Summer Lilacs

The original Corner House on Broadway.

I felt close to Steve even though we didn’t really spend much time together. For those first pesky thirty years.

After I moved to San Francisco, I would go home once in the summer and again over Christmas. I’d try to see him each trip but at times he would be on vacation or we’d be too busy and couldn’t meet. There would be instances of a year-and-a-half without seeing each other.

I would hear about him almost every week, however, when I talked to Mother. She was the intermediary, not the relay. She decided what to share. I had no idea what she was telling him about me.

Once in a melodramatic flight of fancy I went over my funeral plans with Mother on one of our calls. There was to be no religion, no spoken word, no music except for Brown Sugar to be played at the gravesite. That would be it. If people wanted to participate in the “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whew’s!” that was fine but nothing organized. She laughed and I forgot about it.

Out of the blue, she later said she told Steve about my funeral. “He said you may want to wait on that, the Stones might come out with a better song.”

1970s Still Life: Woman with Hairdresser (Mother and Rik)

Steve focussed on the person in his chair. He knew everyone in town but wasn’t constantly acknowledging people coming and going through the lobby. Or chatting with customers in other chairs.

The co-owner of the shop, Rik, did Mother’s hair so she could be there an hour without being acknowledged by Steve. Then as she would get up to leave he’d whisper to have drinks or dinner with him. She went after work so was one of the last to leave the shop. She almost always said yes.

Or sometimes he’d just take a second during the hour to whisper one thing to make her laugh. At Easter it was a variation on the same theme: “you’d better be good or the Easter Bunny’s gonna shit in your basket.”

The sickest pose. Richard was a stylist at the Corner House who did not look like this. One of the finest examples of high school portraiture ever.

When Steve hired staff he didn’t shy away from eccentrics or lunatic fringe. If they could cut hair. Mother once told me about this hairdresser who said he’d been up all night but could only remember peeling an orange.

I asked Steve about him decades later and he said he went on to drive semis for many years. Not the typical gay career path. Steve hadn’t heard from him in ages when one morning he looked out the kitchen window to see an 18 wheeler parked in front of his house.

The last he heard he was the head cook of a large sorority house. When Steve talked about him it was obvious he thought the guy had an interesting mind.

The staff followed Steve’s lead keeping the chatter down and the mood professional in the front of the house. The back kitchen is where the co-worker laughter and gossip took place. Mother would hang there waiting for Rik to finish whoever he was working on. Or to wait for whatever chemicals she had in her hair to completely burn her scalp.

Mother had free reign in the shop and once went looking for something upstairs. As she passed the open door of a private workroom she looked in where Steve was alone preparing a wig for a client. To do the finishing touches he had it on his head. When he looked in the mirror and their eyes met they both laughed uncontrollably. Then, without words, he resumed styling and she continued to wander.

Mother was a little older and grew up on a farm outside of Bluffton. Forty miles down the Wabash River was Peru where Steve lived in the town itself. Both metropolises had populations around 10,000.

During their teen years they were both star struck by Hollywood. The Movie Star System was the internet of their age, the innovation that would change the world forever. They kept up with the fan gossip and saw as many movies as they could. In Bluffton it was at a tiny theater called The Grand. In Peru it was The Roxy. Whereas Mother loved the movies, Steve developed an obsession that would last his entire life.

Steve had binders full of autographed stills and letters he’d collected from stars. He’d established a correspondence with many resulting in a series of letters between them. One was from Joan Fontaine who he sent a photo to be autographed. It was one she’d never seen of herself “with Hitch.” She asked if she could have a copy.

By the late 1970’s he’d established a contact within the Academy. He attended the Oscar ceremonies every year for the next decade.

I’ve always wondered how he and Mother bucked the trend of rural Indiana to develop such expansive world views.

In Steve’s kitchen, early 80’s.

Steve had a caustic, scathing sense of humor that was conveyed in a gentlemanly way. He told jokes well but his strength was situational humor. Which is also the hardest to describe. It’s all about context.

Our favorite summer treat was the soft ice cream at Zesto’s on Broadway. Steve, Mother and I were in the car one hot July evening with our three vanilla cones. We sat in dead silence working quickly on the confections before they melted on us and the luxury upholstery.  Nothing was said as we each noticed the same thing at once: an extremely large woman waddling through the parking lot on her way to the take-out window.

The walker easily weighed three hundred pounds. Sadly, she probably was only in her twenties which is not an uncommon sight in the mid-west. What was uncommon was this human sausage was encased from head to toe in skin-tight lavender spandex.

There was a silent anticipation in the car as we struggled to get to the manageable portion of our cones. Once there, Steve showcased his innate diplomatic charm.

“You know, Lilac really is her color. Truly it is. All her girlfriends tell her so. It makes her eyes pop. And it’s so smart the way she’s carried it through with the shadow and even in the blush. Not many would do that.”

We laughed so hard we couldn’t speak. Steve continued, “And that tiny top knot on her head is such a clever trick on a large woman. It draws the eye upward toward the pretty face, detracts from the less fortunate aspects of the silhouette.”

He concluded with, “You know she’s just come from the gym, she’s been working out very hard this summer. She likes to reward herself with a double fudge turtle sundae after a strenuous session like that. She’s earned it. I see nothing but good things ahead for her.”

With that, Steve started laughing as hard as we were.

The best dish of cream in town.


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