Friday, October 15, 2010

The Rain Tree (Short Story)

By Bill King

When news arrived announcing the accidental drowning of Amy Dickens, deep sorrow suddenly consumed ever cell in my body. Amy was a romantic link with the past, the requited benefactor of all my childhood fantasies. She was the ten-year-old princess whose every move I studied with absolute concentration. .

Life my side of the block was a painfully cold mechanical process like a scene from Fritz Lang’s oppressive film classic, Metropolis. Day in day out tedium left no area in our spiritless home sanctuary for sensitive expression. The thought of Amy was all I had.

My blood parents, Benjamin and Caroline, placed a moratorium on love, designating college graduation the date I’d be permitted the company of a young woman. No high school proms, no Saturday night dances, and no campus bonfires. It sounds strange, almost indictable, but we were an evangelical family held hostage by rigid fundamentalism.

It was the summer of 1956 and I’d just turned ten years old. Most days I preferred seclusion, avoiding any contact with father. Benjamin worked three to eleven, eleven to seven through the week, occasionally overnights.

When father was secure at work I’d position my Schwin the corner of Presbyterian and First, waiting the moment Amy would stroll towards the center of town. Consumed by shyness, I rarely spoke. As Amy passes, I muse about the scent of her skin, the feel of her embrace, the texture of her radiant hair.

Amy was an army brat, daughter of Sergeant Major Ernest Dickens of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Major Dickens was serving a two-year stint at Fort Knox, Kentucky before returning the family to bayou country. I rarely ever saw him. When I did, he’d salute and call me "little boy soldier ".

Amy’s home, shaded by a tight row of maple trees, was barely visible. The evenly square house was crafted in sun-bleached pastel shingles less attractive than what you’d expect from such a handsome family and possessing little resale value. Military families never had much say about living conditions. Most packed after two years and moved to other accommodations, either post housing or temporary off base digs, each as unappealing as the former.

Fate would somehow position Amy a seat in front of me throughout the fourth and fifth grade. Our instructor Mr.Radner arranged most students alphabetically. The maneuver would liberate my imagination, transporting me to a remote destination well beyond crumbling brick walls and asphalt schoolyard.

Radner was always watching, suspicious of every move. It was never my intent to cross the man but it wasn’t long before I became his designated whipping boy.

It began the day I brought a Parker fountain pen to class. If incorrectly engaged, the side lever could spit a rivulet of Indigo ink a meter or two. To the left of me, Cheryl Martin sat fumbling with the nine-volt battery on her intricately decorated Christmas dress, desperately trying to illuminate the miniature bulbs sewn within the stitching. With one careless slip of the thumb I released a torrent of airborne black ink striking the cotton white surface of the priceless fabric. Cheryl looked down in horror, examined the gruesome markings, and then began to weep. Mortified by my miscalculation I sat in absolute silence. No reasonable apology could undo the trauma committed on my wounded schoolmate.

Upon witnessing the heinous act, Radner belched a chain of vulgarities then charged at me furiously slapping his hands above his head. He then griped my arms and began shaking me as if to extricate a solvent buried deep in my skin, one that could possibly cleanse the stains. Putting the episode in perspective, Cheryl pleaded my forgiveness. After reciting a list of punitive measures Radner’s indignation diminished.

Amy witnesses my awkwardness then resignation. A few moments lapse before she turns faces my embarrassment and smiles. Her carefully sculpted expression releases me from the regrettable incident.

Totally consumed with Amy, I raise my pencil and trace the long strands of her coal black hair and guide down the inkwell of my desk. Amy further satisfies my preoccupation by lowering her ebony tresses on the scarred wooden desktop concealing the pages of my neglected homework. With the palms of my hands I gently stroke then caress the dense effulgent locks. Amy’s head slowly tilts permitting each brilliant strand to filter through my fingertips. The sensation was more than I could endure.

Leaving school one spring afternoon I cross paths with Amy. She was in a conversational mood. I offer to carry her heavy books. Without reservation she hands me the weighty hard covers as if they were discarded gifts, then asks.

"Are you going to be an extra in Elizabeth Taylor’s new movie?"

I hadn’t a clue what an extra was or for that matter what she was talking about.

"Mom says they’re filming a movie called Rain Tree County in town and they’re looking for a thousand people to dress like they did in the Civil War and a few lucky ones will get to ride a Ferris wheel with Elizabeth Taylor,” spoke in a distinctive southern

Imagination lit every region of my mind before I reply.

"Are you going to ride the Ferris wheel?” I ask.

"I don’t know, we’ve got to be seen by movie people before they pick us," says Amy.

I soon reason this could be an eternal moment, possibly the closest I’d ever be to Amy. I could see the two of us high above the streets of Madison, Indiana, Elizabeth Taylor just below.

I can honestly say I was never much a fan of Elizabeth Taylor. Even the movie National Velvet didn’t strike a chord with me. I guess Taylor always seemed much older to me. Amy surely had her blue eyes and coal black hair but Natalie Wood was the real screen love of my childhood. It was "Splendor In The Grass" that cast a neurotic spell over me. Other than Amy, Natalie made me feel love so deep and true most men twice my age could never imagine such profound melancholy.

The movie Rain Tree County focused on six of author Ross Lockridge’s novel’s fifty-three years, centered mainly on the Susanna Drake figure played by Miss Taylor. According to myth, Johnny Appleseed in his travels had planted an exotic golden seed from China in Indiana, which would supposedly grow to possess a magic quality that could open all locks and heal all wounds. Unfortunately, the exact location of the tree was forever hidden in the river swamps along the Ohio.

Amy and I hatch a plan to spring me from the suffocating grip of Benjamin and Caroline. Patrice Dickens, Amy’s mother was enlisted. She told Benjamin and Caroline she’d be willing to take Amy and me to watch the making of Rain Tree County without revealing her secret desire to serve as an extra.

Father ran down a list of chores, commitments and consequences before Caroline interceded in our behalf. The two women came to agreement. I reasoned life could be no sweeter, no more powerful than the hours I would share with Amy. I could no longer comprehend homework assignments or rudimentary text. My whole being had been sacrificed to imagination.

A few days prior to leaving word spread of a change in plans. The film company decided Indiana no longer looked visually appealing therefore a new location Danville, Kentucky would be designated Rain Tree County. I was shattered, couldn’t believe anyone would intervene in my well-scripted plan. I feared announcing any change to my parents, especially the crossing of state lines, which could drive them to cancel our expedition. Danville might as well be as far away as Uruguay.

Ms. Dickens was called upon once again to work her magic with Benjamin and Caroline. Patrice assured them the Dickens’s family had cousins living on the outskirts of Danville. If things ran to late we were guaranteed a place of shelter. Patrice also promised not to drive past midnight.

Benjamin paraded up and down the front hallway reciting a litany of potential mishaps. Dad clearly saw the dark side of any situation. That was his nature. It was up to Caroline to invite light in even though on many occasions she succumbed to his brooding disposition. I often wondered if he had lost a brother or sister or perhaps a close friend during his childhood he’d never spoken about. It seemed as if he was always suppressing some cataclysmic event. He rarely expressed an opinion on world affairs reserving his most animated statements for those concerning moral and occupational issues. You didn’t fail dad but once or challenge him on anything memorized from books no matter how convoluted his understanding of the subject. I believe mother loved him more for his firmness and dependability than warmth.

Caroline on the other hand greeted everyone with a handshake and cautious smile. She kept the house in perfect order - always clean and accessible during visiting hours. Mother invited church groups to afternoons of civil discussion on spiritual matters; Christian commitment, values, and debates on the ever-popular ‘life after death’. The cheerless strains of church hymns leaked past the sitting room beneath the baseboards into my dimly lit room making it feel as if I was attending another anonymous funeral. After a dozen or so of these traumatic episodes I pleaded my way free of mother’s stewardship and stole off to the public library. The only place she found agreeable.

Ms. Dickens had this personality that could cure a manic-depressive or resuscitate the dead with an engaging smile and a few choice words. I could barely detect what was said that night. When Ms Dickens left the living room I felt certain I’d be riding front seat with Amy the next day all the way to Danville. Southern women have such natural charm that in that most improbable situation can have a decided effect.

All was not well on the film set as Rain Tree County’s male lead, Montgomery Clift found himself victim of an automobile accident in May causing an interruption in the shooting schedule. Filming would be delayed six weeks. Evidently, Cliff partied a bit too hard at Taylor’s Benedict Canyon home. Without control of his faculties wrapped his car around a telephone pole. Clift lost two front teeth, broke both nose and jaw, and tore a hole in his upper lip. We knew nothing of his escapades other than he was this enormous star. We were later told he’d faked his death, burned his fingers with a cigarette after accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills, and raced through the streets of downtown Danville butt naked. I couldn’t help but think if Benjamin and Caroline had known anything of Mr. Clift’s escapades they'd never have let Amy and I venture farther than our neighborhood. Hollywood has a way of sanitizing bad news even in a little town like Danville.

When first we arrive I see director Edward Dymchk screaming orders at everyone. He was filming the Fourth of July scene with hundreds of people running in all directions. A large brass band rehearsed the Stars and Stripes against a backdrop of confetti and banners. Several workers were busy planting fireworks. This was the big scene where Montgomery Clift and Lee Marvin were to compete in a foot race to the right of the town square near where a magnificent towering eighteenth century Ferris wheel stood.

I suggested the both of us watch from the vicinity of the Ferris wheel. Without hesitation, Amy joins me for a quick sprint around cable and cranes. We stand nearly two hours gorging ourselves on popcorn and cotton candy before a crew of about ten men draw near.

"What are you kids doing hanging around here all this time?" The carnival man inquires. Amy answers, "We came from Madison to ride the Ferris wheel with Elizabeth Taylor. You were supposed to make the movie in my home town". The man pauses then stoops near Amy. "You’re the prettiest little girl I’ve ever seen. If I were a boy your age I’d never let you out of my sight,” he says while tapping the back of my head. "Look kids, you stay right here while I ask one of the associate directors if we can use two handsome looking youngsters."

I fold my long thin fingers close my eyes and pray while my heart beast with anticipation. I don’t even remember the man’s name other than he wore more white than a hospital attendant.
He soon returns and embraces Amy and me.

"So, you kids want to ride the Ferris wheel with Miss Taylor? Well, I think we can arrange that."

Meanwhile, Mrs. Dickens was parading around in full costume, twirling a cloth-covered parasol. I’d rarely ever see Mrs. Dickens but knew she was thrilled about being in the movies. So much good blood flowed through her veins, I only wished she’d adopt me.

Most the day had passed before they decide to shoot the Ferris wheel scene. I was getting bloated from liquids and sweets and tired of guarding my post when all of a sudden hundreds of extras begin advancing our direction. Amy and I climb the rickety platform beneath the Ferris wheel making certain we’d be first in line. Director Dmytryk yells, " Where’s John Shawnessy? I want Shawnessy and Susanna Drake over here immediately."

I had no idea who these people were. I knew I didn’t want to share our precious seat with any of them. Well, it turns out Shawnessy was none other than Montgomery Clift and Susanna Drake, Miss Taylor.

I’d never spent this much time with a girl before other than my sisters, but that don’t count for much. Amy never stopped smiling the entire day. Although she had Mrs. Taylor’s porcelain white skin and long flowing black hair she looked more natural to me. In a burst of joy, Amy spontaneously throws her arms around my neck, squeezes and then giggles with excitement. Heaven, this must be heaven, I thought to myself.

For a brief moment I revive the image of Benjamin and Caroline standing like two sentries at the front door, arms folded, impassive expressions about their faces. Neither cared much for movies let alone movie stars but their presence soon faded as Mr. Dmtryk approached.

Dmytryk cleared a path to the Ferris wheel and then asked in a gruff tone, "Whose children are these? " "They’re the two kids from Madison, Indiana I told you about Mr. Dmytryk. They came all the way to ride the Ferris wheel", said the man in white. Amy and I stare at the imposing man who I would learn later in life was forever branded one of Hollywood’s unfriendly 10. In 1951, he went before Senator Joe McCarthy’s House on un-American Activities Committee fingering 26 people as communists. This came after a conviction of contempt and time in a federal prison for refusing to talk about his communist ties. After jail he was blacklisted. The confession won him renewed respect amongst Hollywood’s right wing studio heads that in turn rewarded Dmytryk with choice projects. Raintree County was one of them.

Dmytryk inspects with a crusty eye and then asks, " Son, are you here to fight in behalf of Robert E. Lee and the glory of the confederation or to find the golden rain tree?"
Everyone laughed but me. I didn’t know how to respond to such a dynamic question so I glare at him and say, " I’m here for Amy," pointing in her direction. For whatever reason those words earned Amy and I passage aboard the ornate Ferris wheel.

As they fasten us in I couldn’t help but think of the moment. The most beautiful girl in the world next to the most loving boy in the universe. I couldn’t begin to count the nights I dreamed of such splendor. I could hear my heart beat two sizes to large for my small chest. Something invisible passed from my soul through skin then hovered above us. It was a most powerful sensation like a protective shield against all unwanted feelings of alienation and fear.

Once locked in position I knew there would be no way for Amy and I to escape until filming had ceased.
As the wheel began rotating in its fixed orbit I suddenly felt uncomfortable - uttering few words until the subject of school came up. Amy and I discussed our likes and misfortunes. Our favorite teachers and least favorite subjects while my eyes remain focused on Amy's tender mouth and brilliant blue eyes. Her voice conveyed sandpaper coarseness, a timbre the sound of which further inspired fantasy.

The night wind rubbed gently across my face causing me to relax my eyelids. I tried unsuccessfully to will her to my arms, the sort of thing love struck men and women do in black and white movies, but Amy seemed more interested in the movie stars below.

It was well into the evening when poor Amy surrendered, collapsing helplessly into my arms, exactly where I hoped she’d land. With the tips of my fingers I smooth the worry from her face and lightly stroke the long black tresses. I was leery of lifting my arms fearing she would suddenly awaken and plan her escape. I held the same position hour upon hour until circulation in my arms had stilled to numbness.

Soft moonlight reflected off Amy’s lips turning pitch black as it spread inside our carriage. I realized time was quickly retreating. If I were to ever taste such sweetness it would have to be now. With arms curled I lift her upward leaving her hair to spread evenly between my chest and arms. With a second raise upward, Amy’s mouth slightly brushes past my bare cheek. Overcome by guilt and fear, I begin shivering. Suddenly, Amy comes to half-life, rises and places her soft lips, damp with the long night of humidity, near my chin. She then moves cautiously, kissing in small increments until reaching the flesh of my raw lips. She then delivers a solitary kiss, as still as the night air that lingers in my heart for what seems infinity. Amy recoils then conveniently rests her head in the crevice between my collar and neck then drifts slowly back to sleep. The whole evening becomes a surreal dream, a journey from which I wish never to return.

For a brief moment I felt passion unlike I imagine few encounter in a lifetime of promise. A simple kiss, so powerful, so unexpected relieved my heart of all disappointment and expectation. The discomfort I’d felt moments earlier all but dissipated then withdrew into unseen currents. As for the actors below; we never saw Mr. Clift or Mrs. Taylor. The many wooden slats obstructed our view and steel beams which revolved in our direction during filming further blocked our view.

The evening would prove to be a long unending affair. The hours slowly pass as we levitate above the noisy crowds, occasionally making a 360-degree spin. Dmytryk barked instructions.

"Action, slate, shoots, that’s a take___ no, no, no, do it again."

Eventually, the night drew to a close and they lowered our passive bodies to the platform below. Mrs. Dickens directed our exhausted figures towards her car and drove to a nearby motel. Amy was tucked away in one bed, me in another while Ms. Dickens slept upright in a large comfortable high back chair. Early the next morning she coaxed the two of us to the station wagon and delivered me to my doorstep.

Waiting like court appointed prosecutors, Benjamin and Caroline demanded a detailed explanation. Mrs. Dickens briefly summarized the day’s events and begged off for sleep leaving me to suffer interrogation. Through a sleep-drenched haze, I wish Amy good night. She stops, then whispers, "did you kiss me?", turns, waves over her shoulder and disappears from view. I climb the long stairs towards my room battered by Benjamin and Caroline’s verbal declarations of dire consequence, then think to myself, " The hell with it, Amy and I are in the movies. Our time together will be shown to the whole world. People will wonder who the two young lovers flying above Ms. Taylor are. We’ll probably be on the cover of True Romance or something like that.

Summer passes and autumn returns after a long drought. Amy and I were still friends, but from a distance. I still parked my Schwinn near her house but she was always preoccupied with grand parents and long visits with army folks. We rarely spoke. My dreams of her only intensify, but it was now sixth grade and we were assigned different classes. Cheryl took the seat reserved for Amy. Although just as lovely and desirable, we never shared the same moments of play.

The year passed with only the occasional smile between us. I tried desperately to capture a free moment. I’d memorized what I thought the right sentiment a few words that expressed the depth of my love. Christ, I felt I suffered an illness with no cure.

By spring, I learn Amy was about to move. I pay twenty cents for the triple horror feature at the Ohio Theater. Younger brother Gene - pal Randy and I roll spit balls and toss them at greasy duck- tail leather boys down front. When Gene and Randy go for sodas, Amy slips next to me. Two things she says nearly rip me apart; the Ferris wheel scene was cut from the movie, the other, confirmation she was moving back to Louisiana. It was if someone had taken a dagger and carved her from my heart. I’d never felt such pain.

Amy told me that Ms.Dickens and her had been invited to a screening of Rain Tree County in Louisville, Kentucky at the Brown Theater. All of the stars were there including Mrs. Taylor and her husband Mike Todd who kept introducing himself as Mr. Elizabeth Taylor. Two hours and forty-five minutes later the verdict was in. The movie was a disaster and there was no evidence the Ferris wheel scene ever existed. I was mortified. What happened to our scene, the recorded testimony of our love?

Before Amy parted, she whispered in my ear," When I come back, we’ll find the rain tree for ourselves and no one else will ever know. Will you kiss me again?"

We never kissed again. In fact, there existed no rumors of her whereabouts. It was if she had vanished without leaving a clue. That’s army life.

Though forty-two years have passed I still can’t let go of the profound feelings I have for her or explain the power she has over my soul. When I first heard the news of her untimely death I wept for the ten-year old whose smile awoke such passion in me. With the maturity of a man crossing mid-life I realize I can’t truly feel the anguish of those whose lives she inhabited daily, but in my heart, I know Amy eventually found her Rain tree. Mine will always reside on the same spot where I held her precious body untold hours fifty feet above in a darken carriage one unforgettable summer night and the kiss that will live forever.

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