Tony Woodlief | Author

That malt shop in the sky

Of all the reasons to cry, the “Beauty School Dropout” number from Grease probably shouldn’t make my list. Yet here I sit, surreptitiously mashing tears from the corners of my eyes just like Danny Zuko would have done, in his leather-jacket days, before Sandy convinced him real men cry.

It’s not that I’m unused to crying. I cry every time a baby is received into our church. During the Nicene Creed I often can’t get past “I look for the resurrection of the dead” without a hitch in my throat. I am incapable of seeing General Waverly appear at the top of the stairs toward the end of White Christmas without blubbering.

Real men cry, and so do I, but crying at Frankie Valli in a heavenly hair salon stretches the boundaries of acceptable man behavior.

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I was a boy when my mother took us to see Grease. It had been a sweltering summer, humid and sticky, and we were living in a tent in Tennessee. There was a lake nearby and there were ducks who would bite if you got too close and there were snakes and Lord Jesus were there mosquitos. It was the summer I learned to do without underwear which meant it was also the summer I learned that a zipper is to be handled with care.

We were hot and we were sticky and money was tight. You can gauge how broke you are by how often your mother has to take items from that little grocery store conveyer belt and hand them to the cashier. But there was food enough—jelly sandwiches are what I remember—and we had the lake for a tub and a cinder-block bathroom with showers nearby when we were rank, though my mother was loathe to send us because we would aim all the showerheads high, run a soap bar along the cement floor, and take turns running at breakneck speed to hurl ourselves buck-naked across it. The trick was to keep your sack from snagging on the big metal drain cover in the center, and to stop yourself with your feet so you didn’t crack your skull on the far wall. It’s a wonder we all reached adulthood two-testicled and with no bacterial infections of the flesh-eating variety.

There was bread and jelly and now I remember canned meat as well. There were acres of woods. We swam and we roamed forest and we built forts and had rock fights; we killed snakes and we ran from the big ones and we got stung by yellowjackets; we fed the nice ducks and hit the mean ones with sticks; we lay awake in our tent late into those nights, staring at the darkened tarp above and praying for a little gust of wind to climb the tent wall and pour through the little mesh window there. Some people think you can tell angels by their singing but I am here to tell you that you know them by their breeze.

I was a worrier. I knew my mother was worried; I saw her give back groceries to balance the tab and drive with the gas gauge on empty and so I worried too.

It had been so hot that week. Stifling hot and no breeze, water from the jug tepid and stale, even the lake a swamp unless you swam deep. It was hot and one night my mother loaded us in the car and she drove us to town. We pestered her about where we were going and she didn’t say a word that I remember, she just drove. We parked in the movie theater lot, but we were at the ticket counter before it sank in that she was actually taking us to see an honest-to-God movie.

“Where did you get the money?” I practically shouted it, right there in the lobby. God, I must have been an embarrassment to that woman. She ignored the stares of the other adults in their unsticky clothes, some of them with children who were generally clean and whom I could not smell, and she bought four tickets and we went into that blessed air conditioning and we pressed our salty wet bodies into those soft cool seats and not a one of us gave a damn what it was; we would gladly have watched Gerald Ford rehearse walking down stairs.

I sat in the cool air beside my mother and I fell hard for Olivia Newton-John and for one hour and fifty minutes plus trailers I didn’t worry about a thing. I don’t think my mother did either.

So I sit here pressing tears from my eyes at nearly every number, and later I tell my boys a briefer version of the story I’ve just told you, at least until my voice gets husky, and later when they are playing I quietly weep because my mother is gone. She is gone and would you believe I never once thanked her for taking us to that movie theater on that sticky-hot Tennessee night when the gas gauge was low?

I always thought she was weak. Sometimes I despised her for it. But now, with children of my own, I suspect I have it easier because I’m not as strong as she. I think I’ll tell her this when we’re sitting together in that malt shop in the sky. If only I had known, I’ll say. If only I had seen more clearly, I might have been a better son.

And her likely reply, loving Eric Clapton as she did, will be: Hush, child. Don’t you know there are no tears in heaven?

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