so I am sitting in the back row, swaying back and forth and bobbing my head like crazy, grooving to the music. (Do people still say “grooving”? Is that allowed?)

The songs this trio played penetrated right to my core. Hey, how can you go wrong when you have three straight guys who obviously love show tunes?! Because jazz consists mostly of show tunes, you know.

The pianist was enormous! Usually smaller pianists make up for it by playing with exceptional skill, but this particular pianist was both huge and skilled. At the other end of the stage was a cutie-pie drummer who kept up a pounding mounting rhythm.

Rounding out the trio was my favorite, the bass player. He seemed nondescript at first…until he hunched over his bass fiddle, embracing it, his eyes closed in the passion of the moment. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be that bass, and I must say I began to breathe just a little more quickly as I watched him move over it with his strong, supple fingers that knew exactly where to go--teasing here, lingering down deep there. He even pulled out his bow for long penetrating strokes in perfect driving rhythm when they played that great jazz standard, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

Here’s the catch. This concert was held in a small church. Directly above my scrumptious bass player hung a life-sized Jesus. On the cross. He looked really sad. Still, his crucified arms had the index and middle fingers extended, and if one squinted their eyes just so, it almost looked as though Jesus was snapping his fingers along to the music. I wondered what he would say if he could talk. Probably, “Hey, man, the music’s cool. Now, would someone please take me down from here?”

They served coffee and chocolates at intermission, which was fine, but I felt a little peculiar listening to such hot, heavy music on a hard wooden church bench. I thought that it would be nicer and more fitting to have some wine. Wondering how that could come about, I began to fantasize that they would serve us communion. It being a church and all. Yes, the glasses would be very small, but it was an Episcopal church, so at least they might conceivably give us real wine instead of the Welch’s grape juice you’d get in a Methodist church.

We didn’t receive communion, though.

Back to the song, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most: I was looking at Jesus when they played it, and wondered if that the tune was a little rude to play right under his nose. Considering, you know, what happened to him in the spring. Or perhaps it was weirdly appropriate. I wonder...what would Jesus think?

Friday, July 18, 2014


by Mary Elizabeth Raines

I blame it on the Contessa. She started it all when she serenaded us by singing Tiny Bubbles. A TV show called the Gong Show also figured prominently in this love affair, because, yes, it was a love affair. Sigh. It all began on a November evening in 1975…

First, let me tell you about the Contessa. When I knew her, she was probably in her 70s, and insisted, rather haughtily, that people address her by her title: Contessa. I don’t know her real name. There were rumors that she and her husband were actually royalty from some obscure European country. (I kind of suspect that she herself was responsible for starting those rumors, but then, what do I know about royalty in obscure European countries?)

The Contessa was not tall, but I remember her as a woman of substance. She possessed a heaving bosom, a double chin and a fleshy waist. Her ample midsection was offset by numerous stiff layers of ruffles in the skirt of the faded, green ball gown she always wore, a dress that looked as though it could have belonged to a cast member of Gone With the Wind, or maybe a character from a Dickens’ novel. Dancing slippers completed the outfit. She didn’t really walk; instead she tiptoed and waltzed around the room in little, silly, prancing steps. I think she was trying to be delicate. Perhaps she hoped that people would envision her as floating across the floor like a sailing ship, which was something women of her generation thought admirable, although, sadly, her movements were more like those of a tugboat on choppy waters.

The Contessa’s heavily powered face had arching eyebrows that had been artfully drawn onto her forehead with eyebrow pencil, and her sagging cheeks were flushed with dainty circles of pink rouge. You are probably ascertaining that she fit a certain type, and as a member of that type, it goes without saying that her lipstick was smudged high up over her lips in exaggerated, I-Love-Lucy cupid’s bows.

Please understand that I am not criticizing the Contessa for this. As I age, I am growing fleshy, too. And I recognize the irresistible urge to wear the same outfits and makeup that made me look cute as heck when I was 19; unfortunately, having passed the age of 60, whenever I do that, I wind up looking more like a goofy old clown than a precious young thing. Even so, sometimes I can’t help myself; I cave in and go for it. At such times, I wear far too much makeup and stand around saying smart things like, “That’s groovy, man.” So I understand perfectly the mindset of this elderly woman in her green ball gown. I really look like THAT?!
To accessorize the gown, our Contessa wore just about every piece of jewelry she owned, and all at the same time, too. Her chest was blinding, covered with flashing brooches and glittering layers of necklaces, and her pudgy, aging arms jingled with bands of bracelets.

She was, if not exactly a flirt, quite coquettish, fluttering from table to table, sometimes leaning down and pressing her withered rouged cheek near to that of some youthful fellow, as though teasing him to kiss her. Again, I get it completely.

But now let’s go back to the very beginning. I was a young single woman who, at 10:30 p.m. on a November night, had just left my comfy bed with reluctance, and had driven to Sarno’s Caffe dell'Opera on Vermont Street in Los Feliz, a section of Los Angeles that borders Hollywood. The area was relatively safe in those days. Sarno’s served Italian food and they had a pastry shop.

In the evenings, Sarno’s Cafe became magical. Strangers would be seated at marble tables next to other strangers, and everyone drank wine and espresso, and anyone who wanted could get up and sing. There was an excellent pianist accompanying the singers. Most folks sang opera, but a few people, like the Contessa, preferred to sing pop songs. Like Tiny Bubbles. Some of the singers were very good. Some were not. In its heydey, Sarno’s was frequented by the likes of Tony Bennett, Sophia Loren, and even old blue eyes, Sinatra himself.

Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library-posted with permission
There were plenty of less-famous regulars who hung out at Sarno’s. It was all new to me. I had only recently moved to Los Angeles, and had discovered the place just a few days before.

On the night in question, I’d been crying somewhat melodramatically to my best friend, a vivacious gay man, about my desperately lonely state and my inability to meet men. (Ye gods, my situation was appalling. Nearly 24 hours had passed since my last date! What was I to do?!) My friend sagely suggested that if I wanted to meet someone new, it wasn’t likely to happen if I remained in my bed, complaining. He prodded me to get up, get dressed, and go out someplace…anyplace.

I did. Where else could I go at 10:30 on a Saturday night but to Sarno’s? I lived nearby. After I arrived, since all the tables were shared, the first thing I did was look around for someone safe and comfortable to sit next to. I found the perfect someone, an elderly, harmless-looking guy whose name was Miguel. He was one of the regulars. Miguel wore a cheap, obvious toupee, and he told me that he was an artist. Some of his paintings were displayed high on the walls of Sarno’s. They looked a little clumsy to me, not unlike Miguel himself. My new friend proudly added that he was also a singer.

Here is where the Gong Show comes in. Some years after the Sarno’s incident, I was killing time one day by watching the Gong Show. If you’re not familiar with it, this mind-numbing TV nonsense from the late 1970s was hosted by a wired and weird guy named Chuck Barris. Here’s how it worked: assorted guests would perform—play music, sing, dance, juggle, tell jokes, you name it. There were three hip judges and a gigantic gong on the set. If any one of the judges disliked someone’s performance, they would jump up out of their seat, rush over and hit the gong. The interrupted performer would have to stop. The show was sometimes funny, and sometimes cruel.

And as I watched, who should appear as a guest but Miguel—yes, my very own Miguel from Sarno’s, still wearing the same toupee! He sang an aria. He was promptly gonged and also ridiculed, although he didn’t look as though he minded very much. I saw him again on two subsequent Gong Show reruns, and he got gonged on each of those, too. The gong-strikers were right. He really didn’t sing very well.

My connection to the Gong Show is even stranger than that. About 25 years after my fated visit to Sarno’s Caffe dell'Opera, I became friends with a woman who happened to be a world-famous stripper, porn star, and cult figure. She had gigantic breasts the size of human heads. For the sake of anonymity, I will call her Lotsa Lotty (although when one has shown the world all the parts that she has displayed on the giant silver screen—in close-up yet!—I don’t think anonymity would really be in question).

Anyway. Lotsa Lotty, I discovered, had also been on the Gong Show! She told me, giggling, that she had played a French maid who came onstage wearing high heels, a short, short skirt, and a low, low blouse. Her “talent” was dusting. She bent wa-a-ay down over various objects, dusting them with a feather duster. She, like Miguel, ended up being gonged.

In fact, dusting wasn’t far from the truth of who she really was. She loved to clean, you see. With her hair up in curlers, she would wear glasses and an old frumpy housecoat, and sweep her patio ceaselessly while she talked on her phone to customers, for when I knew her, she was earning a living doing phone sex.

I remember passing Lotsa Lotty while she was sweeping outdoors one day, wearing big fuzzy slippers and a shapeless bathrobe. From behind the thick lenses of her glasses, she looked over at me and gave me a bright smile and a wave, dustpan in hand. At the same time, in a low panting voice, while adjusting a curler, she was saying to her caller, “Oh yeah, baby, I can taste it. Yeah, I can taste it….”

Sometimes when I passed her place, I would hear screaming. It would momentarily frighten me. Then I would realize that Lotsa was just paying her bills. (Certain customers, she later revealed, insisted that she scream at pertinent points in their, um, conversation.)

But I digress. Lotsa Lotty told me that when she had been on the Gong Show, a very handsome and famous movie star—someone you would know!—saw her, got a little crush on her, and wangled an introduction. They dated.

Now, Lotsa had dated plenty of famous Hollywood actors, but this particular guy was different. She confided in me that not only was he extraordinarily endowed; he was the best lover she’d ever had. And of course, I don’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that Lotsa had entertained SCADS more lovers than most of us!

It wasn’t just that Handsome Movie Star was her best lover ever. He also treated her beautifully. He was unfailingly courteous, romantic, and kind—everything a woman could want. He actually even opened car doors for her! Guys, take note: we women really like that.

“So what happened with him?” I asked, after she revealed all of this to me.

“Oh, he wanted me to take a vacation with him, sorta like a honeymoon, at this tropical paradise," she said. "But I didn’t go.” She returned to her sweeping.

“Did you have to work? You couldn’t get the time off?” I asked excitedly.

“No, not that,” she said. “I could’ve gone. But I said no.” She attacked some dust in a corner.

“Lotsa!” I exclaimed, “This famous movie star was the best lover you ever had in your life, he treated you like a queen, he absolutely adored you, he invited you to a tropical paradise for a little honeymoon…and you didn’t go?! Why not?!!?”

You have to understand the absolutely humorless, matter-of-fact way in which Lotsa Lotty replied to my question. Her answer, to me, exemplifies Hollywood.

“I couldn’t go,” she said, “because MY HUSBAND WOULDN’T LET ME.” (Emphasis mine.)

Back to Sarno’s. As I sat next to Miguel, of Gong Show fame, I said to him, “Listen, Miguel, you know the characters who come in here, and I want to be careful. If I start talking with some guy who’s a bad sort, would you let me know? Just nudge me with your elbow, okay?”

Miguel liked that, the role of being my protector. He leaned back in his seat and smiled.

And then I saw Him. He was standing in line, waiting for a place at a table to open up. (Sarno’s had lines.) He was sooo handsome and hunky—dark hair, dark beard, dark brooding eyes—a real Latin Lover Man. When he was finally seated, it was at the table next to ours. I noticed that he ordered a bottle of wine and kept to himself, not conversing with the other people around him.

After a while, everyone at his table left. He sat alone. And there was an empty chair next to me. Seizing my chance, I called over to Latin Lover Man, trying to sound delightfully casual, while my heart thumped with embarrassment.

“Why don’t you join us?” I crowed in a chipper falsetto. “No one should be alone on a Saturday night!”

An elbow suddenly dug into my side. Miguel hissed into my ear, “Watch out! He’s one of them!”

Ignoring Miguel’s furiously insistent elbow, I continued to plead with Latin Lover Man.

The object of my affection glanced up at me and muttered, “I’m a loner.”

I didn’t understand him. His Spanish accent was so thick that I had to ask him twice what he’d just said. Somehow, if you have to keep repeating the phrase, “I’m a loner,” it doesn’t have quite the same intensity the third time around. With his bubble of isolation popped, to my immense joy Latin Lover Man picked up his bottle of wine and came to sit next to me.

Miguel nudged me more violently, whispering ever-louder warnings, until I became annoyed. I told him, sotto voce, to stop. “All right,” he shrugged. “Whatever you want. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.”

Here’s where the Contessa comes in. Did you think I’d forgotten about the Contessa? Not a chance! In her green ball gown, she placed some sheet music in front of the pianist, then pranced over to our table and serenaded us. Her aged voice was wobbly with an out-of-control tremulo. The Contessa sang Tiny Bubbles. She sang it quite badly. It was the start of my greatest romance.

The Latin Lover Man’s name was Juan. I learned that after making him repeat his name four times. In the beginning, my half of our conversations consisted mostly of me saying, “What? Hunh?” Eventually I figured out how to decipher his accent. He became my husband, and the father of our child, and then my ex-husband. But always my good friend.

My Latin Lover and Me
Here’s something weird. When I first came to Los Angeles, without knowing anything at all of the city, I was driving up and down random streets looking for a place to rent when I spotted a charming Victorian house tucked away with a sign on the lawn that said ROOMS. I was drawn to this house almost as if I had been magnetized. The man who answered the door said, “Oh honey, you seem very sweet, but I’m sorry; we only rent to men.” As I left, I felt strangely disappointed.

Later, I discovered that of all the places I could have chosen in this immense megapolis with its population of millions, the first property that attracted me happened to be the very same house where my future husband was living!

Juan also revealed something fascinating, or perhaps fated. Earlier on the night we'd met, he had been exhausted and was driving home to his room in the Victorian house, ready to climb into bed. Suddenly, he said, it was as if a hand reached down and stopped him. Then and there, without thinking, he did a sharp U-turn in the middle of the road and headed towards Sarno’s, because something told him he had to stop there that night. That happened right around the same time I'd pulled myself out of bed and, from the other direction, was also dragging myself to Sarno’s.

By the way, Juan wasn’t really a loner. And Miguel was wrong.

As for the Caffe dell'Opera, the devoted owner, Alberto Sarno, was tragically murdered a few years later and not long afterwards they closed their doors for good. I never found out what happened to the Contessa.

(c) 2010, Mary Elizabeth Raines
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