I Think Jesus Is Fred Astaire
By Dennis Must
Yesterday I went looking for him in Texas.
West on Route 44 then Business 77 into Kingsville. I stopped at the King Ranch museum that featured a champagne, custom-built Buick convertible with horn-back alligator seats and rifle holders in its front wheel wells. The King Saddle Shop, at the corner of Main Street, stocked fine leather valises, briefcases for forks, spatulas, and barbecue implements, club sofas and chairs, and highball glass sweat guards. A pair of red-white-and-blue women's riding boots sat in the entryway.
Outside the temperature was a sultry 103 degrees. Several parked cars, all with Texas license plates, headed into mostly vacant storefronts and pasty mannequins outfitted in LBJ-era sun-bleached attire. Underfoot, tufted carpeting mimed parched grass. A milk glass Rialto marquee advertised used radios and televisions. While inside the sole pharmacy, antique pedal cars lined a raked runway near its ceiling: a Black Maria, a WWII Army ambulance, a chrome two-seater Packard limousine with a pair of rubber ball Oogah! horns, and a canary yellow Hudson Terraplane. At the apothecary's vintage soda fountain—complete with swivel-top counter seats—a Mexican waitress in a crisp white collar and bib apron asked if she could be of help.
"I'm looking for my father," I said.
"Across the street maybe?"
Steer horns framed the saloon's mirror and a grim-faced couple sipping margaritas from glass cactus trees. Deep in the cavernous space, fluorescent tubes illuminated a salad bar of wilted lettuce rippling under a ceiling fan.
He wasn't there either.
In fact, he'd never been farther south than Steubenville, Ohio. Perhaps he'd holed up in a rundown bungalow along Main Street, reclining on a swayback bunk, his undershirt and briefs wicking sweat, laughing to himself, wondering how in God's name he ended up in the southern panhandle - Kingsville no less. At five o'clock he'd wander up Main Street to peer into the Saddle Shop's windows, recalling the life he once aspired to. Or pay the museum token to stare at the customized motorcar that exhaled Texas aristocracy and untold wealth... picturing himself slumped in its backseat, a highball in hand, a long-legged Texan beauty alongside. He never gave a damn about guns; rustling steers didn't particularly excite him either. Hard drinking women who dressed like flowers that floated in gin drinks did. Their bluebonnet scent and Indian-blanket patois... an antidote to prairie dust and drought, stained mattress ticking, and termites chewing away at the sills underneath. Their wispy laughter was a palliative to the defunct Frigidaire's lukewarm beer, and two eggs fried in a black skillet over a hot plate.
King Saddle Shop was the dream replenisher, the confirmation that he hadn't been living a lie. That, in fact, the three-story stucco mansions had Spanish tile floors, cool shuttered interiors, four-poster beds dressed in Devonshire cream linens, mahogany bars stocked with crystal decanters of bourbon and gin, lemons and limes overflowing barro negro pottery, and highball glasses one could barely get his fist around endured. And when he strolled at half light past the neon marquee, he saw the chiaroscuro face of Ingrid Bergman materialize on the screen inside its black interior. How moviedom had once swaddled him in air-conditioned starlets, pick of the line of ragtops, and the drama of living with a song always in one's heart— a refrain of hope to lure loss around some unintended bend where life sparkled and there were always crisp twenties in his trousers. The movie palace was his sanctuary of classy dames whose lantern faces insinuated scarlet concupiscence. Lumière goddesses draped chaise lounges, or danced across marble stages with gentlemen shadows—the cathedral of veiled light, instructing how he was completed by such creatures, how little he was without one.
But there weren't any in Kingsville.
Inside its Rialto, metal shelves stocked circa 60's and 70's wooden T.V. sets, their picture tube screens channeling snow. Molded plastic compact radios, Admirals, Crosleys, and RCAs. No soundtrack even in the place. A lone Mexican sitting alongside a cash box asked if he could be of any help.
"I'm looking for my father," I said. "Thought he might have wandered inside here."
"Been nobody in here for days, mister."
"Uh-huh. I think he's down the street a bit."
"Y'all come back," he said without a hint of irony.
In my boyhood we rode the midnight tracks of Mahoningtown, Ambridge, and Philadelphia to Grand Central Station where we'd taxi to the Waldorf.
"This is where those celluloid folks live," he said.
In our hometown motion pictures didn't vent fragrance. Here I could smell the stars for the first time. The bellhop opened our door and unveiled the show, taxi horns rising up from the streets below. The room's chintz-laden interior, its hexagonal tile bathroom with a shower, silver fixtures, and towels whose heft and whiteness mocked our lavatory's dark interior and tub in which Father had to pull his knees to his chest when he bathed. Manhattan was the Temple of America, the Rialto. Before our junkets (we made several in my youth), he'd buy on credit the finest suit in Jack Hart's Haberdashery.
"Going to the big city with my son," he'd say. "Want to look appropriate."
I knew he wanted to look like Ray Milland or Cary Grant. Once he bought a white linen suit and a straw hat with a chartreuse silk puggree. He looked like an author, some famous philanthropist, even a gigolo out of a grade B flick. Nobody in our hometown dressed like that. Even the bankers, the judges, and the doctors didn't.
"This is what they wear in the big city," the salesman said.
The Saddle Shop conserved the myth.
Near Kingsville there still were Rialto acolytes. Mexicans cleaned their domiciles, prepared their foods, and serviced their everyday needs. He had to come here to die. Christ, it was all so painful when I realized it. He's down there in one of those damn shacks with the lopsided porches and sweating death. Waiting for me to sit across from him in the sweltering heat, the daylight turned amber through the torn window blinds, the radio playing static and some country western tune.
"You been to the Rialto?" He'd grin ruefully like it was the biggest joke ever played on anybody, let alone his only damn son.
"I didn't know. I swear to God I didn't know," raising his arms to the cracked ceiling in protest. Sure of my being about to criticize him for leading me astray.
"I'da told you, Son. Surer than Christ, I'da let you in on the secret if I'da known myself. But I was snookered, too."
He never took me to church, for which I was always grateful. Instead, we journeyed to the cinema. It's where the little backwaters of towns like ours eventually flowed. The dream lotuses of the grain fields and the burgs of smoke and ash producing industry, their black metal cylinders and stacks silhouetting the skyline like cities of their own, but cities where nobody lived. Tube and metal skyscrapers billowing smoke, soot, and sulfur. At night strings of lights, adorning them like industrial trees. Oil-encrusted cities, dotting the skyline. Blinking red lights on their towers alerting air craft. These were the production centers of our industrial states that folks like my father—the dreamers of a better, more fanciful life—were escaping.
"We're going to the skyscrapers, aeries of rooms with quiet lights and thick carpets, walls of glass, women in the hallways whose dresses make subtle noises in the wind they themselves create as they pass, their fragrance lighting our minds. This is where we're headed, Son.
"Your mother insists Grand Central is up there somewhere," he gestured heavenward. "You can't get to it by air, boat, or train. You can only get to it on the back of Jesus. Well, let me clue you in on a secret, Son.
“You can't fly if you ain't got wings.
“So you and me, we're not gonna be with Mama and all her relatives in Valhalla at picnic tables out in some cow pasture, eatin' potato salad and corn on the cob for eternity. The women in their flower sack dresses, the men wearing braces and trousers hiked up tight to their groins. Waitin'. Waitin' for the train of glory to take them on to the mansion of Jehovah.
"My darling son... that train of glory ain't ever gonna whistle through the skies. D'ya know why? 'Cause a train needs coal to run; it needs oil to run. It needs steam to whistle . . . and that all comes from under the clay we're now standing on. Out of the hard earth, boy. Just like you 'n' me. And the train we be riding on to Glory is goin' to the Rialto, the big city, the cloud piercers of concrete that climb to the moon. And the women there will be real. They be breathing larkspur and primrose and hyacinth and bougainvillea through their gossamer dresses, and we can see their clean feet tramping down the carpeted hallways—they be coming to meet us. And these peaches, boy, don't eat potato salad and read the scripture while they're waitin' for the glory train; they be singing how they need men and boys, how we be laying alongside them and making dreams together, how we be dancing with them way up in our aeries where there is no soot outside the glass, no stench of sulfur, no black tankers of industry squatting like vultures on the horizon—just linen suits, boy, white linen dresses, creamy shoes, and lipstick and blush the shade of lust.
"That's where the train of glory is headed.
"Women like your mama keep their legs closed for Jesus. We're goin' where they drink champagne instead of root beer. Where the opposite sex look like tall glasses of gin and tonic instead of sarsaparilla.
“Furthermore, I think Jesus is Fred Astaire."
And he laughed, just up the street from the pharmacy where the kiddie cars rode high on its walls, the saloon with no patrons, and one block away from the only picture show in town—the Saddle Shop. And the museum closes on Saturday at four. The dead battery in the bubbly Buick convertible with its mellifluous horn prods the St. Gerstein heifers—dusty as the Texan earth—aside, crystal decanters of bourbon compartmented in its backseat.
Kingsville... the cemetery of the Rialto.
Father waiting for me to return to the place we'd never been.
Christ, I wanted to dance with the master as he did. I wanted to make love to Ingrid Bergman like Bogie did. I wanted to always have my hair slicked back, and reside in black and white rooms with monochrome skies like the celluloid people did, too. For they never sweated in their aeries. It was always cool there. Cool like dreams. The color of red, cerise, mustard yellow, or indigo blue never gave shade to the chiaroscuro melancholia that I suffer now.
I heard him cry for me. Standing in boxer shorts and undershirt, the perspiration dripping off a three-day stubble, "Come back, Son," he moaned. "Jesus Christ, come back. I can't go to the Rialto alone."
I know what he meant.
How can you stand in front of the Saddle Shop, your nose pressed to its dark lantern interior, the salespersons dressed in crisp white linen suits, its hide couches and sofa squeaking of deep wealth . . . and dream, if you are standing outside and the pavement is 110 degrees?
And the saloon down the street is the appointed front with nothing inside—a movie set on the Train Bound for Glory Line.
Dennis Must is the author of Banjo Grease, Selected Stories and a forthcoming second collection, Oh, Don't Ask Why, from Red Hen Press. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The Baltimore Review, Blue Cathedral: Short Fiction for the New Millennium Red Hen Press), Rosebud, Portland Review, Lullwater Review, RiverSedge, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog—The Southeast Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Exquisite Corpse, Big Bridge, elimae, Full Circle, Green Hills Literary Lantern, GSU Review, and pacific REVIEW.
Top photo courtesy of Library of Congress NYWTS collection.
By Dennis Must
By Dennis Must
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