Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub

Monday, May 29, 2017



by Mary Elizabeth (Leach) Raines

© M. E. Raines, 2017

“She tells me to take off my dress,” says Tanya. Her raspy voice has a high-pitched growl like that of a tiger cub. “I take off my dress.”
Tanya is entertaining our class by explaining why she has been absent from school. Her pigtails, as tiny and as defiant as she is, stick out at sharp angles from the sides of her head like pieces of frizzy twine, clamped at the ends by white barrettes. I sit right behind her, mentally tracing the grime-embedded grooves in the plastic of those barrettes as she continues her salacious story.
“Then she says to me, ‘Take off your slip.’”  It is 1957. Slips are an indispensable undergarment. Even impoverished girls like Tanya wear slips. “I take off my slip. Next she says, ‘Take off your socks.’ I take off my socks.”
Tanya pauses dramatically and surveys the kids who are clustered around her. “Then she says, ‘Pull down your underpants.’ I pull them down. I is stark neggid.” A ripple of titillation runs through the class. “Next my mamma tells me to lie face down on the bed. She says, ‘Don’t you dare move, or you’re gonna get it even worse.’”
Unable to repress a grin at the attention she is receiving, Tanya’s tan cheeks turn into walnuts. She then proceeds to describe in lurid detail a savage whipping her mother has given her, the worst yet. This one has kept her out of school for a week.
“My neighbor lady saw me in the hall,” concludes Tanya with a proud smile. “She says to me, ‘Girl, you still alive? After hearing you scream, I thought for sure your mamma done kill you!’”
Lots of kids brag about their beatings, but Tanya’s story is the most brutal I’ve heard. Even though she is smaller than anyone else in our fifth grade, she is the undisputed alpha of the class. In our school, the tough girls rule, and scrawny Tanya is the toughest of them all. The boys have their own barbarian world, one that involves a lot of fist fights and rumors of violence. Once they enter the doors of the school, however, they sink into a mute and collective invisibility, subject to absolute domination by the girls.
I am terrified of Tanya and, like the boys, I try hard to be invisible. You do not want to cross her. Despite being the size of a seven-year-old, she is scrappy and mean. Lines run along her mouth like the wrinkles that are usually only seen on hardened middle-aged women, and her scratchy voice sounds as though she has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day since birth. The very mildest retribution Tanya bestows on those she deems to be her enemies is to put thumbtacks on their desk chairs. She makes enemies easily, so I always check my seat before sitting down. A number of the girls in our class have missing clumps in their hair, hollowed-out scoops in otherwise smooth surfaces. These pockmarks are the ruins left when gum has had to be cut out. Sticking gum in another girl’s hair for no particular reason is one of Tanya’s favorite torments. The very worst that Tanya might do to her enemies remains sketchy, but I suspect that it is dreadful. She is easily capable of carrying out what I saw the seventh-grade twins do to one of their victims.
The fight with the twins happened after school. That day, as I stepped out from the wooden doors, the usually bustling playground and sidewalks were eerily deserted, with only a few newspapers blowing across the pavement, like the scene from a science fiction movie after the atom bomb has been dropped. Confused, I rounded a corner. There, a few yards in front of me, stood a dense, surreal ring of kids silently watching as the sisters repeatedly smashed another girl’s head against the window of a parked car. The fight ended when the twins slashed their victim’s forehead open with a razor blade. I saw her afterwards standing on a street corner. Blood streamed down her face, and she was laughing hysterically. The next day the twins were taken to the Detention Center—a feared place that is mentioned only in apprehensive whispers.
I worry constantly, wondering when the inevitable day will come that Tanya will cut me. This is because, in our overcrowded class of fifty fifth-graders, I am the only white girl. Our family, new to Chicago’s south side, lives modestly. Even so, I am privileged in comparison to most of my classmates. My father is getting his Ph.D. at the University. I am clean, smart, well-fed, and I own more dresses than the other girls. I stick out, a spot of vanilla in a sea of chocolate.
In contrast, Tanya only has one outfit, a faded orange striped dress that she wears every day. It has puffy short sleeves and a bow that ties in back like the dresses worn in storybooks by cheerful white girls. Tanya isn’t cheerful. She scowls a lot, and she smells, too, a thick cocktail of little-girl sweat, cat pee, and mildewed socks.
Her ears are pierced, but she is too poor to wear earrings. Instead, broken-off toothpick pieces have been inserted into the holes, like bits of bone, to keep them open. Her fuzzy unclean hair has a dingy caste of  grandmother gray to it, along with stray pieces of lint. She wears it in the same three pigtails as every other girl in class except for me: there are two tightly braided pigtails in the back, and one that hangs over the side of her face. Most of the girls have crisp even lines where their hair has been parted. Not Tanya. Her parts make crooked paths across her scalp as if her sparse frizzy hair has been carelessly stitched on like the wig of some Frankenstein’s monster.
When I’m not slinking nervously from Tanya’s view, I am watching my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Oldman, beat kids up. He is white, too. A bull-shouldered man with a marine-style crew cut, Mr. Oldman’s large face turns crimson whenever he is enraged. He becomes enraged multiple times a day. As anger overwhelms him, his tongue protrudes rabidly from between half-clenched teeth, and his body begins to quake. While he has never hurt me, he is happy to push the black girls around, mostly shaking them furiously. His primary targets, though, are the boys, who are routinely beaten up for minor transgressions. His favorite punishments include cracking their heads together, twisting their ears viciously, or punching them.
Once he grabbed and heartlessly twisted the ear of a boy named Jimmy for some negligible infraction. When Jimmy began crying, Mr. Oldman knocked him out of his seat. The sobbing boy lay defenseless on his back on the floor, while our teacher, with a snarl on his red shaking face, straddled him. He pummeled him with his fists while he barked, “Stop crying!” I think Jimmy’s offense had been giggling at something, or maybe it was looking up from his desk, because we are forbidden to raise our eyes from our books or papers when we are working.
Mr. Oldman has other strict rules. They include bringing four sheets of lined paper and two pencils to class every day—nothing less, and nothing more. If someone brings the wrong kind of paper, or too much paper, or too little paper, they get into trouble, said trouble meaning that they will be battered in some way.
On the day after Christmas vacation, Tanya comes into our colorless classroom grinning broadly. She skips proudly to her desk, carrying more than the requisite supplies. In her hands is a red cardboard pencil box. She places it on her desk, lining it up carefully, fondling it, and opening it periodically to inspect the various compartments inside. That cheap pencil box was her only Christmas present. She beams with the joy of ownership.
When Mr. Oldman enters, he surveys the room. We all sit with our hands obediently folded in front of us. I pray that he won’t spot Tanya’s shabby gift, but of course he does almost immediately.
“What is that?” he demands.
“It’s my present,” Tanya replies.
“You aren’t allowed to have that. Bring it up here. Give it to me now,” he bellows, his face beginning to flush.
“No. It’s mine! It’s my Christmas present,” she cries stubbornly. The tension mounts and the kids begin squirming in their seats. Nobody has ever defied Mr. Oldman before!
He repeats his request, growing angrier.
All of us know that if Tanya gives the pencil box to Mr. Oldman, he will confiscate it and she will never see it again. He’s taken other things from kids, and no one has ever gotten anything back.
Rising, he stamps down the aisle, redder than I’ve ever seen him. Even the scalp under his crew cut is crimson. His head shakes with rage as his tongue darts out in the strange lizard-like way it does when he is angry. Snorting more like a beast than a man, he stops only a few inches in front of me and reaches down to snatch up her prized pencil box. Tanya beats him to it, clasping the cardboard edges with her skinny brown fingers and holding on tightly.
“LET GO OF THAT,” thunders Mr. Oldman.
“NO. IT’S MINE,” Tanya shouts back, clutching the box even more fiercely.
He tries to pry her fingers off of it. Tanya is surprisingly strong. She won’t let go.
Then Mr. Oldman bends down and proceeds to bite the back of Tanya’s hand. He draws blood. Yelping in pain and surprise, she lifts her wounded hand in the air…and, with a smug chuckle, he dives in, grabbing the box.
As he walks back to his desk with Tanya’s Christmas gift, a gloat of satisfaction flashes across his face. Tanya, however, is not finished. Leaping out of her seat, she races to the shelf above our coats and grabs a clothesline that she has brought to use as a jump rope during recess. She unwinds about four feet of it and turns toward Mr. Oldman, whirling the rope above her head like a cowboy ready to lasso a steer…or an overseer preparing to whip a slave. With a roar, he turns and lunges at her. She snaps the rope in the air in front of him. He jumps back.
Then Tanya begins screaming. Head held high, pigtails stiff, she continues to twirl the rope, keeping the large man at bay as she pelts him with a torrent of profanity. He circles her, snarling. Spittle runs down the sides of his mouth. Every time she tries to hit him with her rope, he jumps back, surprisingly agile. Their face-off is an even match: the red-faced giant with clenched fists and the scrawny little brown girl with the motor mouth and the snapping jump rope.
And then the door opens. The principal sticks his head in. The kids gasp. An innocuous looking man who always wears a starched bow tie, everyone fears him, for he has the power to send us to the Detention Center. Mr. Oldman and Tanya, suddenly co-conspirators, freeze in their spots and assume wide-eyed looks of  innocence.
“Is something wrong?” asks the principal.
Mr. Oldman hesitates, and then says, “No, nothing.” He goes calmly to his desk and sits down, smiling benignly at the principal as he puts the pencil box in a drawer and closes it. The official, after eyeing Tanya quizzically, apparently reassures himself that everything is okay and, with a shrug, shuts the door. It is over. Tanya carefully coils up her jump rope, places it on the shelf, and returns to her seat. Mr. Oldman begins to teach again as though nothing has happened.
Tanya’s Christmas present is lost forever. As for me, my hair remains gum-free. I still worry, but, for today at least, nobody cuts me.


© M. E. Raines, 2017; Copying or reproducing in any form is prohibited by law. Readers may feel free, however, to link to this story.

Author’s Note: The events in the preceding tale are true. It is a story that has long needed telling. For their protection, the names of the characters have been changed. The boy called Jimmy and the girl called Tanya, if they are still alive, are by now the age of grandparents or even great-grandparents. The circumstances of their lives were beyond their control. While I was truly afraid of Tanya, she never harmed or, in fact, even acknowledged me, and I have great sympathy for her courage.

Readers who liked this story may also enjoy the newest books of fiction by Mary Elizabeth Raines (published under Mary Elizabeth Leach), “The Man in the GPS and Other Stories” and “The Secret of Eating Raspberries.”  Both are available in paperback and on Kindle on

Thursday, February 2, 2017


© 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. It was the mikd-60Our 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 in 1967 at the end of my sophomore year. 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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Written and Illustrated by


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 hard 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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