photo by Chris Bilodeau
Jack had grown up on Dassin Street, which rhymed with Basin, which was synchronistic when he heard about Basin Street and the music scene in Memphis until he found out that the Memphis street wasn’t Basin at all, but Beale. There was a Basin in New Orleans, apparently, but it wasn’t the same. And even earlier a snag had occurred when a substitute teacher in fourth or fifth grade explained that the street name was probably French, and the proper pronunciation “Dah-seen.” He was troubled for days, perhaps longer, but in his senior year of high school he snuck into the film Never on Sunday and was thrilled by what he saw, including the charismatic lead actor – and director, too – Jules Dassin. It was good when things came around.
Things didn’t always, of course, such as his address here in Southern California. He had a tiny apartment on a hill above the coast, and an Audio-Visual credential from Gateway Tech back in Racine, which had gotten him his job at the NuArt Theatre in Santa Monica, but his new address was 225 Vista View Drive and he was sufficiently versed in Spanish to know the street name was seriously redundant. You might as well name a baseball team the Los Angeles Angels. Such a world, this, on a Spring afternoon in 1965.
That the substitute teacher had been wrong about French pronunciation, a fact Jack had learned only last week from Angelo, a fellow acting student, that was okay. Fitting, even, in some fashion he didn’t need to comprehend.
So there he sat, on his small balcony on View View Drive, finishing up a postcard to his mother and listening to the Angels Angels on the radio radio, when the telephone rang. He’d only had the phone a few weeks and not many people knew his number. As he walked toward the kitchen he realized he wasn’t sure that he knew his number.
“Hey, Jack, it’s me. How’s L.A. treating you?”
Evidently his brother Roy knew it. Jack made a mental note to remember to ask him to recite it before the call was finished, but then realized it was printed on the telephone itself. He erased the note.
“Given that it’s 76 degrees today, it’s pretty damn good.”
“Holy, holy,” Roy said. “That’s, well, let’s see, that’s only about thirty degrees warmer than here. So, not so different. We’re actually having a pretty decent April.”
“Yeah, and go Braves, too, and all that. What’s up in the wilds of Racine? Must be something big for you to spend precious dimes on your little brother.”
“It’s Sunday, little man. It’s probably always Sunday in ‘La-La Land’ so you don’t even notice. But you’re worth it, as long as I keep it under a buck.”
Jack took a step to the fridge, which was as far as the cord would allow, to fetch a Pepsi. The church-key was on the counter so it was easy to open the bottle as he nestled the receiver under his chin.
“I heard that,” said Roy. “What kind of beer they got out there?”
“It ain’t beer, just Pepsi. Besides, you can’t get Leinie or Point or any of our stuff out here. Unless you count Schlitz and I know you don’t.”
“Another reason I’m sticking to Wisconsin.”
“Well, there’s this thing. I’ve been working for Gene, you know, clearing brush down where the river hits the lake, and he’s got a couple of new guys on the crew. One’s a girl, actually.”
“Is that a county contract? Gene’s moving up.” Gene and Roy were four years older than Jack, had graduated from Horlick High School the day before he finished eighth grade. He’d been chasing them for years but his move west had changed the race a little. Probably neither Gene nor Roy knew anything about any competition, but it was there.
“Yeah, Gene’s doing okay. He’s got three trucks now: Silver Man Landscaping, painted on all of ‘em. He’s even about to buy a house, so that part’s good. But there’s this deal.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Weren’t you listening? It’s a girl. What else do I need to say?”
Jack took a swallow and pressed the chilled bottle to his forehead. He’d learned some things from his big brother, he’d always admit that, but Roy and women had never been a walk down Easy Street.
Once at a rec center dance in the summer, when Jack was in seventh grade and Roy in 11th, a girl walked in front of the brothers in a flouncy and probably too-fancy-for-the-occasion dress, and Roy whistled and called:
The girl spun around but Roy said: “Not you, shipwreck.” Jack felt like he’d been punched in the stomach, so how bad was it for the girl? Well, that was a good eight years ago, and things do change. His brother remained taller, and sometimes mouthy, but he’d learned to pick his spots a whole lot better.
Jack returned to the conversation. “Maybe a little bit more information would be helpful.” He wasn’t accustomed to Roy asking for advice.
“Yeah, well, she’s not like other girls. I mean, she’s tougher than nails, and swears like Uncle Kenny used to, but … .” Jack pictured Roy’s face scrunching as he sought the next words. Sometimes it took awhile. Roy rallied:
“But she’s really hot, too. I mean, it’s crazy, ‘cuz she’s kinda fat, not gross but not skinny like I like ‘em, and her hair is pretty short, too. At first I thought she was a guy. Not my style, right?”
“Big brother, you falling for a dyke?”
“Ha, ha, but I wondered. But no, she’s no dyke, never has been. Believe me, I can swear in a court of law she’s not. She just looks that way.”
“So what’s the problem? I think I already asked that.” Jack slit open a package of Twinkies and bit into the first one.
“I don’t know. I just, I just think she might be the one.”
“I know, it is. It should be, but I’m scared. Man, I haven’t said that out loud in my whole life. But it’s true.”
Jack knew he had never heard his brother say it, or anything close to it, so it might be so. Stunning as that was, the fact that Roy was less than 100% cocksure about a girl – that was the breathtaking part, never mind that he was, sort of, asking him for advice about love. Jack paused for a couple of deep breaths.
“I’m no courtship expert but maybe you should be telling this to her, not me. Honesty can be an okay policy. I think I read that in a book or something.”
“Yeah, good idea. You’re getting smart for a kid. Yeah, I think I might do that. Yes. Thanks.”
“Anytime. Good luck with it, and stay warm out there.”
“You, too. Say hi to Marilyn Monroe for me. Over and out.”
Right, Roy, I would, but she’s still dead, three years and counting, he would have said had he not heard the quick click from Roy’s end.
Jack hung up the phone. He hadn’t been sure of getting one but he was glad that he had. He walked back outside, sat down on the hard wooden chair, learned that the Angels Angels were leading by two going into the eighth inning, and thought about Angelo. They were meeting for drinks in Westwood in two hours. He liked his brother’s expression “hot,” and saw how it applied to Angelo. Hell, it could have been invented for him.
Roy had actually been open with him. Amazing. He wondered if there ever would be a time when he was open with Roy, open about the most important part of his life. He tried to imagine a similar call. It wouldn’t be soon.
He was in California – Southern California — God’s gift for a soft life. He worked in a decent place and he might one day be an actor. He looked beyond the railing toward the rolling Pacific. He wrote one more line on the postcard for Mom: The relentless string of pretty days continues.
He went back in, kicked off his sandals, shed his shorts and shirt, and turned on the shower. He would wash his hair and then he would shave, shave for the second time today, just to be sure. He wanted to look good, maybe even warm, for Angelo.
Toweling off he realized he wanted to look cool, too. Hot, and cool, and warm, all at once, but not cold. Such a language. And didn’t language begin with the lips?
TONY PRESS tries to pay attention and sometimes he does. His short story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published in January, 2016 by Big Table Publishing. About 100 of stories and poems can be found in many fine journals. He lives near San Francisco but has no website.