Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub


Goodbye, Henry

by Mary Elizabeth (Leach) Raines

My friend, Henry Mollicone, died of cancer on May 12th of this year (2022). I will always connect Henry with jamoca almond fudge ice cream. Read on.

He was my only friend (as opposed to acquaintance) who had his own Wikipedia page.

We were students together at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music in the 1960s. Henry, a year older than I, was an absolutely brilliant pianist and the school’s most lauded student composer...and boy, his competition was stiff! I was a piano major, but the composers were my preferred crowd: they were all guys, all absolutely brilliant, and mostly geeky. My people.

An Italian from Providence, Rhode Island, Henry was quite short, but he had a commanding and confident presence. His appearance fluctuated. He often looked slightly nerdy for sure, as befitted his title of composer...but once in a while, in the right light and in the right mood, he could almost be seen as handsome. Along with being talented, he was incredibly intelligent and quirky. And he had a certain aloof charm.

I was pretty sure that he preferred blondes and babes, but once Henry quite spontaneously asked me if I wanted to get some ice cream with him. I was surprised by his invitation, and pleased. We walked a few blocks from the conservatory to Brigham’s Ice Cream Parlor, where I feasted on jamoca almond fudge.

[An aside: As an admitted foodie, I tend to remember past events by what we ate, even dates that I went on more than half a century ago. While I remember the food clearly, I don’t always remember the guy I was with.]

I do recall Henry quite clearly on that occasion, however, and the delightful chat that we had. Up until our encounter, while we had socialized in the same group, I’d always held him on a bit of a pedestal, and I was more than a little shocked that he had asked me out and seemed to recognize that I was, after all, a girl. Our conversation over ice cream was one of sweet discovery, and I was happy to discover that this impressive and rather famous fellow was, after all, a swell and vulnerable human being.

After our treats, we went to his apartment in Copley Square. It grew late, so rather than walk me all the way back to the conservatory dormitory in the dark, we decided quite innocently that I should spend the night, and he invited me to climb into his bed. Henry lay next to me in the bed, of course.

Although I had never been romantically interested in him, with his warm body next to mine, I suddenly realized to my surprise that I was attracted to Henry. We wound up making out, as college-aged kids are prone to do, especially when they are kind of tired and their guard is down. His kisses were delicious, even better than the jamoca almond fudge had been.

We were both awfully drowsy. Nevertheless, I wanted to push our make-out session to the next stage. When I tried, he whispered quite tenderly, “No, you’re not that kind of girl.” While kissing my neck. (Or maybe I was kissing his neck. I forget.)

Gosh, I tried ever so hard to convince him that yes, I was that kind of girl, but he stubbornly resisted and there was nothing I could do to change his mind, so our encounter never evolved beyond pleasant necking.

He certainly liked me well enough to kiss me. Who knows? Maybe he got snuggly because of the sugar high from the ice cream. In looking back now, I wonder if saying that I wasn’t that kind of girl was a nice way of telling me that he wasn’t that into me, because there were other girls who entered his life who, it seems, were that kind. Then, too, I wasn’t blonde. Sigh.

I never held it against him, nor did I pine for him. Well, not much (read on). Should a romance have ensued, I would have been a satellite to Henry’s star, which is not a role that could ever suit me. And he was more than a little bit crazy, although I confess that this quality in a man has never particularly deterred me.

Here’s why I would have been a satellite. Henry was an amazing composer and a brilliant pianist. I have gone to lots of concerts by the top symphony orchestras and soloists in the U.S., yet the best performance I ever heard, hands down, was one given by Henry in the late 1960s. He played the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

I arrived late, just as he was beginning to play, and rather than go up to the plush room where the audience had assembled, I sat all by myself several stories below in the magnificent courtyard, an eclectic and elegant mixture of ancient Roman, Renaissance, and Medieval design, sitting amidst statues, ornate columns, fountains, lofty arches, and (at the time) hundreds of fragrant Easter Lillies. The music poured over me in a cascade of ecstasy. Henry’s concert touched my soul in a way that has never since been replicated. Which kind of makes me wonder how that other performance might have felt, had he not decided that I wasn’t that kind of girl.


Afterwards, when I went to congratulate him, a trampy looking brassy blonde in a too-tight dress–someone who was obviously not a fellow music student–moved close to him and began to nuzzle him. She did not appear to be the type that you would imagine was much into Liszt. While she might in reality have been a Very Nice and Cultured Person, from my depressed perspective, she was obviously that kind of girl. The kind I wasn’t. I was jealous, and went home without congratulating him.

The last time I saw Henry in person was in the early 70s after we’d finished our conservatory studies. I was trying out as an actress for a big-deal professional children’s theater in Boston. To my amazement, the audition accompanist seated at the grand piano onstage was none other than our very own Henry! The director and his critical accomplices sat in a little clump below in the darkened theater, staring up at me.

First I performed a monologue. Kiddos, I must confess that I was good. The director and his gang actually applauded me! Wow!

Unfortunately, next I had to sing. I handed Henry the music, and maybe said a quick hello, but my thoughts were on the audition rather than on him. The tune I sang was from Anthony Newley’s The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. This was my first time singing for an audition, and to my horror, my voice did not come out at all in the mellow, rich way it had sounded in my apartment when I was practicing the song. The noise that emerged from my choked throat was creaky and croaky and weird. In short, it was an abysmal audition. When I was done, the director dismissed me with a terse, expressionless thankyouwe’llletyouknow. I grabbed my music–I couldn’t even look at Henry–and ducked out of the theater in humiliation as fast as I could.

[Another aside: In later years, I actually did get singing parts in musical theater, but that was because I always played either a comedic or a deranged character, so my voice didn’t have to sound pretty. In fact, if I had a beautiful singing voice, it would have been a deterrent to those roles, alas.]

Back to Henry: he and I did not connect again until about ten years ago, after I had moved to Sedona. My son and I commissioned him to compose/improvise a piece for my sister on her 70th birthday; she loved it! By this time, Henry had become quite an esteemed composer. He had a fair amount of renown–I mean, jeez, his own Wikipedia page!–although I always thought that he should have received even more fame and recognition than he did.

In our renewed friendship, while our conversations were only occasional, he was always enthusiastic and warm...until a few years ago, when I inquired how he was doing, and received an odd and somewhat cool email from him saying that he’d had some medical issues. His communications stopped then. I later discovered that it was cancer. A mutual friend, the one who called to tell me that Henry had died, shared that my former ice-cream date had fought valiantly for his life for about four years, but the cancer finally got him. Darn it.

If you are a musician, a singer, or an opera or a choral conductor, you must absolutely check out his music. Even if you don’t fit in those categories, look him up on YouTube, and get a dose of beauty and wonder!

Below is a YouTube of him improvising a song based on the notes that correlate with a person’s phone number. Take a look and a listen–it’s shorter than two minutes–and you will see how adorable and gifted he was.

Now you get to compose for the angels, Henry. Jamoca almond fudge ice cream will always belong to you. How lucky I was to have known you!



by Mary Elizabeth Raines, © 2021

Even though I grew up in a spotless home, housekeeping has never been something for which I’ve had a strong instinct. I do love my home to be neat and clean though, and over the years, by gritting my teeth and going against my natural inclinations, I’ve gotten a little bit better at keeping things reasonably tidy. It was not always so.  

I went to a music conservatory for college in the mid-60s. In our freshman year, my delightful dormitory roommate, Marta, (who would later wind up as an assistant stage director at the Metropolitan Opera, a Broadway performer, and then as a script supervisor on TV shows like “Star Trek” and “ER”), began eating a particular brand of candy bar and saving the wrappers. She kept an untidy growing stack of them on her night table, along with a lot of other clutter.

“Marta, why are you keeping all of these candy bar wrappers?” I asked.
“Because if you collect enough of them,” she said, “you can send them in and be entered into a contest.”

“What’s the prize?”

“A pony,” she replied gleefully. “I’ve always wanted a pony!”
“But what if you win? Where would you keep a pony?” I cried.
“No problem,” she replied cheerfully. “We can keep the pony right here in our dorm room. Nobody will ever know.”

She said that because our room was always an enormous mess.

Marta and I had originally been assigned different roommates. I was in absolute awe of mine. She was immaculate. She could fold her panties into perfect squares,–I never figured out how she did that,–and she arranged her books in order of height, and her bed was always made, and she wanted the lights out every night at exactly 10 p.m., immediately after she finished reading her nightly devotions. Marta had a roommate with similar admirable qualities.

The two of us couldn’t have been more different from our assigned roommates. Not only were we supremely messy; we were also night owls. Night after night our roommates, needing to have the lights out, would banish us from our rooms to the small lounge on our dormitory floor. Marta and I soon discovered that we had a lot in common, and we bonded. It wasn’t long before we plotted a scheme to ditch our respective roommates and join forces; our only concern was that it might hurt their feelings. It turned out that our respective roommates had gotten the same idea, and before we could even broach the subject, they informed us that they wanted to swap. Fortunately, nobody’s feelings were hurt, and everyone ended up well matched and happy.

Marta had more money than I did, and she possessed an expensive and gorgeous wardrobe, most of which lay strewn across our floor. She would wake up in the morning and sit on the edge of her bed, tossing piles of clothing into the air with her foot and saying, “Which puddle shall I wear today?” She always looked fabulous, by the way.

In those days, there were weekly room inspections performed by a floor monitor, an older upper-classmate who got free room and board in exchange for being strict with us. If your room wasn’t clean, you would be grounded. Worse, if they found forbidden substances–specifically alcohol (pot & drugs were still a few years away)–you would be permanently expelled from the Conservatory! Marta and I were neither wild nor party girls, but, at age 18, that prohibition was far too tempting to ignore. There were a couple of popular shampoos in those days named Prell, which was green, and Breck, which was golden brown. We filled an empty Prell bottle with creme de menthe, and a Breck bottle with ginger brandy, set them out prominently on our bureaus, had a little sip whenever we wanted, and nobody ever found out.

Every week, only minutes before the monitor showed up for our weekly room inspection, Marta and I would desperately grab armfuls of our stuff, including candy bar wrappers, and shove it all helter-skelter into our closets; the stacks went up nearly to the ceiling. Only our booze stayed out. Then, during the inspection, we would stand to one side looking as innocent (and tidy) as possible, while praying desperately that the dorm monitor would not open our closet doors. She never did, and we never got grounded. (Well, at least we never got grounded for having a messy room. But that’s another story.)

And, although it distressed her, to my enormous relief, Marta did not win the pony.

Once, and only once, she and I went on an unprecedented cleaning binge. Afterward, we gave tours of the room to our dorm mates. They were all quite impressed. We heard comments like, “Oh, you have a radio? I never knew you had a radio,” and “Wow! So there was an actual floor under all that stuff?”

Over half a century later, Marta and I are still close friends.

My habits did not improve quickly. When my son was three years old, I pulled out the vacuum cleaner one day. He began to jump up and down, clapping his hands in delight, as he cried joyously, “Company’s coming, company’s coming!”

My child may also have grown up with some confusion about the purpose of an oven. This is because for much of his childhood, I gave piano lessons in our home. My students would be accompanied by one of their parents. To my dismay, the kitchen could be openly viewed from the living room, especially from the couch where the parents sat. It was an unfortunate situation for someone who was not all that great at keeping up with the dishes.

Did you know that, with only a few minutes’ notice, a whole lot of dirty dishes, as well as miscellaneous food items, can be crammed into an oven? There’s just one problem. You must take care to remove said dishes when preheating the oven to bake something. I won’t bother to tell you how I learned that.

Following are some other useful ways to disguise messiness that I have learned over the years. Not only are these touch-ups speedy; in performing them, rather than being scorned by those last-minute guests, you will be admired for the fantastic energy they think you are putting into housekeeping. Read on.

When the house is a total wreck and you discover to your horror that someone is going to pop in soon, here’s what you do. You quickly pull out the vacuum, the mop, and a caddy full of cleaning products: furniture polish, windex, paper towels, that sort of thing. Leave them lying around randomly. It will look as though you have been caught in the midst of doing deep cleaning.

If there are piles of clothes lying around, I have two solutions, both of them simple and fast.
1. Place a big open suitcase near the clothes to make it look as though you are packing for a trip,
2. Open an ironing board and stick an iron on it. Bundle up the clothing and shove it all into a laundry basket. If you have time, for a perfect finishing touch position one of the garments on the ironing board as if you were caught in the midst of ironing it.

When the bathroom is icky and company is arriving, the solution is simple. Sprinkle a whole bunch of cleanser, like Comet, into the sinks and tub, and for a finishing touch, leave a cleaning brush inside the toilet, which makes it looks as though you were caught in the middle of scrubbing. You can do this in under a minute, even while someone is knocking on the front door. Before you open the door, muss your hair a little (not difficult for me to do), quickly don rubber gloves, grab a broom  to hold, and, for the finishing touch, look as weary as possible (also not difficult for me to do). Gets ‘em most every time.

If all of that doesn’t fool them, you can take on the attitude of one of my friends, Peggy, who is a warm human being and talented writer (her articles have been published in places like Reader’s Digest and the Chicken Soup inspirational book series), but also a sloppy housekeeper. Adding to Peggy’s overall untidiness, she has lots of indoor cats and possesses no sense of smell. You get the picture. She tells me that when people visit, she never cleans up ahead of time. Rather, she says, as her guests enter her home, they look around, sniff the air, and immediately feel superior to her and thus very good about themselves. She considers it her contribution to humanity.


I Heart Hippos (and lounge jazz)

Hey, guys, I just watched the most gripping nature documentary about hippopotami! My goodness! I did not know that hippos are the nearest relatives of whales, and like whales, chatter to one another almost constantly when they are underwater. What fabulous mothers these talkative gals are! Their fellows, on the other hand, are into–well you know–things that fellows like. Fighting and yelling and stuff. Each hippo must eat about 80 pounds of grass a day, making me wish I could import a couple, just for a day, to rid my yard of invasive and unwanted foxtails.

Anyway. It seems de rigueur for the narrator of nature documentaries to be a mature man with a British accent. The main commentator for Indycar races, also a man with a few years under his belt, speaks with a similar accent, which may be why I am inordinately fond of Indycar racing, but not of Nascar, where the announcers usually sound like hillbillies. (I write this with profound apologies to my hillbilly friends).

Back to the hippos: as I watched the show, I had to applaud whomever selected the music tracks. There was brittle martial music when the guys fought, desperately dire music when the waterways dried up and fires came, sad and drawn out cello notes when one of the hippopotami died, quirky-but-elephantine music when the bull hippo scattered his dung (I frankly thought that they might have taken that act a bit more seriously; certainly the bull hippo did)...and then, for the lovemaking (which, with hippos, takes half an hour!!!), the song choice was some slow, sensuous lounge jazz that seemed absolutely appropriate. But since, other than having been a good mother and occasionally carrying a few extra pounds, I am no hippo, what do I know?

(Another similarity is that birds like to ride on top of hippos. Welcome to my world.)



For our mental and emotional health, experts say that we should look at fixed habits of ours and consider altering them. They recommend, for instance, that we should do things like take a different route to work, or, if we've always parted our hair on the left side, part it instead on the right side. You know, stuff like that. This is supposed to result in greater joy.

In a quest for such an increase in happiness, I have made an enormous change, although it occurred by accident. Here's what happened. The other day I absently changed to a new roll of toilet paper, and then realized to my horror that I'd unthinkingly mounted it hanging in the wrong direction. Guess what? I LEFT IT LIKE THAT!

My (former) OCD need to have the toilet paper installed so that the paper hung ONLY one way, and no other, was so stubborn (in the past, mind you) that in the bathroom of my classroom, when I would tidy up after my students went home, if I discovered to my irritation that during the day someone had mounted a new roll of t.p. incorrectly, I would be overcome by a furious compulsion to take it off the spool and change its direction.

I am pleased to report that my experiment in mental health continues--it's been two days now! I confess that I grit and gnash my teeth whenever I use the bathroom. It's not easy. Everything looks and feels wrong. It takes a superhuman effort to resist grabbing the toilet paper and turning it the other way around. You know, the RIGHT way. In short, it hurts. All gain that's worthwhile, however, comes with some pain, doesn't it? My hope is that this new discipline of mine will pay off by doing good things to my psyche, and that as a result, 2021 will be a glorious year.

Happy New Year to you, too, everyone!
The End
Hey, all...if you enjoyed this post, well then, you will want definitely to read Mary Elizabeth's collection of short stories, "The Man in the GPS and Other Stories," available in paperback or on Kindle!



THEY WERE TOO short, those few years that we knew one another. The saddest day of my life was the phone call I got telling me that Vergie had dropped dead of a heart attack in her milking barn. She was scarcely 50. Her poor, beautiful heart. She did not eat well. Bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise are not good for the heart. So here I am now at her funeral, remembering how it all began.

I FIRST MET Vergie at the Miss Dairyland Beauty Pageant. The convention center where it was held was enormous, and I had been busy texting my boyfriend, so at first I didn’t notice it when Vergie wandered by mistake into our hall, the registration area for all of the beauty contestants. Including me.
This convention center and hotel hosted multiple venues, and a large brightly lit sign outside announced that the State Dairy Farmers’ Conference was going on at the same time as our pageant. That’s where Vergie was supposed to be. She was tired, though. She didn’t like cities. The long drive, followed by forging her way through rush-hour traffic, had been a struggle for her, and huge complexes like the conference center confused her.
“I was all discombobulated,” is the way she put it later. “By the time I got out of my truck, I didn’t know left from right.”
Or east from west. The State Dairy Farmer’s Conference was being held in Convention Center East, but Vergie had mistakenly wandered into Convention Center West, which was, of course, where our beauty pageant was being held.
When she tried to sign in, the people at the registration table rolled their eyes and hassled her. Vergie got flustered and started to argue with them, stubbornly pulling out her receipts for the farmer's conference and insisting that she was preregistered. Heads turned abruptly to look at her when she did that, because Vergie never spoke in normal tones. Instead, she hooted. Loudly. Maybe on her farm that was the only way she could make herself heard above the cows.
I stopped texting to see what the racket was all about. This was when I first laid eyes on Vergie. She stood only five feet tall, but she easily weighed over 200 pounds. It was hard to tell how old she was, but she was not young. Above her smile (because Vergie nearly always smiled), she had bushy eyebrows, a bulbous nose, and lots of down on her upper lip—so much, in fact, that she possessed a very distinct moustache. Her outfit consisted of jeans that were tight around her protruding tummy but baggy everyplace else, and a short-sleeved yellow and black print blouse that did not flatter the thickness of her upper arms. The print on the blouse was one of little cows.
It was just kids, really, running the registration table, and they were bored, so, giving each other smirking glances, they thought that they’d have a little fun. One of the beauty contestants had cancelled at the last minute, and her fee was nonrefundable, so after whispering together and giggling, they decided that they would put Vergie in that girl’s slot as a joke. A smart-aleck guy, who was trying hard to remain straight-faced, handed her a paper and, with a breaking voice, instructed her to fill it in and sign it. Vergie obviously thought that she was signing into the State Dairy Farmer's Conference, but what they actually gave her was the form for registering as a beauty contestant in the Miss Dairyland pageant. Vergie couldn’t read all that well, and she was exhausted, so she probably didn’t pay any attention to the small print.
The kids at the table were snickering under their breath the whole time, trying not to laugh. It was a mean thing for them to do, but at least they didn’t charge her anything. The guy managed to pull himself together by the time she looked up. Putting on a fake bored face, he gave Vergie her ID badge, along with a printed schedule of events. When she finally stepped into the elevator to go up to her hotel room, they exploded with laughter. I felt sorry for her. I never guessed that she would wind up being my best friend.

AN HOUR OR so later we were given a buffet dinner. Vergie showed up, along with everybody else, and while the other girls had changed their outfits, she wore the same clothes that she had worn during registration. She must have showered, though, because her dark hair was slicked back and still wet.
The meal was a joke. We were all upset. One of the more aggressive girls cornered the caterer and began whining, with a blank expression on her face, that there weren’t any gluten-free or vegan entrées. She only looked blank because her Botox wouldn’t let her frown.
In a way, having abundant healthy food would have been much harder on us. We beauty contestants, who are nearly all would-be models and hopeful actresses, lean toward anorexia and typically exist on starvation diets. In no way did any of us intend to eat a regular dinner on the night before the opening of the pageant. Thus, the inedible food wasn’t actually a problem since none of us meant to have more than a few teensy bites anyway.
Well, none of us except for Vergie. She enthusiastically piled her plate as high as she possibly could, and then sat down next to me with an extremely pleased expression on her face. Vergie clearly liked food, and it was evident by her choices that she was neither a picky eater nor a dieter.
“Hi there,” she said, her loud voice bellowing out cheerfully, despite having a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “My name’s Vergie. What’s yours?”
“Tina,” I said, stiffening. I will admit it; I acted deliberately chilly and remote because, quite honestly, I didn’t like her. It was embarrassing that she was even talking to me. The other girls were glancing my way with raised eyebrows, and I wanted to hide under the table.
At the same time, though, I felt sorry for her because of the way she was being tricked. Not that any of this seemed to matter to Vergie. She was focused more on shoveling food into her face than on being sensitive to the signals that I was broadcasting. Still, with a sigh, I lifted a corner of the deep freeze and let her talk to me. Of course, I didn’t really engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue with her. I just nodded my head a few times. It amazed me how she wolfed down everything on her plate, making strange, guttural, happy noises as she ate. Most of her conversation was devoted to exclaiming about how how terrific the food was, and how it sure beat the bologna sandwiches she would be eating if she were home alone. My responses were polite, but curt. I finally managed, with relief, to escape from the table.
That night we had free time, and a bunch of us decided to go swimming in the hotel pool. Here is what our idea of swimming was: we clustered together poolside, showing off the skimpy swimsuits that we would be modeling the next day during the swimsuit part of the competition, with no intention of getting wet. The air filled with a squealing medley of high-pitched chatter as we carefully began to get acquainted. At the same time, we were ever-so-cautiously sizing one another up. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was secretly hoping that my thigh gap was sufficient enough to avoid criticism from the other girls. I posed on the edge of the pool along with a few others, splashing my manicured feet in the water.
That was the extent of our swim—until Vergie arrived.
I heard her before I saw her. “Oh, hi there, Tina!” she bellowed. My shoulders sank. Her loud shout embarrassed me. I waved at her weakly, and then smiled at the others with an apologetic what-can-you-do shrug.
Vergie had changed her clothes. She was now wearing cut-offs and a big yellow t-shirt that said EAT BUTTER on it. Under the t-shirt, Vergie, who was obviously bra-less, had enormous sagging breasts. They were definitely not the rounded, perky, and mostly artifical breasts that the rest of us, including me, had under our tiny bikini halters. Vergie’s thighs and the massive backs of her arms jiggled when she moved, and I saw with alarm that she was heading toward the side of the pool where I was perching. Even more alarming, she was not doing so with the intention of sitting down. She began to trot, and then to run, picking up speed. She didn’t stop until she had plunged, cannon-ball style, into the pool. She half-emerged from the water with a laughing hoot and began splashing us. Like the other girls, I screeched and tried to get away, but in a short time I was soaked.
To this day, I don’t entirely get it. None of us were happy about getting wet. Normally we would have proceeded to snub someone like Vergie, and we would have done it cruelly until she ran away crying. I'm sorry, but that would have been our instinctive response to her behavior.
I still wonder what it was that won us over. Perhaps it was her childlike smile and complete lack of filters. Maybe she got to us because we were all wound up and nervous about the upcoming contest, and she was, in contrast, so completely, if awkwardly, unselfconscious, with such pure enthusiasm, that she somehow managed to poke through the defenses we had erected.
Then again, maybe it was because we were a little bit like a herd, and she was used to working with herds.
Whatever the reason, her spirit was surprisingly infectious, and little by little we began to unwind. Pretty soon we girls wound up in the water, playing this crazy follow-the-leader game that she instigated. It didn’t take long before we were genuinely laughing and joking and, thigh gap aside, truly getting to know one another. All because of Vergie.
I need to explain something here. I am now a professional model, and a famous one, known world-wide for my huge, luminous eyes and my long silky hair. You’ve seen me on magazine covers and in make-up commercials. Until I got my break, though, I did all the pageants. I’d started doing them when I was just a little kid. You can even see me as a six-year-old on an old TV show called Toddlers and Tiaras. So believe me when I tell you that the climate at beauty contests can get pretty bitchy.
Something miraculous happened at the Miss Dairyland pageant, though. It was unbelievable how well we all began to get along. Many of the girls from that weekend ended up becoming lifelong friends. And it all started at the pool.
I would have been horrified at the time to realize how well I was soon going to get to know—and like—that loud, round, mustachioed woman. Even now that it's over, the idea that someone like Vergie and someone like me wound up as best friends is bewildering. Maybe it was because I could always be completely myself around her. She couldn’t care less about thigh gap and, unlike other people, she didn’t even seem to notice my beauty. I was always able to tell her anything without ever being judged. And her undimmable smile lightened my spirit. Nobody else has ever made me feel that good, even including my various boyfriends. And for her part? I guess she was lonely. In a strange way, perhaps we both were.

VERGIE’S BODY IS lying in a casket on display in front of the church. When I came in a few minutes ago, I expected to start sobbing as soon as I caught a glimpse of her, but instead I found myself laughing out loud. People turned to stare at me. It’s because of the way she looks. They put pink lipstick, blush, and a frilly dress on Vergie. Not only that; they curled her hair, plucked those bushy eyebrows, somehow managed to flatten her tummy…and they shaved off her moustache!
The church choir is yawling all these mournful dirges, and I guess that the music is supposed to make us feel sad, but I want to giggle because it is so ridiculously inappropriate.
Vergie hated songs that weren’t happy. In her mind, the peppier the better. Her musical tastes were not normal, of course. I could never get her to listen to the bands that I like. No, she was stirred by a different kind of band—marching bands, for one. You’d hear Sousa marches all the time playing on the speakers in the barn. She also had a soft spot for the perkier tunes in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, especially a corny old song called, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” She used to sing that over and over when she and her hired hand, Jimmy, milked her cows.
“Jimmy says my singing is more like hollerin’,” she would say. “But it makes the girls feel great when I sing to ‘em.”
Making her girls feel great was Vergie’s prime objective. She was always good to her girls. Who were her dairy cows.

I REMEMBER THE first time she ever brought me into the barn. It was right after the pageant had ended. I’d never been on a farm before. Stupid me, I had on my high heels, and I was drenched in cologne.
“Those shoes work like spikes. Great idea,” she shouted as my $350 heels sank deeply into the muck of the hillside leading up to the barn. “You’re kind of crazy, though, for wearing all that expensive perfume here. Don’t you know nothin’? The only ones who are going to love you for it are the mosquitoes,” she teased. Then she threw open the barn doors.
“Now get a whiff of this! Best perfume in the world!” The smell of the manure was so overwhelming that I nearly gagged, which gave her a good chuckle.
Vergie told me that she had learned how to walk in that very dairy barn, toddling around on little chubby legs while her dad milked by hand, sitting on one of those three-legged stools, the kind you see in the old black-and-white movies. She said the cows used to stick out their tongues and lick the back of her head, giving her a true cowlick, and sometimes knocking her over in the process. Even later, as an adult, the back of her hair always had a weird ruffled look to it.
She told me that the cows also liked to try to swat her across the face with a tailful of manure. She claimed that they did it deliberately. I thought that she was exaggerating. I was wrong. I had hardly entered the barn on that first visit when a cow actually tried to do it to me…and succeeded. Maybe it was fun for the cow, but I screamed and raced out of the barn in my muddy high heels. Vergie followed me, pointing at my face and laughing so hard that when we reached the grass, she collapsed, shaking, tears of sheer delight streaming down her cheeks. Me, I was disgusted, and I grabbed handfuls of grass to try to clean off my face. After a minute, though, I gave up. I kicked off my high heels, lay down next to her, and then started giggling along with her. We both wound up howling with laughter for a really long time. That, I think, is when our friendship truly solidified.

I GREW TO love how kind Vergie was. For instance, she would let her cows out of the dairy barn into the pasture nearly every morning, which she said a lot of farmers didn’t do any more. But she was stubborn and refused to change her old-fashioned ways.
“My girls want sunshine and freedom. Why shouldn’t they be able to move around, just like us?” she said.
She also kept a bull on the farm named Harry. Hardly anybody else kept bulls any more, she said, because they can be dangerous. Most dairy farmers found that it was simpler just to have the cows artificially inseminated.
“Nowadays the closest thing the cows have to a love life is the veterinarian’s arm. That just ain’t fair.” She gave me a sly grin and blushed a little. “Harry is my gift to my cows. He’s got great genes, he’s gentle enough, everybody gets a little, and the girls thank me by giving good milk, the best milk in the world!”
Vergie told me that her father had always kept a bull around as well, which was the only choice they had back then, but his bulls were not as polite as Harry. When she was little, she wound up accidentally-on-purpose trapped in the bull’s field so often that it became the family joke. The bull would charge, and while she was never afraid, she would have to run away as fast as she could, chuckling, her little arms and legs churning like crazy. Her father would sometimes hop the fence to protect her. His way of keeping the bull from hurting his little girl was by picking up the nearest stick of wood and “thunking him a good one on the nose.”
The family found it all very amusing, Vergie said, until the day of her 16th birthday.
“I was out in the pasture,” she said quietly. It was one of the few times that I ever heard her speak quietly. “I didn’t know it, but the bull had broken through his fence. He began to run at me. Dad had been out hunting pheasants and saw it. He raced over between me and the bull, and did the usual, whacking the bull on the nose…except that the nearest stick of wood turned out to be the butt of his rifle.”
When her father hit the bull, the rifle discharged, and he was killed. Vergie dropped out of school when that happened. Her mom died a couple of years afterward, and then it was up to Vergie to run the farm all by herself.
I’m not sure leaving school created any major loss in her life. While Vergie had a thick skin, I always suspected that the other kids may have been hard on her. See, Vergie was…how can I put it? She was like blind people or those with severe mental challenges who don’t know how to hide their emotions; whatever they’re feeling shows on their faces. When they feel good, they beam, smiling too hard, because they don’t realize that it’s not considered cool to reveal your feelings. Vergie was exactly like that; when she was happy, which was most of the time, it showed, because she had no idea how to mask her face to look cool. On the rare occasions that she was sad, she showed that too. She wasn’t cool, and she wasn’t smart either, at least in a scholarly way. So I imagine that even though it had isolated her to drop out of school, it didn’t hurt much either.
All Vergie really knew about were her cows. She gave a name to every one of them. She let the calves stay with their mothers longer than most dairy farmers did. Usually when a cow’s milking days are over, it’s shipped to the slaughterhouse, but she told me that she refused to do that. She let all the old cows live out their lives grazing in the back pasture. She affectionately called them, “My grannies.”
When it became obvious that one of them was ready to die, she would first spend some time talking and singing to it, and then, if the cow seemed to be in pain, she would tearfully shoot it with her dad’s old rifle. Those that could become meat she butchered herself.
“The girls get real scared and shook up on the truck that takes them to the slaughterhouse, and some of the people in those places can be really mean to the cows before they kill them. I ain’t going to let that happen to none of my grannies,” she said determinedly. “They served me well, and when their time comes, it’s gonna be fast and they ain’t gonna suffer.”

I WONDER WHO put this funeral together for her? I guess it must be the women at the church who organize the potlucks. Vergie used to go to all the Wednesday night church potlucks. She never missed them. In certain ways she was like her cows; they needed routine in their lives to feel safe, and I think Vergie needed some of that, too. The primary reason for going, though, was because she was an awful cook. All the rest of the week, she lived on bologna sandwiches. Vergie was a regular at the church basement potlucks the way some people go out to a eat at a restaurant once a week. Those casseroles made with hamburger and macaroni, and the jello with marshmallows in it, and the chocolate sheet cakes? She went nuts over that kind of food. Her contribution to the potluck was always a tub of store-bought potato salad. At the local Safeway deli counter, they knew her well; they actually packed up the potato salad for her in advance and had it waiting for her every Wednesday afternoon.
Even though she attended the potlucks faithfully, Vergie refused to go to church services.
“I used to go to church with Mom and Dad, but only because it made them feel good. After they were gone, there wasn’t no point,” she said to me. “Don’t get me wrong—and I know you’re Jewish, so no offense—but I really like Jesus. I just can’t see him fitting in with the stained glass and the fancy candlesticks. I think he’s more the outdoor type, like me. They mean well, but I ain’t gonna let him be locked inside a dark church with all that sad, serious music any more than I’m going to lock my girls in the barn.”
She was stubbornly convinced that, given his choice, Jesus would far prefer her kind of music to hymns: Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes and Sousa marches.
One day when I came out to the farm to visit her, we took a walk around the fields and she showed me some special spots. “A lot of times when I take a walk, I kind of feel like Jesus is walking beside me,” she confided. “Jesus and me, sometimes we sit under that big mulberry tree there at lunchtime, or we go climb the hill at night to look at the stars. And you know what?” she continued. “I feel like he is always there in the barn when it’s time to milk, because he loves the girls just as much as me. He pats them all on the head, every single one.” She gave me a sideways look. “You probably think I’m crazy, but I swear he does that. And him and me, we talk all the time. Funny. I like to talk, but you and Jesus, you’re the only two I ever really talk to so much.”
“What about Jimmy? Don’t you talk to Jimmy,” I asked.
 Jimmy lived in a ramshackle rusted trailer behind the house. He was shy and he always ducked away when I came to visit.
“Nope,” said Vergie. She flushed. Vergie almost never flushed, but bringing up the subject of Jimmy could do the job. “Me and Jimmy don’t hardly never talk like you and I do. Or like me and Jesus.”
Even though I’m Jewish, I still liked that, being put in the same category as Jesus.

UP FRONT, THEY are getting the communion ready before the service begins. That was the one thing that Vergie always said the church got right. She believed wholeheartedly in communion. Naturally, she did it in her own unique way. After we became closer, now and then she’d invite me to do it with her.
I can hear her now: “Hey, let’s have communion,” she would cry. Sometimes it would be a sweet bowl of wild strawberries drenched in fresh cream. Other times, communion consisted of sucking the nectar from the big purple clovers in the field  and then spitting out the drained flower parts. She always claimed that Jesus was sitting with us when we did that. I didn’t mind.
Oh, look. There's Jimmy, huddled there by himself in a pew over in the corner, trying to make himself invisible. Poor guy. He looks miserable. I’m probably the only person here who even knows who he is.
Vergie told me that she’d hired him a year or so after her folks died, because she couldn’t handle the whole farm by herself. He must have been just a kid then, like she was, although he’s one of those people where it’s hard to know his real age. He could be anything from 20 to 60. He’s not smart. With Jimmy, what you see is what you get. He’s got crazy looking dirty-blonde hair that I think he cuts himself, and he has a serious overbite with yellowing teeth, and he doesn’t always smell so nice, but in spite of all of that, from the little I know he is the sweetest, most helpful guy there is.
Once, early on, I asked Vergie if she’d ever had a boyfriend. She got very embarrassed and she actually blushed! When Vergie blushed, she turned dark red, almost maroon, from her forehead to her chest. She refused to say anything more about having a boyfriend that day, and it took the longest time before I could get her to talk about it.
Finally I got the story out of her. It seems that one late afternoon after Jimmy had been living on the farm for a number of years the final milking of the day was done and they were cleaning the barn together as usual. She was turning the valves on the machine that washes out the milking equipment, and Jimmy was trying to hang a pail up on a hook, and he had to reach across the front of her to do it. Except after he hung the pail up, he didn’t move his arm back. Not for a long time. It seems that they just stood there like that, not looking at each other, until, very slowly, his hand came down to cup her breast. That’s all she told me. When she stopped talking, she got a funny smile on her blushing face, and she didn’t need to say more.

AFTER WE HAD our swim on that first night of the Miss Dairyland Pageant, a bunch of the girls came to my room to socialize, and Vergie showed up too. By then she was welcome. When there was a lull in the conversation, she spoke up in her loud, hooting voice and asked, “So, any of you ladies ever milk a cow?”
One of the girls tried to be funny and said, “What’s a cow?” The rest of us laughed.
 Vergie grunted. “Okay, that’s what I thought,” she said good-naturedly. Then she added, “You all should understand something. I figured out that they put me in this contest for a joke. But guess what? I’m not gonna leave. And I’ll tell you how come. It’s because there ain’t no woman in the world who deserves the title of Miss Dairyland more than me.”
Then she turned to the door, said a cheerful goodnight over her shoulder, and left. We were pretty stunned.
For most of the next two days, we saw no sign of Vergie. Even though I had begun to like her, I was hoping that she’d either found the farmer's convention in the other wing of the hotel, or had simply decided to head back home. We were all relieved that she didn’t appear when we modeled our swimsuits or our evening gowns. She didn’t emerge during the talent portion of the pageant, either.
But, as it turned out, she hadn’t gone anywhere. No, Vergie had a plan. She was waiting until the final event to come out of her hotel room.

THE FUNERAL IS ready to start. Poor Jimmy. He has to be heartbroken. At least Vergie left everything to him so he won’t have to move or start over. The cows will be well taken care of.
A minute or so ago, I went over to his pew in the corner.
“Hi, Jimmy,” I said.
He looked up at me with a tearstained face, and then shyly back down again, staring at his folded, roughened hands. I sat down next to him. I could see that he was working up his nerve to say something to me.
“I sang to her,” he finally said in a choked voice, still looking down. “When I found her that morning, I held her and I sang ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.’”
There was nothing else to say. I just placed my hand on his for a moment, and then came back here to my pew.

FOR THE LAST portion of the pageant, we were all supposed to come out on stage as a group. Next, each of us in turn was expected to totter over to the microphone in high heels, wearing a tight, sexy, glittery outfit, where we would give a short but inspiring talk. We’d rehearsed our speeches with our coaches many times.
On that final night as we were lining up backstage, ready to walk out, toothy smiles plastered on our faces, Vergie snuck in at the last minute and joined the tail end of the line. They wanted to stop her, but she had her papers. She was a registered contestant. I mean, legally there was nothing they could do about it, and they knew that. You could hear the crowd gasp as she walked out onto the stage with the rest of us.
Each girl proceeded to take her turn at the microphone. I was super happy both with how I looked and how my speech came out. I gave a very good and sincere talk. In fact, all the girls did really well, and the whole event went smoothly until the very end…until Vergie walked up to the mic. She was wearing what I now know were her best clothes, which consisted of an enormous denim skirt and the blue-plaid blouse she usually wore to the Wednesday church potlucks. Even though she was acting bold, I could see she was scared. I could tell that because she wasn’t smiling as hard as usual.
To my surprise, Vergie started her speech by turning around and pointing directly at me. Then she turned back to the audience and judges, and said in her hooty voice, “I guess whoever you vote to win the Miss Dairyland pageant, she’ll be someone like Tina here. Someone pretty. Because whenever I see a billboard or a commercial telling about milk and cheese and stuff, it’s always got someone like her on it. Someone real skinny, but pretty, with lots of hair.”
You have to remember that Vergie and I hadn’t become close friends yet. While I didn’t mind one bit being singled out for being pretty, I admit that I was a little bit taken aback by having her describe me as skinny. People had always idolized and envied me for my Barbie-doll figure. And, I hoped, my thigh gap. Nobody had called me skinny since the third grade.
“There’s nothin’ wrong with looking like Tina,” she continued, giving me an apologetic glance and turning back to the audience. Once again, I was somewhat stunned. “I mean, that’s God’s choice, what a person looks like, isn’t it? But that ain’t got nothin’ to do with what you folks here are calling Dairyland.
“Now to me, Dairyland is the farms all around me, and the cheese factory, and the milk plant near where I live. When I look at the women on the farms, or when I go into town and see the gals who work in the cheese factory, or the ones down at the milk plant, they don’t have no high cheekbones or fancy hairdos or expensive clothes. The women I see look more like me. Maybe real tired after a hard day’s work, maybe sorta chunky, maybe not so young any more. Lots of ‘em wear glasses.
“A few of them are pretty, I guess. But that don’t mean nothing. Nobody’s outsides matter nearly so much as what’s inside. And lots of ‘em have terrific insides. They’re good people. They’re hard workers. They’re simple, and honest, and strong. And that’s what Dairyland is really about.
“I know I ain’t pretty, and I’m not skinny neither. But I sure as heck understand cows better than anybody here. If you want a genuine Miss Dairyland on your billboard, then I think you should put MY picture on it!”
After she said that, at first there was an awkward silence. Nobody knew what to do. But then? The audience went absolutely crazy! They began screaming and applauding and stomping their feet on the floor, and they kept it up for a long time.
And what did Vergie do? She high-tailed it off the stage, ran to the ladies’ room, and threw up.

DESPITE THE WAY the audience reacted to her speech, the judges did not vote for Vergie to become Miss Dairyland. As a matter of fact, they voted for me! It was wonderful!
After the excitement died down, I went to find Vergie and dragged her out of the restroom. The photographers and TV people were still hanging around, so you know what I did? I put the crown on her head, placed my cape over her shoulders, and gave her my bouquet to hold. All the girls went along with it and began clustering around her feet like the royal court would at a beauty pageant. And suddenly the cameras got turned back on and the wild picture-taking began!
Those photos and the video of her speech—all of that got picked up by the TV news stations and then the internet. The YouTube of her speech went viral. It got over two million hits in the first week it aired.
The long and short of it was that for an entire year, every place you turned, guess who you saw on the Dairyland billboards and in the commercials? That’s right. Vergie, moustache and all, standing there proudly with her cows and her barn in the background. They gave her a lot of money for that.
I didn’t mind a bit. I got a lot of money too, along with all the prizes, and of course, I held the actual title. I still have the crown at home in a special place on my display shelf.

DARN. I WISH I had brought that crown along with me to the church. I’d sneak over to the casket and put it on her. I know she would laugh.
The service should be over soon. Then we’ll all go downstairs for the funeral dinner. Some of the church women are already bustling around down below, getting the food ready. Up here in the sanctuary, I can smell the baked beans and scalloped potatoes and the white rolls heating in the oven. I’m planning on breaking my diet and eating a lot at that church supper today. It’s going to be my tribute to Vergie. She’d be happy about that.

Miss Dairyland
Copyright © 2020 by Mary Elizabeth Raines
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, recorded or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, scanning, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of a few brief quotations in connection with a review.

Cover design by Mary Elizabeth 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, ever 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 movie cliché, taped in the middle to hold them 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. We all 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 mid-60s. Our music was on vinyl, and what my friends and I 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 students 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 is standing 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. As glamorous as I thought it to be, her sparsely furnished 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 amazement, I saw that it was a sparkler. (A sparkler is a hand-held firework that emits flames and sparks.) One imagines that Pindell, party guy and former rioter, believed that 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, decades before there were places like Starbucks. It would still be a couple of years before hippie coffeehouses came into their own. Hayes Bickford’s cafeteria was the one place in Boston where street people, addicts, bums, the most wretched of the wretched, and, of course, students like us 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 someone's 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 feat with five or six different records, the teacher exploded. “What is going on? A magic show?” he 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 sulphur had dissipated, Pindell took me aside and told me that he had something to say. He then professed that he was romantically attracted to me. His words sounded stilted and rehearsed. Stunned, I told him the truth as sweetly as I could: I was not interested in him that way. 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 Newbury street in Boston. He was on the sidewalk 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 that were not taped together, 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.


*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.

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



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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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