written by: Carl Parsons
Suddenly it was summer. The prom and graduation were behind us and adulthood immediately ahead. Come and gone was the long-anticipated glee of high school graduation. With my diploma now in my hands, I felt as though it were weighted with all of the burdens and responsibilities that were about to come upon me—maintaining a household, earning a living, paying bills, having children, managing financial losses and gains, experience the births and deaths of family members. Nothing shielded me any longer from the flux and flow of adult life. Public school, which in comparison with real life, brings mostly mock crises and insignificant changes, had forever ended. Now I was about to join Jim in that state of perpetual vulnerability that all of us always live in yet fail to recognize when we’re young, but which on a farm, with its narrow margin for error, is a constant concern and against which the only consistent defenses are hard work and constant vigilance.
To celebrate our graduation, Jim took me again to the Rayon Room, which had become everyone’s favored celebration spot on the South Side of Parkeston. It was an odd place in many ways. It had been a dilapidated old beer joint on the South Side with apartments above it and a full-size basement below. The basement opened to a small rear parking lot bordered by a creek. The beer joint was an eyesore among eyesores, for that is how most people on my side of town regarded nearly everything in the heavily industrialized South Side. But a genuinely nice Italian couple, the Marinos, whom we knew as fellow parishioners at St. Benedict’s, had transformed the place. First, they made it into an appealing Italian delicatessen, or salumeria, as they said it. Its off-center entrance, set to the left, led directly into the deli with a dining area beside it to the right, separated from the deli by the stairwell that led up to the second floor and down to the basement.
The Marinos served sandwiches, panini, made with their imported salamis. They also offered homemade soups, frittatas, and salads—all of which could be purchased for taking home as well dining in. Most people in our town, if they thought of deli items at all, thought only of chipped ham and bologna, which they invariably called “baloney” and purchased in the town’s numerous neighborhood grocery stores. But at the Marino’s deli we found prosciutto, sopressata, finocchiano, mortadella, and much more. The varieties of dried meats, such as cacciatorini, hung from the ceiling over the deli case, like decorations, along with braided garlic and strings of brightly colored sweet peppers. The Marinos also sold cheeses, fruits, dates, olives, and flasks of olive oil. But to taste their special grape juices, white and red (no wines allowed in West Virginia stores or restaurants), a person had to dine in. Small Italian paper flags attached to long toothpicks were stuck into everything—the panini, the salads, the dark olives, the cheese rolls, and even the frittatas. For Jim and me it became the place to go, almost like a visit to Italy itself, because it was so different from everything else in our town. Lots of other people liked it too, for they came from the north side of town as well as all over the South Side to buy the food and listen to Signora Marino’s melodious dialect, which by itself was worth the visit.
Signora Marino was a short, beautiful woman, dark and shapely. Though no longer a young woman, she had an abundance of black hair, whisked here and there with streaks of grey, pinned up most of the time in the Italian tricolor scarf that she wore while working behind the deli cases. But at all other times, she allowed her thick hair to spill down her back nearly to her tiny waist. That’s the way we usually saw her at St. Benedict’s.
Signor Marino was handsome in his own right, about normal height, and well-proportioned with a still youthful face. His arms seemed especially muscular as he handed his customers their deli meats wrapped in white butcher’s paper and tied with thick white butcher’s string. His hair was a thick salt-and-pepper tangle of curls. He didn’t speak as much as his wife, who would often pour out torrents of dialect to him, but he clearly knew English better than she and seemed to be well-educated.
Despite the success of their delicatessen, the Marinos were not yet finished with reinventing the location. After the deli began enjoying success, they moved out of the overhead apartment into a house of their own nearby and then transformed the upstairs into the Rayon Room—a type of supper club where they served full Italian meals in the large dining room and al fresco on the balcony above the entrance.
They also employed a jazz band called “The Wildcats.” The band performed on weekends from a small stage at the back of the room, and generally did their absolute best to make us all forget that we were living in a small river town by playing a wide variety of jazz—smoky cabaret music, hot New Orleans chops, and romantic swing tunes. All a bit outdated by then, but still appreciated by a lot of people, including Jim and me.
The club’s name was drawn from the fact that the town’s biggest factory was a nearby rayon plant, which in turn gave the name “rayon” to the street on which the beer joint-turned-delicatessen-turned supper club was located as well as to the local elementary school, which was just a few yards up the street. The street itself ended at the gates to the plant, which lay along the river that divided the city into north and south. Soon the salumeria-ristorante-locale notturno (I think those are all the terms that I’d heard Signora Marino use to describe their business) became known as just the Rayon Room, and people went there to celebrate weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, and anything else they regarded as special.
Some of the performers with the Wildcat band had been our classmates. The Marinos’ son, Torre, who was the group’s “boy singer,” had also sung in our school choir with me and still sang in the St. Benedict’s choir, which was dominated by his distinctive tenor voice. In fact, Torre sang anywhere and everywhere and anytime he could, for he was determined to become a professional singer. However, for now at least, he was just as famous for his hair as he was for his voice. The abundance and density of his hair he must have inherited from his mother. But he insisted on styling his in an almost ridiculous (it seemed to me) pompadour that looked like a parody of the hair styles of the 1940s crooners whom he loved to imitate. Nevertheless, his hair had become part of his identity as a performer. In addition to singing jazz numbers with the Wildcats, something he had also done with our high school jazz band, he sang Neapolitan songs at the Rayon Room on Sunday afternoons and evenings, accompanied by an exceptionally talented Chinese girl on violin, another of our classmates on piano.
Still another classmate was the daughter of the Wildcats’ band leader. Her name was Letitia Brown, but she was known by everyone as Lettie and on stage as “Little Lettie Brown.” She played stride and boogie-woogie piano, sang, danced, and generally imparted her exuberant charm to the sometimes stodgy Wildcats. She had done the same thing for our high school choir as a soloist, sometimes in competition with Torre, and as the girl lead in our annual school musicals, often partnered with him. In fact, while we were in school, those musicals were generally chosen with Lettie and Torre’s combined talents in mind and always sold out our school’s large auditorium. Lettie also sang in the choir of her church which was located in the town’s small African-American neighborhood adjacent to the downtown commercial district. Now, at the Rayon Room, when she sang or danced, hardly any of the diners could put a bite in their mouths while she was on the tiny stage, entranced as they were with her performance.
Our final classmate in The Wildcats was its cornetist, Erik Baumgartner. His rather shy personality made him quite the opposite of both Lettie and Torre, but certainly not unlike them in talent. Erik and the veteran trombonist, Bob Clendenin, were the only white musicians among the Wildcats. A quiet, shy, retiring boy—Erik seemed at first out of place in a jazz band—that is, until he put the cornet to his lips. He had been the lead trumpeter of our school’s marching band, leading off the band’s performances with a fanfare. Now he was the driving force of the Wildcats with riffs and solos as skillful as any veteran jazz man. Yet, during the band’s performances, Erik always seemed to defer to Torre and Lettie, especially Lettie, whom we suspected he adored. Besides, the band’s presentations suggested a romantic relationship between them by having Lettie flirt with the shy Erik in order to tease another hot solo from his cornet.
Though Jim was probably more at home in El Caballito, we both always enjoyed our visits to the Rayon Room and especially the Wildcats’ wickedly good New Orleans style jazz. After being there, I always felt better about our own chances for success, for if the Marinos could come from Italy with nothing but their ambition and good-heartedness and build a successful business, then surely Jim and I could make a success of the farm.
Without too much trouble after graduation, I got a job as a cashier in a local grocery store; nothing was available in the produce department where I had hoped to work; men and part-time high school boys seemed to “own” those jobs as well as the meat department jobs. I wanted to gain some useful experience in produce that might be helpful on the farm, but a job was a job, so I settled for cashier. The pay wasn’t great but adequate for the moment.
At work I wore a blue smock with the store’s name in black script across my right breast and a required name badge on my left breast pocket. In those days, long before optical scanning, I learned to operate the cash register really fast, without having to look much at the keys and yet without making mistakes. I soon knew the prices of the most popular items and studied the weekly ads to know just what was on sale each week and at what price. After a month on the job, I could ring up a hundred item purchase as fast as the customer could take the items from the shopping cart.
As summer wore on, I was slowly paying back my parents for the Ford and still saving money for college. On my days off, I headed out to Locust Hill to work on the farm. One thing about farm work, it was always there! Consequently, I was hardly ever home anymore and no longer worried about being a popular girl whereas my girlfriends were anticipating going away to college, joining sororities, and attracting a new set of boys that they hoped would be wealthier than those they already knew in our town, where fortunes were fading. As for me, I now had far better and more meaningful concerns.
Driving out to Locust Hill in the summer created quite a different impression from that of the springtime. Through the village blew the thick, humid, wonderful odors of cut grass and hay. Along the roadsides were those stubby white wooden posts linked with steel cables that together passed in those days for guardrails. Since these roadside areas rarely got mowed by the county road crews, every summer they soon filled with the pale blue flowers of chicory held aloft on wiry greyish-green stems; with Queen Ann’s Lace, the delicate white topsy heads of which would bounce frantically in the humid air as cars passed by; with purple Canadian thistle to which clung acrobatic goldfinches at all angles, bending the thistle stems low; and with dense mats of daylilies, their wide orange throats opened wide as if to swallow the sun itself. In some of the ditches and damp depressions, cattails thrust up from the muck created by the frequent thunderstorms, showing off their sword-like leaves and long, thin furry brown heads. The air was nearly always thick with humidity now. Thunderstorms would brew during the mornings. Their cumulus clouds, brooding over the fields, would begin piling higher and higher in the updrafts of hot air until in mid-afternoons they suddenly darkened into storms that would chase us from our work in the fields.
On those occasions Jim and I usually found an excuse to shelter in the barn where instead of work we would share sweaty embraces, kisses that tasted like salt, and—when we couldn’t resist anymore—a love bed made of bales of hay hastily shoved together and covered with a blue tarp. Lad and Lady, an overly curious tomcat, and a nesting barn owl were all witnesses to our lovemaking. Unlike Frankie, Jim never asked me for a critique of his performances. In sex as in everything else, Jim was as confident as he was earnest. He praised my beauty and my willingness to love him, but he required nothing more of me than just to be with him. And after being with Jim, I understood why Frankie needed so much reassurance.
For their part, Mrs. Russell and Sandy would head back to the farmhouse, clean up, and begin supper. Too soon Jim and I would hear the triangle’s jangle calling us to come and prepare for supper too. Then we would pull ourselves together and straggle to the farmhouse as though all the time we had been really hard at work in the barn. But after a while, even Sandy knew better, though neither she nor Mrs. Russell ever said anything.
In the fall Jim and I began our college studies, arranging as many classes together as possible since otherwise we would see one another less often than before. I usually had to work at the grocery store on weekends now, often on weekend evenings. Sometimes Frankie would stop in. He had made a point to find out where I worked. He’d come to my cash register with a small purchase that he obviously didn’t really need and start making suggestive remarks about our getting together again until I would chase him off with an assertive “No!”
So even though dating became more difficult now, Jim and I were saving money in addition to paying for college, and the farm work continued on track with the fulltime help of Javier Ramirez, plus occasional part-timers working mostly during the harvest periods.
By the time we were well into our sophomore year of college, however, it became increasingly clear to me that Jim would never be able to replace himself with hired labor and still be able to keep the farm going at an acceptable level of performance while we were both at the university in Morgantown. And even if he could arrange the labor, it would cost too much. He simply worked too many hours to convert them into a hired labor expense that we could afford. In order to support his mom and sister and still have a farm with which we could start our married life, somehow he would have to stay in Locust Hill. But, practical though he was, he wasn’t yet ready to admit this fact to himself.
However, I had an idea. One Sunday evening while we were resting in the living room after dinner, I presented it to him.
“Jim, I think we should consider a change in our college plans.”
“Really?” he asked apprehensively. “What do you have in mind?”
“Suppose, just suppose for a moment, that instead of going off to Morgantown next year, we went to Marietta College instead.” I’d been thinking over this possibility for a while and so anticipated what he was going to say next.
His disagreement immediately burst out. “But Marietta College is way too expensive for us, Cassie. Our in-state tuition at WVU is almost nothing at all by comparison.” He was almost in shock at my idea.
“True, Marietta College is expensive compared to WVU, but it’s also close. And no room and board are needed. We can commute instead. You can still work the farm. I can help, and I can still get hours at the grocery store. So, we’d still have two incomes and have a net gain instead of a loss of revenue.”
Now he pursed his lips in thought, narrowed his eyes, and said to me, “So are you thinking the net difference would help us financially, is that it?”
“Absolutely, because we also have to think of the money we’d lose by being away from the farm for nine months of the year over the next two years and paying someone else to keep it going, not just the difference in tuition cost.”
“But does Marietta College offer a degree in botany?”
“No, but you can get a degree in biology there. Wouldn’t that work? And I can still get a degree in accounting.”
Now he twisted his lips in a different direction. He’d had his heart set on a botany degree from WVU for so long that this proposed change was awfully hard for him to accept. “Biology, huh? Maybe. Not as targeted as botany, however.”
“Agreed, but for farming botany is not as good as an ag-science degree, which, around here, you could also only get at WVU, but that’s not what you want either. Couldn’t you make a biology degree work? Life’s not a perfectly straight line after all, as Mr. Ames used to say. Seems to me my idea would solve a lot of problems. If we scheduled our classes carefully, we could travel together; possibly even avoid traveling to Marietta some days all together, save on gasoline, and most of all we could keep the farm going at least at the current level of income.”
“You’ve really been thinking about this a lot, haven’t you?” He seemed to be warming to the idea. “Sounds like you have an air-tight argument there, don’t you?”
“And you thought I was just a sturdy fertility goddess!”
“No, no, not just that!” he was laughing now. “Remember, I also said that you’re a great partner. And this idea, I believe, proves once again that you really are.” With that concession I also received a tight embrace and a big kiss.
“Oh, and one more little thing, Farm Boy . . . ,” I said as I push him back a bit after kissing him again.
“Oh, and what’s that, City Girl?”
“By making this change, we could get married this summer, two years earlier than we originally planned. What do you think of that?”
He sat back, twisted his mouth again, this time in many different directions, first one way and then another, before all this facial motion resolved into a smile. “You’re right again, City Girl. Why not! That would make both farm work and travel even easier for us. Four people used to live in this house, and not that long ago; four could live here again! Mom could take my room and we could take hers. I’m sure she’d agree to that.”
Now it would have been nice to hear him also say, Oh Cassie, yes, of course you’re right. We should get married as soon as possible because I just can’t live without you any longer! By this time, however, I knew that such an emotional reaction from my practical farm boy was unlikely, but I also knew that its absence didn’t mean he loved me any the less.
And in fact, his mom did agree to the change of plans, enthusiastically, including the room swap idea.
As for my parents, my idea of a summer wedding in a Catholic church to a poor farm boy, an event they already dreaded, now moved up by two years from the original plan—well, by now Mom was numb, so this news didn’t really change her that much. She had long ago resigned herself to the worst possible fate for me. This time it was Dad who was fearful, to the point of trepidation, because he now referred everything that happened to the continuously declining state of the factories on the South Side. He believed that economic disaster was just around the corner for the town and, therefore, for all of us. It was as though he had forgotten all that Jim had told him about our plans, that an economic decline would make property values go down and land easier to acquire. But no silver linings for Dad; all skies were now forever gloomy, and lightning was flashing ominously on the horizon.
When I called my brother Eric to tell him, he was mildly surprised at the change, maybe even miffed a bit that I was marrying before he would, but he vowed once again to come home to meet Jim, something he hadn’t bothered to do the previous summer. And still, there was no mention of our getting a chance to meet his fiancée Donna. We hadn’t even seen a picture of her, and I told him that I was even beginning to doubt her actual existence.
In the end, I treated my family’s mixed reactions the same as if they were giving me their unanimous approval and went on with my life.
Jim and I set our wedding for mid-June, just after the end of the spring term. By now we were prepared to enter Marietta College in the fall, pending completion of our last semester at the local WVU campus. So now I began devoting time to prepare for the wedding.
First, I made an appointment with Lettie Brown’s mother, Marjorie, the best seamstress in town, to have my wedding gown made. Mrs. Marjorie Brown was a very plain, sparrow-thin woman with her hair cropped close around her head. Maintaining a stern demeanor most of the time, she looked nothing like her garrulous, outgoing, and very pretty daughter. But on my first visit to her tiny shop on Sixth Street, where I had to park under the B&O train trestle that divided the street, Mrs. Brown was delighted to learn that I knew her daughter; she even smiled. And thereafter every time I came to her little shop for measurements and repeatedly thereafter for fittings, she fussed over me as though I were her own daughter. Occasionally, Lettie was also there helping her mother. On those occasions Lettie and I would reminisce and gossip about our mutual friends and our high school days while her mom would circle me, diligently measuring, marking, and pinning. Within three weeks Mrs. Brown had created exactly the dress I wanted—one that made me look just a bit taller than I really am, with a skirt that barely brushed the floor when I wore heels, a neckline that plunged sufficiently to create interest but still allowed me a degree of modesty, and all of it made of a supple, silky material spangled with the most realistic velvet red roses and green rose leaves.
“Well, Cassie, I think your farmer man is goin’ to love seein’ you in this dress—and so will everyone else!” Mrs. Brown exclaimed at the last fitting. And she was right. The dress would be a sensation!
I also got busy inviting my girlfriends from school, some of whom responded with “You’re marrying who? Jim? Jim Russell? I don’t remember any Jim Russell. . . . Oh, you mean the farm boy! Now I remember, the one from Locust Hill. But, Cassie, are you really going to marry him and live on a farm?” I was tolerant of their responses. After all, just two years ago, I would have responded exactly the same way if one of them were marrying a farmer.
In all, five of my girlfriends attended our wedding, two serving as my bridesmaids, one of them Lettie. Also, both sets of my grandparents attended, my father’s parents travelling down from central Pennsylvania. And finally—a near miracle—Eric and Donna came from Maryland. Donna, it turned out, was real after all—a rather chunky brunette (Jim quickly labeled her “sturdy” too) who talked in quick, clipped sentences that didn’t invite much response. Eric was now selling advertising for the newspaper for which Donna’s father was the editor-in-chief. Finally, even my mom agreed to enter St. Benedict’s and had to concede later, albeit grudgingly, that the church made a beautiful setting for the wedding service and that Jim and I made a wonderful couple. For me, that was one of the most satisfying moments of a thoroughly wonderful day.
On Jim’s side, in addition to his mom and Sandie, his Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn attended, plus a crowd of families from Locust Hill—in particular, all of the Cunningham and Lowery and Ramirez families. Jim joked that the Lowerys were only there to scope out a potential rival clan in the making and referred once again to my role as a fertility goddess. Wanda and her most recent boyfriend (she turned them like a speed reader turns pages in a book) were there as well. I don’t remember her boyfriend’s name, but no matter! Javier Ramirez served as Jim’s best man for he had by now become his best friend. With his Latin features and polite manners, Javier always charmed those around him. On this day he did so again. Quite spiffy he and Jim were in their white jackets, black bow ties, and black trousers. In total, we had about sixty guests, the great majority of them on the groom’s side of the nave.
Before the service began, our church organist played the piano and Torre Valle, the boy with the towering pompadour, the son of Giovanna Marino and stepson of her husband Panfilo, sang “Because You’re Mine” and “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” giving his best imitation of Mario Lanza. Later, as Jim and I knelt at the altar before Father Richter, Torre moved to the choir loft from which he sang a very tender Ave.
Since my father was not familiar with St. Benedict’s, he was probably more nervous than I when the first chords of the wedding march sounded from the organ and we processed down the nave toward Jim and Javier, both of whom looked especially handsome, standing so patiently and erect.
After my father and I navigated the aisle, Jim took me by the hand and we knelt on plump red velvet cushions during Torre’s Ave. Father Richter then conducted the marriage ceremony, probably with great relief after all that he had heard from Jim and me in our confessions (which we were careful to coordinate) and perhaps the more that he suspected but didn’t hear from us. Finally, after the vows, Father Richter’s pronouncement and blessing, and the kiss—we recessed to the music of Mouret’s Rondeau.
Next came a sufficiently rowdy reception in the St. Benedict’s rec-hall, at which Lettie had arranged to have the Wildcats play. After the reception we drove to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs for our honeymoon—two days and two nights, which was really a bit more than we could afford, although I thought that two days at the Greenbrier were better than two weeks anywhere else. Besides, Jim insisted that we honeymoon in West Virginia. (I think he was trying to compensate for going to Marietta College instead of WVU!) Since we weren’t golfers, we skipped the famed golf course and mostly walked the Greenbrier’s scenic grounds, bathed in its hot mineral waters, ate elegant meals in its restaurants, and loved passionately and then slept soundly in one of its luxurious beds. We gave ourselves to each other there for the first time without the constraints and discomforts of our hay bale trysts, and no triangle clanged there to curtail our passion.
On Monday afternoon we drove back to Locust Hill, irreversibly partners now in whatever life might bring our way. On Tuesday morning we were both back at work on the farm, now sporting gold wedding bands and big smiles.
Latest posts by Carl Parsons (see all)
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-I - March 5, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter X - February 9, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter IX - January 8, 2023