Tough Guy Makes Good

Back in the Very Old School days, there was a stock character. He was the Tough Guy. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood played that role. But there were few actors who could pull off the Jinxed Tough Guy the way Frank Sinatra could. From his performance in “From Here to Eternity” to “Young at Heart” to “Pal Joey”, Sinatra made us feel for this tough guy who could break your heart.

Sure, there were Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. But it was Sinatra who gave us the underside of the tough-guyness. He taught us not to envy those guys, but feel compassion for them.

Few movies capture the vulnerability and the sensitivity of this jinxed character than Young at Heart. From the moment that Sinatra shows up at Doris Day’s front door, there is doom and gloom written all over him. There’s no way this guy is good for an All-American girl like Doris. No way you’d let your daughter marry him, much less date him. Sinatra’s Barney Sloan steps through that door and casts his dark shadow over Doris’ sweetness and light for the rest of the movie.

There is one scene that gives the viewer the essence of Frank Sinatra. He is at the piano in a bar, singing “One for my baby”. This is a singer who gives us his loneliness and his vulnerability all in less than three minutes.

When I first saw this scene, I was hooked on Sinatra, and this is the Sinatra I continue to listen to. Nobody has ever given me a definition of loneliness the way Sinatra did in this one scene. In those few minutes, Sinatra just breaks your heart.

What is the hardest thing about being alone?

Strawberries

Denise almost left home that sunny Saturday morning without any perfume on. On her way through the front door, she changed mind, deciding that it was a perfume kind of day. A few dabs behind the ears and on the neck, and she was off to shop. On her way to her favorite shopping destination, she hummed along to the song on the oldies station, “Strawberries Mean Love”, thinking, “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

At the mall, she hit three, then four stores, finding nothing in particular to satisfy her hunger for a bargain. She hated to go home empty-handed. One final store and she would give up her treasure hunt for the goodies that would make her day.

Then it came to her. Since she was out-and-about anyway, why not check out a men’s department? Her younger brother had a birthday coming up in a month. Maybe she would find a pair of engraved cuff links. Or, yes, some monogrammed handkerchiefs. She entered a department store and strolled up one aisle and down another and toward the men’s wear, stopping here and there to size up a dress or feel the lingerie. While scanning several rings in the jewelry display, she fantasized about what-might-have-been-and-never-was. Several leisurely stops and she was on to the handkerchiefs.

A few aisles over, a familiar figure appeared like some ghost floating out of the fog of a daydream. “Phil, is that you?” she called over to the figure inspecting the ties, reassuring herself that the man was real and not a passing fancy.

Phil glanced up at the blonde with the close-cropped hair, approaching him. “Yes, it’s me,” he said and went back to the ties. “But I’d rather not think so,” he mumbled.

She was at his side, leaning up to kiss him. He kissed her. It was not a lover’s kiss, just a quick smooch between once-upon-a-time friends. Her perfume smelled like strawberries. He liked the taste of strawberries.

“It’s been two years,” she said.

“Longer.” His eyes rejected a tie that would go well with a dark blue suit and moved on to a light green one.

“I’ve missed you.”

He ran his hand over a black tie with small white dots. Black as their last night together and the snow pouring out of the sky hard and fast. His face did not show any sadness, only his eyes. She knew that face well enough to know how sad he must be feeling, and she was sad. The sadness only lasted a few seconds, then it passed and he was back to the ties.

“What you been up to?” she asked, her voice going soft.

“Buying a suit.” There was frustration in his voice. “First I have to find a tie. Then a suit to match.”

“Maybe I can help.”

He took another whiff of her perfume and said, “Maybe. I sure can’t seem to find anything and I’ve been at it for weeks now.” He always liked her perfume, her smell. It could bring out the warm and fuzzy in him, or drive him right up alongside the moon.

“Aren’t you doing things backwards?” She reached over and fingered the ties. “Don’t you choose the suit first? At least, I think that’s how it’s done.”

“I like to know the way things are going to turn out. You know, at the end.” He tugged at a tie and pulled it off the rack. It was red. Strawberry red. He shook his head, trying to shake himself free of the strawberries.

“Won’t that destroy the suspense?” She took the tie and held it up against Phil’s chest. “Nah, that one’s too bright for you.”

He put the tie back with its neighbors.

Denise looked at the ties, then at Phil, then back at the ties. “What about something white?”

“Too obscure.” His eyes followed her eyes. Maybe she could find the right tie.

“What?” There was a small question mark on her face.

“It’s like Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Way too much mystery. I want people to know what I’m about. At least, a little anyway.”

“What’s life without a little mystery?” The question mark had grown larger. “Keep them guessing, I always say.”

“You say that, do you?” He smiled, remembering how she had once kept him guessing, his face becoming the man she had cared about back in her younger, sexy days.

“I do.” She smiled too. “What’s wrong with a bit of snow?”

“It’s not the bit of snow that bothers me. It’s when I find myself knee-deep in it, and I have to sludge myself through all that slush. I want things to be hard, but not that hard. I just don’t have the boots for it.”

“Why not give people a little challenge?”

“They might end up lost,” he said, “and they will not want to finish the book.”

“You mean that novel you’re writing? Whatever happened to that thing? It was all you used to talk about.”

“I need a suit first.” His eyes settled on a tie she was handling. Her hand looked like it had grown attached to it and couldn’t let loose.

“What’s a suit got to do with writing?” She lifted the thing off the rack and passed it to him.

“It’s what the muse seems to be demanding these days.” He studied the tie. A midnight blue with small red dots scattershot across it. Strawberries. More strawberries. Damn those strawberries. He frowned and gave it back to Denise, wondering if that was the best she could do.

The tie went back on the hanger and she encouraged, “You don’t need a suit to write. You just write. You don’t need a special uniform. Just a bathrobe and a cup of coffee.”

“I’m telling you the muse will not let me get on with that novel without a suit. No suit, no novel.” He was determined to follow orders. Find the right tie, then the right suit, and wallah, a novel. But perhaps another Saturday, another store. In the meantime, he might just get some fresh strawberries at the farmer’s market. It was probably too late in the season. “Besides it’s a suit kind of novel.” Maybe he would write a novel about strawberries. Once he found that suit. And Denise had been no help at all.

“Try this one.” Denise held up another tie. She settled it against his chest. It was a dark green with broad white stripes. Her eyes twinkled when she liked a thing, and her eyes were twinkling, looking at the tie and the shirt she laid it against. “Remember when we used to play Anais and Henry?”

Taking the tie, his hand weighed the heft of it. It felt solid and it didn’t have that silky touch to it like some. Good. He threw the thing around his neck, knotted it and drew it tight. Scrutinizing the tie in a mirror nearby, he saw a white sky. He saw green fields where strawberries might grow. “Yes, that’s about right,” he said to the reflection of a man who was ready for a novel. He did like the tie.

“What I remember is that I wanted to play D. H. Lawrence and Frieda,” he said. “But no, you kept insisting it had to be Henry and Anais. Personally I think you read way too much of her diaries. As I recall, that’s why we broke up. She brought out the worst in you. And I don’t mean that in a good way either.”

“It’s Anais and Henry, or did you forget? Oh, that’s right. You kept changing the names then too. That was why we broke up.”

He went to say something. However her smell of strawberries pulled him off that road. His face went gentle. He reached for her hand and squeezed it ever so lightly. Her hand was still as soft as he remembered it to be.

She hesitated, then relented her regret. It had been a long time. She squeezed back.

Both had enjoyed their little disagreements. It made for some heavy duty making-up. But the time had come when there was less and less of that and more and more of the squabbling. Their relationship was just no fun anymore. Then it was over. Nada. No more. Who knew such little things like the order of names could cost them so much. They held hands before the ties for a moment, then they went back to their two separate worlds.

On their way to the suits, they took a detour at the shirts. Denise picked one out which they both thought would go just right with the one good tie they found.

“Think I’ll look good in brown?” he double-checked to make sure they had made the right choice.

“You’d look good in anything.”

“You lie well.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. She kissed him back and moved closer to him. His fingers ran over a dark suit coat. The wool felt good to his touch. He liked the natural feel of it. It gave him the feeling that there was a novel in him and he would complete it. And soon. All that needed doing was the writing, and that was no big deal. No big deal at all. In that suit staring back at him, the muse would be pleased.

“Of course,” she said, her slender fingers joining his. “But you will look good in that suit. Good enough to make that novel shine.” Their hands waltzed over the lapel of the jacket. The coat slipped off the rack and he tried it on. After buttoning it up, she adjusted the tie. “Is this novel to be about us?” Her eyes sparkled with hope.

“Not sure. Maybe. Well, yes. It could be. I can see that now. After all, it is an adventure story. And we did have some adventures, Dennie. Back in the olden days.”

“There’s nothing to say that we can’t have some more.” Her fingers massaged his palm. “If you’re inclined?” She let go of his hand, reached over and pulled the suit pants off their hanger, then measured them against Phil.

Suddenly he felt the absence of her hand. “What are you trying to say?” She heard road block in his voice. “That I’ve had a bad case of writer’s blues without you?”

“All I am saying is that it looks like you’ve found yourself a suit.” Her voice was gentle with reassurance. “That is all I’m saying. It’s a good earthy brown too. The kind that will allow you to dig your heels into the language and write, don’t you think? Why don’t you try it on?”

The two headed over to the changing room.

“So how soon do you intend to finish this masterpiece now that you have the suit?”

“Soon as I can figure out how it will end,” He took the pants from her. “I plan to write it backwards. Kind of like the Hebrew alphabet telling the story. I’m in no hurry. I could take a hundred years, and then some, to put the final touches on it.”

“You’re not going to do a James Joyce? You’re much too tall.”

“No, I know where the commas go. And the periods too.”

“What makes you think you have all the time in the world?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” he said and left her to wait for him to return from changing into suit and shirt and tie.

Her eyes twinkled when she saw the Phil come out of the changing room.

“When do you plan getting the ending together?” she asked as she helped him adjust into the suit, running her fingers over the jacket to make sure it fit just right, then she brushed the pants ever so slightly. “Soon I hope. I’d like to read it.” She stepped back to admire their work.

He looked at himself in the full-body mirror. They both liked what they saw.

“I think that it will end the way they all end.” He tugged a bit on the jacket, straightening it into a perfect fit. “’And they lived happily ever after.’”

“For a season anyway.”

“I can handle that.” He was pleased that he almost had his ending. And that she would be in it. The words for that ending were on the tips of his fingers. All he had to do was let them pour onto the page. “In fact, I can handle just about anything in this suit. Even that muse of mine.”

“Let’s get a cup of coffee to celebrate,” Denise offered, happy that the day had indeed turned into a perfume kind of day . “And then, well then we can get started on that novel. If you’re in a writing mood.”

“Think I’m in the mood for strawberries. Just as soon as I change.”

“Better hurry then, before they go out of season.”

Fruit Salad

You have blueberry eyes
And a raspberry smile
Yes, I am a banana
All dressed in salady style

We may not know apples
From oranges or tangerines
But it doesn’t matter
We’re peaches and whipped cream

Since those days of wonder
And nights of kiwi delight
When we were all marshmallowy
You were the morning, I the knight

Our love is a fruit salad
A mix and match thing
A feast beyond compare
A French gourmet’s drean.

Darn that Rachmaninov. Especially on Thursdays

Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounters”, directed by David Lean.

How a brief encounter can change a life, especially if it’s Thursday and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto # 2 is playing on the soundtrack. It’s in a train station where Alec and Laura meet. She has something in her eye and he gets it out. Of course that is what a doctor would do, and since he is a doctor, he does just that. He is a general practitioner come to Milford for a day of work at the hospital and she is a housewife come to town for some shopping and a movie. It is a Thursday and she’s happily married until he tells her, “You can never be dull.”

For several Thursdays they meet in passing. Then suddenly one Thursday the doctor and the housewife, happily married, are having way too much fun as they set off for the movies. On the way back to the train station, he slips his hand around her arm. Then it is tea as they wait for their respective trains. He talks about his desire to make the world a better place. Then there’s that damned Rachmaninov and you know there’s unhappiness in store for her. And possibly him.

“May I see you again? Next Thursday?” he pleads. She resists, then relents. She watches his train leave, realizing how dangerous things may be getting as she speaks his name to herself. “Alec.”

Laura, it would have to be a Laura, takes her train home and her boy has had an accident. She feels guilty. But the accident is not serious. She confesses to her husband that she met a strange man and offers to invite him to dinner to show her husband it was harmless. Her husband seems not to care, saying that it would be an inconvenience. Why don’t she invite him to lunch?

Alec doesn’t show the next Thursday afternoon as she waits for him, half-hoping that he will not show. She goes off to the movies, then it’s back to the train station and tea. She leaves the station to catch her train. As she takes one last look around her, she sees the good doctor running toward her. “I’m so sorry,” he says. Of course, he is. They always are in these kinds of movies. He explains why he is late and she is relieved. Now her walls drop like the walls of Jericho.

The next Thursday they are at the movies and then a lake. They take a boat and are on the water. And there’s Rachmaninov. And they are having a bloody good time.

Tea again in a boat house and they are quiet. Then he says the words. You know, the words that always doom happily marrieds to a life of unhappiness. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” Alec the doctor says to Laura the housewife, and now they are desperately doomed people. You know it, and they know it. And the fun they’ve had is over.  Just misery and betrayal.

Why must these kinds of movies be so sad, so tragic? Why couldn’t it be two unmarried, readily available people, falling desperately in love, who have the encounter that becomes a lifetime of happiness? Oh, we’ve seen that movie before too and it is “Love Story”. The woman dies at the end, and it too is sad.

That they are unmarried and happily in love doing all the things that happily-in-love people do, that is what Laura dreams about as she catches her train for home. But the reality is that now her life is a lie. And it is a Thursday lie, this lie she tells her husband. She calls a friend to cover for her. “And I’ll do it for you,” she promises at the end of the telephone conversation.

Another Thursday and the two lovers are together again, having dinner in a hotel dining room. No sex as far as we know, but they might as well have had sex for all the guilt she is feeling. The two go off into the country for a drive. He talks of his love for her and they are on a bridge. This kind of thing always seems to happen on bridges, and a bridge in the country on a lovely afternoon is the best place for it to happen. The next thing you know it is night and they are saying their good nights, longingly. It is such a desperate kind of good night.

There’s that Rachmaninov and it is hard to resist Rachmaninov. Especially if it’s night and it is raining and you are in need of refuge from a marriage that has become, of all things, boring. She misses her train and follows him back to a nearby flat where he is staying with a friend. She runs up the stairs and knocks on his door. He opens the door and invites her in.

She is about to fall into Alec’s arms when suddenly his friend returns and comes in the back way. She leaves without being seen. But the doctor’s friend picks up her coat and hands it to Alec and says, “You have hidden depths.” He says other things, showing his disapproval. Alec follows Laura, leaving his friend’s disappointment behind him.

The next scene we see is Laura running down the street. It is night and there’s Rachmaninov. She’s missed her train and telephones her husband to tell him she will be late getting home. She lies. She is with a librarian friend whose mother is ill, She hangs up and wanders the streets for three hours and then she is back at the train station. The doctor shows up and they argue.

“Could you really say goodbye? I love you, Laura, and I shall love you to the end of my life. This is the beginning of the end of it all.” It is a desperate speech. He tells her that he will be leaving England and soon unless she tells him to do otherwise. She doesn’t. They both know that it is the only way out. But let’s have another Thursday. She takes the train home, and again there is Rachmaninov playing that damned Concerto # 2.

The following Thursday there is again a drive in the country and more Rachmaninov. Then they are having tea in the train station, struggling to get up the courage to say goodbye. And having tea, there is all this sadness filling the movie. You just know that this can’t end well. You’ve seen enough of these movies and they never end well. “I do love you with all my heart and soul,” Alec says to Laura one last time. “I want to die,” Laura says to her doctor.

A woman acquaintance of Laura’s intrudes and forces herself on them. She joins them for tea, interrupting their sadness with her talk. She can’t seem to stop talking. Alec gets up to catch his train. As he leaves, he squeezes Laura’s shoulder for one last goodbye. Then he walks out of the station. It’s over, but how can it be over? Laura’s heart is dying, and when the woman goes to the counter to retrieve her tea, Laura leaves the station. She starts to jump under a train, possibly his train, that is passing but she doesn’t. She returns to the station and almost faints.

Then she is in the living room of her home with her husband and Rachmaninov is playing and her husband comes over to her in her chair where she has been dreaming. He says, “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” He doesn’t say, “Back to us.” He says “Back to me.”

David Lean’s first movie that he directed totally alone is over. It is the beginning of David Lean’s ascendancy and Noel Coward’s decline. Already we see the potential of what is to come.

Head Over Heels

This one is for Valentine’s Day and all the true believers in love and romance.

When I was in college, I had the Experience, or should I say the Experience had me. She was twenty-two and I was nineteen. She was studying for her masters in anthropology but her real major was adventure.

I was at a party some of my friends had given. She shimmered in, a warm glow flowing into the room. As she made her way toward me, it was as if a moon beam was falling toward a lake. I knew how the lake must feel, waiting in anticipation. Suddenly there she was, telling me her name. It was Hemingway. It wasn’t that her father liked the writer. Her mother just liked the name.

I was head over the precipice, my heels unable to hold me to the ground. We talked for a bit. Then we left, her magic leading me onward the way that Tinkerbell must’ve led Peter to Never Never that first time when he longed to stay a boy forever. We went out that door and stood in the middle of the street kissing for a half hour under the full moon. Right there and then I understood why that Prince went in search of Cinderella though he had only her one shoe by which to find her. How could he have not?

Over the next twenty days my life was filled with life. We were inseparable. We went sailing, canoeing, kayaking and surfing. She even got me to parachute out of a plane. But the scariest time was when she took me hang-gliding. During the day we did a new something-or-other that she had always wanted to do. At night we made love, sometimes wild and passionate, other times tender. It was as if heaven had somehow come down to earth and surrounded us with all its wonder.

Then she was gone. I woke up in the bed in my apartment early on the day after Valentine’s. I turned over toward her to kiss her a good day, a smile on my face. I was the luckiest man on earth. But, instead of her dark brown hair with even darker brown eyes, I saw a note.

Thank you, Trent, for all the wonder. It has been a grand adventure these past weeks. I love you but this can’t go on. I can’t take anymore of this happiness. When I met you that night, it was to be the last night of my life. It was only an accident that I came there. A friend had called me up at the last minute and asked me to come. I was about to end my life when I walked through that door and saw you, the most beautiful face I had ever seen. There was so much magic in it. I could never have imagined how beautiful life could be. But now I know and I thank you for what you gave me. Hem.

I searched for her but never saw her again. After a year of dead-ends I finally gave up. It was then that I realized that Happily Ever Afters don’t exist. But fairy tales do.