RAINY DAY SCHEDULE
Anthony J Mohr
It was February 1963. Beverly Hills High School's morning bulletin read "RAINY DAY SCHEDULE TODAY," and I was not thinking about my father, who was missing. I was thinking about Mr. Occhipinti's class, where I felt calm and safe. Along with twenty-three other sophomores at the door to Room 121, I was waiting for him to arrive.
He taught modern history, my favorite subject that year, and he was my favorite teacher, even if he was the only one I knew who locked his room between periods. To this day I don't know why he did so. Mr. Occhipinti was a small man who wore black suits and black-rimmed glasses and something slick in his thick black hair. His head was a little too narrow. His tenor voice was ideal for formal lectures, which he tape-recorded in order to make sure that each of his classes heard the same material, delivered in prose that verged on the lyrical. ("And they drank the intoxicating wine of Renaissance culture that suffused their continent.") He drove an Edsel. Every summer he haunted Europe's museums and brought home postcards with which he festooned the classroom walls. Wherever we looked, we saw little pictures of battles, landscapes, saints, and monarchs.
He also served as the faculty sponsor of the Squires, Beverly High's honors service club for freshmen and sophomore boys, who had voted me in a week earlier.
I was in Mr. Occhipinti's honors section (the school adored the word honors), with the type of kids who remained in their car outside a party until the symphony on KFAC finished, in order to learn if they had correctly guessed its composer and number. My closest friends—Bobby and Larry—were among them. So were some of the brightest girls, a couple of whom had invited me to their parties, even though I was a newcomer who had only lived in Beverly Hills since the sixth grade. They had known each other since kindergarten. Their families defined the ethos of Beverly Hills, then a small town despite its wealth, a Mayberry in the middle of Los Angeles.
We dressed in accordance with the school manual: the boys, clean slacks or tan Levi's; the girls, tailored dresses, skirts that reached below the knees, oxfords or flats, socks, hose or peds. At least half the class wore Honor Club sweaters: blue pullovers for the boys, red cardigans for the girls. Hardly anyone had acne, but I kept Clearasil in business. Our hair was combed just so, except for mine, forever a dark thicket of messy curls. I glowed when we were together. They made me happy and Room 121 felt like the stable center of my world.
As I settled into my seat and waited for class to start, I thought about Evelyn, a blonde, brown-eyed actress my father had introduced to me and whom I lacked the nerve to call. Then the bell rang, and Mr. Occhipinti began his lesson.
Mr. Occhipinti's reel-to-reel tape recorder was out of sight that morning, along with his solemn demeanor. Our lesson about Louis XVI and the French Revolution called for ironic humor. I leaned forward. It was clear from the mischievous expression on Mr. Occhipinti's face that we were about to hear another one of his good stories.
The Tuileries had been Louis XVI's palace in the heart of Paris. During the French Revolution he had decamped from there and fled to Versailles, a secure place far from the mob. Yet he came back. He didn't have to, Mr. Occhipinti said, but he did, and that triggered the events leading to Louis XVI's imprisonment and execution.
A titter escaped from a boy one row over. Behind him a girl with black hair and a sweet face perked up.
Mr. Occhipinti ignored the lectern and moved about like a windup doll. He circled back to Marie Antoinette and her "Let them eat cake" comment. He lingered over the wealth on display in the Louis XVI court. I knew he was building to something.
Rainwater poured into the bushes outside. I wished that on rainy days, the school didn't send us home ten minutes early. I wanted modern history to go on forever.
"And why," Mr. Occhipinti asked, "did Louis XVI return to the Tuileries?"
Either the answer itself or the tone in Mr. Occhipinti's voice turned us into a collection of hysterical teens. Bobby laughed so hard he nearly fell out of his seat. He had the face of a lovable genius and a voice that, the following year, would make him California's speech champion. I hooted and howled.
Mr. Occhipinti didn't resume his lesson until we calmed down and one of us—me, I think—let out the final whoop. At least precipitation did not shorten modern history, but it made me wonder whether it had rained when Louis XVI had traveled to Versailles or when he'd returned. Our history textbook ignored the weather.
By the time school let out, the rain was pounding down, and someone who had just obtained his driver's license offered me a ride home. I chose to walk, which meant jumping over puddles because the runoff overloaded the drains and water flowed over the curbs, a frequent problem in the Los Angeles basin despite the flood control channels that had been built a decade earlier. During the four blocks between Beverly High and my house, I stopped thinking about Louis XVI.
That's because my father had been missing for three days.
He was an actor, and although he wasn't a star, he was known. In 1956 he had left my mother for Mai, the Swedish script girl on his television series, which, within a year, had left the air. He married her in July 1958, five months before my mother remarried. Now, five years on, his marriage was failing.
Mai must have been frantic. She had called my mother to ask if she or I had heard from my father. We hadn't. I guess Dad had not warned his bride that whenever his life faltered, he disappeared for a while. Dad had vanished a few months before he left my mother, but just for the day. He had come home before I awoke the following morning. I had no idea where he had gone or why. After all, I was eight, too young to understand, but now I'm sure he had driven to Mai's apartment.
So, unlike Mai, I wasn't panicked. I was more concerned about what my honors class would say if the newspapers learned of my father's latest absence. My group came from two-parent families who, at least on the surface, seemed happy.
I pulled a bowl of red Jell-O from the fridge, leaned against the door, and started to devour it. My mother walked into the kitchen and put a bag of groceries on the counter.
"You shouldn't eat so fast," she said gently and then she hugged me. Her blue eyes were full of love. Her short brown hair was perfectly arranged. Her white blouse was spotless, like her kitchen. I picked up the spoon, continued eating, and listened to the rain.
"I know Daddy will come back," she said in a soft tone. As usual she was trying to be sympathetic, but she probably felt relieved that my father was no longer her problem and that Stan, her new husband, loved her without letup. I'm sure Mom would have hugged me again if I had moved even slightly in her direction, as I should have. She would have said more soothing things to me, had I given her the opening.
But I didn't. All I said was, "I guess so," and suppressed my lack of feelings by swallowing quivering dollops of Jell-O until no more of the goo remained.
We walked into the den. On the small off-white sofa sandwiched between two built-in counters, Stan was talking on "CRestview 188," the telephone line we reserved for his work calls. He looked nothing like my dashing father. All they had in common was their six-foot-two-inch height. Dad was wiry with thick black hair. Stan had lost most of his, but not, unfortunately, his extra weight. My father could seduce anyone with his mellifluous bass. Stan tended to mumble, which I heard him do now, into the receiver: "If Mr. Hughes is listening, tell him to go to hell." Hughes, as in Howard Hughes. One of his enterprises was negotiating to buy Stan's business machine company. Stan waved as he continued to talk, and I went upstairs to study.
Shortly after 8 p.m., my father telephoned. I answered on the first ring. His voice sounded tinny against background noise that resembled rushing water, typical for long-distance calls in 1963. I sat on the edge of my bed, and as we talked, one of my fingers drifted from hole to hole along the rotary dial, moving it slightly but not enough to make it click.
"I want you to know I'm all right," he said.
I said, "Good." I didn't feel relieved; I didn't feel anything.
"Everything is OK," he said.
I asked, "Where are you?"
"Up the coast." That probably meant San Luis Obispo, the town where he and my mother had honeymooned. I pictured him there, alone, calling from a phone booth at the entrance to a motor court near the beach. Was he looking at the ground as he pressed the receiver to his ear, or was he peering through the glass door—closed against the rain—at his 1952 Jaguar, parked in the gravel next to a faded bungalow where he was staying? Ensconced at Versailles, pondering his future, did Louis XVI stare—in the rain?—at one of his chariots? Didn't my father have a phone in his room? While tracing calls was difficult then, it could be arranged, especially when a person went missing. Maybe that's why he was calling from outside.
I asked when he was coming back.
"I can't say." The interference on the line, probably due to the rain, rose until it almost drowned him out.
I asked what he planned to do the next day. He didn't know. I think I asked again how he was, and I think he said "Fine." With exchanges like this we consumed almost three minutes, the time after which the cost of a long-distance call mounted furiously.
He said, "We're still pals, right?"
"Great," he said before he hung up.
I didn't ask why he had vanished. Mai had to be the reason. The first fight I witnessed between them had occurred at least three years earlier; over what, I don't remember. The quarrels had become so frequent that any peccadillo could trigger an outburst. Alcohol was never involved. During one of my every-other-weekend stays, a month or so earlier, Mai had ordered me to put their parakeet back in his cage. We were in a little room that served as the den of my father's rented house in Hollywood.
"Why?" I asked. Trixie appeared happy perched on my shoulder.
"Those are the rules," she snapped in her singsong accent. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips tightened. "You only get ten minutes with the bird." She and my father had initiated that protocol when, once, her two young sons and I had wanted to play with Trixie at the same time. But today they were away.
My father looked up from his script. "What are we doing? Timing this with a stopwatch?"
Mai stormed from the den and left the house.
"Oh, shit," my father said. He tried to follow her, but she slammed the front door before he could catch up. I had no idea what to say when my father came back into the room. So I said nothing. Neither did he, but Trixie remained on my shoulder.
I thought Dad was right. The rule seemed pointless if Mai's children were not home. But then I recalled my summer-school driver's education class. Some kid had said there was no need to obey a stop sign late at night in Beverly Hills. After all, our residential streets were wide, with few blind intersections, and no other cars were about. The teacher, a man with a severe face and remnants of red hair, glared at him. "Stop means stop. I don't care what time it is. That's the law and you better follow it." If Dad and Mai had made a rule about the bird, did it matter if, at the moment, there was no reason to enforce it? After all, what if her children were about to come through the door?
Shortly before 8:30 p.m., Stan eased into my bedroom. "How's school?" This was not his normal opening. Usually Stan would ask, "What did you learn today?" He sounded tired, due, I'm sure, to his sessions with Hughes.
"Okay," I said. Rain played across the roof and plinked through the downspouts.
For a few seconds Stan said nothing, which made me uncomfortable. I was grateful that he had rescued my mother and me from the scary backwash of a divorce, but I was not entirely used to him yet. Put another way, despite having lived with him over four years, I was not perceptive enough to read many of his signals. I looked down at my history book and wished one of his business associates would telephone.
He said, "Want to come sailing this weekend?" He had recently built a 58-foot catamaran. Sailing was the only way he could relax. In 1949, with his first wife and two children, Stan had boarded a schooner and cruised from Michigan through the Great Lakes, down the Atlantic Coast, and into the West Indies. A year and a half later, the family arrived in Los Angeles and settled there.
"Can I see how homework goes?" I had a test the following week and had to write a paper for Mr. Occhipinti. I also had a tendency to get seasick.
He lingered. "We're going Sunday too." He'd take his boat out even if it rained.
The salon was meeting Sunday. I knew he'd approve of that excuse. The salon was Bobby's brainchild, typical of his brilliance. Every few weeks he gathered our friends and invited an expert in some field to meet with us for a discussion, followed by dinner. Finding speakers was easy; most of our fathers were authorities on something. I hoped Stan didn't expect an invitation, because I'd have to introduce him and didn't want to use the word "stepfather" in front of twenty kids from solid homes. If he asked (he never did), I'd say that Bobby and I had passed on our own fathers. Like mine, Bobby's dad worked in the film industry, not a unique topic at Beverly High. For this coming Sunday Bobby's uncle, the editor of an essay collection titled The Meaning of Death, would ask us to answer a "death questionnaire" he had written to gauge people's attitudes on his favorite subject.
Stan nodded. After a pause he said, "Looks like we're going to sell the company."
I said, "Good," and I meant it. But all I wanted to do at that moment was study.
"I think we'll make a deal."
Months earlier my father's agent—a man I'd never met—had said that a "deal" to cast him as the lead in a new series was "99 percent done." The final 1 percent had never materialized. I didn't say that to Stan.
Stan must have been concerned about me, his chubby stepson who preferred lectures on death to sailing, but he seemed unsure how to pull us closer, and I was too withdrawn to help. I wonder how I would have acted if Stan had sat on my bed and asked, "Tell me how you're feeling. You're worried about your father, aren't you?" What if he had said, "I love your mother so much; I promise I'll never run away"? Would I have felt less hollow? Would I have shared whatever hurt may have surfaced—or simply cried?
I glanced at my history text, open to the Napoleonic Wars, tonight's soothing balm.
Stan said softly, "When we close the deal, I think I should get your mother a mink coat."
"She'll like that," I said, and kept listening to the rain.
"Get a hundred, make a million," my mother said the next morning before Stan and I left the house. Normally I walked to school, but the rain had not stopped, and Stan wanted to drive me.
I asked him if there was a chance he'd meet Howard Hughes. How many eighteenth century French kids asked their fathers, "Will you ever meet the King? "
"He's an odd man," Stan said. How many said that about Louis XVI? Stan and Hughes never would meet. He'd been dealing with Hughes' underlings.
Stan got in line with the Falcons, Mercurys, Tempests, and Thunderbirds that were entering the student parking lot, and then he pulled as close to the main entrance as possible. After a quick embrace, he told me to have a good day. I neglected to thank him for the ride.
I burst through the double doors like an animal returned to its habitat. A girl with freckles yelled to a boy that his Sting Ray "looked sharp." Under their raincoats a couple held hands. From a record player in a room near the auditorium came the rollicking final fugue of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, loud enough to compete with the slamming of locker doors. A girl with dimples and a pageboy haircut poked a member of the football team, just enough to make him turn, and then, without stopping, she waved. Somebody dropped a copy of Ivanhoe.A fellow Squire said something about our upcoming picnic with the Adelphians, the lower division girls' honor club. The student body coursed up the stairs to the math department, out to the language wing or, like me, over to the social studies department. A boy lobbed a tennis ball in the air as he walked. Someone bellowed, "Party at 980 Roxbury Friday." I wondered if I should invite Evelyn. I felt a lift each time someone said "Hi" and a locker door banged. I was surrounded by the smiles of companions free from worry—or so it seemed.
I want to say that I remember what I was doing when my father called to say, "Hi, pal. I'm home now." I don't, other than it was still raining. I want to say that despite having a mere learner's permit, I hijacked one of the family cars and drove into Hollywood to see him and that, after a long hug, he said his agent had called with a script. But that's not what happened. All I know is that he showed up at the end of the week at the house he shared with Mai, and another week passed before I saw him. I spent Sunday as planned, in Bobby's living room with my friends, bantering until his uncle handed out his death questionnaire. The booklet had the heft of an aptitude test. One question required a choice among similes: "To me, death is like (a) a beach at sunset, (b) the end of a song, (c) a curtain coming down in a theater." With my No. 2 pencil, I filled in the oval next to the curtain. The room turned quiet as we worked, save for the rustle of pages and some nervous giggles.
My father picked me up the following Saturday morning. We drove east out of Beverly Hills and along the Sunset Strip. The sun hovered between two massive cumulus clouds. The smog was gone, washed away by the rain. In the car, we talked about nothing. He didn't tell me how he and Mai had greeted each other after his absence—whether with yells, tears, or silence—and I didn't ask.
We passed a modern building of mostly glass that housed Scandia, an elegant Scandinavian restaurant to which Dad could not afford to take Mai. We drove by Ciro's, an iconic nightclub, and kept going until the buildings became more ordinary and we reached Carolina Pines Jr., one of my father's favorite coffee shops, a Googie structure with a wavy roof at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.
As usual we sat in a booth next to one of the bay windows. After ordering scrambled eggs and onions with burnt bacon on the side, Dad said to the waitress—a plump woman with frosted hair and puffy cheeks who looked as though she had worked there for years—"Darling, can I have coffee while I wait?" And then, as always, he lit a cigarette. His black hair was turning gray. His face looked ready to sag.
He didn't say where he had been. I didn't wonder whether he had been wise to leave. Or return. But I was glad we were together. I still felt more at ease with him than with Stan, and part of me felt guilty about that.
"Is school okay?" he asked.
I described our lesson about the French Revolution, beginning with Mr. Occhipinti pacing in front of us with his crescent-moon grin. My dad nodded and sipped his coffee.
I took my time. There was a lot to say before I reached Mr. Occhipinti's question: "‘And why did Louis XVI return to the Tuileries?'" I wanted to put it in context, build to it, and then imitate Mr. Occhipinti's tone of voice, which I think I did reasonably well.
My father nodded at me.
I told him the reasons my classmates had offered for the king's decision to return there. Then I shook my head, the way Mr. Occhipinti had shaken his when he said that was wrong.
"So what's the answer?" my father asked with a tinge of impatience.
Easing from word to word in slow but cheery singsong, I tried to mimic Mr. Occhipinti. "The king was—stupid."
Then I laughed, exactly as I—as the entire class—had: so loudly that a couple across the aisle turned and watched me almost spill my glass of skim milk. I was laughing too hard to tell my father what had occurred next: that Larry had stretched out his arms as he repeated the answer, and since Larry was tall and sat in the front row, his arms had framed the scene of our classroom roaring into bedlam, hooting the word "stupid" while Mr. Occhipinti beamed at us. Nor did I tell my father that each day since then, when Larry and I had seen each other, we'd said, in synchrony, "The king was stupid." Dad smiled. A courteous grin to humor his son. He lit another cigarette and sipped his coffee before he asked if I liked any girls.
I looked down at my napkin. I took a breath. I said, "Evelyn."
Dad had introduced us at a party for celebrities whom the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had invited to ride in its annual Santa Claus Lane Parade. I had not forgotten her smile and the way she'd said, so clearly and confidently, "How do you do?" Nor had I forgotten what Evelyn said with such poise to the emcee who had interviewed her: "I hope that this Christmas everybody gets what they want." I was smitten.
My excuse for not calling was that she lived too far away for a boy without a driver's license.
"Call her. I'll arrange something," Dad said. He added that she was a good actress. She and Mamie Eisenhower had posed together once to promote United States savings bonds.
I nodded and didn't say anything.
"You still have her phone number?" my father asked.
"Yes." I should have asked my father to feed me some opening lines—he knew them all—but I didn't.
He leaned back and puffed on his cigarette. When Evelyn was nine, he said, she had wanted to see Mamie Eisenhower again, and to do so, she had sneaked out of her house and flown alone across the country. The event had made the newspapers.
I asked, "How could a nine-year-old manage such a thing?"
The check arrived and my father put down three or four one-dollar bills plus a silver half dollar. Then he said, "She emptied her piggy bank, called a cab to the airport, and bought a ticket."
The way my father told the story made it clear that he admired her confidence and derring-do, qualities we both knew I lacked.
"Wow," was all I could say. I wondered if she would tolerate a timid boy like me.
My father got up from the table and I followed him outside. The clouds had departed, leaving behind a sky about as blue as it could become in Los Angeles.
As soon as we left the parking lot, Dad said, "Look. Before we see Mai, I want you to know that Trixie flew away." The parakeet had escaped through a door she had left open. "Please don't get upset with her over that," he said.
He turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard. The afternoon traffic was wretched and made worse by the abandoned trolley tracks that ran down the middle of the two-lane street.
I promised not to say anything.
In April 1963, Stan sold his business to the Hughes Tool Company. By then he'd developed a thorough dislike of Howard Hughes' minions. Once over breakfast, he called them stupid, punctuating the word hard. I broke out laughing and didn't say why.
The night after the closing, several of Stan's friends came for dinner, close friends who knew how badly he had needed to make the sale. Stan said his company had been bleeding money, a fact he wanted to keep secret, "but the Hughes people probably knew. I wouldn't be surprised if our phones were bugged." I'd sensed Stan's tension over the past weeks, but tapping telephones? Suddenly the son in me worried about him. Then the teenager in me took over and wished that I had called Evelyn. What would we have talked about—schoolwork? Whether she had enjoyed playing Eloise?—while an eavesdropping Howard Hughes licked his lips? I would see Evelyn again at the 1963 Christmas parade party, where I would join her and her parents for dinner at one of the long tables the Chamber of Commerce set up for us, but I'd still balk at asking for a date. I'd even been hesitant to name her in response to one of the questions Bobby's uncle had included in his survey: "When you die, whom would you like to be buried with?" I'd thought of her; then I had looked about the room, searching for the right honors-class girl and, too embarrassed to pick any of them, wrote down "my mother."
After dessert, I excused myself to finish a paper for Mr. Occhipinti. He was guiding us through the nineteenth century, a calmer time thanks in part to kings who were less stupid than Louis XVI. While Mr. Occhipinti focused on the treaties and diplomacy that kept Europe peaceful, one of his quick asides—another factoid not in our textbook—grabbed at me. In 1816, a year after the Congress of Vienna, the summer turned wintry, perpetually cold, overcast and rainy to the point that crops failed in several countries, including France. The season became so miserable that, confined to a house in Switzerland, several writers challenged themselves to create dark stories. One member of the group, Mary Shelley, ended up with Frankenstein. Predictably, that made the class laugh, almost as much as we had over Louis XVI, and while we did, I looked out the window at a day of brilliant sunshine and wondered if it had been the rain that had driven my father to flee from Mai—or return to her.
Before he said good night, Stan asked if I needed a ride on Saturday to the Squire-Adelphian picnic. The annual event took place in Coldwater Park, an isolated sward on the northern edge of Beverly Hills, at the foot of the mountains that bisected the L.A. area. No buses ran near it, and many of us, myself included, had yet to turn sixteen and get our driver's licenses. Coldwater Park was no Versailles, but with clipped hedges along the perimeter, walkways across the lawn, and an ornamental stone fountain in the middle, it offered hints of a French baroque garden: not too shady, not too exposed, a place to feel as though we'd escaped the world without actually quitting Beverly Hills. Sitting on blankets, eating sandwiches the Adelphians would prepare, I'd feel like a character from one of the paintings by Fragonard and Watteau that Mr. Occhipinti had shown us in class, royals at play in their woods. I envisioned all of us imitating them, albeit dressed in shorts. I hoped it wouldn't rain.