The Summer of Pat Boone (Mar – Apr 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Steve Weathers
March – April, 1996

That summer, a channel marker floated into our cove. It had somehow left its moorings and, beguiled by tide, grounded on two pilings in a yellow shoal. Buddy and I swam out to the skeletal frame. We climbed aboard and used it for a diving platform all afternoon. But there was a hidden life. At dusk, a white warning beacon began throbbing. It went on until dawn when the timer completed its cycle and clicked off.

We wondered how long the marine battery would last with no attention from the Coast Guard. At supper we glanced out the window and then at each other as if to say, “Bet she don’t make it till morning.” Later, on the back porch, screened in by blackness and mosquito whine, we carried on a silent countdown, a deathbed vigil for the white pulse, waiting for a sign of weakening. But the beacon took all summer to die. And by then it didn’t matter.

That summer Buddy went wrong. In the beginning, when he’d first turned his crab money into secondhand musical equipment, he chorded the old Silvertone electric like Merle Travis. There was an orderliness in the style, so my parents like it—despite their convictions about instrumental music in worship. But one day Buddy gathered tweeters from pocket transistor radios and slit the speaker paper with a razor blade. Wordless, Buddy ducked into the shoulder strap and turned up the amplifier. He struck an open E7. The distorted chord sizzled on the concave black disks. When I looked up, Buddy’s triumphant face had fallen. My mother stood in the doorway with fear-tight lips.

We both knew why. Years before, Uncle Willis had abandoned the fish house for a dance band. The other musicians at first joked that he’d have to play off-stage until he aired well. But after sitting in with them for a few nights, he was hired. At home Willis had always played simple country-and-western ballads. But our uncle, Buddy said, picked up big-band swing effortlessly—like some secret infection erupting on the skin after years of dormancy.

Momma began receiving a stream of letters bearing New Jersey postmarks. With each, she assured herself that Pat Boone had made it big, too, yet had kept his faith. But then came a trickle of superficial postcards. And finally, on a cocktail napkin, a note that Willis was married. He enclosed a strip of photos made in an amusement park. The lady alongside him in the fake gondola was smoking. Momma, Buddy said, had cried over those pictures. She never learned the newlyweds’ address.

Daddy stopped by our bedroom that night. He’d stayed late at the fish house, updating the ledger books, and I knew he longed for bed. But he stayed on and on, talking about the price of red snapper. I knew why he had really come. He wanted to ask Buddy, “What’s this new thing your momma told me about?” He wanted to know, “What does this change mean?” Above all, he needed to be assured. “You’re not planning to jump ship like your uncle did, are you?“ But after idling awhile and reminding us to say our prayers, my father left.

That summer Pat Boone spoke in tongues. Pat had always been Church of Christ, like us. He was our city set upon a California hill. Amid Hollywood corruption, the boy wore white buckskin loafers, unspotted by the world. He might be backed by an orchestra on his records, but each Sunday he returned to the a cappella singing of the primitive church. He might fall in love on film, but each night he returned home to Shirley and their four curly-headed girls. As proof of his fidelity, Momma continually invoked April Love. Pat had been tempted to kiss an actress atop the Ferris wheel, but when the fat operator shouted, “Hey, I charge extra for that!” and the rabble down below laughed, the boy had shrunk back. “I almost forgot where I was,” he said to the embarrassed girl close by him. “He almost forgot where he was,” Momma impressed upon us, “but he didn’t.”

It was vital that two boys being reared around a fish house not forget where they were. Oystermen and crabbers and mulletmen wore white rubber boots, but they sure weren’t unspotted from the world. In months with an r, the sunburned oystermen dropped sacks of shellfish at my feet with a clatter like broken pottery. They winked: “Better not eat these, boy, Might make you nasty.” In winter, when the female crabs burst out behind in a velvety cluster of orange eggs, the trappers held them up and laughed at me. “Don’t ever go out with girls like these, boy!” And in summer as the boats unloaded mullet, as I tallied their weight on the dock, the netters shouted a warning: “Don’t eat the red roe, boy. It’ll put hair where you never had it.” White footwear could be deceptive.

Each Sunday at church the rumors about Pat’s defection accumulated. And each week my heart grew sicker, fainter. Behind all the impeccable manners and flawless teeth and unblemished loafers, it seems, there had been this other life: cocktail parties and slow dancing and maybe even dark gropings in some Malibu bedroom. Finally, disoriented and sinking spiritually for the third time and knowing his soul was at stake, Pat had panicked and reached out to the wrong church. And now he was speaking in tongues and singing hymns with a jazz combo. Those Sundays, when we limped home wounded and disheartened, my mother scoured the newspaper’s TV supplement, desperately hoping for a summer rerun of April Love.

Gradually the evidence became too weighty to deny. Pat was gone. But his moral panic seemed an extenuating circumstance to me. One day I asked my father about it. He was sacking grouper heads to give to a withered Vietnamese woman who came by the fish house begging each Monday. Her husband had been killed in the war. Her son, the family’s breadwinner, had shrimped for a while and sold some to us. But he’d gotten into trouble and was now serving a prison sentence at Raiford. My father, I suspected, didn’t tell Momma that the heads he donated to the old woman often had the throats still intact — a choice filet in constant demand with local seafood restaurants. That day Daddy hurriedly dropped the slick slabs of meat into the woman’s sack and looked at me darkly.

“If you’d been aboard the Titanic when she went down,” Daddy asked with certainty, “you wouldn’t have joined the orchestra in Nearer My God to Thee, would you?”

Satisfied by my silence, Daddy continued, “Son, I’d a lot rather Pat have become a skid row drunk than to have abandoned the New Testament pattern of worship.”

Daddy pulled the sack’s drawstrings and glanced at the tiny figure waiting respectfully in the parking lot. Her rice hat threw a column of shadow in which she stood, safe from Florida’s noon heat. “Your Uncle Willis never once dreamed of using an instrument in church. So if he can quit his other foolishness, there’s hope for him. But as for Pat….” Daddy’s voice evaporated. He handed me the sack and nodded toward the beggar.

Out on the channel marker that afternoon, the platform swaying beneath us, I asked my brother about it. He seemed distracted. Buddy had swum to the marker with a radio in a plastic bag held high over the waves. He had hung the strap over a rusty spike and was not listening to a loud song with a lead guitar solo, raspy like a table saw.

The white light rested. I ran my hand over the beacon’s bucket-sized globe, feeling the hot glass pull at my palm. I wondered how many craft had run aground since the marker went adrift. Maybe men had died as a result—men in stylish suits who went down singing a final hymn, wishing it were being performed a cappella but having no time to quibble with the conditions of their death.

Buddy smiled down at the calluses on his left fingertips. His playing was getting faster and faster lately. His riffs often left the familiar territory of the first three frets and rushed far up the neck to places he’d never gone. He looked at me with one eye closed against the slant sun.

“You don’t get it, do you?” He studied me, a European examining an aboriginal. “Pat’s dead. Just like Merle’s dead. So you gotta make a choice: spend your life mournin’ corpses, or get out and mix with the living.”

Buddy snapped to full height and dived in. I watched his pale streak of flesh glide from the yellow sand into the dark spinach-green where the seaweed began. He surfaced and flung his bangs back off his forehead. He was letting his hair grow longer. He and Daddy had argued about it several times.

I crept out of the house that night and, in the luminous film awash between beacon and beach, swam out to the marker. The water was black and cold. About halfway, I began to feel afraid, thinking of ragged-toothed barracudas. But I prayed, and there was nothing. When I heard the waves wallowing in the planks of the marker, I rolled over and climbed up onto the platform. I lay down and waited for an answer.

That summer our family got word that Uncle Willis was dead. He’d been robbed and beaten to death in a public restroom. The telegram came to the office. My father read it and stood staring across the fish house at Momma. She was scooping shrimp into an ice chest and arguing about infant baptism with the Greek restaurateur who waited to pay. The fat man was laughing at the earnestness of the woman before him, pointing heavenward and shaking his head. Daddy told me to go finish filling the order and to tell my mother to come there. When I’d sprinkled ice over the shrimp and sealed his box and accepted the Greek’s check, Daddy was guiding Momma out into the sunshine with his arm about her waist. Her body had wilted against his.

Daddy paid to have the body shipped back by train. Willis was placed in the family burial plot. The gondola woman never contacted us. In fact, we never learned her name. A group from our congregation who had grown up with Willis came out and sang unaccompanied hymns at the graveside. Momma had them inscribe the marker: “Blessed are they that die in the Lord.”

The Sunday after the funeral, my mother refused to let anyone relieve her of communion duties. She went early to church and squirted Welch’s from a Tupperware dispenser, just like always. I stood beside her, watching her concentration reflected in the burgundy circles of the fluted cups. Momma closed the burnished aluminum lid, easing it into place by its cruciform handle. Flat slabs of unleavened bread were then laid atop a plastic doily. She sealed the loaves in their tray, placing an identical one on top, face down. Momma now flung out a starched and stainless linen cloth that unfolded like stairsteps in space and gently settled onto the table. Turning to me and smiling, my mother said, “Well, that’s done,” and fainted.

For most of August, she didn’t eat. Each time I visited her room, she seemed to have melted more, the bed slowly absorbing her body. My mother took up a ritual of all day in bed and all night on the living room couch in front of the snowy TV screen. She spoke to no one but Buddy, and no one was allowed to overhear those talks. Often I came into her room with a crayoned get-well card or my own version of lemonade and found them locked in conflict. They both fell silent until I’d left. Outside the door, I could hear the whispered urgency resume. Buddy’s guitar had fallen silent, too. Only occasionally, and then with the power off, did we hear the tinny click of his pick on unamplified strings.

Daddy took on Momma’s duties at the fish house. He assigned my brother and me to weigh in and weigh out. And he got testy — especially with Buddy. The boy need only swing his bangs aside to better read the scales and my father descended on him. Aside from those rebukes, Daddy went about his tasks silently. There was only one person he really talked to. Every Monday he stood with the Vietnamese beggar in the parking lot. She nodded as he talked, and often reached up to pat his shoulder with her brittle brown hand.

One afternoon when I got off work, I went home and tugged my sun-stiff swimsuit down off the line. Buddy had left work earlier, and I knew I’d find him out on the channel marker. I pulled on the scratchy trunks and stopped by Momma’s room, but she was breathing deeply, exhaling slow sighs, and her eyes looked peaceful behind closed lids.

On the bay front, I spied our dinghy bobbing by the distant marker. It wasn’t like Buddy to take the boat, we always swam. But today, for some reason, he had rowed. I hand-visored my eyes. The next instant, I saw my brother stand erect on the diving platform. He lifted his Silvertone high overhead. The pose was like an encyclopedia picture I’d always liked: “Aztec priest offering to the gods.” Suddenly, Buddy pitched the guitar out into the water. Next went the squat black amp. He heaved it like a shot put, and it disappeared.

That night I memorized the ceiling tiles in my bedroom. Then I stared out the window for a while. The beacon’s rhythmic glow was dim and yellow and slower now. When I’d exhausted all my strategies for charming sleep, I finally got up. A gray rectangle of light came from the living room. I stepped in and found my mother watching the Tonight show. Pat Boone sat in the guest seat. Johnny was asking a cynical question about his premarital purity.

Buddy sat by my mother, holding her hand. Their wet cheeks flashed in the TV twilight. Momma looked up and motioned me to her. I sat on the other side and took her free hand. At that moment, my father appeared in the doorway in his jockey shorts, studying us. He came and sat at his wife’s feet, leaning back gently against her knees.

Carson wanted to know if Pat had kissed Shirley before they married — if he’d “taken her out for a test spin.” Pat laughed diplomatically and said some choices are made solely on the basis of love.Wineskins Magazine

Steve Weathers teaches English at Abilene Christian University. His essay “Bad Dreams” appeared in Wineskins, Vol. 1, No. 8. “The Summer of Pat Boone” is used under the original copyright and with the permission of the Conference of College Teachers of English. It originally appeared in CCTE Studies LIX (September 1994).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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