It all began with my Uncle Oke. He was married to my grandmother Emma’s sister, Jane. He was a tall man with a long face. Decidedly different from my mother’s side of the family, who were all, to a man or woman, short and round. In later years my mother would always characterize her people as “hobbits,” and it was an apt description. We didn’t see Oke and Jane all that much, but when they came around it was an occasion for me. For some reason, Oke liked me. I don’t believe he and Jane had any children of their own. When I was in the first grade, five years old, (I started school early, not because I was smart, but because my mother got tired of hearing me complain about being left behind when everyone else in the neighborhood trooped off to grade school.) Oke would pick me up and we’d go for a ride in his big car, which resembled an upside-down bathtub. The car — gunmetal grey — had a huge white steering wheel; I’d sit on Oke’s lap and steer while he worked the pedals as we motored down Maxwell Avenue, the street in front of our house. And I would really steer; he’d keep his hands off the wheel as I swerved down the street, lurching back and forth from lane to lane with Oke never intervening until we were milliseconds away from head-on crashes.
I said Oke’s car resembled an upside-down bathtub. I don’t remember for sure, but it must have been a Chevrolet, because the members of our family were all Chevy people. Our neighborhood — middle class working folks — was made up of either Chevy people or Ford people. There were no Buicks or Oldsmobiles because those were cars owned by people who had more money than we did.
No, that’s not right. Directly across the street from our house there was a Cadillac. It was owned by Johnny Holt, who lived alone. He was middle-aged, I guess, though children are always terrible at knowing how old adults are. Johnny was a character; I knew that because that’s what my father would say: “That Johnny Holt, he’s a real character.” Johnny would come home drunk on a Saturday night and run his Cadillac up on his lawn, climb out and stagger into his house. If I was lucky, I’d see him do this. In the summer — we had no air conditioning and neither did anyone else — I would switch directions on my bed and lay at the end where my feet usually were, with my head on my pillow up on the windowsill where I could catch any breeze that happened by. I could see the night sky, and the trees and hear my parents listening to the radio and later the TV downstairs until I fell asleep. I would wake up when Johnny hit the curb with a squelch of rubber tires and watch while he steered the big white Caddy up onto the lawn, braked to a halt just inches from his front steps, climbed out and staggered into the house. He usually left his car door open and over the course of the night the dome light would slowly fade until his battery was completely run down. The next day my parents would stand on our porch and shake their heads at the sight of the big Caddy up on the lawn. But Johnny was more a source of amusement than anger. He had another habit, though, that my mother really didn’t like.
On weekend mornings, early, even after a late-night struggle with the bottle and his car, Johnny would come out in his bathrobe to feed the birds. He would stand at the edge of his porch and throw torn-up pieces of bread into the yard, all the while calling out, “Here buddy buddy buddy. Here buddy buddy buddy.” I never understood if he was mispronouncing the word “birdie” or referring to the birds as his buddies. After waiting a bit – no birds ever seemed to take him up on his invitation — he would open his robe and take a piss out onto the yard. Then he’d shake off and go back inside. Like I said, my mother really didn’t like that.
Johnny’s wife, a pale pleasant woman with a long sad face died when I was in junior high school and Johnny, surprisingly, got married again soon after her death. This was surprising because Johnny was not an attractive man, heavyset with a bulbous nose and the annoying habit of pissing off the front porch onto his lawn. And his new wife was a real bombshell.
She was quite a bit younger than Johnny and was built, as we used to say, like a brick shithouse. Why we used to say that, I have no idea. She had large upright breasts, a slim waist and long legs that she would show off in little shorts. And she was extremely ugly. My father would say, “She’s the sort of woman you follow down the street for two blocks and when she turns around you run away screaming.” She was also very nice, though she never hung around with any of the other neighborhood moms. We young boys liked to watch Johnny’s wife, Mrs. Holt, walk around the yard in her tiny shorts. The dads did as well. Johnny’s wife had a positive effect on his character, and the incidences of driving the Caddy up on the lawn fell away to almost never.
About this time Johnny developed an interest in boating and began to build his own boat in the garage behind his house. After working for some months on the boat, he called to a bunch of us neighborhood boys and asked us to come take a look at the boat. We trooped down to the garage where he showed us the powerboat, which he had done quite a lot of work on. Maybe he was using a kit, but it had the skeleton of a boat and you could see he seemed to know what he was doing. This was a Johnny that we had not known. About this time he broke out beers for all of us, we were probably twelve years old, and laid out his plan. We would start a boat-building club where we would gather in the evening and on weekends to work on the boat. Beers were in the cooler. After the boat was built, we would spend many hours motoring up and down the Ohio River. It would be fun and educational.
We sipped our beers, pretending we were enjoying them, and pretending we were giving the idea consideration. Then we told him we’d let him know and went home for dinner.
We told our parents about Johnny’s plan and dumped out the beers because no one really liked them. Our parents were annoyed that Johnny had given us the beer, but none of them marched over and gave him hell about it. Remember, Johnny was a character, but he was harmless and characters were given a lot of leeway back in those days. We assured them that we weren’t going to join Johnny’s club because it was incredibly creepy.
Sometimes Johnny would wave at we boys but he never asked us down to the clubhouse again. He must have been pretty drunk when he hatched his scheme to us, and maybe didn’t even remember. Unfortunately, this story has a tragic ending.
After a couple of years, Johnny actually finished the boat. When the day came to haul it out of the garage, he found that the boat was way too big to fit through the door. Johnny was not to be denied, so he took a sledgehammer and knocked down the back of the garage and freed the boat, which was hauled down to the Ohio River. It floated, and by all accounts performed just the way a boat is supposed to do.
One of the first weekends on the water, his wife — it was said she was sitting on the stern wearing a tiny bikini — fell off the boat and drowned. I told you the story had a tragic ending.
Everyone felt sorry for Johnny, and soon he was back to his old ways: drinking and driving on the lawn. And who could blame him?
So, yes, it wasn’t all Chevy’s and Fords in the neighborhood. There was Johnny’s white Cadillac. I’ll always remember those soft summer nights, laying with my head on my pillow in the window, watching the bulb in the dome light of Johnny’s Cadillac as it faded with the passing hours, listening to the open-door chime grow fainter and fainter until dawn came, and all was quiet.
And I slept.