Charles Pinning

Charles Pinning: The Lotus of spring

Lotus Elan

Lotus Elan

Castle Hill Light, at the end of Ocean Drive, in Newport

Castle Hill Light, at the end of Ocean Drive, in Newport

 

Tony Rocha owned fishing boats working out of Newport and had a brand-new blue, 1962 Lotus Elan, the same shade and shape as a Jordan almond. Mr. Belmont, a tall, gentlemanly fellow, told me that he would arrange to have Tony Rocha take me for a ride in it on Easter Sunday.

The Belmonts and the Rochas lived next door to each other and that’s how I spied the Lotus. Sandy Belmont, the Belmont’s younger daughter, and I were fifth-grade classmates and secretly betrothed.

Never having spoken a word to Tony Rocha, I now smiled ingratiatingly in his direction whenever, with meaty fisherman’s hands, he yanked the car into his gravel drive.

“When we get married, if you find yourself temporarily short of funds, I’ll buy one for you,” Sandy told me.

“Good deal,” I said. Sandy and I had agreed to get married several months before, not long after we’d kissed for the first time. She was the first girl I’d ever kissed, and I, the first boy she’d kissed. There was a natural logic to it and we really did like being together.

It was Lent, and I did my best to suppress my Lotus lust, but one afternoon I slipped up. I asked Mr. Belmont if he’d talked to Tony Rocha lately, and he replied, “Don’t prod me, young man. You must be patient.” And with a big grin added, “Have faith! You’re a papist after all.”

I had no idea what this last comment meant, but his delivery gave me confidence. Little did I know what little I did know.

Easter morning came and Easter morning went, and nothing! After church (we were Catholic and the Belmonts Episcopalian) I bicycled over to Sandy’s. The family was getting ready to head out for a restaurant lunch. Amazingly, nothing was said about the Lotus ride. Sandy looked trapped in the backseat of the big, black Oldsmobile.

Returning home I went ballistic, ranting to my older brother.

“Her father told me he was going to take care of this!”

“Think,” commanded my brother. “Why would he arrange a ride on Easter? It’s just goofy. He must have been pulling your leg.”

“Why would he do something like that?”

My brother shrugged. “Self-amusement?”

“Sandy and I are getting married!” I screamed.

“Maybe he doesn’t care for the idea of that. Why don’t you just tootle over and ask Tony Rocha yourself for a ride. He’s a Portagee, like us; the mom half of us. He ain’t no WASP. The worst he can do is tell you to scram.”

“Raah!” I biked back to Sandy’s house and crossed the lawn to Rocha’s driveway. I scuffed the gravel until he came out the back door.

“Looking for your fiancé?” he asked.

“What?”

“Never mind. You’ve come for a ride in the Lotus, am I right?”

He threw the top down and took me for a ripping spin around the Ocean Drive. Wow! It was Grand Prix time flying through curves and blasting down the straightaways!

“It was sure good of Mr. Belmont to ask you to give me a ride,” I beamed.

“What? That stuffed shirt wouldn’t give me the time of day. You’ve been admiring this car ever since I got it. I was wondering when you were going to ask for a ride. I was a kid once too, you know.”

I thanked him and bicycled home standing on the pedals. A girl in a white dress ran in uncontrollable circles across her front lawn. Daffodils waved, the trees glistened bright green with new leaves. Nature was rising up and I was part of it. It was, at last, springtime!

Charles Pinning is a writer who lives in Providence.

Charles Pinning: Family Thanksgiving dynamics on an Aquidneck farm

The farm of the author’s maternal grandparents.

The farm of the author’s maternal grandparents.

The farm overlooked Green End Pond in Middletown on the island of Aquidneck, which also comprised Newport and Portsmouth. It was a place of immigrants new and old, as well as money, new and old, some and none. The same could be said for the levels of education.

It was not unusual at Thanksgiving for a local spinster or educator, or even a black sheep socialite to join the family, happily putting aside their inbred aversion to “kitchen smells,” to wallow in the steaming redolence of Portuguese chourico and caldo verde, fritters, as well as the traditional turkey and blunderbuss load of stuffing and cranberry sauce. More people than you might think have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving and my paternal grandparents welcomed all.

Past willows weeping into the pond and black and white Holsteins the Pontiac shaked, rattled and rolled down the gullied lane and up between the two towering maples to the farmhouse. I’d tried to cajole my father into bringing the .22 to shoot cans and bottles off the stone wall, but my mother scotched that.

In addition to my aunts and uncles and cousins from nearby, and other off-island relatives from Bristol and Warren, there was Madame Soubirous, my French teacher at Miss Collings School as well as Arthur Harrington, a professor of earth sciences at Brown who owned a black Checker, the floor of the rear seat covered with an Oriental rug.

A whiskery Portuguese, five feet tall, who helped my grandfather at hay-bailing time and whom we only knew as “Pachute” arrived by bicycle, and there was the cat, Jelly Bean, who slept under the table on my grandfather’s foot.

“I simply never understood how Hemingway, sensitive as he obviously was, could shoot defenseless wild animals,” said Madame Soubirous.

“Probably because he liked to!” cut in my Uncle Arsenio enthusiastically, a man who’d never read a word of Hemingway, but had seen his picture many times.

I was allowed one glass of wine, made by my Uncle Manuel from his own backyard grape vines in Bristol. He brought it in gallon jugs, and my Nana said it had been blessed for me.

Uncle Freddy saw fit to announce: “I love it when Eileen gets undressed at night and flings her clothes across the room to the chair. I tell her, ‘Eileen, you should have been a stripper!’”

Everyone, except my grandparents, burst out laughing, and Eileen, his wife said, “Thank you for sharing that with everyone, Freddy.”

“Why not sweetheart? You look great!”

My grandfather, my Voo, took the occasion to excuse himself from the table and head out to the barn to check on the cows.

“There’s no need for guns,” said Professor Harrington. “Humans are doing a fine job killing off each other, and it will only get worse. Too many of us to begin with, and when the oil runs out and all the water is polluted, and the air and every piece of land is built upon….”

I slid off my chair and joined some cousins outside kicking a soccer ball around. Professor Harrington came out after awhile and lit one of the long, unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes he smoked.

“Around and about,” he said watching us, taking a deep drag and exhaling. “Around and about.” Young though I was, I understood his commentary upon our activity encompassed the ongoing efforts of all humanity.

The ball got booted down the slope of the lane and I chased it bouncing toward the placid pond just as the sun slipped below the trees on the far bank and the ball rolled into the water. A swan glided by the ball wondering who-knows-what, and I turned to see if anyone saw, looking back at the white farmhouse that is no longer there. No more barn or cows or Nana, Voo, or Jelly Bean. Just new buildings, businesses. Instead of the narrow lane by the pond, a two-lane highway.

As my mother was fond of saying about her girlhood: “ I thought we were poor growing up on the farm, but I now I know how good we had it.”

Charles Pinning is Providence-based essayist and novelist.


Charles Pinning: On Thanksgiving, a bloody early lesson in gratitude

330px-Barbed_Wire_Roll.jpg

 

There I was, an eight-year-old wunderkind jumping from one round bale of barbed wire to another. They were laid on their flat end, sitting like hassocks, and as each jump landed me successfully atop the next, I triumphantly spouted, “Jolly good!”

It was Thanksgiving Day and my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles were inside my grandparent’s farmhouse that overlooked Green End Pond in Middletown, R.I., gabbing away and enjoying drinks and savories before dinner.

About to perform yet another feat of heroic leaping I slipped and pitched forward, my open palms mashing down on the next spool and then my knees. I was stuck and disengaged myself by rolling slowly off. Blood poured from my hands and my pants bloomed red at the knees.

Fearful and crying, I staggered out of the storage building and towards the farmhouse. My older brother appeared from behind the big green tractor where he’d been sneaking a cigarette. “What happened to you?” he said, rushing up to me.

“Fell on barbed wire.”

He ran inside the house and came out with my mother, followed by my father.

Hysteria! Towels! And here we go again: rushing me up to Newport Hospital.

My father was really ticked. He’d been settled into a well-deserved highball, enjoying animated conversation with my uncles and now this.

“Why in God’s name were you jumping on barbed wire?”

My mother had a towel wrapped over my knees and I gripped another in my hands as we sped down the lane alongside the calm pond with the delicately arching branches of the weeping willow trees dipping into it. The cows lifted their heads at the sound of our bounding car.

They were gnarly gashes and Dr. Houston, Newport’s most prominent surgeon, who was having his own Thanksgiving dinner, was called in. The shine on his eyeglasses made me think of the pond and he was just as calm. My father was really putting on a show, perhaps to distance his DNA from mine, and my mother was going through her usual hypochondria hysteria. “Was the barbed wire rusty? Could he get lockjaw?” My brother told my parents: “Why don’t you go back to the farm. I’ll stay with him.”

My parents looked at Dr. Houston, who reassured them that I would be fine, and they left, with instructions for my brother to call as soon as I was ready to be picked up.

I could see that Dr. Houston was relieved they were gone and he went about his business with a relaxed precision.

He laid in stitches on my hands and my knees. It took almost an hour for the uneven flaps of skin to be sewn together, and then I was bandaged so that I couldn’t open or close my hand fully. My knees also were taped so that I couldn’t bend them. I was put in a wheelchair.

“You look tough,” said my brother, with a kind of admiration.

A nurse brought us into a lounge area and we were served Thanksgiving dinner on aqua fiberglass trays. There was turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. I thought it was good. My brother had to feed me. While we were eating, we heard sirens.

Afterwards, my brother pushed me around the hallways. Back then, Newport Hospital wasn’t very large, and we soon found ourselves coming upon the emergency department. There was crying and looking inside a room, we saw a little boy on a table. He lay very still and crooked. A nurse noticed us and shut the door.

“Is he dead?” I asked my brother.

Ashen-faced he replied, “Yes.”

Back at the farm, everyone made a big fuss over me.

“We’re so grateful you’re OK,” I heard over and over. “You must be grateful too.”

“I am,” I said, thinking about the boy in the hospital. That night I told my parents about the little boy and cried. They comforted me as best they could, but what can anyone say? Inasmuch as you can, avoid hurting yourself and anyone else. Try to be helpful and enjoy it while it lasts. Amen.

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based essayist, novelist and photographer.

 

Charles Pinning: In Newport, an alarming case of summer substance abuse

Money changes everything.

It was late morning and a sultry  spell had settled over Newport. The beginning of August spelled just one more month of freedom, and I lay on my bed, bored, my gaze settling on the blue piggy bank on the bureau top. My recent birthday had caused it to ingest an unusually large meal of paper currency.

Staring at the ceramic piggy, something occurred to me that, oddly enough, had never presented itself before: I suddenly knew exactly what I could do, and was going to do, with some of that cash. Slipping a finger through the ring of piggy’s red cork nose, I fished out a dollar bill, put on my sneakers and headed downstairs.

“Where are you going?” asked my mother.

“Nowhere,” I replied. I kept moving, stepping out onto the porch and motoring determinedly up the street. At Bliss Road, I zeroed in on Kuznitz’s, our neighborhood corner store, which carried the usual array of cigarettes and candy, brooms and cans of soup, bread, balsa wood airplanes, peashooters and anything else one might need, including ... Hostess Twinkies!

I only got hold of Twinkies on rare occasions. Sometimes, I’d open my lunchbox, and instead of an apple or a handful of potato chips in a waxed paper bag, or a couple of homemade cookies wrapped in waxed paper, there would be a glistening store-bought cellophane package of two Twinkies, and life suddenly sparkled. I loved Twinkies, and believed there was no limit on how many I could consume.

With my one dollar, I was able to purchase 10 packages of Twinkies, which Mr. Kuznitz placed in a bag, one package at a time.

“Having a party?” he asked.

One of the good things about being a kid is that you can just stand there and not really say anything intelligible, particularly to an adult who is not your parent. I made some sort of a sound, avoided eye contact and got out of there.

My father had a 1949 Buick sedan that he only used to drive back and forth to work at the nearby Navy base,  He kept it parked on the street in front of the house because “reverse” didn’t work. I discreetly got into the back and quietly pulled the door shut behind me.

The inside was a soft and silent chamber, and I disappeared deep into the sumptuous gray cloth seat. It must have been 100 degrees in there and I kept the windows shut so as not to arouse suspicion. I pulled down the fat armrest, put one leg up on the fuzzy rope attached to the back of the front seat, and removed my first package of Twinkies from the paper bag.

The cellophane of each new package fluttered off my fingers and floated down to the floor. After the fourth package, my efforts began to slow and, a couple packages later, everything began to grow hazy. The heat and the sugar were closing in on me and, suddenly, my engines reversed.

Pushing down the door handle, I shoved open the door and collapsed onto the curb. My father was coming around the corner of the house with a pair of hedge clippers in his hand and, spotting me, he grumbled, “What the hell?”

I was inching along the sidewalk on my stomach like a Marine under fire at Guadalcanal when he pulled me up by one arm.

“What the hell have you been doing?” he demanded, taking in my condition and the car’s open door. He dragged me over, then saw the Twinkie wrappers and the mess I’d left behind.

“God Almighty!”

“I had a dollar,” I moaned. “I thought they’d be good.” Was he going to spank me? I’d die.

“Were they?”

“No,” I bleated. “My head hurts.”

“That’s not the only thing that’s going to hurt,” he said, releasing me. “Go inside and clean up, then get out here and clean this damn car.”

And so the summer of 1960 writ my confused excesses into history — the beginning of a jingle-jangle decade like nobody’d ever seen before.

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based writer.

 

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The vanity of human constructions

-- Photo by Charles Pinning

-- Photo by Charles Pinning

One of my father’s ways of showing his love for his family was to build things of quality and permanence, things that he had  had precious little of growing up.

The swing set in our backyard didn’t lift or shift, no matter how hard you swung, because my father built it himself out of iron pipe, sinking all four posts into the ground and encasing them in cement. He did the same to support the roof he built over the patio, and when he decided to erect a flagpole in the front yard, iron, steel and cement were materials of choice.

I don’t recall any discussion about putting in the flagpole, rather that it just started going up one day. Some of our neighbors had flagpole holders affixed on the front of their houses, but we were the only ones on our street with an actual flagpole in the front yard.

I felt embarrassed when I saw what my father was up to. Even as a 10-year old, I thought it over-the-top to have something that would be more at home in front of the White House than standing in front of our modest Cape Cod-style dwelling.

I do remember my father being very ingenious about how he engineered the project. He set the four-foot-high I-beam steel base in cement. He let me write my name with a twig in the cement. The next day he took his white-painted (carefully primed and then covered with three coats of enamel) steel pole with the gold ball on top—the thing had to have been 20 feet tall—and he attached it to the base, running two thick bolts through the base and pole, and then he hoisted the thing vertical with the block and tackle that you use to run up the flag, tightened the bolts, and voila!—we had Newport’s most imposing residential flagpole.

For awhile, the flag was run up and down daily, but that finally sputtered out because my father insisted that the rules of raising,  lowering and folding it be adhered to, and Good Lord, even though he was in the military, his wife and children weren’t.

My older brother was a Boy Scout and got into the whole flag bit for a while, but even he eventually tired of it. The whole thing humiliated me. I recognized that this was just too much of a display of patriotism. Wasn’t it enough to live in the United States and be a good citizen? Did you really have to have this huge flagpole in front of your house?

Nonetheless, the durability of the setup was not lost on me, like the swing set and the patio roof. I admired my father’s diligent workmanship, but unfortunately, it over-influenced my adult life.

Early in my first marriage, there was the badminton net I was going to put up on the front lawn of my in-law’s house. I went to the lumber yard and bought two really beefy wooden posts, big enough to support a heavy fence, and using a post-hole digger, sunk them into the front yard. When my mother-in-law set eyes upon them she rightly said that they had to come out.

Can you imagine? Preparing a badminton court that would survive all but an aerial bombing! And then there was the exterior door I salvaged off the street to put in the doorway to the study of my New York apartment. The thing weighed at least a hundred pounds. What was I thinking?

I recently drove back to Newport and pulled up in front of my boyhood home. The flagpole was gone, but damned if that I-beam base wasn’t still there. The current owners had a bird bath mounted on top of the base.

Feeling around the bottom of it, I pulled back some grass and found the cement and my etched name. My fingertips grazing lovingly over this ruin of ancient Newport revealed all that is ever permanent about the past -- the intent of what we build. (See photo above.)

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based writer.

 

Charles Pinning: Hearts on ice

 

Around and around they go, smooth and jerky…some serious, but most smiling and laughing. At the far end and high on a wall overlooking the outdoor rink hangs a big metal heart glowing with red light bulbs.

There is girl in black tights wearing white figure skates and white stretchy-gloves, holding her arms out to her sides as she delicately carves the ice. Her dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail.

There is a boy about the same age, 12 or so, in rented hockey skates. He is skating awkwardly, but with great energy around the rink, swinging his arms, his cheeks red. On his head is a wooly blue Patriots hat. He’s wearing blue jeans and an old, quilted parka. It’s cold, but he doesn’t have any gloves on.

The girl in the figure skates is as graceful as the boy is herky-jerky, but they are both having a sublime time. You can see it in their faces. He is like a Siberian Husky on the first cold day, running around with his tongue hanging out, and she is all concentration and grace.

And then he notices her. He hangs onto the boards unweighting his aching feet and watches her, mesmerized. It seems she’s hearing a voice: “Now switch to the other skate, now switch back, now turn backwards….”

When he pushes off the boards he tries to skate better, fighting his inexperience and the crappy rental skates.

Each time he comes around the rink he gets a little closer to her, but she doesn’t notice him.

He throws himself down.

She skates backwards around him, flicking up one blade with each stroke, literally skating circles around him.

He pulls himself up. If only he could…Do something!

She glides over to the boards and he sees his chance. He lurches over to her in splayed strokes, his arms shooting out at all angles. He hangs over the boards next to her, turns to her and says, “You skate beautiful.”

She looks at him, smiles a little smile.

“Thanks,” she says, and pushes off, turning extending her arms sideways and strokes the entire circumference of the rink, a swan’s wings outstretched, an angel.

Leaning back against the boards beneath the metal heart with its glowing red bulbs, the boy watches the angel…figuring.

After a couple more turns around the rink, she stops in front of him.

“Why are you watching me?” she asks bluntly.

He’s taken off-guard.

“Because…I don’t know,” he stammers.

She pushes off on the front teeth of one blade and returns to carving circles. She spins. She spins again. He pushes off from the boards and skates down to the far end of the rink. He skates back. She’s skating toward the door in the boards, she opens it and steps outside the rink on the tip-toes of her skates.

There’s a man there. He’s well-dressed, wearing a tan trench coat and a fedora. He’s watching her take off her skates.

The boy is losing her, he’s panicking, yet all he can do is stand there. The man looks up and sees him. He waits until the girl puts her shoes on and he touches the girl on her shoulder and points to the boy.

The boy smiles at her.

“Will you be here tomorrow?” she asks him.

How can he be? He nods his head. “Yes,” he says.

She smiles. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he says back.

When the man and the girl turn to leave, the man places his hand upon the crown of the girl’s head. The boy feels like it’s his own hand.

Perhaps tomorrow, I will go ice skating myself. But for today, watching was enough. It lightened my heart and made me feel hopeful again.

Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is a novelist, essayist and photographer who lives in Providence.

Charles Pinning: Winter humors in Newport

Another gray winter day in Newport before the construction of the Pell/Newport Bridge and the good Saturday morning cartoons and shows were over. Might as well grab the basketball and head down to the Ferguses.

The Ferguses lived two doors down and had a backboard mounted on their garage. I bounced my ball sullenly down the sidewalk, bounced it alongside their house, arrived at the cement apron in front of the garage and took a shot.

Bwong—off the rim, ran, grabbed it, hook shot from the corner…Swish! Backward shot off the backboard…miss…grabbed it, turnaround jumper…bwong…layup—Good!

Bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce….Cousy sets, shoots….It’s Good! Mrs. Fergus tapped on the kitchen window and smiled.

And on it went with the great Bob Cousy…Oscar Robertson…Bill Russell….More often than it should have, the ball bounced off the rim, hitting the broken cement spot and caromed sideways, triggering a lunge to the sidelines, a miracle save and then the hook…Nooo!!! But he was fouled!

After lunch I banged a tennis ball up against our garage door. It was uncanny how often, without trying, I could hit the raised strip in the middle where the two doors overlapped, the ball ricocheting into our hedge on one side, or into the neighbor’s driveway on the other.

Jayne, the “Mongoloid” who lived next door, watched me from her living room window, and every time the ball hit the center strip and went flying, she clapped. (“Mongoloid’’ was a termunfortunately used until recent decades because of the somewhat East Asian appearance of people we now identify as having Down syndrome.)

I let my wooden racquet drop straight down on the top edge of the head and it bounced back up. I grabbed it and did that a few times. Jayne clapped.

I went into the house and down into the cellar, where I played with the road racing set I’d gotten for Christmas a year ago. Bored after 10 minutes, I imagined shooting the BB gun at a target. The gun had been confiscated over the summer because I took a potshot at Piper Haynes, the dog next door. Piper piped and Mrs. Haynes, who was hanging clothes, caught me pulling the barrel in through the cellar window.

I went up to my room and handled my baseball trophies. I cruised into my older brother’s room and examined the top of his bureau and sniffed his bottle of Royall Lyme aftershave. I peered inside his top desk drawer. I grabbed a couple of his Mad Magazines and took them into my room where I lay down on my bed and read them. Afterwards, I returned the magazines to his room and put them precisely as they had been in the rack next to his bed.

I walked over to the window next to his desk and looked into the backyard. I turned to the bookshelf above his desk. I touched the spines of Animal Farm, House of Mirth and Bleak House.

On the top shelf of the bookcase, up near the ceiling, was a blue Maxwell House coffee can. Standing precariously on his swivel chair, I stepped up onto the desk and reached for it. Barely within my grasp, I pulled the can forward and it tumbled over. The plastic top popped off and I shrieked, instinctively dropping my head as a putrid, lumpy liquid poured over me.

My mother rushed in, followed by my brother.

“What have you done?” screamed my mother.

“Moron!” yelled my brother.

“What is all of this?” demanded my mother.

“It’s a pregnant rabbit I dissected in biology class,” said my brother.

“What? The smell!” cried my mother.

“It was in formaldehyde,” said my brother.

My mother rocketed into the far reaches of incredulity. “Why did you bring it home? Why did you have it up there?”

“What difference does it make? It belongs to me! It’s mine!” yelled my brother.

Yanking me by the arm, my mother dragged me into the bathroom. She turned on the shower. “Get undressed,” she said disgustedly.

“Teach you to snoop around my room, dorkoid!” shouted my brother.

Let me tell you, I looked like hell, I smelled like hell, but inside I was laughing and happy, but I didn’t dare show it. Finally—some excitement around this place!

Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor,  is a novelist and essayist who lives in Providence.

Charles Pinning: Christmas amongst the chosen in R.I.

Yule Night in King Hall at St. George's School circa 1960. (Photo courtesy of St. George's School Archives.)

Yule Night in King Hall at St. George's School circa 1960. (Photo courtesy of St. George's School Archives.)

There was no mistaking now that it was winter at St. George's School, in Middletown, R.I. The trees bare against a streaked pewter sky, the cold of frozen ground passing through your leather heels. Up the hill from the ocean came the salt air. Snow crystals gathered on bare spots in the grass and blew across the walkways.

But we were adolescent blast furnaces, roaring through the night, the tips of our wet hair freezing as we whisked coatless across the quadrangle in ties and sport coats toward the Gothic chapel that loomed above our world.

We took our places in the dark wood pews, looking at each other across the aisle, snuffling and glistening in the sudden warmth. We made faces and shot spitballs. We indulged in vile sign language.

Two nights earlier, the Christmas festivities had begun here with the singing of hymns and the appearance of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus placed in a manger in front of the altar, surrounded by shepherds and angels.

But tonight was our more usual 15 minutes of chapel prayers before repairing to the medieval majesty of King Hall dining room, decorated with garlands and wreaths for Yule Night – an ancient and more pagan ritual before we were set free for vacation the next morning.

A faux boar’s head with an apple in its mouth was borne into the hall by boys costumed as Elizabethan pages. Following them, the Master and Mistress of the Feast. The Jester followed with a squirt gun. A Christmas tree glowed on the Head Table’s platform.

Beneath a ceiling of vaulted wood from which hung the colorful silken flags of the original Thirteen Colonies, we boys and faculty families dined by candlelight on roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Surrounding us on the wood-paneled walls were the engraved names of the graduates in each class dating back to the 1890s.

After dinner, tables were moved away and a space cleared in front of the massive fireplace and the Yule Log was lit. We gathered ’round, forming a crescent in front of the hearth. A Mummers play of St. George and the Dragon was performed, the violent shadows playing upon the wall-carved names of Astors and Vanderbilts and the faces of their heirs that tonight stood side-by-side.

The Dragon slain, as was his eternal fate, our headmaster stood in front of the leaping flames and lead us in song. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing…” and I gazed upon the faces of my friends, many of whom would leave tomorrow for fancy vacations in Bermuda or the Bahamas, or skiing in Vail or Chamonix.

I saw faces that were young and healthy, wan and worried. I saw faculty members who made us do our lessons and wives who poured our tea. I saw boys who were confident and strong and others, so unsure; so young and lost. I saw rich boys who would go home to sumptuous apartments on Park Avenue and not see their parents, not even once. I saw a Black scholarship student who would go home to a Harlem tenement just a few blocks from others’ Park Avenue addresses.

I saw our star hockey player who just two weeks before had had a puck knock out both front teeth.

I saw Freddy, a Third-Former from Auchincloss Dormitory, where I was a prefect, responsible for making sure that  he was in his room by nine; that he did his studies and kept his room straightened. I looked at his face in the glow and thought about his older sister, whom I’d gazed upon longingly when the family had visited him over Parents Weekend. How could I work this?

I didn’t think about Vietnam and the draft that could soon take me. Nor did I think about what a lucky duck I was to be a micro dot of privilege.

It ended with “Silent Night.” It all crumbled with singing “Silent Night,” as it does for everyone, always.

I fought back tears, weeping inside for I don’t know what. Everything. My Mom and Dad and brothers. For all of us, rich and poor and in between. For we are all in need, even if it doesn’t look that way.

Charles Pinning,  an occasional contributor, is an essayist and novelist who lives in Providence.

Charles Pinning: Recalling my disastrous Thanksgiving trip to lovely Little Compton

Friends (Quaker) Meeting House in Little Compton.

Friends (Quaker) Meeting House in Little Compton.

Speeding by the pastures and farms that lead out to Sakonnet Point and the ocean there was, for me, no prettier drive anywhere than through Little Compton, R.I.

I’d left Baltimore early in the morning in my old Jaguar sedan, which was performing admirably (knock on the walnut dash), and now under a darkening royal blue sky I no longer chewed upon the guilt of not spending Thanksgiving with my family back in Virginia, but pressed on with a mindless glee toward the expansive compound of my girlfriend’s family.

There was Bonnie, willowy in her bell bottoms and there was her scrawny sister, Suki, and her preppy brother, Rex, and their handsome mother and father

I put the special chipotle cranberry sauce I’d made before leaving Baltimore into the fridge and Bonnie and I took a walk to the beach with her sister.

Leaving the house, her brother said, “What kind of car is that anyway?

“It’s a Jaguar,” I said. “Mark Nine.” I’d bought it used for $600 when I was in high school, but  there was no need to divulge that.

I’d brought a borrowed Canon camera and asked Suki to take few pictures of Bonnie and me.

“This is a pretty fancy camera,” commented Suki.

Her parents seemed to have forgotten that although I attended college at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, I was not studying to be a doctor despite the international fame of Hopkins’s medical school. Rather, my interests were writing and acting. I reminded them I’d spent the summer doing summer stock just down the road at the Carriage House Theatre.

“Right-o” said Mr. Fort.

I’d met Bonnie in June at Wilbur’s General Store. She was buying chicken salad.

“Is it good?” I asked her.

“It’s the best,” she said.

Then I saw her at the beach. Heart Attack!

Bonnie went to Brown University, in Providence, and we bounced back and forth a few times after school started.

I spoke of George McGovern, whom I’d just voted for in my first eligibility, against Nixon, and how the Vietnam War had to end. “So much stupid, needless death!”

After dinner, I read a little story I’d written about meeting Bonnie at Wilbur’s then at the beach. Mrs. Fort complained about the annoying sticky door at the foot of the backstairs leading up to the bedrooms and the popping sound that it made.

First thing in the morning, I grabbed a tube of Door-Ease out of my toolbox and took care of the sticky door and its popping sound.

At lunch I passed around my cranberry sauce. Suki said, “What’s this?”

“Cranberry sauce,” I said. “It has a little kick. You’ll like it.”

The family talked about their upcoming Christmas trip to Bermuda.

I excused myself and went up the backstairs to my room to get a ceramic bulldog I wanted to give to her mother and father. The family had strong Yale ties and the university’s mascot is a bulldog. When I came back down through the door that no longer made a popping sound Mrs. Fort was talking.

“I just don’t like him, Bonnie. That car he drives is so ostentatious and—”

“Making us listen to that story,” said Suki.

“He always needs to be the center of attention,” said Rex.

“He’s arrogant,” said Mrs. Fort. “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. And why isn’t he having Thanksgiving with his own family? Doesn’t he have a family? Who are they, anyway?”

I waited for Bonnie to say something in my defense. Nothing came. I drew a deep breath and walked into the dining room.

“I’m going to be leaving now,” I said, and I handed the little bulldog to Mr. Fort. “This is for you. Thank you for not speaking ill of me.”

He looked down at the table, nodding his head. He died on Christmas in the next year. Mrs. Fort lived on another 30 years. Rex fatally contacted a tree skiing at Gstaad, and Suki married a wealthy Mexican avocado grower.

Bonnie….Bonnie and I still enjoy swimming in Little Compton whenever possible. It’s taken us awhile to understand each other, but we’ve persisted and have largely found it a worthy effort. Regular pilgrims we are, I suppose.

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based novelist and essayist.

Charles Pinning: Film avant garde in our Newport backyard

A recent ad for something called the Newport Outdoor Film Series reminded me that my childhood was not solely a medieval horror show of spankings and more subtle tortures. It was also imbued with moments of the avant garde. Film and children are eminently well-suited to taking a healthy whack at the status quo. Startling and immediate, both can leave us speechless.

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s my naval officer father was stationed on several ships in Newport. In the officer’s wardroom they screened movies, and before the film had to be returned he would sometimes bring it home and we’d have movie night in the backyard.

Neighbors were invited and we put out folding canvas chairs and chaise lounges, and some people brought their own. There was iced tea and Narragansett Beer and ginger ale and snacks.

We watched ShaneGone With the Wind and other classics.  On the night I am about to describe it was going to be Around the World in 80 Days.

My father set up his big projector, swinging open the arms and snapping the take-up reel into place. Then he removed the film reel from the round metal canister, both reels as big as the steering wheel on our Pontiac station wagon, and snapped it onto the other arm. Then came the careful threading of the film between the rollers and onto the take-up reel.

The screen, its  surface pearlescent and surprisingly abrasive, was set up in front of our huge, globular Japanese cherry tree.

It was turning dark now, and the kids’ running around began to slow, the chatter of the adults grew softer and sound of the crickets in the field behind the cherry tree began to rise up.

My father’s voice: “All right everyone. The movie is about to begin!”

I sat down in my canvas chair. Connie Hayes, who lived next door and had one of Newport’s foremost Barbie doll collections, sat to my right, and to my left, Chrissie Blank, a bonnie little tomboy with bangs if ever there was. They were my best friends.

And suddenly it began, the mechanical clicking and flutter of the celluloid winding its way at 24 frames per second through the projector’s sprockets and the cone of light splitting the darkness, carrying the image to the screen, first the leader countdown flashing the numerals with a beep for each: 5…4…3…2…1...And then!

I’d never been out of the United States, and leaned forward to meet Victorian fussbudget Phileas Fogg and his exotic valet, Passepartout.  Beginning in London, they made the wager and readied themselves for their journey around the world, first stop Paris. Paris! Where they climbed into the basket of a colorful hot air balloon with streamers. Up they went, floating above the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. As they sailed over France, they crossed the Alps and Passepartout leaned over and scooped an armload of snow off a mountain peak.

It was at that moment, timing perfect, that a little gust of wind rose up and the screen blew over! Suddenly, there was Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in their hot air balloon sailing across our cherry tree, leaving behind the screen’s confines.

We sat transfixed, and in the half minute before my father was able to right the screen, nobody complained. We were being transported someplace we’d never been before, discovering by accident a new way of seeing.

Isn’t that just the way life is? By trying something just a little different, getting the film projector outside on a summer evening, the stage was set for a gust of wind to usher in a movie projected against a tree. And what could’ve been more perfect than the image to be a hot-air balloon in the sky?

Our faces were aglow and we were letting go, living the free life with Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Living our cutting-edge life in little Newport many decades before the avant garde began projecting video against buildings and, yes, trees. There we were in the season that favors accidents, racing at the speed of light into the future.

Charles Pinning, of Providence, is a novelist and an occasional contributor to New England Diary.

Charles Pinning: Gardner heist was a lark

stormy  "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,'' by , one of the works stolen from the Gardner Museum 25 years ago.

Twenty-five years ago, in the wee hours after St. Patrick’s Day 1990, thirteen works of art valued at $500 million were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It stands as the biggest art theft in history, and it remains unsolved.

Among the pieces stolen were three Rembrandts, including his only known seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and Vermeer’s, “The Concert,” and there only 34 Vermeers known to exist.

My immediate thought was: Who would steal art so famous it couldn’t be sold?

Professional art thieves would not waste precious time popping a relatively worthless eagle finial off the top of a flag pole, as they did in the Gardner theft, nor would they pinch a bronze, Shang Dynasty drinking beaker (a Ku), regardless of its value; not when their obvious prizes were the Rembrandts and Vermeer, a Manet and a handful of Degas.

Year after year, I listened as the “experts” rolled out their conventional theories of the crooks having Boston underworld connections, be it Whitey Bulger or any of an assortment of local thugs.

No-no-no!

There is a 600 year old problem-solving principle that has often been employed in science and forensics called Occam’s Razor, and it is extremely applicable in this case: among competing hypotheses the one with the fewest assumptions should be preferred.

The simplest, cleanest theory of this robbery eliminates thugs who wouldn’t be familiar with a precious out-of-the-way museum like the Gardner, who wouldn’t know Manet from mayonnaise. Nor were they sophisticated professionals who would operate swiftly, not spend an hour and twenty-one minutes dancing around a museum in the middle of the night. My theory has the least amount of assumptions, and it begins right across the street from the Gardner at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Students from the Museum School, as it’s popularly known, are in and out of the Gardner all the time, studying the art, drawing it.

The guards on the night of the theft were two: a 23-year-old music student at Berklee College of Music and a 25-year-old local musician. The Gardner, the SMFA and Berklee are all within a 10-minute walk of each, two minutes by car.

Is it not possible, if not probable, that art students hanging around a museum and musician-guards would get to know each other, at the museum itself or at clubs and parties?

Weeks prior to the theft, the guards had entertained friends in the museum at night, hanging out drinking, strolling the galleries….

In my view, the theft was committed by students, perhaps in league with former or then-present guards. The theft was a lark, pulled off for the thrill of it.

The big problem: what to do with the art once it was in their possession. My imagination was fired up. In 2006, I set about writing a fictional version of the heist, using all the known facts and cast of characters.

In the spring of 2013, the FBI held a press conference, claiming that they knew who stole the art, they just didn’t know where it was. If the Feds knew who stole the art, why not name them? It could only hasten its recovery. To me, they were obviously bluffing, hoping to flush out someone who had knowledge of the art.

My novel about the heist, Irreplaceable, came out in the summer of 2013. I alerted the staff of the Gardner Museum via email, figuring that they would have a natural interest in the story. The Gardner’s Director of Security, Anthony Amore, replied hot and swift:

“…the claim that the FBI is bluffing is ridiculous and irresponsible. I will not be purchasing it [your book].”

Were she alive today, I believe that the flamboyant, rapacious Isabella Stuart Gardner would pursue the recovery of her art with as much tenacity and imagination as she’d brought to its acquiring. She certainly wouldn’t have tolerated 25 years of theories that have produced nothing.

Inscribed above the museum’s original entrance is her motto: “C’est mon plaisir.” This was a woman who well-understood doing something for the fun of it, and because she could.

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based writer.

Charles Pinning: 'When what you want comes to you'

  granter

"Hope'' (oil and gold leaf on panel), by ELLEN GRANTER, at Alpers Fine Art, Andover, Mass.

I was devastated! I’d given Lisa Goodrich a Valentine’s Day card and a box of chocolates, and she could barely say thank you before shoving them into her book bag and hurrying off to her mother’s waiting Cadillac.

I walked home from school and must have looked as dejected as I felt, for as I approached our house, Anna Pasch, who lived next door, came out of hers and asked me what was wrong.

“Nothing.”

“That’s not true,” she said.

“I gave a Valentine’s Day card to this girl in my class and she just put it in her book bag and walked away.”

Anna slung her arm around my shoulders. “C’mon inside and have some banana bread.”

Halfway through my second slice, Anna got it out of me that it was Lisa Goodrich and that I’d also given her a box of chocolates.

“Oh, boy,” sighed Anna.

I made a wounded animal sound.

“Will you do me a favor? asked Anna. “Will you be my Valentine?”

My older brother was slapping English Leather on his face in preparation for his Valentine’s night out with his girlfriend.

“I’m taking Sally to the Pier,” he said. The Pier was a fancy restaurant on the harbor in downtown Newport.

“I’m going to the White Horse Tavern,” I said.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Anna’s taking me.”

My brother stopped. “What is it with you two, anyway?”

“I—” but before I could say anything he cut me off.

“Anna Pasch is the most gorgeous creature in Newport, possibly the entire United States. I’ve asked her out. Everybody has asked her out, and my fourteen year old brother is the only person she’ll go out with. I’ve asked you this before and I am asking you again: What do you two do together?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s impossible! Two people cannot do nothing together! Did you tell Mom and Dad?”

“Not yet.”

“They’ll let you go. They love her. You’ve never been to the White Horse.”

“So?”

“Well, you better start getting ready. It’s very fancy.”

“As fancy as The Pier?”

“Fancier.”

“Can I borrow one of your ties?”

“No.”

Anna and I sat at a round table in front of the fireplace in the barroom. I wore my blue blazer, plaid bell bottoms and loafers. I took a tie of my brothers anyway. He had so many he wouldn’t even notice, if I put it back just right.

Anna looked like a movie star. Sixteen years old and over six feet tall, her effect was always impressive. Add to that her sapphire-blue eyes and bright blonde hair, perfect complexion and Wonder Woman body and basically everyone in view was dropping dead.

Anna’s uncle was a manager at the White Horse, hence the table in front of the fireplace and the immediate tendering of two flute glasses of French ginger ale.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart,” Anna toasted, and after our first sip she kissed me. Her lipstick smelled like roses, made somehow more red and fragrant by the snow falling outside the windows, the candlelight and burning wood.

“Charlie, Lisa Goodrich will waste your time and break your heart. Her family came over on the Mayflower, and they think all that crap is actually important. She is cute but she’s conventional. Lisa will always be about Lisa.

“You are intense and you are smart. And you are sensitive. If you try to please Lisa Goodrich, your edge will dull. Did she wiggle her tail for you?”

Stifling a laugh, I aspirated ginger ale out my nose.

“A female does that to attract and then sort out the possibilities and you’ve been rejected. Consider yourself lucky. She’ll eventually settle on Barclay Belmont, or someone like him. You, as a male, are wired to fight for her and try to control her, even though actual life has surpassed the slow steps of biological evolution.”

“Wow.” I said wow a lot when I was around Anna.

“My love, you don’t win something by conquering it. You win when what you want comes to you.”

Before we got out of Anna’s yellow Mustang convertible, we kissed. Anna and I had a way of getting lost in our kisses. We could let one kiss just go on and on, breathing in out of each other. Our lips had fit together perfectly from the start.

She took my hand. “Here. Feel my heart. Can you feel it beating?”

“Wow.” I’d never felt anything like that before.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart. All we have to do is be ourselves and the world is ours. It will be easy for us, if you let it.”

Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel, “Irreplaceable.”

 

 

 

Irreverence is the bedrock of humor

  sunflower

On the Charlie Hebdo massacre on Islamic terrrorists:

I share  the sadness of all France, and as an American writer, I stand with you in support of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press!

Satire breaks through rigid, unquestioning thinking. Absolute irreverence is the bedrock of humor, and humor relaxes and opens the mind. How many of us as children found Mad Magazine a portal to new ways of seeing? The National Lampoon, George Orwell, Twain... Feel free to add to the list. Virtually every writer has, at one time or another, employed satire to help the reader see.

-- Charles Pinning

www.charlespinning.com

Charles Pinning: Saved for me, 51 years earlier

Gifts sometimes come from unexpected places. They can take a long, long time to reach us, gathering a force such that when they do, our lives are forever changed. This is the story of just such a gift.

Helen noticed the first flakes of snow coming down as she sat in her classroom at the Mary C. Wheeler School, in Providence. Helen was in the third grade at what was then an all-girls school on Hope Street in Providence. Today was the last day of classes before Christmas vacation.

On the way home, Helen walked over to Thayer Street to look at the colored lights and decorated store windows. The snow was falling steadily and sticking to the streets and sidewalks.

She stopped at Ligget’s for a Sky Bar and unwrapped it before she crossed the street and walked past the parking lot where Christmas trees were being sold. The sidewalk was busy and the smell of pine filled the air. She was imagining a new bicycle gleaming under the tree at home on Christmas morning.

After a few more blocks, Helen turned up her street, the snow coming up now over the tops of her brogues.

She passed her mother in the hall and went upstairs to her room, changing out of her wool skirt and knee socks into a pair of corduroys and a striped jersey.

Across the driveway she could see Mrs. Ross in her kitchen making dinner. The mother of her best friend, Carla, was a gourmet cook, and Helen tried to stay over there for dinner whenever she could.

She heard the heavy blade of a snowplow bang down at the end of the street and begin rumbling and she wondered if her father might leave work early to get home before it got too bad. She decided to see if Carla wanted to take a walk in the storm.

Pushing open the porch door, Helen could see this was a blizzard. Already there was a small drift at the front of the driveway, and the snow was above her ankles. Carla wasn’t home. Mrs. Ross said she was over at a friend’s house.

Helen turned around in the driveway and watched the snow blowing across the roof of the garage. It was exciting to be out in it, watching the familiar transform. She felt like an explorer and tromped into the backyard.

At the far end of the yard loomed the giant beech tree, its gray elephant hide bark covering thick, muscular branches that rose higher than their three-story house.

Slinging one leg over the lowest branch, Helen pulled herself up. The idea in her head was to climb up two more branches and get in the middle of the storm and feel it and see what the world looked like from up there. She was up and down this tree all summer and knew every knot and curve.

Three branches up, she steadied herself and began walking out on the long, heavy arm. But underneath the light covering of snow there was a coating of ice. She slipped and that was the last thing she remembered.

Dusk was turning to dark and Johnny Marsh, who was Helen’s age, was heading home after playing at a friend’s house. Instead of going all the way around the block to his house, he decided to cut through Helen’s yard and climb over the fence into his backyard. As he was heading across Helen’s yard, he noticed an oddly-shaped pile of snow beneath the beech tree and trudged over to investigate.

Helen’s father carried her inside and laid her down in the foyer. Blood was on her face. Her pediatrician, who lived two blocks away, was summoned.

When Helen woke up, she was in her bed. An intravenous tube was attached to her leg. She had two black eyes. She was banged up, but she would be fine.

As this drama unfolded, I was living 30 miles away, in Newport, surviving my own childhood. I knew nothing of Thayer Street or the Mary C. Wheeler School or a girl named Helen, whom I would meet this year, 51 years after the incident. It was on a recent walk by the house she’d grown up that she told me the story.

“He saved my life,” she said of Johnny.

“And saved you for me,” I added.

And so, this Christmas, let’s not forget that every wrong turn, every right turn, every victory and every misfortune have brought us to this divine moment, where in the faces of those we love, we see the best presents of all.

Charles Pinning  is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.”

Charles Pinning: A scary story and then a sad one

They scared trick-or-treaters by enacting horrifying scenes in the foyer of their old Victorian house in Newport. There was Mrs. Mesto (not her real name), draped across a table with her arm chopped off, a bloody ax on the floor, or Mr. Mesto swinging from a noose.

I took piano lessons from Mrs. Mesto, and Mr. Mesto worked at a shoe store on Broadway, but they inhabited other skins on Halloween, convincingly portraying vampires and ax murderers, mummies and zombies. Every year it was something gruesomely different, and we couldn’t wait to get to their house, grab our candy from a table inside the door and run off the porch screaming!

The Mestos were older than my parents and didn’t have any children. Mr. Mesto was slender and of average height, the kind of man whom you might call pleasant-looking, but without any memorable characteristics. He would fit me for school shoes every year, measuring my foot in the metal frame with a sliding scale that I doubt is used anymore.

I took piano lessons from Mrs. Mesto, twice weekly walking up the hill to their house. She was pleasant-looking also, black hair beginning to be laced with gray that she wore pulled back in a bun, a trim figure, a clear complexion. Her nose was very straight. Most notable were her hands, which I had ample opportunity to observe at each lesson. Her fingers were delicate and touched each key with a mesmerizing stroking motion. My attention was often diverted from the lesson to her hands, and she would nudge me awake with her shoulder.

The days approaching Halloween were warm and damp, rich with the fragrance of decomposing leaves on the still-warm earth. The Mestos hired a man to rake the big yellow leaves from their side yard that fell, big as pie plates, from a towering Norway maple. He did odd jobs, including going from house to house in the summer, a stone sharpening wheel leather-strapped on his back to sharpen knives and scissors.

The evening of Halloween, I went out early because the year before I’d missed out on some good candy. At the Mestos’ I climbed the porch alone. The front door was ajar and I pushed it open. Mr. Mesto was dressed in a top hat and tails and Mrs. Mesto was a ballerina. She was bleeding from the mouth and Mr. Mesto took both her hands in his and squeezed them. Mrs. Mesto began screaming at the same time the bones cracked.

I grabbed my candy and flew off the porch!

When I met up with friends later and compared candy, I asked what the Mestos were supposed to be, and they said the Mestos’ house was dark and they weren’t giving out anything.

The next week, my mother told me Mrs. Mesto had to go away to take care of her mother, who was old and lived in Maine. She signed me up with another teacher, but I didn’t like her and quit taking lessons.

I glimpsed Mr. Mesto once or twice after Halloween, but then I didn’t see him again. The next time I went to get shoes, he wasn’t there and somebody new fitted me.

The side yard to the Mestos’ house went uncut and the leaves didn’t get raked anymore. The paint began peeling and rainwater ran over the gutters. It was always dark at night. Nobody lived there that I could tell.

It was vacant for years. I went up on the porch once and peered through a parlor window. All the furnishings were there, including the piano where I’d learned with Mrs. Mesto, but everything was dusty.

Years later, I brought the subject up to my mother. “Whatever happened?” I asked.

“Such a sad story,” said my mother. “Mr. Mesto accused her of having an affair with Neddy Sullivan, you remember: he used to come around and sharpen knives and scissors in the summer. But that was impossible.”

“What do you mean it was impossible?”

“I went to school with Neddy’s sister, and he was wounded in the war and came back, well, you know, he couldn’t make love anymore.”

“So, whatever happened to Mrs. Mesto?”

“Nobody knows what happened to either of them. They just moved away.”

“How sad,” I said.

“Yes. Very sad,” said my mother. “She was a lovely person. And she had the most beautiful hands. I always thought that if she hadn’t left, you never would’ve quit the piano.”

“That’s quite possible,” I mused, also remembering Mrs. Mesto’s hands and fingers, as I did far more often than one might consider natural. But then, I had good reason.

Charles Pinning, a writer and photographer, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.”

Charles Pinning: 'Living through stained glass'

It was a sunny fall day, and we were stretched out on the grass of Dexter Park in Providence. Behind us loomed the crenellated towers of the ginormous Cranston Street Armory, a castle-like structure of ochre brick.

“He was a tea dancer,” I said to Linda.

“What the hell’s that?” she asked, a smile breaking across her face.

“Rich ladies would have teas in their homes, and he would go dance the tango with them.”

“Are you making this up?”

“No. He was, reputedly, a gigolo before he became Rudolph Valentino, and he danced for money and sometimes even for free.”

“And he danced there?” asked Linda, gesturing with her thumb to the Armory.

“Yes. That’s a fact. He would travel and give tango exhibitions, and he came to Rhode Island once and performed right there, at the Cranston Street Armory.”

“Can we go get some lunch? I’m starving,” said Linda.

“Sure. And I’ll tell you another story about the Cranston Street Armory.”

Sitting at a restaurant table outside, I reached across and took one of Linda’s hands in mine.

“Isn’t it funny that we can hold hands like this, but if you were my girlfriend, people would look at us?” said Linda.

“Do you really think they would?”

“Are you kidding? They would give us dirty looks. I wish I was a man. Six feet tall, at least, and two hundred pounds.”

“Good Lord, why?”

“So I could smash people in the face who make me angry.”

“I don’t make you angry, do I?” I asked.

“Not usually. Do you like holding my hand?”

“I love holding your hand.”

“My girlfriend would kill me if she saw us doing this.”

“You have beautiful hands, Linda.”

“Why don’t you tell me the other story about the Cranston Street Armory?”

“OK. When I was a kid, my father and I drove to Providence to see the Rhode Island Auto Show, which was held in the Cranston Street Armory. As soon as we walked in the door, the cigarette smoke was so thick both of my nostrils started bleeding.”

“They allowed smoking?”

“Linda, when I was a kid, people smoked everywhere. People smoked in hospitals and doctors’ offices. My parents didn’t smoke, so I wasn’t used to being around it. Plus, I was prone to nosebleeds anyway. But I remember it was so acrid and sharp, then — bloosh!”

“So, did you leave?”

“Well, my father really wanted to see the show, so he took me out to the car and I lay down in the back seat while he went back in.”

A month later, Linda told me that she and her girlfriend were moving to San Francisco.

“It’s supposed to be friendlier,” she said.

“You mean for gays?”

“Yeah. And for lesbians, too.”

“You mean you’re a lesbian?” I asked her.

“Ha-ha,” she replied.

“Maybe you’re not. Sometimes I get that feeling.”

“You’re just wishing I wasn’t. For you.”

“It’s true. So what?”

“You know, when you told me that Rudolph Valentino danced at the Cranston Street Armory, I didn’t know who you were talking about. I had to research him.”

“You’re kidding!”

“C’mon. You’re old enough to be my father.”

“So what? Valentino died in—”

“1926.”

“That’s decades before I was born. He’s part of American history. If I knew of him, you certainly should have.”

“Well, I didn’t. I should get going,” said Linda, and she kissed me on the cheek.

“I love you,” I said.

“I know,” she replied.

Two years later, I was weed rousting when an unfamiliar sedan pulled up to the curb. Linda stepped out. She wore jeans and a light brown zippered jacket. Her hair had grown to her shoulders with a natural wave.

We sat in my side yard and drank iced tea that still left my mouth parched.

“So,” ventured Linda with great effort and after a deep sigh, “do you have a girlfriend?”

“I do,” I replied, feeling my face grow hot.

“I thought you would,” said Linda, to which I replied, “I assume you and what’s-her-name are still together?”

“Uh-huh,” said Linda, and then she looked down.

It was like living life through stained glass. Every word now was carrying more weight than could be borne. It was impossible to go on. Linda stood up. From a jacket pocket she withdrew an old postcard protected in a plastic sleeve.

“I saw this at a flea market and thought of you. Here—” and she handed it to me.

It was a colorized photograph of the Cranston Street Armory. Beneath the photograph was printed, “New Armory.” I turned it over. On the backside the postmark, 1923, was still clearly visible, and there was a penciled message. In an elegant, cursive hand the message read: “Thanks for the dance. (signed) Rudolph Valentino.”

When I looked up, Linda was already heading back to her car.

Charles Pinning is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable”.

Charles Pinning: Lessons from the Old Portagee

A couple of times each summer, the family station wagon transported us an hour or so, from Newport across the Mount Hope Bridge, through Bristol and Warren to the capital city of Providence. By Rhode Island standards, we had traveled halfway around the world.

These odysseys were generated by a visit to my Aunt Teresa in the Fox Point section, a woman with numerous ailments, none of which affected her ability to talk. I was left in the company of a pudgy, desultory cousin with greasy hair who crammed himself into a couch and stared at the TV. Nobody minded if I wandered the neighborhood by myself.

There was a drugstore I would head off to, to buy comic books or a James Bond paperback. Maybe wax lips, if they had them. On the way, I passed a cracked cement driveway shaded by trellised grape leaves. This trellis was made of the same kind of pipe that formed the top rail of the chain-link fencing that ran alongside the driveway and in front of the green, asbestos-shingled house.

In the shade of the grape leaves sat an old man in a low aluminum lawn chair with nylon webbing. He wore a beat-up straw hat and suspect trousers. At his feet to one side of the chair was a hibachi grill with sausage and peppers roasting. On the other side of the chair a radio was broadcasting the Red Sox game.

Seeing me staring, he said, “You want some chourico?”

Because he pronounced this Portuguese word for sausage in the same earthy way as my Azorean mother, I accepted. He speared me a piece  that  I plucked off the prongs of the long fork.

“Good, eh?” he said, watching me chew.

It was delicious, better than my mother made.

“It’s the coals,” he said. “Here, have another.”

He smiled at me. His teeth were good for an old man.

A young woman with a dark tan walked by. She smiled and waved and the old man nodded and tugged the brim of his hat.

“You don’t want your wife to look like leather,” he said, following her with his eyes. “That’s what she will look like one day. Look and feel like leather. You don’t want that.”

Later, in my Aunt Teresa’s kitchen, I asked my parents: “Can people turn into leather?”

“Why would you say that?” asked my father, and I told him about the man in the driveway.

“Oh,” said my Aunt Teresa. “He’s been talking to the Old Portagee. Never mind him; he just sits there all day.”

I didn’t think that was so bad. I spent many hours in the summer on my bed reading. What was the difference, really?

On subsequent trips over the years, I always stopped by to visit the Old Portagee.

“I only wear Brooks Brothers shirts,” he told me. “They wear like iron!” and he pulled at the sleeve of his faded blue shirt, basket-woven with white, the button-down collar frayed. “This one I’ve had more than 40 years!”

In addition to the chourico on his hibachi, the Old Portagee always had homemade wine to offer. Sometimes young women in the neighborhood would stop by, and he would pour them a glass or two. Rarely, I noticed, did men of any age stop by to talk to the Old Portagee.

“Men,” he said, “are lions. When they meet another lion, they know to keep their distance. If a man has a woman, a beautiful woman, then the other lions only come around for the woman, no matter what they say.”

“Do you have a woman?” I asked him.

“Once,” he said, pulling on the sleeve of his shirt. “Once the Old Portagee had the woman of all women,” and he looked up at the grape leaves shading us, and the plump red grapes ripening.

His wine was the best I’d ever tasted and he told me that he would give me the recipe before he passed.

He reached down to yank a dandelion that flourished in a crack in the cement but stopped. He caressed the yellow flower with his thumb.

“Remember,” he said, “You don’t have to go far to learn what you need to know. Just far enough.”

“And what else?” I asked.

“What else? Nothing ever changes. All change is false change.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” I exclaimed.

“If you say so,” smiled the Old Portagee. “But you might want to think about it.”

One night, deep in summer, the Old Portagee and I were sitting in his driveway drinking wine, blending into the evening shadows and eating fava beans out of the pod.

“Remember to keep the women happy,” he said. “Either do not let them into your life, or keep them happy. There is no middle road.”

He pulled a black and white photograph with crinkle-cut edges out of his Brooks Brothers shirt. It was a woman sitting sidesaddle on a horse. She was attired in the garb of the 1930s.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“A woman of Providence,” grinned the Old Portagee. “We’ll be riding together again soon.”

Shortly after I graduated from college, I received a hand-addressed envelope in the mail, the penmanship elegant and cursive. Inside was a folded piece of paper with the Old Portagee’s wine recipe. Beneath it was written: “The Right Woman, The Right Wine, The Right Chourico. T.O.P.”

Charles Pinning, an essayist, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.”

Charles Pinning: In '63, encountering a music legend to be

  Deep in the summer of 1963, my world consisted of two things: baseball and cars. I lived in Newport. When I was 11 years old and wasn’t playing for my Little League team, I’d wend my way up to Vernon Playground, often stopping at my friend Buddy’s house to snag him. After several hours playing pick-up ball under the blazing sun, we’d backtrack down Bliss Road and head into Koozy’s (Kuznit’s), our neighborhood corner store, for sodas and packs of baseball cards with bubble gum. If the Newport Folk or Jazz Festival was on, we’d head up to Broadway to watch the cars rolling into town. Between the Newport Hospital Nursing School and Rhode Island Avenue, there was a stone wall that rose up six feet above the sidewalk, shaded by two enormous beech trees. Buddy and I climbed the steps to the front lawn of the house and planted ourselves on the wall, our legs dangling over so we could get a good view of the cars coming down Broadway into downtown Newport. “Porsche,” intoned Buddy, making the first identification. The idea was to see how early you could tell what kind of car it was coming. “Jag, XK 120,” I jumped in. “Sting Ray ... Sunbeam Alpine.” “Healey 3000 ... Citroën.” Because of the music festivals in Newport, you got a sudden influx of foreign cars, filled with kool kats, hep cats, berets, long hair, depending on whether it was the Jazz or Folk Festival. We first spied the big-finned Cadillac as it passed DeCotis’s Barbershop, steam billowing out from under the hood, and it pulled over right below us. It had New York plates and the driver, a solid, middle-age man with glasses, stepped out and popped the hood. A skinny, college-age guy with curly hair that was almost fluffed up into a pompadour got out of the backseat. He looked up at us and then leaned against the wall, watching the steam rise out of the engine compartment. The man in front of the hood called to us: “You boys know where there’s a service station?” “Yep. You just passed a Mobil station up there,” I said pointing. “Right before that barbershop.” The man told the skinny guy that he was going up there. The skinny guy said, “OK. I’ll wait here.” Then a woman, about the skinny guy’s age, with long dark hair, got out of the back of the car. She looked up at us and said, “Hi.” She had pretty eyes and a nice smile. The skinny guy looked up at Buddy and said, “Kid, can I have a sip of your soda. I’m dying a thirst.” Buddy hesitated then said OK, and handed down the bottle of RC. The guy took a couple of  good slugs and handed it back. “That was good,” he said. “Thanks.” The woman looked at me with her big brown eyes, so I handed her my bottle and she took a swig. The skinny guy took out a pack of cigarettes and asked us if we wanted one. We glanced at each other and said, sure. The skinny guy shook the pack and out popped  a couple of Lucky Strikes. Buddy took a drag and started coughing. I held my smoke in my cheeks. The skinny guy went to the car and pulled a guitar case out of the backseat. He and the woman came up and sat down next to us on the wall. “You guys like folk music?” he asked. “It’s OK” I said. “But I prefer rock ’n’ roll.” “No kidding? Electric guitar?” he asked, and looked hard at me with his blue eyes as if he was actually thinking about what I’d said. Then he began playing a song. His guitar playing was good, but his voice was just terrible! Buddy and I looked at each other as he screeched, “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind .... ” But when the woman chimed in, she had a voice like an angel, high and pure. Then he played “This Land is Your Land,” and we had fun singing that together. When the older guy got back with a jug of water for the radiator, the skinny guy put his guitar away and thanked us for sharing our sodas. So did the woman and she got back in the car. Before the skinny guy got in, he turned to us. “Hey, what are your names?” he asked. I told him, “I’m Chuck and that’s Buddy.” “Well, OK, Chuck and Buddy. I’m Bob, and I guess that’s about it. Good luck.” With a blast of the Caddy’s horn they pulled away and Buddy and I went back to our car spotting, making jokes about what a horrible singer Bob was. Of course, our estimation of him was destined to change over the next few years. Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.” While he is a fiction writer, he insists that the above story is true.

Charles Pinning: Looking for independence on Independence Day

We found the prodigious piece of driftwood on the shore, bleached bone white and tumbled smooth, once a stout tree of more than 6 feet, now our proud possession.“We can burn it at the Fourth of July fireworks party,” said Jessie. Jessie lived in Little Compton, R.I., and I lived in Newport, 45 minutes away, and we had just completed the ninth grade. We’d known each other since the fifth grade, when Jessie started taking the bus into Newport to attend the same grade school as I did, St. Michael’s. She was quiet and shy and my height. She had long, dark hair and hazel eyes, and when she opened her mouth she always said something worth listening to, in my opinion. Even my sarcastic older brother gave her the thumbs up. “Still waters run deep,” he said knowingly. She was the only girl I’d ever kissed on the lips, with intent, and she had been my girlfriend ever since. My mother approved of Jessie, which was rare, because my mother didn’t approve of any girls, especially Irish girls who lived in the Fifth Ward. She thought the Irish were big boozers. Back then, the Fifth Ward in Newport was a poor section of town and my mother felt superior, even though she was the daughter of Portuguese immigrants and had grown up on a farm. Jessie was half-Irish, but she didn’t live in the Fifth Ward and her family was old and prominent in Rhode Island. To visit Jessie, I took the bus to Portsmouth and got off before it veered toward the Mount Hope Bridge and Bristol. Her mother picked me up, Jessie waving from the passenger seat of their blue and white Ford station wagon. The three of us packed in tight on the bench seat listened to the radio that was hopefully playing a good song (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.), and sang along with it. Way out on West Main Road in Little Compton, we stopped at Walker’s vegetable stand for some fresh-picked strawberries and then continued out to Jessie’s big shingled house on Sakonnet Point. On Sunday, we went to church together, but it was Episcopalian and not nearly as repressive as going to a Catholic church. On the Fourth, we played catch on the broad front lawn in front of Jessie’s house, then we bicycled down along the edge of Round Pond ringed with grasses and cattails, and up the narrow road between the honeysuckle and wild roses and rosa rugosa, coasting down the packed gravel hill to Tappen’s Beach. We checked to make sure our log was okay, then we walked down to Warren’s Point where we went behind our favorite rock and made out for a while. As usual, I started coughing. “Your Catholic guilt cough” said Jessie. “Do you think you’re going to Hell when we finally have sex?” “Probably,” I laughed. “Unless we’re married.” “I really hope you don’t believe that,” she said. I smiled, as if to say of course I didn’t. But the truth was that my brain was a tangle of my parents’ fears and the thought control-power madness of the Catholic Church, corkscrewed into me from early childhood. After dunking, we gathered smaller sticks and pieces of driftwood to put under the log, which we encircled with big stones. We climbed up on a lifeguard stand and the light turned rosy on Jessie’s face. We held hands and our hands glowed. I kissed her hand upon which she wore a ring that matched mine. A flotilla of brown ducks bobbed in the light surf near the shore. Some of them were just ducklings the size of little rubber ducks. “Are they trying to make a beachhead?” I asked. “Or do you think they are feeding? Or training the babies?” “Look at the little one that’s behind. Here comes the mama to bring it back in line,” said Jess. Families began showing up and some of our friends. Picnic food and drinks were put out on folding tables and barbecues were set up. We lit the fire under the log. I wished my parents were here, but the truth was, it would be less fun. My father couldn’t relax. He was forever critical of too much noise and running around and people not doing things correctly, and my mother wanted to know where I was all the time. Honestly, Jessie’s parents didn’t ride herd on her at all. They just let her be. Our driftwood log burned impressively, snapping and sparkling and we stood with others, silhouettes in the wavering orange light of its flames. In the shorelit darkness, we drifted up into the dunes. Lying down we looked up at a skyful of stars. I wondered if God was watching us, when suddenly there was a long hissing whistle followed by a loud boom! Red and then white and then blue fireworks began exploding and lighting up the sky. I felt Jessie’s hand. “Happy Independence Day,” she whispered.

Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.”