Saturday, January 27, 2018
VIGNETTE ONE — PENNY SAVED, PENNY EARNED...AND A DRINK IN TIME SAVES NINE
This is the first of a series of vignettes about growing up in the American Midwest that I'm currently writing and hope to publish as a collection later this year.
Whitie didn’t drink. Reba Mae was always glad he didn’t. Said with as obsessive-compulsive as he was, he’d be a drunk for sure. But sometimes I kind of wished he did.
I’d have liked to have seen him chill out, relax, kick up his heels, enjoy life a while. Instead, he spent the major part of his precious time depressed, worrying, upset, intense with negative emotion. In and out of psych wards. Holed up in his room in the dark for weeks on end. During those somber days, I figured he might as well be a drunk. At least then, he could numb the pain.
He seldom was worried about anything that was happening to him right then. He was generally worried about what could happen to him later on. He futurized. And the visions he foresaw were always bleak and catastrophic.
Often his worries stemmed from something good that had happened. A new home. A new car. A dream vacation. Then his Great Depression boyhood would kick in, and he would be consumed with guilt and fear over having spent so much money, having risked his future, having tempted the fates.
You had money if you didn’t spend it, he reasoned. And spending it was the best way to get the well to dry up. If you demonstrated that you didn’t care about saving money, that you didn’t respect money, you were playing with fire. Luck would get you for that. Saving was a natural state of affairs—correct, intelligent, like cleanliness and godliness, the right thing to do.
Spending was the opposite. A wanton act. Wasteful. A sin! And you paid for sins. Call it karma. Call it whatever you wanted. You paid. Spend today and you’d be destitute tomorrow. That about spending money to make money was all a crock. The trick was to make money and keep it.
But there was a tightrope that ran across the abyss between making and saving. And sometimes he would try to close his eyes and rush across that tiny hemp bridge before the Devil saw him pass. Sometimes—manic times—he stepped out of character and took a shot. Like the time he put a large part of his savings into junk bonds, and, for a while, when they were booming, he racked up fifteen, eighteen, twenty percent returns or more a year. I’ve never seen him happier.
Then came the bond trading scandals of the 1980s, the fall of Junk Bond King Michael Milken. And this time Whitie failed to listen to his Great Depression boy’s voice. Kept believing because he wanted to. Kept thinking it was just a glitch in a positive earning trend that would last for years. Forgot that the billionaires always hold the cards, and the ones they don’t deal themselves are up their sleeves.
By the time Whitie panicked and sold, the bottom had fallen out of the high-yield bond market and he’d lost a lot. Not everything. Not what he needed to live on. But enough to worry him and make him feel a sense of loss and failure for years afterward.
Like always, he blamed himself. Not the Milkens who were scapegoat-convicted of fraud, of insider trading, of scamming the little investors to fill their billionaire pockets (while other less high-profile billionaire scammers got away with murder). No. He’d sinned. Gotten greedy. Risked his savings and winnings. Stayed at the blackjack table too long, when he should have known when to say he’d had a good run, cash in his chips and walk away.
As for Milken, he served two years of a ten-year sentence. He’s still worth two and a half billion dollars today. I figure several tens of thousands of those dollars came out of Whitie’s pockets...
* * *
When I say Whitie didn’t drink, I mean not habitually.
He was an occasional drinker...very occasional. But when he did drink, hardened whisky lushes could have taken lessons from him.
Like the time they were having a little Christmas Party at the family soda fountain and grill that he’d started in our town with two of his brothers after the war and then went on to own for the next twenty-five years. All the “girls” who worked for him and Reba Mae brought their boyfriends and husbands and after the place closed on the twenty-third, they all got together, cooked up food, cracked the seals on bottles of whisky, gin, rum and vodka, and prepared mixers from the soda fountain.
The holiday season was always crazy. Lots of people out shopping—town was different back then, lots of shops, even a J.C. Penney’s— and then stopping by for lunch, supper or a snack. Whitie was over-tired. So were the girls. So was Reba Mae. So was everybody.
But the girls were more fun than a bucket of puppies. Chizz, Linda, Carol and El were the orneriest, always plotting some harmless practical joke and saying and doing the most outrageous things to make you laugh. They were a little more subdued on this particular night because they were with their significant others. But El hadn’t been able to resist the temptation of a crank gift for Whitie.
Nobody’d said anything about gifts, but El was like that. Nice and generous to a fault. But also mischievous as she could be. So in a sweetly decorated box for Reba Mae, there was a pretty scarf—tasteful, sober, the sort of thing she knew Reba would wear. But for Whitie (El’s husband’s name was also Whitey, but spelled with a “y”), there was a mysterious little box about the size for a wallet, all wrapped in shiny foil with Christmas bells on it and tied with a pretty red ribbon.
“Here, Whitie,” she said all smiles. “I knitted something for you,” as her own Whitey drew close grinning his bad-boy grin and watching the other Whitie to see what his reaction would be.
At first glance, it almost looked like El had knitted him a pair of baby booties—delicate white with a touch of red trim. But then Whitie took the item out of the box and laid it on the table and it was plain as day that it was knitted to simulate a perfect set of male genitals. A drawstring sack with dual fitted knit globes attached to something that looked like the long large middle finger of a delicate wool glove—white, ending in a contrasting Christmas crimson tip. (You had to admit, the girl really had a knack for knitting).
Now everybody was gathered around. And after a brief pause, they all burst into laughter.
“What the hell’s this?” Whitie chuckled.
“It’s a peter-warmer! Like a pullover for your whatchamacallit!” El said excitedly, her cheeks red with embarrassment but still grinning from ear to ear.
“Well, it’s too damn small!” Whitie said, and then after holding it up for everybody to see, he put it carefully back into its box and handed it to Reba Mae for her to put in her purse. For years afterward, the item remained neatly folded in its box in White’s underwear drawer at home. Clearly, he appreciated it that somebody had expended that kind of thought, creativity and talent on him—even as a joke.
That kind of set the mood for the rest of the party and things got way rowdier afterward. Whitie drank everything but the water in the Christmas tree stand and was clearly having a high old time, kidding the girls, whispering things in their ears that made them giggle, joshing their boyfriends and husbands, telling jokes and generally cutting up.
Then he mumbled something about having to take some crates out back or something and, suddenly...he was gone.
Reba Mae kept glancing toward the kitchen to see if he’d come back in through the side door, but he hadn’t.
“Hey, where’s Whitie?” somebody asked after a while.
“He said he was going out back,” Reba Mae said, “but he’s been out there an awful long time. Did he have his coat on? It’s only twenty degrees out!”
Somebody went to check.
“Car’s gone,” they said when they came back.
Reba Mae looked up with a start. “The car’s gone?”
“Yep. Tracks in the snow heading out the side exit.”
They were talking about Whitie’s big ’56 Royal Crown Imperial, the longest car Chrysler ever made, so long a foot and a half of it —with lantern-like tail-lights perched on its prominent back fins—hung out of Whitie’s garage and wouldn’t allow him to close the door.
He loved that car, and had former Indy race driver Leon Clum as the mechanic for it. Leon thought it was a hot car too, and whenever he worked on it, he and Whitie would take it out for a spin—Leon-style.
“Well, he shouldn’t be driving!” Reba Mae reasoned. “And how the heck are we going to get home?”
“Don’t worry,” the other Whitey said, “we’ll drop you off.” Whitey and El lived in nearby St. Marys.
By the time they’d closed up and El’s Whitey had made good on that promise, Reba Mae was desperate. Where could Whitie have gone? She didn’t know what to do. Whitie’d be furious if she called the Highway Patrol.
So she waited. But not for long. In less than half an hour, El called.
“Reba, Whitie’s headed your way. Yeah. He passed us out on thirty-three, and he was going fast! Whitey said he figured a good ninety or a hundred.
When Whitie pulled in a few minutes later, Reba Mae was standing at the door waiting for him.
Grinning a sloppy, boyish grin, he said, “Hey, how ya doin’?”
“Where the hell have you been?” Reba Mae demanded. “I was worried sick! I almost called the Highway Patrol, ‘cause I thought you might be dead in a ditch somewhere. Where were you?”
“Just took the Imperial for a little spin,” Whitie snorted and then gave a breathy little laugh. “Boy will that sombitch go!”