“Fourth of July in Sunny Hills”
by Paul Saevig
The Fourth of July fell on a mild, hazy Saturday morning that year in Sunny Hills. Grandma’s black cook from South Pasadena came out of retirement to prepare the meal with her two daughters in their 60s. They were kind, buxom women but ruled the kitchen with an iron pot holder. By 4 AM they were busy at work, while the family of the internist and his gracious wife slept.
At 7 AM, the internist’s daughters awakened with their dewy fresh skin and clear gray eyes. They jumped into white shirts and blue jeans, combed their hair and bounded down the hallway for a breakfast of hot oatmeal with maple syrup, apple butter on wheat toast, fresh orange juice and coffee with chicory that the cook’s daughters made for them. Licking their sweet pouting lips, the girls danced outside and down the way to the stables to ride. Soon a dozen of them dotted the misty hillside.
The internist’s wife, Mildred, already sat at her vanity table when her husband grumbled himself awake and stepped out on the patio for a Camel cigarette. She realized he wanted to see if their neighbor Mabel Troudmeyer from Stanford the oral surgeon’s wife would be gardening in her yellow two piece bathing suit, as if his wife didn’t know. At last he lumbered inside, peeled off his musty pajamas and barreled husky and hairy into the shower, where he sang “Fight On” in a risky baritone.
Mildred worried about the relatives they expected, especially her husband’s overbearing sister Mame from Santa Barbara and her crabby oilman husband Edgar. They insisted on traveling with an insipid toy poodle, Mitsy, who always caused a fuss. The hairdresser would be here at 8:30 to fix Mildred and she still hadn’t decided what to wear. No one would suspect she was class valedictorian at South Pasadena High or a mathematics major until her sophomore year at USC when her mother told her to get with it and find a good husband. These days she could calculate golf handicaps in her head, but seldom thought of any numbers except her charge accounts. She had three daughters to raise properly, Maisie, Clarice and Melba, and so far none of them had a decent bustline.
When her husband Harold emerged squeaky clean and pink, he asked for his conjugal rights with that leer in his eyes she knew so well. Rather than spoil the day she consented, as daintily as she could, and sent him away whistling “Alley Oop”. Maybe she had time for a set of tennis.
Maisie had already rendezvous’d with a young swain in her class at Sunny Hills, a good-looking chap whose home sat on a lot the size of a golf fairway. He hitched her horse, led her inside, and they sat with their toes dipped in the swimming pool shaped like a sea shell.
“Oh, Maisie,” he began, and she know what he’d expect after two previous dates. She was scared past Death itself but curious.
Clark and Melba had already joined friends off Hermosa Drive to play Over The Line at the elementary school where the cute boys would be along any time. Clark hit with power for a teenaged girl because of her hop rotation, which the boys admired. Melba, more calculating, played like a dutifully pitiful klutz. Their horses neighed and grazed in the distant outfield, and when the first boys, arrived, proud of their own minimal stubble, destiny seemed certain.
Arthur the Internist engaged Mel the Hematologist, Lloyd the OB/GYN and Bert the Aluminum Siding Factory Owner from Okemah, Oklahoma at horseshoes, and Bert systematically emptied their pockets. Only when Ned the Banker from Omaha and Hubert the Attorney from Tabor, Iowa arrived did Bert meet his match, while the others drank Old Fashioneds and made bets like Ming Dynasty warlords. They were one in the way they cussed, and lighted each other’s cigarettes with battered Zippo lighters engraved with their World War Two unit insignia. The hidden status marker among them, next to their bank accounts, was who had the comparatively prettiest wives. Hubert’s, for example, was Enid the Curvy Redhead from Des Moines, Miss Iowa 1938, now the mother of seven but holding her own. When wives and daughters passed by the pool fifty feet away, the men puffed out their chests, sucked in their guts, and assumed brave battle expressions the women barely noticed.
Yet not a one was fraudulent. Mel the Hematologist flew bomber raids over Germany for two years. Lloyd the OB/GYN was a combat medic at Iwo Jima and Tarawa. Hubert was a tank mechanic in North Africa and still had shrapnel in one of his thighs. Bert had been a submarine ensign in the South Pacific. Ned the Banker worked in Supply in Washington DC, and smarted if anyone seemed to demean his service, although his wife was a Chicago brunette often described as “statuesque," and filled out a sweater like nobody’s business. Arthur was a Marine second lieutenant at Okinawa. They seldom spoke of the war except by allusion, as in, “You wouldn’t believe what Honolulu looks like now. We stayed at the Royal Hawaiian.”
At one PM the Dodgers played the San Francisco Giants on TV at Candlestick Park, Sandy Koufax versus Juan Marichal, and the Sunny Hills men watched from the patio. Just to make it interesting, Bert bet against the Dodgers, and by the 4th inning, $1,600 was at stake. Their wives would have skinned them alive if they’d known.
Sons and neighbor boys stopped by to watch for a while, and smaller daughters sat next to their daddies, but the pungent vitality of them men drove them away soon enough. The count of Old Fashioneds had reached foursquare and ten by now, and the cook and her daughters glared at the men staggering to the bathrooms and back. It was a wonderful life.
On a 3-and-2 inside low fastball, two on base, Willie McCovey smacked a homer to right field. Three scored. Walter Alston walked to the mound and accepted the ball from a saddened Sandy, who returned to the dugout with mild applause. Once Ron Perranoski had made the long walk in from the infield and made the warm-up throws of a mere mortal pitcher, Willie Mays stepped in and on a 0-and-two belt high sinker inside, ripped a double to left.
As one, the men marched out to the pool and sat under umbrellas at tables, to smoke cigars and pipes. Bert the Aluminum Siding man’s crashing cackles could be heard on Sunnycrest, but the gloom was a pittance to these Sunny Hills men. After a moment, Arthur the host stood to pull off his bright red LaCoste shirt, kick off his sandals, and walked into the shallow end of the pool. While the others watched, he performed a porpoise dive and swam underwater to touch at the deep end. There he surfaced, used his hand to wipe the water from his sandy hair, and caught his breath. No one could miss his resemblance to a healthy adult American bison. He smiled, he spat out water, and asked for his drink. When it arrived, he took a prodigious draught and dived once more for the bottom. Continuing to the shallow end, he emerged in a manly spray and started up the steps.
Something arrested his attention as he fumbled with his own hands. Wounded, he cried:
“My class ring is gone!”
USC Class of 1939, Pre-Medical. 36th in a class of 271.
There was silence. Monty Gilyard, ’39 and ’47 Pharmacy, dived in without hesitation and examined the pool bottom, and then the drain. After what seemed too long, he came up and shook his head tragically.
“It’s caught in the drain!” Arthur yelped, and all the dogs present barked.
The Labrador Retrievers jumped in first, followed by the German Shepherds, the Beagles and Bassett Hounds, and finally the courageous Dachshunds.
“They’ll swallow it!” Hubert the Iowan worried.
“We’ll check ‘em!” Bert the Oklahoman answered darkly.
Arthur had gone inside the house and came back in less then a minute, outfitted in his SCUBA gear.
“I’m going in!” he announced, and hopped nimbly into the turquoise surface.
The crowd watched him in fearful anticipation. Ned the Banker had already called his pool guy who said he’d come only for triple fee because of the holiday. Bert said OK but made a point to reexamine the guy’s mortgage.
At the other side of the patio, distant on the emerald lawn under stately oaks, the cook’s daughters had grimly set the table. By now, Mildred heard of her husband’s emergency and rushed out to collide with Florence, the younger cook’s daughter, and was splattered with the beets and juice the woman carried. From the ground, wet and bright purplish red, Mildred burst into tears.
Arthur discovered something wrong with his oxygen tube and found it cracked with age. He walrus-heaved himself onto the deck, ran to his wife, and slipped hard enough to flip backwards and land heavily on his rump, dazed but uninjured.
The spectacle of the dog party in the pool made the cook and her husband Jimmy laugh out loud. He’d just arrived to help clean up later. Their daughters joined in, and to the Sunny Hills people, this skillful black family seemed to laugh in an inspiring gospel harmony. Hubert and Enid joined in singing and began to sway with righteous rhythm. Monty Gilyard and his wife Irene followed — they were from Wichita, Kansas — and then Lloyd and Ned and their wives, and soon the rest. As the laughter subsided, the sisters segued into “There Is A Fountain”, Arthur picked up his darling bride Mildred, dried her tears with his blunt fingers, and carried her lovingly to where the impromptu choir stood.
Neighbors came to their fences to watch the party, and soon they too were seduced by the joy and brotherhood they saw.
Tentatively, Enid the Beautiful Redhead from Iowa — who had sung “L’ho perduta” from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” for her talent segment — stepped forward and sang the first verse of “Oh, Happy Day,” recorded by the Edwin Hopkins Singers. Jimmy the Husband responded at once:
“Oh Happy Day!”
“When Jesus Came ..” sang Mildred the Hostess in a sultry contralto, ebullient despite her ruined outdoor outfit from Bullocks Fashion Square.
“To wash our sins away!” sang Arthur her loving husband in his tin-ear fraternity party basso profundo, yet he thrilled them all.
They sang thirty verses, and the cook and her daughters led them. They all gathered around the pool and held hands. Soon the dogs yelped and howled, to no avail, until one Beagle climbed out by Arthur’s feet where a college ring dropped from the dog’s mouth.
“HALLELUJAH!” the cook sang, and everyone echoed her at this glorious Sunny Hills house in the sylvan neighborhood with sage and verbena in the air.
They hugged each other, they hopped and danced holding hands, and hadn’t had such a good time since Aunt Gert’s funeral, as his little grandmother Ella used to say when Hubert was a tow-headed boy in short pants and a fishing pole in his hand in Iowa. All the dogs had climbed or jumped on the deck to shake themselves dry, and trotted around ecstatically.
“Time to eat!” the cook announced, almost reluctantly, and they took their places in the shade under the great oak.
Oh, there was visiting, laughter, a turkey — dark meat and white — drumsticks, mashed potatoes piled high with butter, tender baby carrots, corn on the cob, fresh biscuits and butter, yams abundant, ham, green beans and peas, beets, berry jams, glistening pyramids of cranberry sauce, pitchers of lemonade that the doctors drank now, iced tea, beer, iced coffee; apple, cherry, boysenberry, and even sweet potato pie, and more. They talked and laughed and swallowed and ate some more.
Mildred’s sister Mame called to say she and her jerk of a husband would be late, and Mildred told them not to hurry.
But when a phone rang inside, Arthur the Internist went to get it and his wife Mildred followed. He’d have to see a patient immediately, a sweet old lady with diabetes at the hospital, at once, right now.
Mildred ran a shower for him, icy and fierce, and laid out his blazer, a dress shirt, a tie already tied, matching slacks, socks she would help him into, and handsome loafers with tassels. Within ten minutes he backed his midnight blue Lincoln Continental out of the driveway, and before long treated the sweet old lady, a longtime friend, a former school teacher in town, and stabilized her.
Outside in the hallway her son and daughter his own age thanked him profusely, and Arthur said they were welcome. He twisted his USC ’39 ring on his finger and hurried home, because there would be fireworks in the circle and at Disneyland.
He was a lucky man and he knew it. THE END
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