The first time i saw bonny, the first time i paid attention to her, anyway, was December 8,1941. We were all in the Caff at San Diego State College that Monday morning, listening to the terrible news on the radio, the losses, the deaths, the Day of Infamy, the declaration of war. The Japs! We drank coffee or Cokes and listened to the bad news. No one knew then how much more bad news we were going to hear before some good news began to filter through.
The college junior I was then sat at a tile-topped table with some of my fraternity brothers, including Pogey, my best friend, and Johnny Pierce, a senior.
Barbara Bonington, his sophomore girlfriend, or “meat,” as the cruder of the brothers would put it, came to the table beside him, bobby socks and saddle shoes, a blue sweater set with pearls around her neck, and his Alpha Beta pin. She had thick blond hair, blue eyes, and a pretty face with a little pad of baby fat beneath her chin, which vanished when she raised her face to the radio on its shelf, pouring out its deep-voiced horrors. We hadn’t had the time and clues to figure how we were going to be affected by them yet—although some guys were already blowing off about enlisting and killing Japs. I’d been reading A Farewell to Arms, and I thought about what Hemingway had said about guys dying in a war being like the stockyards in Chicago except nothing was done with the meat except to bury it, and about bullshit words like “in vain.” Those poor guys at Pearl Harbor had surely died in vain.
Johnny didn’t stand up, grinning as he raised a lazy hand to touch Bonny’s pearl necklace, running the Add-A-Pearls through his fingers as he turned the necklace on her pretty neck. It was obvious she didn’t like this from the indentations at the corners of her lips, but Johnny kept doing it as she gazed up at the radio. He thought of himself as a big-time cocksman. I considered him an asshole.
When I thought about it later, there was something in her stance of the slave girl, come to be fondled by her master, but I had liked her posture, straight-backed in her sweaters, the blunt tips of her breasts lifting the cashmere and the fraternity pin, and the dents at the corners of her lips.
Johnny Pierce enlisted in the Air Corps that week and was gone.
I was not a cocksman. When I was a junior in high school, my friend Harrison’s sister beckoned me up to her room one afternoon after school, shucked off her dress, and stuck her meager bosom out at me. Under her direction I sat on the bed, and she straddled me with her hot crotch, grinning into my face with her cheeks squinched up until her eyes were slits, rocking up and down until I came. Later Harrison apologized for her; she did that because she wanted boys to like her. That summer his parents packed her off to a home in Northern California, and after that nobody had the nerve to ask Harrison about his sister.
The summer after I graduated from high school, my friend Tim Eaton set the two of us up with dates at Mission Beach with a pair of girls who were known to put out, and we ate hamburgers and bought some beer and took blankets out to the beach. I was doing pretty well on my blanket, with my hands on my date’s breasts, which was what I was most interested in at the time, when she figured out from my name and something I’d said that I was Richie Daltrey’s younger brother. This caused her to become hysterical because she had known Richie at San Diego High, and there was a lot of implied weighty stuff I didn’t want to know about, and that was the end of that.
So I read Sexology magazine and jerked off. The last year or so I had gone out with different girls, most often with Martha Bailey, who was a necking fiend, but nothing below the neck, forget that. It was as though I were waiting for some big change in my life.
I danced with Bonny at the prom a week or so after Johnny Pierce enlisted, and asked her to a movie another time. I’d see her in the Caff, and we had Cokes together. She never talked about Johnny, but about Charley, her brother, who’d been flunking out of Stanford and had enlisted in the Coast Guard to beat the draft. Her criticism of her brother was a shock to me.
Then, in February, I invited her to come dancing at the Hotel del Coronado across the Bay on a Saturday night with me and my friend Bob-O, who was going off in the Marines, and his steady, Amy Perrine, who was Bonny’s sorority sister. Then my brother, Richie, showed up from Pensacola. He and Liz Fletcher, to whom he was engaged, had to be included, so it was going to be a big evening.
It was going to be a lot bigger than I had bargained for.
Bonny lived in Mission Hills, not far from where I had lived before the Depression, in a white stucco and red tile Spanish-style house like my family’s onetime house, but two stories. Inside were the thick, arched doorways out of my memory, the tan walls with broad plasterer’s swirls. Bonny showed me into the living room, where Dr. Bonington sat by the fireplace with a kerosene heater and the shucked peels of an orange in an ashtray on the taboret beside his chair. He got up to shake my hand, a tall man with round shoulders.
“This is Payton Daltrey, Daddy,” Bonny said. She wore a white formal, and she’d pinned the gardenia I’d brought into her hair.
There were bookcases on either side of the fireplace, with only four books on one shelf. I was introduced to Mrs. Bonington, who came out of the dark dining room just then. She looked like Bonny but with darker hair than Bonny’s thick blond mane, and skinnier; good legs, though.
“Please sit down, Payton,” she said.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Bonny said, and disappeared up the stairs.
When I sat down in a straight chair by the archway, Dr. and Mrs. Bonington looked at me as though I were a new gunfighter in town.
“Well, what do you think of this war we are in, Payton?” Dr. Bonington said.
I shook my head and clucked, so as not to say the wrong thing.
“I suppose you’ll be in it soon.”
“I’m in a midshipman’s program. I go in after I graduate.”
Mrs. Bonington looked as though that were a danger also. Johnny Pierce must have scared them. There was a skin-crawly silence.
“We used to live just up the street,” I said, in case that would be reassuring. “On Presidio Drive.”
“The house on the corner there.”
“And where do you live now, Payton?” Mrs. Bonington asked.
I rented a room in the cottage of an Indian barber and his redheaded wife in a part of town called Normal Heights, and I worked afternoons delivering groceries for Perry’s Fine Foods, and weekends for a disreputable and aggressively lowercased weekly newspaper called the brand, which they’d think was Commie. They didn’t need to know any of that.
“Out on Meade Street,” I said.
“So you are going dancing at the Hotel del Coronado,” Mrs. Bonington said. “It’s very beautiful there.”
“A friend of mine’s leaving in the Marines tomorrow. His girlfriend’s a friend of Bonny’s.”
That seemed to relieve them.
“My brother’s coming along,” I added. “He’s a jg in Naval Air.” Come on, Bonny!
“Our son’s in the Coast Guard,” Mrs. Bonington said. “He’s stationed on North Island.”
Bonny came downstairs in a fur coat, and we went out the door with the usual parental cautions about coming home early. The Boningtons were going sailing in the morning. Their Rhodes, the Sun Bear, was moored at the Yacht Club on Point Loma. Bonny’s father drove a Packard. The Boningtons were richer than the Daltreys had been before my father went broke.
In Ol Paint, Bonny tucked her coat around her and sat over against the passenger door.
“I guess that’s the way parents look at their daughter’s date,” I said, as I started down the hill.
The pale shape of her face turned toward me.
“Like a dog that might bite,” I said.
“They didn’t like Johnny,” she said.
“They didn’t like it that he was two years older than I am.”
“Well, I’m a year older.”
“That’s all right,” Bonny said. She moved slightly closer on Ol Paint’s seat as I headed down Coast Highway toward the Coronado ferry.
Now that we were months past Pearl Harbor, we were used to the bad headlines, and there was a phony kind of lightheartedness. There were almost as many men in uniform as civilians in the lobby of the Hotel del, the girls sleek in their formals with bright lipstick smiles. Bob-O and Amy Perrine stood by the antique openwork elevator, his arm around her. We hailed each other with raised hands and all moved toward the stairs that curved down to the ballroom on the floor below. As soon as we had located an empty table and ordered Tom Collinses and whiskey sours, the girls trooped off to the ladies’ together.
“Hey!” Bob-O said.
“Off to the trenches tomorrow!”
“Shiiit!” Bob-O said.
“Amy’s looking terrific.”
Bob-O waggled his head on his thick football neck and leaned toward me. “She’s really glad Bonny’s going out with you. She said Johnny Pierce treated Bonny bad.”
I didn’t want to hear about it.
Just then I saw my brother Richie and Liz on the stairs, star-dusted like a couple of movie stars, Richie tall in his black uniform with the gold stripe and a half on the sleeve, his cap under his arm, Liz in a blue formal, with tan shoulders and her face turned up to Richie. She had always been Richie’s San Diego girl, though he’d had a starlet girlfriend when he was at USC. Liz was a girl who hadn’t even been pretty, with lips and eyes and nose that didn’t fit together right, until all at once she switched on like an electric light and became beautiful. She was a dance senior at State.
Richie headed her toward us, a grin on his tan, narrow face with the heavy black eyebrows that almost met over his nose.
Richie put an arm around me and called me “Brud,” and I felt a flash of that affection for my brother that even when I was mad at him would swamp the mad, so whenever I was around him I could feel myself grinning like a patted pup. Richie shook hands with Bob-O. Liz kissed me. She and I often saw each other after our nine o’clocks on campus. She smelled elegant.
Richie had always been a star, in basketball and track at San Diego High, and he could’ve played first or second singles on the tennis team if he’d even wanted to go out for tennis; he’d attended USC on a basketball scholarship. I had met his starlet up there once. Richie had drawn lines carefully, however, Val in LA and Liz in San Diego. When he graduated from SC he went to work in the movie industry for the director David Lubin, and he was friends with movie stars and involved in a picture or two, and then all of a sudden he threw that up and went into Naval Air. Now he was an instructor at Pensacola; no more Desmond’s suits and shell cordovan loafers, no more coffin-hood Cord car.
Copyright © 2006 by Oakley Hall. All rights reserved.