She said something about how she never got it, the Sinatra thing. That her mother always went on about him, sang his songs on car trips and like that. I didn’t say anything to that. We ate and drank a little, talked about the day. I went into the other room to put another disc on the player. Without much thinking about it I pulled In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning off the rack. The CD, with its Hopper-like illustrated case, pictured Sinatra leaning sad against a backdrop a block away from the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It looked like it always had. Perfect. I put it on.
Even now when I hear his voice, I can smell dinner on the stove and I know that my father is on the way home. My mother is singing softly, “It’s a quarter to three, there’s no one in place… .” It was like that every day for years. It was safe and it was mine. Years later I realized that the song itself wasn’t sweet, it was sad. It was the end of things. I didn’t know precisely what a soundtrack was or how it influences the moment, and equally the memory, but it surely did.
I had seen Frank Sinatra in black and white movies on the Dumont TV in the dining room. From Here to Eternity, The Man with The Golden Arm, High Society. He was…cool. And it turns out, everything I thought I would become. I knew that there was sadness inside his music, even in his more popular AM radio hits that played all day long. I couldn’t have said that at the time. What I did know was that his voice told me a lot about who I thought I was. About my own sadness, and oddly my curiosity about what being a man would be like.
I used to listen to Make Believe Ballroom every Saturday morning, a radio show from Philadelphia. “Learnin’ The Blues” was a big hit that year. I lay safely under the covers as I imagined that I knew what it meant to be learning the blues.
I was pretty sure that if I could learn the blues, that “ol’ low down mystery,” (that’s what the DJ called it), I would be a man, all grown up. And when I grew up, I would “walk the floor til” I “wore out my shoes”. It was romantic, like a movie, but like a movie it seemed right. It was what men did. That and work all day, come home to eat, and go into the study, close the door, work some more and do it all over again the next day. Well, it was what my Dad did. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
I saw A Walk in the Sun with Dana Andrews when I was very young, maybe eight or nine. The troops land in Sicily and walk up a farm road to take a German-held farmhouse. Andrews is a lieutenant who keeps trying to write a letter to his sister. He can’t seem to finish it, to say it right.
“Dear Frances…,” he says several times, his voice trailing off. The platoon arrives at the farmhouse; the men are hidden behind a centuries old stonewall. The sun gets higher and higher. They go over the wall. The farmhouse is taken and it is not yet noon.
“Dear Frances,” Andrew’s voice comes over the scene of the bodies lying in the sun in this foreign place, the survivors gathering up and getting ready to move on. That’s also what men did. They went to war, they didn’t say much, they took care of business and they got on with things.
“Dear Frances,” he says. “We took a farmhouse today. It was easy.” Only it wasn’t easy, and it never happens that way. Even I could see that.
Long before I left home my mother stopped cooking as she had. Her soft singing gave way to the constant sound of a classical radio station. She lay on the living room couch most of the day, watching the door. She waited for him to come home from work, all the time getting weaker as her heart gave out.
Every evening during the school year, when my father walked through the door there was dinner ready, wrenched from what dwindling energy she could gather in a day. He came through the door and told her about his day, who did what to whom and how the Dean sabotaged this or that. I set the table, watched the Mets lose, washed the dishes, picked on my younger sister.
My 14-year-old head was filled with images of lost highways and dead-end midnight dreams, of broken phone calls from far away places, in black and white with fog on the tarmac. Elvis Presley replaced Sinatra for me as did Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and The Drifters.
It was a different world, made up of nuclear nightmares and feverish daydreams about red headed girls in Geometry. Even though Sinatra was not as evident, Ol’ Blue Eyes still had his hold on me. I knew more about loss by then; certainly I was aware of being afraid, of being uncomfortable, of being outside looking in. It wasn’t his lyrics, they were mostly sappy to my emerging existential self. It was still that thing in his voice.
Sometimes I would take the bus to the Idlewild, now Kennedy airport, just to listen to the flights being called; “Pan Am 3, Paris, Istanbul, Cairo.” I turned my collar up like John Wayne in The High and the Mighty and snuck out on to the tarmac. I always imagined I saw a single horn player with a battered leather case, shuffling slowly to the plane through the fog swirling on the runway, pulling me along to somewhere unknown, a place just beyond my reach.
Elvis and Benny King were in my head, this long before Walkman and iPod. It seemed that everything was far off, magical, a “rose in Spanish Harlem”, glimpsed but never taken, that life was elsewhere. I couldn’t wait. The music spoke of broken dreams and lost love and sex and every word seemed meant only for me. Get on with it, kid, it seemed to say, time’s winged chariot ain’t waitin’ at no station.
Nearly every night for most of my late teens and early 20s I had dreams of a battlefield grave, a rifle bayonet in the ground with dog tags and an empty helmet hanging down from the rifle stock. There was a single horn playing Taps. I always woke up in a cold sweat, cotton-mouthed and resigned. I woke up before I was close enough to read the name on the tags.
When my mother died I was in another country, on another coast. When I went home for the funeral with my own 10-year-old son, the classical music station was off and the study door was still closed.
I no longer wonder what happened to my childhood’s lonesome highway, to the bloodied heroes and the feverishly imagined manhood where the bars are still open at a quarter to three and morning is a distant fire streaked across the sky. Where the neon in the darkness offers promise that shit will turn to gold and the door will open and my Dad and I will talk together.
Cocaine and whiskey have taught me what I needed to know. Taught me that it isn’t easy and that it never happens that way.
Sinatra’s voice cuts across our wee hours from the other room. He is still walking the floor, she is still gone, whoever she was.
Two nows, 40 years apart. My friend and I dance slow and close, keeping time together. Under a cold spring moon our shadows play across the kitchen wall.
Photos of Franks Sinatra, courtesy of WikiCommons
“Flaming Highway” WTL Photos @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.