|I'm Sorry I Was Tardy, Jack
© Copyright 2002 by Judith Nakken
Today, I made Eggs a la Goldenrod for my husband. He loves the dish and thanked me profusely for the tasty white sauce in which the chopped egg swims. As I often do these days, I went to the word processor and wrote a fan letter. It went to the daughter of the woman who taught my 4-H class fifty years ago.
Remembering your mama, I wrote, and how she taught us to make Goldenrod Eggs.
I was never been able to pander to the famous. Or infamous, for that matter. Rarely could I force myself to stand in line to thank a speaker for his time and his thoughts, even when I was exceptionally grateful for them both. And on the rare occasion when I did this, I’d see that the celebrity’s ears were reverberating with all the I-me-mys he’d been forced to smile at and listen to while the line inched slowly forward. I knew my thanks were going to fall on his anxious-to-retreat and deafened brain, anyway, so I usually didn’t get in the line.
I’ve been like this forever. I only asked for one autograph until I was fifty years old. I collected two, but one of them I stole.
Did you ask whose autographs? Estes Kefauver, the one I asked for and received from that polite, ebullient gentleman. How I admired him and his fearless Crime Commission. Oh, I applauded his race to win the Democratic nomination in ‘52. That was the year of Estes, Adlai and Averill. The Democrats were going to get a nominee with an interesting given name, although he’d never, never be president unless that name was Dwight.
Foregone it was that Ike would be president if he decided to run. When he chose to run on the Republican ticket, it seemed that the heart leached out of the donkey’s party. Adlai Stevenson, that grand old statesman, took the nomination by attrition. My guy, Estes, faded from the news.
I have never read a biography of the senator. I don’t want to learn that he may have had three mistresses or illegitimate children or was allergic to his coonskin cap. He was the political hero of my very young womanhood and is still sacrosanct there, even if I never told him.
There was another autograph in my early years? Yes. Richard Armour’s. I photocopied it from the back of a Saturday Evening Post check. It was endorsed to a service station near Scripps College in Southern California, where he taught in the early ‘60’s. I was amazed that my light verse hero got small dollars for his work, and that he would endorse anything so splendid as a check from a magazine to buy gasoline. But he did, and it came to me, as bookkeeper, in the cash receipts from our battery route salesman.
Who was Richard Armour? (Maybe I can even say who IS he? I’m ashamed to tell that I don’t know at this writing if he’s living or dead.) Richard Armour was the king of the snappy, rhymed short stuff you never forget. Stuff like:
Although I’m not sure he wrote that, and I have no permission to reprint it! How I admired him, his nonsense in print all the time, being paid for it an extra bonus. Finding out he got checks as little as $5.65 was disheartening. But, the minimum wage was then about $1.25 per hour, and how long could it take to write those three words and their title?
Nearly thirty years and much mellowing later, I asked for another autograph. Stood in line, in fact, behind about twenty boys of all ages and sizes to get near Wilt Chamberlain. He was stretched out in two or three box seats in the old Salt Palace, watching the Jazz play the Lakers. Retired for years by then, he was polite and obliging to all. He gave me a "thank you, ma’am," when I used my time to babble that I was sure I was the only person in the line who’d admired and followed him since his college basketball days!
I didn’t have to read Wilt’s biography late in the 20th century. It was the source material for every comedian’s monologue during its fifteen allotted minutes of fame. I didn’t want to hear about his ten thousand women, any more than I wanted to read about them. I guess being the NBA’s most decorated center, revered by pro basketball fans in two generations, wasn’t enough to sell books.
I have Wilt’s autograph on a Jazz program. His soft voice is imprinted on my memory. I get gooseflesh when I watch his innovative play of the game on infrequent NBA retrospectives. It’s enough for me, these memories of a basketball hero. But I didn’t tell him how much his play of the game had thrilled me, when I reached the head of the line. What did I talk about? Me.
Who’s Jack Finney? How and why was I late? I had an ongoing love affair with his work for years, and he wrote one of my five favorite novels, Time and Again. It was an alternate Book-of-the-Month selection in the early 1970’s.
Several years before the book, I was devouring a magazine under the dryer in a beauty shop. I always needed a fiction fix under the dryer, on the john, at stoplights. In my hurry to partake I was often indiscriminate in material selection.
Thus is happened that, just as it registered that ‘this guy writes real good,’ I arrived at that awful line. You know the one. Continued next issue. I had missed Part One of.... in my anxiety to start reading Five Against The House, by Jack Finney. The magazine was many moons old.
Imagine, if you will, in the age when reading for recreation was becoming passe’, my search of every stack of magazines in the shop, only to find no more installments. The well-coifed but unread didn’t understand why I was so frantic. I asked for the magazine that contained Part I and the cosmetician gave it to me gladly, grateful that I would go quietly. There would be an address to get back issues in the pages I clutched to my bosom all the way to the parking lot, but I wanted to finish the story now.
And I did, by casually dropping in on stay-at-home neighbor women on my Southern California street. "Hello. I’m your neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac. Do you take Good Housekeeping?" Lahoma Lewis gave me a stack of back issues that evening. The Finney read was superb.
A box of paperbacks yielded The Body Snatchers. You know how it is when a compulsive reader is getting a fix? Titles and authors are a blur. If the cover didn’t have a haunted-looking house and a fragile woman in flowing garments, I’d just snatch it up on my way to the privy. A few pages into this little science fiction book, its memorable phrasing and great plot points made me stop and look back for the author’s name. Jack Finney.
Husband driving while I read a magazine, in the 1975 midwestern countryside. Was it a new Saturday Evening Post? The article I Remember Galesburg tugged at familiar heartstrings. I’d already read past the "continued on," and had to go back to the front of the magazine. Yep, Jack Finney.
My connection to Finney continued. The tail end of a lingering illness and a nearly empty container of garage sale paperbacks were on my plate the next time. The battered cardboard box’s contents were reduced to a Pulitzer winner I’d never been able to finish, Tom Robbins’ sweet Even Cowgirls Get The Blues which I knew by heart, and three Gothics. I chose the least offensive cover on one of the three and began my read.
"Not half bad," I thought at page 10, seconds later. "Hmmm?" I thought at page 20, and turned back to the despised cover, still contemptuous of its house and heroine. Its name escapes me today. Its author continued to haunt me. Jack Finney. I began to think I should write him a fan letter in care of the publisher of Time and Again. I thought of doing so a couple of times a year.
Assault on a Queen was kind of Five Against The House at sea, discovered in hard cover at the used book store and purchased purposely because Finney was its author. Suspenseful and thrilling to the end, it didn’t disillusion me. This man was my kind of writer. I really should get that fan letter written, thought I.
There was a short story in a mystery magazine when the car was being lubed, some years later. It grabbed me quickly in the old familiar way, and I turned immediately back to the title page. I hadn’t run into him for a while.
Jack Sharkey was the author. Sharkey? Finney? This had to be my boy, novelist using a sly pseudonym for submission to the pulps. I added a line to the fan letter that lay composed in my head, asking him if he was Sharkey.
The Arts and Entertainment section of the local paper, in the summer of 1995, told of Jack Finney’s long-awaited sequel to his novel, Time and Again. Called From Time to Time, it had just been published. I called my local independent bookstore and ordered a copy.
I finally sat at the typewriter and wrote two pages to Jack Finney. I thanked him for the reading joy he’d brought into my life. The words flowed onto the page as I told him of the chance meetings I’d had with his work over the past thirty years. I’d get the current publisher’s address when the book arrived and mail the long overdue fan letter.
Dale picked up From Time To Time for me a couple of weeks later, and brought it home with a big grin on his face. "It sure doesn’t take much to make you happy!" he said as he handed it to me. "Twelve dollars in paperback!" The fan letter was typed on my finest bond paper, waiting only for the envelope to be addressed. I looked on the back cover of the new book.
Published by Scribner Paperback Fiction, it said. Jack Finney is the author of more than a dozen books, it informed me. He died in 1995.
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