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The Summer of Love

 

I was squeezed into the back seat of Leo and Deb’s 65 Woody with, Sandy, Nita, and Gail. A late spring Texas shower had washed out the air and we were all feeling the electricity. I wanted to crawl into the way-back with Gail and do something, I wasn’t quite sure what, but it was a church-outing so you weren’t suppose to be thinking like that. But I was. I felt her warm, skinny body next to mine, and thought about the way she smiled and drew her words out long and slow, like something sliding down a hillside. I was glad she had come, mostly because she made me feel good, but also because she didn’t laugh when Leo made fun of me. Cherish was on the radio, I could just barely hear it over the rush of the wind and the giggling of Sandy and Nita. He was tickling her and she was yelling for him to stop, but of course he wouldn’t. Cherish faded in and out as the signal searched for the coat hanger antenna Leo had rigged up. I felt the music build. I loved the way the song rose to a dramatic climax and then burst into a long slow harmony of voices “Cherish is the word….”

We were headed to Leo and Deb’s to eat pizza and watch old movies. Last week it had been Bogart and Bacall and Leo had compared me to Peter Lorre, which put me in a funk lasting for days, worrying that this was my destiny, to be the skinny funny looking guy that girls would never take seriously. This lasted until Sandra Ross had smiled at me in the hall on Thursday, but now I was back out with Leo and the rest of them, so who knew what the evening would hold.

I noticed that Deb was sitting over by the door, not snuggled up next to Leo like she normally was and wondered what that was all about. I could see the thin line of love beads surrounding Leo’s neck where normally I would have expected to see Deb’s arm.  I was also wondering why Gail had gotten into the back seat when she could have sat up front with Leo and Deb.  Maybe Peter Lorre did actually get some girls.

We got to Leo and Deb’s just as the sun was setting. The sky was blue and shot through with shafts of pink. Leo was probably thinking about God, or something, with a sunset like that. It was funny though, him being a minister, he never said stuff about God or anything. Also, he was sort of different than any other minister I had met. For one thing he was not much older than the youth group. And he didn’t act that much different either. Here he was wearing his leather jacket and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and Deb had hair practically down to her waist. She was really cute too, when you thought about it, she could have almost been the girlfriend of one of them, but, no, that was stupid. She was probably twenty-five at least. I didn’t really know how old Leo was, but he sure didn’t seem much like a minister.

We entered through the colored beads that divided the living room off from the rest of the house. Leo immediately lit some incense, which he did every week. It was like we were entering our own little church. The church of the Friday night pizza, old movies and communal back rubs. I plumped down on the green plastic beanbag; that was part of the ritual as well. Leo even called it my throne one time, but, maybe it was really more like my pew. Deb came in from the kitchen carrying a tray of sodas.  I loved the way the little bubbles formed on the sides of the metal glasses, making them seem even colder than they really were.

“Here we go, we have Coke, 7-UP and some old apple juice, that I hope is OK.”

We all sat down and started drinking our sodas. Leo sat on the floor in front of the stereo and started thumbing through his albums. He had hundreds of LP’s and his stereo was beautiful, an Acoustics Research turntable with a couple of huge Advent speakers. I had to admire that about him. For a minister he really had good taste in music. Leo pulled out an album and removed the vinyl like it was the loaf of bread on communion Sunday. He carefully combed the dust cleaner over the disk, and placed it on the turntable.

“What’s this Leo?”

“This, my friend, is the Beach Boys’ best album ever.”

“Oh yeah? And what would that be?”

“You don’t know? You haven’t heard Surf’s Up? Oh, man, you have to hear this.”

And with that the unmistakable voices of the Boys came blasting out of the Advents. The first song was something about water pollution, which I knew was a big problem. People were talking about it all the time. Even my parents thought it was a big deal.

Gail was sitting on the couch with Nita and Sandy. Sandy had his arm around Nita’s shoulder, and Gail was telling some story about her sister. Her sister had stolen a sweater from her and Gail had retaliated by stealing a pair of jeans. Gail and her sister were always fighting about something. Her sister was better looking, but there was something about Gail. Sometimes I couldn’t stop thinking about her for days after one of our youth group meetings. She just had a way, her voice, the way she smiled. She was skinny, like me, and her hair was always falling in her face. Her skin was not very good, she always had a bunch of zits, which I couldn’t stand to think about, but I still just felt like kissing her every time I saw her. It was funny.

“Hey Donnie, where are you man?”

It was Leo. He was always watching you, keeping you in line.

“What, huh? Oh, nothing, I was just, I don’t know…”

Nita defended him, “Donnie was just thinking, weren’t you Donnie?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Nita was so great. We had some sort of bond. We were both quiet types, and sometimes I felt like Nita understood me more than the rest. Sandy didn’t seem to mind. As long as she made out with him whenever he wanted, and maybe something more, who could tell, he sure seemed happy.

Deb came back into the room with a big plate of crackers and some cheese slices.

“OK, pizza is in the oven. If you are starving you can make yourselves cheese sandwiches.”

The local public TV station was playing a movie I had never heard off called “The Sun Also Rises”. Leo said it was based on a “fantastic novel” but that the movie was “a disappointment”. I actually liked the movie, but everyone else agreed with Leo that it wasn’t very good. Gail said it was boring, and Nita just said it seemed corny, which it was, but I sort of like corny. Also, the main character sort of reminded me of my Dad because of the war wound and everything, but, I didn’t really like to think about Dad getting hurt in the war.  Maybe that was why he never talked about it much. All I knew was his plane had been hit, and he had a bunch of metal in his hip now which was why he walked with a limp.

 After the movie Leo wanted to have one of our “sessions”, but everyone said they were tired, which was a relief. I hated our sessions. We were supposed to be getting in touch with our feelings, and getting closer as a group by “being real” with each other. I didn’t really know what that meant, because if you weren’t being real what were you being, imaginary? But of course you couldn’t say anything like that to Leo, he would just make fun of you and make you feel stupid. So, I tried to go along, and I did sort of know what Leo was talking about. Some people say things they didn’t really mean, sometimes I wondered about my own family even.      

I awoke to the sound of my sister Stephanie practicing “Fur Elise”. The sheer white curtain was billowing into the room like an expanding beast as the air conditioner kicked in. Normally I would jump out of bed, but today I lay there soaking in the dream from the night before. I had been wrestling in the back of Leo’s station-wagon with Gail, when suddenly I just did it. I grabbed her face and kissed her, but as soon as I did, she turned into Leo and he was laughing in my face.

After a few minutes of brooding I stirred myself up and headed into the kitchen. Stephanie had shifted to something else, I didn’t know the title, but it sounded modern. Dad was still sitting at the kitchen table, the sun was shining through and reflecting off the wall like a stage light. Yes, Dad was on stage, although he didn’t really need any prompting to give a speech.

Fortunately, Dad didn’t even look up from the paper when I sat down with cereal. But I was wondering where Mother was. Then I looked at the clock and realized it was almost 11:00, so she was probably out getting her hair done. I had just finished my cereal when Stephanie came in from the living room.

“Finished?”

“Yes, I guess so. I may do some more later. I’m going over to Deanna’s to work on a project.”

Dad looked up at that. “You’re going where to do what?”

“Deanna’s. It’s just a couple of blocks over.”

“And do I know this Deanna?”

“Yes, Dad, you met her at my recital.”

“Oh yes, she’s the chubby girl with the braces.”

“She isn’t that chubby, but, yes, I guess you might think of her like that.”

“And you, my young sir, what mischief will you be making today?”

“Don’t know. I may go over to Kevin’s for a while, and there’s that thing in the afternoon with the youth group.”

Stephanie was surprised “Are you doing that?”

“Sure, why not?”

“And what thing would that be?”

“It’s a protest at the college. I think Peter Yarrow will be there.”

“Peter who?”

“You know, Peter, Paul and Mary?”

“Ah, him. Does your mother know about this?”

“She said I could go. We’re meeting at the church and driving down in Leo’s car.”

“That Leo’s some sort of a character isn’t he?”

“I don’t know, I guess so.”

“Well, all right. But don’t expect me to bail you out of jail.”

“Oh Dad, this is Dallas. They’ll probably only be a few people there anyway.”

I was the first one to arrive at the church. Mother dropped me off in the parking lot on the way to a recital. It seemed like some group of her students was having a recital almost every week. I knew she was disappointed I didn’t play the piano. At least Stephanie did so the Brendan line of piano masters had some chance of continuing, or, maybe I should say the Donnello line, since that was Mother’s name. She had been a great pianist at one time. She even had photos from a concert in New York City, and I could hardly believe it was her when she played, it was so emotional and she was normally so calm. It was like she was another person, like that was the real Mother, and this other person she was when she wasn’t playing was just some sort of game, or like she was on stage pretending to be calm, and almost bored. It was funny to think about that, because I’m not like that. I am just the same, all the time.

I had a key to the church because of my part time job changing the light bulbs and keeping the soda machine stocked. I let myself in and walked down the abandoned education wing to the youth room. The building was silent. I sat on the old beat-up couch they had hauled in for a garage sale that never happened and waited for the others to show up. On the wall opposite the couch was a painting Leo had done of the group. I hadn’t ever thought much about the painting. It sort of looked like them, but not exactly. But now that I had the chance to study it a bit more carefully I noticed that there was something strange about it. The group was all arranged around Leo, like he was the center, and they were all just there to hold him up, like he was the star. The more I looked at it, the funnier it looked. It looked just like those stupid football posters at school, with Leo as the star quarterback and his little harem of cheerleaders gathered around him. I was actually about to start laughing out loud when I heard the door at the far end of the corridor open and close and then the sounds of Leo and Deb’s voices, slowly getting louder as they approached.

Leo came through the door first, wearing his habitual leather fringed jacket, but he also had a black strip of fabric tied around his upper arm.

“Hey man, you’re here already.”

“Yeah, my Mom dropped me off.”

“Great. We can start making the posters.”

“Who else is coming, do you know?”

“Never can tell, but, maybe Gail, and oh, I don’t know. We’ll see. Babe, have you got the poster board?”

“Oh, no, I think it’s out in the car?”

“What, I thought you got it?”

“No. I had the paints.”

“OK, OK. Donnie, can you go get them? Here are the keys.”

“Sure, OK.”

I was heading back into the church with the poster boards when Gail and her sister Leanne pulled up with their mother. Oh no, I thought, they’re both here. Leanne was just a year younger than Gail, and she was very beautiful. Her jet black hair was full, and circled her creamy white face with its perfect skin like a blanket wrapping a puppy. She had long lashes, and her eyes were slightly elongated, almost like she was part Asian, although I knew she wasn’t. She had this mysterious look. But the problem was she was so mean, and sort of a brat. Whenever they both showed up at the youth group the two sisters spent the entire time fighting and the whole group became weird. Gail spoke as they walked up.

“Hi Donnie, where are Leo and Deb?”

“Inside, they just sent me to get the poster boards.”

“So you’re the lackey.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

They walked down the hall to join the others. Leanne was strangely quiet. Maybe the two of them had been fighting in the car. When they got back to the room Leo was holding forth about Peter, Paul, and Mary and how important they were to the movement. I always thought it sounded funny when someone talked about “the movement” but knew better than to make fun of it around Leo. Some things just weren’t funny to him.

 They quickly put together the posters and all piled into Leo and Deb’s car. There was sort of an embarrassing moment when I tried to get in the backseat at the same time as Gail and Leanne. Gail went around to the other side of the car and I wound up in the middle between the two sisters. It reminded me of that song “Did you ever have to finally decide”, not that I really had anything to decide, but, it was fun to think about.

We got down to the SMU campus and went to a fountain surrounded by manicured lawns and the solid brick and sandstone buildings. I was thinking this was a strange place for a war protest and said something to Gail about waiting for Bugs Bunny to come dancing down the sidewalk singing “On with the show”. She laughed, the way she always did at my jokes, but also had a sly look like we should be careful about what we said in front of Leo. Leo had his ‘this is serious business’ look on his face and Deb was walking with her arms wrapped around him like he was a God. There was something sort of sick about this, but I couldn’t really say what it was. It felt so phony, like something you would see on a stupid TV show about war protests, not the real thing. At least Gail seemed to get that. Gail always knew what was real. The other thing that seemed wrong was there were only about twenty-five of us, which seemed sort of pathetic. I mean, how were the twenty-five of us supposed to stop the war machine?

After sitting around for what seemed like forever a band came out. I had never heard of them, but they were OK, I guess. The music was sort of corny, but they were very smooth. Finally, Peter came out with his guitar. He was really tall, which I knew from the cover of the one Peter, Paul, and Mary record my sister had. I didn’t like the record much, but it was sort of exciting to be sitting around with a famous music star. It was just then that I thought about how strange it was that Stephanie hadn’t wanted to come, but, then again, she really couldn’t stand Leo, said he gave her the creeps, so, maybe it wasn’t so strange. I looked over at Leo while Peter was playing a song he said was written by someone named Josh While, and he looked like he was in heaven. He had his arms around Deb, and his eyes were sort of squinting shut. Then I got this funny idea that he wanted me to be looking at him, so, I stopped.

Peter played for almost an hour and told some stories about the movement and it was sort of cool in a way, even though I also felt like I was in school, which seemed like not such a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Afterwards Leo was so excited, it was like he was the kid and we were all trying to get him to just calm down. He kept saying “What a star, could you believe it?” Even Deb seemed to get sick of it and I said “Maybe we should get him a drink” to Gail. She giggled and sort of grabbed my arm, which was great. Really that was probably the best part of the whole day.

It reminded me of another outing from a few months before when we had tried to join up with a youth group from a black part of town. We all just stood around staring at each other for a couple of hours and then had a very uncomfortable attempt at dancing. I thought it was like some big joke, and said so on the way back home and Leo had become furious. He acted like we had taken this major step in race relations in Dallas and I was just bringing us all down. I guess I’m just too much of a realist for Leo. 

Leo and Deb drove us all home. I was the last one to get dropped off. Gail and Leanne fought all the way to their house. Leanne said Peter looked like a letch and Gail had said Leanne thought every guy over forty was creepy, which Leanne denied and said at least she didn’t have a crush on Dean Martin like Gail did, and I wondered if it was true, as Gail did turn a bit red in the face, which was cute. After they got out I got up front with Deb and Leo. Leo seemed like he was finally getting his head off the concert, as he wanted to talk, never a good sign.

“Gail, seems like she really likes you.” Leo said.

“Do you think so?”

Deb looked at me with a sort of half-grin “Can’t you tell?”

Leo countered “If I was twenty years younger.”

Deb punched his shoulder “Well you aren’t”.

This all seemed sort of gross to me. So, I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking about Gail, and maybe I should call her or something when I walked into the house. Stephanie was working of a piece by Scott Joplin that she had started the week before. Mother was sitting in front of the TV, a glass of red wine sat on the table and I could smell something cooking in the kitchen. I thought it was probably chicken, with maybe something burning as well. I sat down on the couch next to Mother and realized she was asleep with the glass of wine poised precariously in her hand. The thought went quickly through my head that she had died on the couch and it was rigor mortis that was keeping the glass from dumping out on the floor. I gently eased the glass onto the coffee table and she opened her eyes. She glanced over at me, but then closed her eyes and rolled over to face the back of the couch.

The war was on the T.V. I watched the little white flashes light up the Vietnam jungle and thought that somebody died with every flash. It was really odd, for just a minute it felt like that was real, what was on T.V., and me, sitting there with my mother passed out on the couch, was like a dream, or, more like a play. Like we were made out of plastic, I actually felt frozen, like I couldn’t move. It didn’t last long, then I got up and went in the kitchen to see what was burning. Sure enough, it was the beans. I took them out of pot, and started a new pan of boiling water.

At dinner we all seemed grumpy. Dad had done barbeque and Stephanie complained that it was burned. I said something about it being a night for burning food and nobody knew what I was talking about as the bean incident was my little secret. I just smiled, and said “Oh nothing” when Dad asked “What’s that suppose to mean?” Stephanie was also mad about her piano piece, which she said was too hard, and Mother smiled and said “I wouldn’t ask you to play it if I didn’t think you could.” Stephanie said nothing in return. Dad started in on the war, and the hippies. He thought we should just “nuke the little gooks and be done with it”. I didn’t say anything about that either. What was the point? I thought about Peter and his gentle smile, his simple guitar. What chance did any of that have against people like my Dad, who was really a very smart man, but was saying things like this?

We finished dinner and I said I was going over to Kevin’s. “Not until after you do these dishes” was Mother’s response. Stephanie agreed that it was my turn, so I did them as fast as I could then headed out. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. I was feeling so trapped inside.

It was still hot on the way over the Kevin’s even though the night was coming, but the air felt good and clean, I could almost smell the fall hovering on the edge of our little section of North Dallas and could hear the cars rushing down Forest Lane. I thought about how easy it would be to just go up there, stick by thumb out, and get out. Leave all this behind me, and just be on the road. I had seen this show on the news about San Francisco, and all the people just hanging out. And here I was stuck in Dallas. But, of course, I just headed down the alley and knocked on Kevin’s door.

Kevin’s Mom answered and sort of nodded her head in the direction of his room when I asked where he was and said “He’s in there plotting the next world war.” She always had some smart comment like that. Kevin’s family was so funny. His Mom was sort of chubby and always seemed to have a cigarette either hanging out of her mouth or in her hand. She wore these crazy clothes, like she was a movie star or something and my mother said she drank a lot. Of course, who was she to point fingers? She was passed out at home most nights as well. Kevin’s Dad always seemed to be in the garden with the hose. He would just stand there for what seemed like hours, walking around the lawn like he was making a giant painting and every brush stroke of the hose had to be just perfect. Why didn’t he just get a sprinkler like everyone else?

 And then, of course, there was Kevin’s sister, Valerie. She was really cute, a couple of years younger than me, but she had this pert little face, and light brown hair. She always made me think of almonds for some reason. She also had a wild sense of humor, like her Mom, coming up with crazy stuff all the time.

Kevin was sitting on his bed throwing a football up in the air when I went in. The radio was on and KLIF was playing Revolution, which I had already heard probably five times that weekend and was starting to get sick of it. I grabbed the football out of the air next time he threw it up.

“Interception”

“Hey there. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Just thought I would come over. “

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. The usual I guess.”

“OK. Is it dark?”

“Almost.”

“Should I get Val?”

“Sure, why not. The other guys are probably already out there.”

The usual was a game we had made up called “Spotlight”. It had started at the start of the summer. It was just Kevin and me at first. We would go out with our flashlights and hide and you had to get back to the base, which was his front porch without getting shot with the flashlight beam. After a while Val had joined in, and now the whole neighborhood played. It was fun at fist but I was sort of getting bored with it now that the summer was almost over and we all knew the best hiding places, but it was better than just sitting around Kevin’s bedroom throwing the football up in the air.

Kevin kept my flashlight at his house, it was just easier that way. So we grabbed them and knocked on Valerie’s door. She opened up and gave me sort of a half grin.

“Oh Donnie, what a shock to see you here.”

“Yeah, I guess I am sort of a pest.”

“Well, we’re use to you now. We’re heading out? I’ll get my weapon.”

The night air was cool and I wondered about Valerie’s choice of clothes, very short shorts, a tiny little top and she was bare footed. Well, I guessed she could run faster that way, which I said to her and she said, “That’s right, run away from you.” which was a funny thing to say. But, that was Valerie.

There were about 12 of us playing. Besides Kevin, Val and me there was the Quinlins, the Davis boys, and the kids from the next block over whose names I never could keep straight. One of them was Dave, and the other one was Chuck and his little sister who was either Sue or Stu, but it must have been Sue because who would name a girl Stu, but maybe it was a nickname.

We had been playing about half an hour and I was running out of places to hide. I was in this little break in the wall behind the Grawley’s back yard that I didn’t think anyone else knew about when I heard something moving behind me. I turned around but didn’t want to turn on my flashlight as it was close to the home base and I thought someone would see me. I whispered “Who is it?” and there was a giggle.

“Val?”

 “I found you.”

“Why didn’t you shoot?”

“This is a great spot isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

We both stood there for what seemed like forever. I felt sort of funny being there alone with her. She was looking up at me with an odd half smile, like she had sometimes. The next thing I knew, we were kissing. I wasn’t sure if she had started it or I had, and it probably only lasted a second, but it felt like a day and a night. Her face was right up next to mine one second, and then we were doing it, and I reached up to put my hand on her back, but she broke free. Then she laughed, flashed her light, said “You’re dead” and was off running through the night for home base.

 I stood there in shock for a few seconds then started to laugh. It was so funny. All the worry about Gail, did she like me, was I funny looking, would girls ever like me, it all seemed hilarious. Val, what a crazy girl she was. Take that Leo Lewis.

 I headed back to Kevin’s porch. Davie, a little guy from across Kevin’s street flashed me, and I said “Too late, I’m already dead.”We played a couple more rounds. Val acted like nothing had happened, which didn’t matter to me. Maybe nothing did, maybe I was just crazy.

When I got back home the house was quiet. It was so strange, I was super excited, and the house was like a morgue. Stephanie was sitting reading in the living room reading, Mother and Dad were sitting in front of the T.V. I felt crazy. Like I couldn’t breathe. Here I was about to burst inside and the house, my family, nobody even noticed. They barely even looked up when I walked in the door. I went into the back yard to play with Bones, but I couldn’t even stir him. I threw him a ball, he looked up from his pillow, and then went back to sleep. It was too much. I sat out in the yard, just smelling the late summer, there were still a few wisps of honeysuckle, but the summer was almost gone. Another three weeks and I would be in High School. What was that going to be like? It had been quite a summer.

I went inside and went to bed. Mother at least said “Goodnight” on my way through the living-room. I lay in bed thinking about the kiss, and about Gail and Leo and what it all meant. It was really too early to sleep, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I turned over and for some reason started thinking about my toy soldiers. They seemed suddenly really stupid. I had collected them for years, they all stood on my shelf, lined up in rows, different generations, Roman era, British Dragoons, Civil War, both Yankee and Confederate, and of course lots from World War II.

I got up and looked at them on my shelf. Why did I collect them? What were they for? They weren’t real, they were just stupid things I collected as a kid. I swept them off the shelf into a drawer and went and sat on the bed. I started thinking about the flashing lights on the T.V. news again, and how in a few years one of those flashes could be me dying. I lay back down and rolled back and forth on the bed trying to sleep for what felt like hours, and maybe it was. Maybe I slept, maybe I didn’t, but at some point I woke up and could hear the piano. At first I thought it must be morning and it was Stephanie practicing, but it was totally dark in my room. Then I recognized the piece. It was “Clair de Lune” by Debussy. It was Mother playing. She always said that when I was crying as a little kid she could play that and I would calm down. How did she know I was lying in there thinking about being blown to bits in Vietnam?

I lay there listening to her play, thinking about Gail, and Val, the flashlight shining in my face and her looking at me with that little half grin and saying “You’re dead”. Well, not yet I wasn’t. At least the skinny funny looking kid from North Dallas had that much going for him. What the heck, maybe I would call Gail. Maybe tomorrow.

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