“She borrowed that photo, probably, ugly, underage and weighty. Best man will be D.B. Shotgun.”
Moored at Pier 1 in Newport for five days, it was a North Atlantic cruise up next: couldn’t name a better getaway. I wished the hell I had civvies to wear. Good thing the tailored gabardine dress blues were ready before we left Norfolk. They were beauties: zipper up one side of the jumper, lined with something like silk, turning back the cuffs exposed a buxom mermaid on a background of splashy color. I spit-shined my shoes until they were mobile mirrors.
Saturday morning at ten, a blue rust-spotted Pontiac station wagon, a cross on the hood, faded clergy lettering on the door, pulled up to the curb in front of the Providence bus terminal. The driver jumped out, opened the back door as a servant might, “I’m Keenan, you Tom?” Tarzan came to mind.
“You’re Francy’s cousin, right?”
“I am; I am.” We shook hands. He sneezed.
I jumped in and sat next to a big, padlocked green toolbox. The wings of Keenan’s yellow aviator sunglasses were lost in long, bushy sideburns. Rapid gum chewing and spotty bubble blowing made me think he wasn’t quite right in the head or his specs were hiding some kind of high. He needed a shave. When the wad of gum flew out the window with a loud ptooey, I labeled it a first impression prop. A radio preacher pleaded for choir school bus contributions. The Lord’s hymns required urgent transportation. Keenan drove like there was a governor set at twenty-miles per hour, to a rundown bungalow in Lincoln. He opened the door for me then sprinted away and up the porch steps. Ringing the bell five or six times, he shouted. “Dan, Dan, I got the Cracker Jack prize.” The door slowly opened. A pale scrawny teen wearing eyeglasses and a smile flashing braces gawked at me. The slim girl behind him was my pen pal Francy. She matched her photo except here long reddish hair was bundled. Man, my shipmates had a buffet of words to eat.
“You must be Barnacle Tom the Sailor,” said Dan. Hair same color as hers, he looked about thirteen.
“I ain’t Sinbad,” I said. Dan slapped his knee and Keenan roared like a resident of a farm or zoo.
“Don’t mind them,” said Francy, eying me as if she’d had doubts about the photo of me standing beside the captain’s gig. She shoved Dan aside to shake my hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Tom Sellers.”
“Pleasure’s all mine.” What a warm hand it was and such a sweet welcoming face. I unzipped my AWOL bag, presented her with a gift. A bottle of perfume I’d picked up at the Navy Exchange. I wondered if it was a poor choice for a first meeting. Would she think I was expecting body odor?
“Chanel Number 5, you shouldn’t have, must have cost plenty.” She held the box in her palms as if it would soon disappear.
“We only get channel 10 and 12,” chirped Dan.
“And the ‘edjumicational’ one,” added Keenan.
Francy stared at me; enchanted would be a word that fit. I wondered where Mr. and Mrs. Owens were and as if Dan read my mind I learned.
“Ma and Dad are away on Martha’s Vineyard, party time.” Francy helped me with my pea coat, took it, my white hat and bag to a closet. They sat me down at the kitchen table. The inside of the house was in much better shape than the exterior, appliances looked new. A row of old California canning art hung below the clock. The wallpaper was white with small blue flowers. A bowl of fruit was at the center of the table, green bananas. I met a smoky grey cat named Knucks short for Knucklehead, feline was loco they said. His favorite toy was a burned out 100 watt lightbulb. Francy made me a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches on rye. Dessert was chocolate cake; a fancy “Welcome Tom” squiggled across the top, anchor at beginning and end. I complimented her on the decorating.
“I cannot tell a lie. Mom’s art but accept baking honors!” I checked her out as she darted around, tight jeans, loose denim blouse and work boots. I ate civilian style, I think, not like a sailor on the Mullinnix mess decks. I had a big piece of cake with milk. Francy cut a small wedge for herself. Dan and Keenan attacked as if their names were on it.
We climbed the narrow stairs single file up to Dan’s room. A large wrinkled horseracing poster hung on a wall, “If your father didn’t leave you a million, maybe a horse will: Visit Belmont Park.” “Have you been there, Dan?” I asked.
“Hell no, but Keenan has. We’ll go there together sometime.”
A framed black and white photo over his bed stopped me in my tracks. It was my ship, the USS Mullinnix. “Where the heck did you get that, Dan?”
“A retired chief signalman works with my Dad. Francy has one too. Your photo is in the upper right hand corner of hers.”
“You little rat,” she cried, blushing. I felt my face heating up too. I thought of the photography shops on Granby Street where a sailor could get a sappy photo of his ship framed with his mug in one corner and his girlfriend or wife in another, kind of sappy I thought. “Why shouldn’t I? We’re pen pals.” I didn’t reveal that I had her photo taped inside my locker door.
“She says you look like Paul Newman,” shot back Dan. Francy took a swing at him, missed but came dangerously close to his face. Holy shit, if the guys in second division ever heard that one. I’d never live it down. A machinist mate likened me to the Mad Magazine kid for God’s sake! Francy wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Francy, would you want to star with me in my next film?” I asked
“Sure thing: I’ll be a WAVE.”
We moved downstairs to the living room, I sat on the couch with Francy, Keenan dropped on a chair belonging to an antique roll top desk. Dan was all over the place yapping non-stop. He brought out his baseball card collection, only dealt in Boston Red Sox players. On a notebook page, he demonstrated how well he forged player autographs he sold to gullible kids.
“You’ll end up in the slammer someday,” warned Francy.
“If I do, I’ll implicate you. Hey, that rhymes.”
Keenan rolled up the squeaked up the desk cover, rested his head on folded arms. It wasn’t long before he was snoring. “What’s Keenan’s story,” I asked.
He’s our long lost cousin. He lives in the cellar. Dad fixed up a little room for him. Once he worked as a window washer but now he’s an ordained minister of the mail order kind. No congregation that we know of but he’s performed marriages I hear; does odd jobs around town. He was with the racetrack, a groom for a trainer named Stone but after he saw the light, he wouldn’t be associated with gambling.”
“A horse kicked him in the head,” added Dan.
“That’s not true.”
“Only way I can explain him.”
“Be charitable, dirt-bag.”
Dan presented me with his business card, two autographs on its back: Ted Williams and Jackie Jensen. “Amaze your shipmates,” he said. “I’m going to my room to work on all the presidential signatures. You guys watch out. That sofa coach is pretty old, might collapse on you.” Francy got up and jumped him, bent back the fingers of his right hand.
“You’re gonna have to use “X” for your forgeries if you don’t wise up!” He broke away, ran to the stairs.
“XXX000XXXX000XXXX,” he yelled, followed by a kissing soundtrack.
“That kid is such a pain,” she said, walking over to shake Keenan awake.
“The creek will inherit the earth,” he slurred.
“Go say your prayers,” ordered Francy. He staggered off. She returned to my side and quickly kissed me. “Some of Dan’s antics
are pretty funny though, don’t you think?”
“I second that motion.”
“I have a confession to make. My best friend Marie is a brain. She works for the Red Cross. I always request her when I donate. I’m a regular, just make the 110-pound limit, O Negative. Anyway, she’s edited every letter I sent to you. I’m lucky to have made it to senior year.”
“I second your confession. A guy named Acorn on the ship proofread and made suggestions on all mine. He’s had some college, Notre Dame.”
“Whew, we’re even,” she said, shaking my hand. “Do they call him ‘Acorn’ because they think he’s nuts?”
“Yup, and I’ve only given blood twice.”
“I’ll give extra pints for you,” she said, laughing. “Someone else read your letters. I sent a couple to my aunt Diana. She’s psychic, does tarot and palms, analyzes handwriting. She had glowing things to say about you. She said someday you’d be a shining knight.”
“I like that! I must own up. You’re not the first sailor the USO sent. There were two others, a cook and a yeoman. Diana dismissed them as peasants and so did I, just a handshake I swear.”
“Sure she wasn’t talking about Sir Acorn by way of his help?” I asked, wondering if she had toes crossed on the “swear.”
“Diana did detect someone in the background, but she was able to extract your essence, found it full of sincerity. I wish she’d have swayed my pencil navigating the SATs.”
“You were probably just nervous.”
“I wasn’t even sweating. Maybe I’ll try to join the Navy.”
“Air Force, if you must, those people get more sleep.”
“Bet you’re smart.”
“Pretty good memory, that’s how I’ve always gotten by but it takes me a few tries before I master a task, worked well in high school, no college prep, just general business. Most guys who’d graduated get to go to a Navy school. I was always nodding off in boot camp classrooms, didn’t do well, almost got kept back two weeks. I’ll be on deck my whole enlistment. The seaman manual is down by heart, got my third stripe just last week.” She moved a finger over the patch.
“You’re just being modest. Is that a zipper on your…what do you call it?”
“A jumper, tailor made at Kelley’s on Granby Street in Norfolk, much cooler than Navy issue.” She slowly pulled up tooth by tooth.
“Let me try it on, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, nervously. She ran a finger over my ear.
I took it off, handed it over. “Close your eyes and keep them shut,” she said, softly, leaving the couch. When she called for my 20/20s, she was at my side again, on her knees. I could smell the perfume! “Now, unzip me,” she said and I did. She was naked underneath. We kissed. She nibbled on my lips. I moved my hand to her breast. “Like the perfume? She asked?”
I inhaled, “Love it!”
“Aunt Diana says she envies my little tits, wouldn’t have to bother with bras. I think she was just trying to make me feel good.”
“You feel good all right!”
She slipped off the jumper, wrapped my neckerchief around her neck before guiding my head to her breasts. I slowly licked and sucked while she worked on the 13 bell buttons, leaving the top two corners for last. I tried to be cool by staggering the rest of my undressing. We did some wonderful exploring before she called time. Reaching behind a pillow as if looking for change she pulled up a Trojan prize that she took a sweet eternity to roll on. We worked like well-oiled team. Struck speechless, we drummed out fingers like Morse code on our backs. After easing herself off, she removed the safety. Holding it up to the light, she said. “Man, quintuplet possibilities with that load.” She tied off the end. “Locked up tight,” she continued, placing it on the floor. Christ, what was its shelf life?
“You’ve probably had lots of girls being a sailor and all, huh?”
“You’re my first. I’ve only been in thirteen months, just one cruise, nearly lost it in Montreal but got drunk and almost again in New York City, swindled out of twenty bucks instead. I never had a shot in high school, never even had a date.”
“You’ve had one now! You could have fooled me. Two sex notches for me, and again, not those sailors, in the end it’s not worth lying about but no kissing and telling in my bones. And I’m not blowing smoke when I say you made it to the top of my mountain.” She coached me around until we were doing what I’d heard an old boatswain mate call, dining at the ‘Y’ and ‘I’. We just held each other after. I’d never been so relaxed and content.
She picked up the crazy balloon, went to the Ottoman, lifted the lid and gently placed it in. “Playtime for Knucks, the same color as his frosted bulb.” She had to be joking, would toss it as soon as I left.
We dressed quickly as if finally realizing Dan might barge in. She rested her head on my shoulder. We dozed off. Reveille occurred when Dan mistook the couch for a trampoline announcing he was going over to a friend’s house. Had a prospect for a Don Larson autographed card for five bucks. “Stinkin’ Yankee fan,” he shouted while bolting off. I walked to the window, stared at the darkness.
“Time to go” said Francy.
“Where are we going?” I asked. I’d pretty much expected they’d put me up and after all that happened I was sure of it.
“You’re going back to your ship. We’ve got to give this this visit some testing time. Verification is what Marie might call it. We’ll continue writing and see what develops.”
I reluctantly agreed. Her tone became formal but did not continue.
“Turn around a minute,” she said and I did.
When she spun me she was topless. We walked to the front door, stopping every inch or so to fondle and kiss. She retrieved my pea coat and white hat and bag from the closet, kissed me away, though I tried to lock her tongue in my mouth to prolong leaving. I licked each perky nipple.
Keenan sped to the bus station, ran a couple of red lights and stop signs, cut into the taxi line upon arrival. Horns were blaring. “Do you sailors get a Cracker Jack ration?” his parting words. He left rubber zigzagging away. Hack drivers shook their fists.
I went to the men’s room to throw some water in my face to make sure I hadn’t dreamed Francy. I plucked some cat hair off my pea coat. What I thought might turn out to be a hickey was on its way.
The first dig next morning on the ship was courtesy of Crosby who bunked above me. He was shaving at the sink next to me. “How’d you get you head off to hickey yourself?” Many more crude speculations followed. I laughed them off. I’d never tell the tale unless I never heard from her again, didn’t even clue in Acorn.
As soon as the Mullinnix was underway, I got to worrying when the reality of a life without Francy set in and it seemed to be coming true. I was losing sleep over the possibility. Shuteye made a comeback when we were on our way to Hammerfest Norway. A chopper from the USS Roosevelt delivered five bags of mail. A fat envelope from Lincoln was sealed with a kiss and smelled of perfume that I of course recognized. There was a slim one, card-sized, from Dan. Crosby was reading a skin book in the ship’s lounge. I waved Francy’s letter under his nose. He sneezed.
“Smells like Dregs of Woolworth.” I grabbed his paperback, ripped out the last two pages, tore them to shreds and showered him. I wouldn’t have cared if it stunk of ammonia.
“You’re jeopardizing your life,” he shouted, his routine hollow threat. I saved Francy for last.
Dan’s note started with “Dear Sinbad, my future Bro-In-Law. It contained some baseball cards with forged autographs, Gene Conley, Tom Brewer, Pumpsie Green and Frank Sullivan. He’d give me a commission if I peddled them successfully at twenty bucks each on the ship. Keenan had a change of heart, left the mail order clergy, found employment sweeping up the Lincoln Downs grandstand. First day scooped up a discarded daily double ticket worth $420.
Francy proclaimed love, detailed dreams and wrote of our brief time together, all well written as the others. Would she have gabbed to Marie? Was Marie made up? She provided tufts of hair in cellophane, not from her noggin. I found a perfect home for them in My Bluejacket’s Manual, between the colorful flag and pennant pages. I remembered a very salty boatswain mate saying that type of hair reins in a man like mooring lines do a battleship.
I wrote back, run on sentences, poor punctuation and spelling. I kept writing but no received no responses. I worried that my poor grammar, etc. had turned her off. One night when I couldn’t sleep, nearly rolled out of my bunk by rough seas, I had a brainstorm. Next day the ship’s library was open—it shared a space with the crew’s foul weather gear. I asked the electronics tech named Kennedy who was in charge who he considered the best American writer. F. Scott Fitzgerald, by a landslide he replied. He showed me The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald. The binding was shot and pages were loose. Kennedy said keep it. I lifted sentences wholesale, other times I used paragraphs as blueprints. I was hoping she would finally write after seeing such improvement. Acorn was amazed at my description of a mid-watch during sub chasing operations, Mullinnix weaving helter-skelter. After finally giving up on her, I awarded myself hell of a time the rest of the cruise. Gatsby himself would have been proud of my partying. Returning to the states, I ceremoniously tossed her old letters and the solitary new that still held a slight perfume aroma. I figured she probably had quite a fragrance collection. Her souvenir ringlets followed. That ritual was easy but nothing would erase that P.S. from my mind:
“Knucklehead came from the SPCA shelter, de-clawed, shameful practice.”
I planned to go over the odds and possibilities with Acorn sometime.