Sandra Dee, a Man in a Suit and Me

henri-cartier-bresson1960
henri-cartier-bresson1960

If anyone had asked me what I felt that afternoon, if I was swooning with excitement to see a local celebrity or simply out to have some fun with my cousin, Henny, I’d have said something was off, like when you first notice a weird smell in the air but don’t pay it any mind. It was as if my instincts knew something but my brain was too busy to sort it out. I was looking at the mass of people and also focusing on Henny as she sucked in her lips, then puffed them out in a bad imitation of a starlet. Her sunglasses looked terrific, though. Aunt Margie, giddy with anticipation, stood in front of and clsoe to Uncle Fred. I aimed my Kodak camera and got my picture despite being squeezed every which way by the crowd waiting to see and hear our local bigwig.

Things can change before you blink an eyelash. I felt this as the next several seconds flashed by, never to be captured again.

It had started out like any day at Aunt Margie’s and Uncle Fred’s. I had spent the night with Henny, staying up half the night eating marshmallow cream, peanut butter, and chocolate fudge off spoons, telling ghost stories that barely raised a hair on my arms, and listening  to favorite songs. We liked to compare movie stars. I favored Sandra Dee even if Henny didn’t. She had golden, perfect features, something I’d never need consider mimicking with my curly brown hair and eyes. Troy Donahue and Annette Funicello were okay–her favorites, but Henny was barely ten and not that smart, sorry to say–but I didn’t admire them. I wished to be Sandra’s little sister, as I was lonely sometimes. Fat chance, so I learned what I could about her. She was a model from age four, can you imagine that? And half-starved herself later to look good, which is sad. It worked, I guess; she was famous pretty fast. I was sure she had all sorts of secrets and stories. Her smile was sweet as flowers. I just appreciated her ways and means; Mother and I agreed.

Aunt Margie said it was improper for a girl my age–twelve–to be watching such movies but my mother, her very own sister for crying out loud, was a movie nut so took me along often. She’d always whisper about Sandra’s looks, so I knew they were a ten-plus on her rating scale. My mother strives to be the best in how she dresses, moves and talks, like any actress. Only she just acts in community theatre.

“Psst, Leslie baby, see that? How her hair folds over in waves? That lipstick! We’ll see if we can pull that off when we get home. Her skin is smooth as spun honey, how on earth does she do it?”

“Mom! Trying to hear her talk, not you! This is a big scene!”

So, no, I wasn’t all that jazzed about just seeing the mayor at the big rally. If it was Sandra or someone like that, sure. Like mother says, Politics is for people who can’t or maybe won’t think for themselves. Movies are for those with imaginations. Well, that last idea is mine but I am my mother’s daughter as far as movie land goes.

Mother pursed her tangerine lips. “I hate to accept that your tender mind will be infected with this stuff. But, okay, life is what it is and you’re growing up so you can go with them to keep Henny company.”

Uncle Fred wanted to be some big player, mother said. Aunt Margie shared such things in a quiet voice behind her palm, as if someone important might hear. And then what? Maybe I’d report her bragging to the social register ladies.

“Fred is already on the county commission and sits on a board with Mr. Hendrikson. And we’re building another hardware store this year, did I tell you? He knows people–zoning laws and all that. He wants to get in on new development. I’ll be driving my pink Caddy very soon!”

“Who cares?” I asked my cousin. “I mean, do you want to be rich so you can wear rubies to the grocery store?”

Henny shrugged as she pulled my Barbie’s wavy blond hair into a ponytail. I had given those dolls up three years ago but she still played with them so I kept all three in my closet.

“He wants to be a politician, mom says. What does that mean, Les?”

“It means he wants to talk loud and puff up his chest and act like he does good things for the little person. Says mother.”

“Little person? Kids, you mean?”

“Henny, put her dress on. She’s way too made up to be parading about that naked.”

Henny raised her eyebrows at me. “You got that naughty word from a Sandra Dee movie, I bet!”

I tossed the shoebox of Barbie doll clothes to her and flopped face first on my bed. I picked up my library book, rolled over and read as she played, making up a Barbie story. I tried not to sigh.

She is my cousin, the only one here. She likes to hula hoop and draws pretty well and dances with me when the radio is turned up at our place. My mother is the D word. Divorced. At Henny’s house, things have to be quieter because her mother is the M word. Married and Maladjusted, according to my mother. I had to look up the last word in Webster’s. But I like going to their place, too. All those long windows and useless, pretty glass objects on shelves and some big extra rooms. Mother and I had a good house once, she told me, before the D word. And then we lost stuff and moved to our duplex in an area that is “developing.”

Well, now you can see we are–I am–just regular people, nobody special even if some like to think themselves so. I mean, we all have stupid moments and good ones.

That day, though, my life changed.

My aunt and uncle gave me a camera for my birthday. I take a lot of pictures every day. I tried to hold my camera up high to get a few of the various VIPs but folks kept telling me to put my arms down. I could not figure out why Sol Hendrikson was such a big deal. We weren’t so big a city or so interesting as to be a star on any map. But there we were, me wanting a shaved ice, Henny stepping on my toes and making faces. Aunt Margie had told us to be patient, the Man of the Hour was going to talk fifteen minutes and then we’d all get spare ribs and grilled corn on the cob and pop. I was game after that so just had to keep Henny in line.

I had noticed the man after the first picture I took. He was an older gentleman and stood tall, two down from my aunt. He kept looking at me as if he wanted to keep an eye on me but it didn’t cause worry. I didn’t feel he was a perv but thought, well, I got you on my Kodak, buster, and just went on taking random pictures.

The crowd roared a cheer. I could barely see Sol Hendrikson bob along the over-decorated bandstand, patriotic crepe paper with big blue and white balloons everywhere. He, a medium guy with a big head of wavy grey hair–stepped up to the microphone and announced: “Greetings, my friends and good citizens of–” but then: bang!

It took us a few gasps to realize it was a gunshot. My ears were ringing. It felt as if all the air had been pulled out of the meadow we stood in. Heart pounding, I turned my Kodak viewfinder around and spotted him, the man who had stared at me, his arms now straight up in the air, one fist shaking. The other one gripped a gun.

“Traitor! Liar and Thief! You’re gonna be sorry!” he yelled.

He fired another shot and I froze except for my finger still pushing that button for more pictures. People were pushing and screaming, trying to run despite there being no space to move. I thought I’d suffocate and everything slowed down, as if time was in opposition to the emergency and we all had stumbled into quicksand. My ears were filled with a rumble of sounds. Then Henny grabbed my hand and her mother and father pulled us hard, yanking our arms from their sockets, until we all stampeded, barreling through the grassy meadow to the stand of trees. Uncle Fred is strong as a bull and he got us to safety. Where we hit the rich dirt of a bare patch of earth, trembling and out of breath.

“Get off me!” I tried to push Henny off but she tightened her arms around my neck.

“No! No!”

“Stay down!” her father ordered and I heard Aunt Margie’s terrified sobs.

I lay very still and held on.

Everyone was shouting, trampling past or over each other as chairs collapsed and people fell and dragged others with them. I raised my head enough to see spareribs and corn flying and someone with a bloody nose race by. I pointed my Kodak and snapped a couple more shots, I don’t know why, it was a thing I had to do.

I closed my eyes when I heard the sirens. I didn’t want to see them, the police in those uniforms with guns drawn against the man in a grey suit. I could see his face clearly in my mind. He’d looked like a businessman, like somebody’s well-off father, like any neighbor who waved to us as we drove to the mall. Good looking in an older way, eyes that peered out. A face that could change into a big smile any moment, you could just tell, he had to have a good side. But he raised his arm and aimed into a beautiful summer sky and pulled the trigger. Twice. I didn’t know if he aimed at a person the second time. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to be home with mother and my room and books and movie magazines. I hugged my camera close to my sweaty chest.

“Henny, Leslie. Come on. Let’s go sit down. Come on girls.”

Uncle Fred’s voice was a soothing breeze across my face. I slowly stood up and Henny did, too. Aunt Margie was already seated with a cold pop in hand. She stared at us, then at the bandstand, which was crawling with official looking people.

“Anyone shot?” I asked, my voice a trembling squeak.

“Don’t think so, thank God.” He handed Henny a grape pop and me, an orange.

“They get him?” my aunt asked.

“No, not in the last five minutes, Margie. They’re looking and tending to those who might be hurt from what I can tell. I’m about to find out more.”

“But I have him, right here,” I said, patting my camera in my lap.

“What, dear?” my aunt asked, not even looking my way.

“What did you say, Leslie?” Uncle Fred squatted down to eye level. “What do you mean?”

“I took his picture. I was snapping away when I noticed a man kept looking over at me. He seemed a little off. Nervous, maybe. Got him on film.”

“You sure?” He stood now, and offered me his hand. I haltingly got up and looked over the meadow: people resting, talking, scurrying about. Food passed around. Sirens winding down.

I nodded twice. It was the only thing I was certain about.

“Wait here.”

He ran off and I watched him reach a policeman, then two more joined him and they jogged back, faces red with exertion. I pulled back my damp brown hair and wadded it into a makeshift bun with a hairpin from my bangs. They asked me more questions than I could answer.

Did my mother know about this yet? I felt a little dizzy as I turned over my camera. “Yes, you can have it–if you give it back soon.”

One officer laughed and two tough ones scowled at me. It was no time to act foolish. But I meant it. That camera was more valuable to me than I had known. I had to talk for what seemed hours to countless people. I wasn’t the only one, but I was the one with those pictures. Right then and there. When Mother finally arrived, hair in curlers and a scarf, things were winding down but she got hysterical, no acting required.

The film was developed and the man in the grey suit was there, behind Henny and Aunt Margie and another woman. He was looking right at me, sorta sly like. As if he was going to let me slide this time because he had more important hings on his mind. Like threats of and possible actual murder.

The next two are of him with arms raised, right hand grasping the gun, then aiming with both. I couldn’t have gotten more lucky if I had tried harder. I had done it without even thinking, as I tried to tell the police and my mother. It was a coincidence.

“But that’s incredible, Les! You just knew it, right? You are amazing!”

The bullets missed everyone as far as they can tell; they continue to look for them. They later wanted to take pictures of me with my photographs and mother said just one good one, so it’s there on the front page, me and my mother (her hair waving as good a Sandra’s) with good outfits on and my face looking as if molded out of plasticine, a tiny smile more like a dismal pout with a smile tacked on. Mother’s arms are strong and were clinching me in a hug so tight I wanted to tell her to let up on me. Enough people in my face, in our lives! But I didn’t. I was insanely glad to get home, to be held then and many times afterwards.

But it made me famous. Sort of. For longer than I had thought. I wanted to be done with it after a couple weeks. Who thinks so much attention is worth anything? It is exhausting.

His name was William K. Best III. I don’t know why he felt moved to shoot the sky and then aim badly at Sol Hendrikson. Some said it was an old grudge, he lost his money on a deal and the mayor knew of it but that’s some crazy resentment! Mr. Best will need to come up with a better explanation when he goes to trial. I might have to be mixed up in that, but I’m just a kid so we’ll see. He was unhinged, mother kept telling me. That thought didn’t make it any more comforting, or less horrible a thing. It just framed things with a simple explanation.

“Politics,” she said, her upper lip curling.

“Politics!” I agreed.

“So now that you’re famous, maybe you’ll get to meet Sandra Dee,” Henny said as she brushed Barbie’s hair and made a miniscule braid.

“Naw, not a chance.”

I lay back on my pillow and looked at my bare, skinny toes, the tips shining with pink polish. Through my open window I could hear a lawn mower and beyond that, the friendly shriek of a train whistle. Summer was almost over and I’d be thirteen soon.

“Why?”

“I’m over Sandra Dee. I like to read more…but mostly I love taking pictures.”

“Yeah, maybe you’ll be a famous celebrity photographer.”

“Could be, cuz’.”

But I already knew what was going to happen. I could feel it, as if the August breeze was bearing me a message. The leaves were shimmering on a big oak outside my window. My heart beat steady and calm. I was going to be a genuine photographer, find rallies or demonstrations or something else real interesting, even important, going on. It was the nineteen sixties; anything was possible. I’d be carrying my camera a long time. Who knew what might turn up once that shutter clicked?

 

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