Saturday in the Mind
by Mike Lubow


Phil is in his dad's Olds with his sweet Didi and her girly smells and irreverent smoke curling like the jazz riffs on the radio. It's Saturday night with the city streets lit up from so many cars out for a good time. And John Coltrane's doing "My Favorite Things," of all things.

Phil has to nod at Sid McCoy's choice of this song, although he's not especially attuned to coincidence. Phil's just 19 and unaware of many subtleties and ironies. But this coincidence is obvious even to him, the jazzy song nailing the way he feels about a Saturday date in his dad's big Olds, Didi sitting hip-to-hip with him on the big soft bench seat, sitting hot-date close by his side, smoking her stylish cigarette, looking dangerously beautiful with her shaggy French-girl haircut.

Didi has these long arms and legs, a wide quick smile, and she's wearing the sweater he likes. Something soft, this sweater, warm and clinging, and it gives her a female humidity that combines with other sweet perfumy smells like the waxy apricot smell of her lipstick, and add to this the exciting grownup smell of her burning tobacco.

Phil's been looking forward to this Saturday and now it's here and he's in it. Didi once said a good night out was heaven, an enigmatic word that Phil doesn't normally use in descriptions. But the echo of this word, heaven, runs through his head now, and it makes him think of his dying grandfather. He doesn't want this. The grandfather thing belongs in the most depressing day of the week, Sunday.

Phil's always felt down, and "blue" as his mom calls such moods, on Sundays ever since he was a little kid, asking his folks why they called it Sunday when it wasn't especially sunnier than any other day. Or was it son day, which would have made some sense, because it involved visiting so many family members, a lot of visiting, with Phil having to be the good son who had to be on good behavior saying please and thank you and wearing dress pants.

(He also questions the reason why his mom and others say you're blue when you're feeling low, since blue's a nice cheerful color, the color of the sky and the bluebird of happiness, etc., but if Phil's going to run through the list of things he questions he's never going to get past these musings and back to enjoying his Saturday night with Didi, which is what it's all about and all he wants.)

Phil's grandfather's going to be in heaven, or at least in the mind of God which is something Phil's father said, and that was kind of interesting because Phil's father was known as a rebel whose claim to fame in the family is that he isn't religious at all, which is about as rebellious as someone in Phil's traditional family can get.

When Phil heard that phrase, the mind of God, he thought back to the opening lines of a school play he saw, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and the part when some kid on stage recites where exactly this town, Our Town, is located, and the last part of the address is "the mind of God." That always stayed with Phil, worrying him, that maybe we're all just in the mind of God or something, and not really out in the world being real.

See, that's just the kind of thing he didn't want to have happen, thinking about his dying grandfather and stuff like that, having it ride around in the car with him and Didi.

The Olds is new and smooth with a steering wheel that's skinny in Phil's hand, skinny the way they're making them in 1962 with effortless too-easy power steering having been perfected, making itself felt, taking all the work out of handling a wheel. The feel of this wheel is on the list of Phil's favorites tonight and he's glad his dad let him take the car.

It's that cool time of year, another favorite thing, late-fall when the dark comes on early and there's a chill in the city, causing Phil to switch on the heater in the new Olds, a big Rocket 88, with a Carmine Red body, white roof, and an oversize, purring V-8 under the hood that can make the car go faster than his dad ever drives. The speedometer shows numbers all the way to 120, and Phil believes they're there for a reason. He figures that the car company couldn't put it on the speedometer if it weren't true.

The heater gives the car a dusty warm smell that reminds him of his childhood, a nice nostalgic tang that brings back so clearly the smells of other cars that his family rode around in on the streets of cold Chicago, with heaters that gave off the same homey smell.

Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" is oddly out of character for the jazz great. Phil pictures Coltrane the way he looked on album covers, the man's dark face sweaty in a spot-lit smoky basement nightclub, the album photo being a grainy black-and-white photograph with a blue tinge, purposely not bright and mainstream. The sound out of Coltrane's sax is purely lawless, unstructured and sexual. But here he is playing a Broadway standard popularized by Julie Andrews of all people.

True, Coltrane takes this tune over and makes it his own, and he's coloring it outside the lines, of course. And yet there's that traditional childish sappy melody which Phil hates to admit is kind of sweet and catchy. But even if it weren't, the words are the perfect, though unspoken, perfectly perfect accompaniment to this moment. Phil on a date with Didi.

They're planning to go to a beatnik coffee house on the north side called No Exit to see some folk group and sit on pillows while being served European coffee or hot chocolate in mugs with cinnamon twig stirrers, served by girls in black turtlenecks and white lipstick.

But Phil knows they might just call an audible as quarterbacks do in the middle of a game when the lineup changes and they switch the play, a last minute revision of plans. He and Didi have often done this on these longed-for date nights and then they don't even leave the car. Instead, they park on a dark street near the No Exit, look at each other, and sit there with the radio playing its all-night jazz show hosted by Phil's favorite radio voice, Sid McCoy, and then reach for each other.

Sid's show opened with Frank Sinatra doing "The Real McCoy," which is the obvious theme song for a radio host named McCoy, and it opens every show, even playing after a break on the hour, introducing the next section of the program. And in the song Sinatra asks the question about whether things are real. Is it the real turtle soup or only the mock? Phil wants to think this through, loving the song and the question, but figures he's got plenty of time to wonder about what's real and what's not.

When Phil was seven, his grandfather took him to the Chicago Amphitheater to see a Wild West show starring Phil's childhood hero, the cowboy star Roy Rogers. Roy rode around on Trigger, just like in the movies but better, with a white-hot bright spotlight on him and his palomino. A beautiful cowgirl would toss little targets in the air, straight into the open space that went up forever in the domed amphitheater, little targets that looked like discs of clay, starting big and getting smaller with each throw, and Roy would draw his six-shooter and shoot them out of the air, every one. They'd explode in puffs of powder, and he never missed.

Phil was wide-eyed throughout the show. Afterward, his grandfather said something like, let's go meet Roy, and even though Phil was just seven he knew this should be impossible as the amphitheater was huge and filled with thousands of people who came to be audience members and not acquaintances of the stars. But Phil's grandfather had a way about him, a way that suggested he knew everybody and how to get anything done. They went down a long corridor to a dressing area, and the grandfather said, you just wait, Roy Rogers will come out of that door there and we'll say hi to him. Then, almost as though it were on cue, the cowboy star came out, still wearing his shining outfit, formfitting pants tucked into red cowboy boots, a big white hat, the whole deal, right out of wild west movieland.

Phil's grandfather pushed Phil forward and said run up and say Hi Roy! and Phil, nervous but utterly trusting his grandfather and mindlessly obedient, ran, ran as fast as possible saying Hi Roy! but tripping as he got close to the cowboy. Roy Rogers, quick as Roy Rogers, caught Phil, scooped him up, yanked him out of the fall, and Phil never hit the floor.

Roy knelt in front of him, all smile, and said Whoa buckaroo, go easy, or something like that and then he pried a shiny bullet out of his gunbelt and gave it to Phil as a souvenir while Phil's grandfather looked on, all smile, too.

Phil and Didi just wind up staying in the big Olds, of course, and get real close and start kissing and one thing leads to another and, like the song says, this is one of Phil's favorite things. The windows are fogging gently, diffusing the white and red car lights and overhead streetlights, city lights of all kinds, giving Didi and him a cool gray privacy, under-lit. The car's a cozy hideout, a place of jazz, essence of newish Oldsmobile, warm girl, and Phil's hard-on. This hard-on--add it to the list of favorite things--is a fairly old acquaintance and until Didi came along it had been a private hobby and burden.

But she has taken a proprietary interest in the thing, and has got a pretty good handle on what to do. Which isn't overly wild, but it's quite enough for the time and place. What Didi does is unzip and fiddle around with Phil in a proper, private, shadowy way. Her hands are good at this and even if they weren't, Phil is overly responsive to this touch of a real live girl and soon there's a wetness flying out of him. Didi somehow deals with this, wisely and casually, a natural housekeeper, neatening them afterward. She's damp in spots from him, her sweater even, and he's got it on him, too, pants and shirt. And they just go on holding each other.

Phil, the good kid Phil, feels a flicker of guilt, but it flickers away, after the wetness gets on them, spent and happy and culminated, teenage fantasies realized. He's an outlaw, doing this with her, here in the closed car on the public street, with Didi knowing him that way. It's an utterly carefree thing to do and McCoy's jazz is its background music, its soundtrack.

They continue on in the front seat, huddled and warm together, and they agree that they'll skip going into the folkie place, No Exit. And they laugh quietly at his joke about calling it No Entrance, because they so often drive to it and don't go in. But they don't care about the place, about any place other than where they are and the making out, the rubbing and the heat from them and the heater, and the radio playing.

The time spent in the Olds seems condensed out of all normal sense when they realize they've been in the car for hours and it's almost midnight. Phil has dampened them both again and is getting honestly tired and Didi has gasped and shivered a few times too as they did a thing they both knew as dry humping, a phrase they'd heard about from friends but never said aloud to each other. They did it with her panties on, although her plaid skirt was up around her hips, but that was as far as things would go.

Unworldly Phil didn't fully understand the shuddering she went for, but assumed it was like his, only curious since there was no real outflow of anything. He's young, hardly knows what's going on. But man, he knows with animal certainty that Didi is delicious. He inhales the scents of her hair, her face, her lips. She cries a little at times for unknown reasons. He tastes her tears. He loves their taste. But now he's thinking of hamburger. A hamburger with fries and a tall Coke with cracked ice and a straw, a tall dark sweet Coke, all sugar and caffeine and secret Coke ingredient that he's loved since his dad bought him his first at age five.

Sid McCoy, in his slow deep friendly intimate latenight voice is saying how'ya doing dad-ee-o, and you too bay-bee, something silky like that, as Phil and Didi adjust their clothes. Pants and sweater and skirt slide into place, and buttons and zippers do their thing and now Nancy Wilson is singing on Sid's show. A vocal ballad can be a corny thing, especially in 1962, but not when sweet Nancy, that's what Sid calls her, sweet Nancy, sings it with her smoky voice. She's singing "It's The Good Life" and Phil's nodding along, enjoying the good and the life and the music.

Didi is putting on lipstick, looking at her face close up in a little compact, and this is such a womanly thing to do; it feels wifely even. But there are his sticky spots on her. Didi is wifely, maybe, and at the same time outrageously sexually wild because of these. This duality is a little like sweet Nancy on the radio, her voice being at one time pretty and feminine, but there's that nightclub booze and abandon giving an edge to it.

Pete's is a 24-hour diner on the far north side and is one of Phil's favorite things. It's after two in the morning when they go into the brightness and noise of the place. It's filled with fun, late night people of all types eating and ordering and laughing and lolling and talking.

Waitresses are hustling around with lox plates, open face beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes covered with gravy, slices of pie, high pie, fruit pies like apple and blueberry always with a ball of vanilla ice cream tucked up and over the fat slice, but also cream pies. And lemon meringue, like a foam mountain on a plate. But most of all, hamburgers, not the fast-food drive-in kind that kids might go for on a lunch break, but heavy honest hamburger sandwiches on big solid plates, with slices of raw onion sticking out, long new pickle spears and a pile of French fries, shining, hot and crisp at each burger's side. Nobody thinks of calories or fats or blood lipids; that's not what this place or time is about.

And Pete's waitresses, brassy and bossy, smart and tough, fat and fast, are also carrying drinks, trays of drinks, tall cokes and root beers, sodas Chicago-style which have ice cream in them foaming out of the tops of the tall glasses and running down the sides, and malts, vanilla malts and chocolate malts, an occasional Green River, transparent and so beautifully green that a guy could stare into it for an hour before drinking it, looking at the greenness and the bubbles rising in quick lines.

Bubbles. Phil's grandfather has a problem that makes his thoughts pop like bubbles. Phil doesn't want to think about this. Doesn't want to think about his grandfather, wants the grandfather to be part of the gloomy Sunday waiting for him when tomorrow comes around. But the bubbles in the Green River did it, and for just a second, the bubble idea intrudes. Phil got the idea that his grandfather, sick and befuddled in his wheelchair, weak and woozy, unspeaking and unliving if truth be told, had a sickness that made every thought in the poor guy's head act like a bubble. A bubble that would rise up through his mind and then pop, disappearing. They were like the toy bubbles kids would play with, the soapy liquid bubble game little kids liked, which Phil liked when he was a little kid. He'd dip some wand-shaped thing in the bubble stuff and blow through it and then all these bubbles would come flying out, into the air, floating.

And they'd be like his grandfather's thoughts and memories and moments of living. They'd hang there in the air, beautiful and jiggling and round, with a little rainbow sheen to them, but they'd only last a short time and each would silently pop with a little wet smack. Maybe there was a bubble that came out of his grandfather's mind and it had the memory of Roy Rogers scooping up Phil, the grandkid, and the grandfather feeling proud to have brought Roy Rogers that close to Phil's life.

Sometimes a bubble wouldn't pop on its own, but would bump into something, or Phil would try to grab it, and the touching of it would make it pop. Once in a while, if Phil were really careful he could hold a bubble in his palm, hoping he'd captured it and it would last for a while, but then it would pop. And there'd be a small cold wet spot to remember it by, and then that would go, too.

Phil knew his grandfather's thinking had been degenerating into bubbles but recently he'd come to think of his grandfather's life doing that, too. Not just were the old man's past memories and current thoughts elusive and popable, but so were all the essential atoms of his body, all fizzing out and disappearing. He didn't want to be thinking about this on his Saturday night with Didi and all his favorite things, but in truth, thankfully, this thought passed bubble-like through him for the moment, and it didn't present a problem. The allure of Pete's and the food and the booth and the company of Didi across from him won out, won big.

Yeah, the waitresses are bringing on the drinks. The drinks and the food. All the booths are full, except one perfect one by the window. All the stools around the counter are taken. This is good, the place is living, an organism of the night made for enjoying the best part of the day.

Elvis is singing "Heartbreak Hotel" through a weak sound system, weak the way it was supposed to be weak, controlled by little coin-slot juke boxes at each table, but Elvis was just background here. The cheerful din of the crowded diner is the only king of this moment. And still, it's good to hear the sneering hood, good to have him in the air on this Saturday night, the beat and earthy sad soul of the song.

Phil and Didi get the perfect booth, one of his favorite things, a booth in the middle of everything and right up against the window. Didi sits across from him looking at Phil with eyes that say I only have eyes for you. Even though she's touched up her lips before leaving the car, her hair is pushed out of shape, lopsided a bit, just enough to say to anyone who notices, hey, we were just parked. Just parked and doing all that stuff in the dark and the jazz and now we're here for our burgers and fries and Cokes and maybe some pie.

They have their burgers and they talk and she looks with those eyes, using her eyes on Phil more than her ears, nodding at the wise things he says and smiling at his witty commentary, how he answers all her questions about anything she could ask, but it was just a kind of ear-service, her listening. She is mostly all eyes for him and he feels those eyes the whole time, a warm enjoyable feeling, one of his favorite things.

The burger tastes just the way he'd wanted it to taste, rare in the middle and juicy and there was ketchup in the game, and the pickle was cool, the fries crisp and greasy and salty; it's all the way it should be, the way he'd wanted and expected. The Coke is cold and bubbling sweet and Coke-flavored more than the bottled kind, because this comes from a fountain and the syrup part is balanced heavy.

Didi is tired. The food is eaten. The check comes, and they're on their way home. Didi lives not far; he'll have her home in ten minutes. It's well after three in the morning. Cannonball Adderly is playing "Mercy" and that, too, hits a good note with Phil. Mercy, give me mercy; any more of all this and Phil doesn't know if he can take it. As much as he enjoys his time with Didi, he's looking forward to dropping her off now, wanting to ride the streets alone for a while, just him and Sid McCoy in the big Olds on the quiet night streets, and he thinks: quiet, night streets somewhere in the mind of God.

Phil takes Didi into the foyer of her parents' home, kisses her goodnight and they hold each other until she's starting to fall asleep on his shoulder and he pushes her softly away, kisses her again and says goodnight.

She's gone in the shadows, the door clicks and locks behind her and he's in the Olds again, free, on the move, and Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" is playing, another favorite. It's a long song and Phil's glad he got in at the beginning, with the insistent repetitious borderline-monotonous drums setting up the idea, the beat, and he heads onto Lake Shore Drive because he knows the new car is fast and the speedometer goes all the way to 120.

Paul Desmond's sweet lightweight sax comes in and Brubeck's piano gangs with the drums as "Take Five" builds and there's a visceral rhythmic thing happening, the music enveloping Phil's night, the smells of Didi and the new car and the mouth feel of burger and fries and the hint of waxy apricot-essenced lipstick from Didi's lips, all of it.

Phil wants to see if he can hit 120. The speedometer made the promise. Or was it a challenge. And now "Like Young" is playing, and the young can do anything, they can fly if they want to. The high-rise towers of Chicago make points of light in the skyline ahead and the scene on Lake Shore Drive combines with the familiar "Like Young" to remind Phil of Playboy After Dark, a TV show hosted by that Hefner guy who invented Playboy, a favorite of Phil's, and with many sexy looking women on the show too. "Like Young" is the show's theme song, and it plays over scenes of this same lit-up nighttime Lake Shore Drive as the show opens, as if the TV audience is going to a party at Hefner's in some high-rise on the lake, a Playboy party. Phil gets to 90 easily, and figures he can do 100 but he sees some cars ahead and, who knows, one might be a cop, so he slows back to sixty-something and "Like Young" is egging him on. He waits for the road to open up ahead, to give him a traffic-free stretch. He wants to floor the big Olds, get to 120 just for the hell of it and go home, go to sleep, but he knows and we know and his non-religious father knows and even his grandfather knows (Didi would know if she knew) that doing 120 here and now is a deadly idea and Phil's not going to do it and he's not going to die tonight. His grandfather's going to die tonight.

In fact his grandfather just died. Phil, tired and full of his favorite things, smoothly glides off the Drive and heads home, home to sleep in his big single bed with its Indian blanket and cool sheets, home to sneak in quietly at four something, knowing his dad is awake and listening from the master bedroom, knowing his dad is silently approving of Phil's late night fun, his date with Didi, not knowing about the death of the grandfather yet but expecting it, knowing only that he can sleep now, now that his son, Phil, is back safely.

And Phil, in bed and content, proud owner of a stomach that can rest easy with burger, fries, pickle, coke and blueberry pie inside, proud owner of a hard-on that's hard again, its normal state whenever Phil's under the covers all comfortable in bed, his mouth smelling faintly of Didi, her lipstick, her face and sweater. And everything worked out for Phil tonight, the echo of McCoy's lawless jazz fading but still appreciated, forever appreciated.


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