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The Man Who Would Be Frank Sinatra
Ralph Bland

   I don’t know what it was that possessed me all that summer. Each and every Saturday night during those hot Nashville months I found myself compelled to load up my car with lawn chairs and a mini-cooler complete with bottled water and Dr. Pepper and my wife and I would venture out to the bandstand at Centennial Park on the west side of town to sit under the  moon and stars and watch a representative array of the city’s denizens dance to a swing band and the music of six and a half decades previous for three hours until the park closed down for the night. It wasn’t anything I was going to die over if I missed it and I didn’t spend the expanse of the work week holding my breath in anticipation of its arrival, but by late afternoon on those Saturdays I’d know already there was nothing else I wanted to do but load up the car and head that way. There was nothing on television or sporting events or backyard barbecues or anything to speak of that beckoned to me quite like those Saturday nights of Big Band music in the park.

On the night I remember most, the day it belonged to, fading then, had been bright and green and blue and sunshine orange. If you could have ordered up a perfect summer night this would have been it. There was a breeze filled with magic and laughter and whispered songs, and what clouds there were floated and drifted like cottony wisps above everyone’s head. The people streamed in to the park from swimming pools and baseball fields and yoga classes at the YMCA and golf courses at the clubs, came in with their blankets and mesh chairs and coolers with water and soda and sometimes wine once the darkness sheltered them from view, and the legions of children chased each other, and the dogs on leashes barked and wagged their tails because they too had been included in this scene. I looked at them all from my seat just to the right of the bandstand and somehow knew this was that sort of summer day when the sunset was truly and magnificently altogether eternal.

The band members began arriving and setting up the bandstand with instruments and microphones and sound equipment. A recording of Benny Goodman and his orchestra played “Sing, Sing, Sing!” over the speakers and a portion of the gathering crowd began to stand and greet each other and look around, stretching their legs like runners before a marathon. We saw the couple who always danced in one spot claiming their area in the audience with their dilapidated Dollar General lawn chairs with their last names etched across the backs in permanent marker, as if somebody would actually be desperate enough to want to steal these cheap pieces of crap while the two of them rocked back and forth in their one tiny place on the floor without ever moving forward or sideways or back. Each and every week they caught my eye, and a part of me wanted to make up a life for them to inhabit, to create an existence for the two of them that would make their presence on this earth worthwhile, but in the end I found my eyes seeking out someone or something else. It was as if there was something in me that knew there was not enough imagination in this world to ever add substance or color to these two sad people who stayed in their box.

My wife sat beside me playing the same imaginary game I did while more people arrived. She was quick to point out the lady who always showed up in period costume, with bobby sox and dresses straight from the time. Her husband dutifully led her and spun her around the floor, their arms pointed up to the heavens, then down, as if the steps and movements they made on these Saturday nights were the most important things in the universe. My wife had named these dancers Sybil and Hugh, and every week she invented a new chapter in their story. Most of the time I was amused, for my wife was far more imaginative than I, but on this particular night I did not laugh. I didn’t much care what was going on in the lives of Sybil and Hugh. It was a funny kind of mood I was in.

I was watching a solitary woman dance without a partner. The band was playing “Teach Me Tonight” and she was swaying along in a sensual rumba, but there was no one with her that I could see. Her partner who was also her lover was invisible to all but her. She wasn’t a bad looking woman, perhaps forty, with frizzed blond hair that reminded me of Carole King, and I guessed it would have been easy enough for her to find a real partner if that was what she wanted, but her eyes were closed and a smile was on her face, and her body - still hanging in there, it appeared to my eyes- lilted and moved to the rhythm without the need of anyone’s help.

I couldn’t help but wonder what her story was.

The music stopped and the bandleader approached the microphone.

“We struck it lucky tonight,” he told the audience. “I got a call this afternoon from an old buddy of mine who was passing through town. He didn’t know if we had a gig this evening or not, but when he found out we were playing here he all but busted a gut volunteering to help us out, and, folks, I couldn’t have asked for a better man to fill the job. Ladies and gentlemen, here to sing a few songs for us tonight, all the way from the windy city of Chicago, I give you Mr. Ray Richardson.”

You just didn’t see that many old guys in tuxedos in Nashville parks on simmering Saturday nights, but Ray Richardson, all sixty or so years of him, strolled to the microphone at the front of the band like he’d been born in one. He looked down at the mike, then clutched it in his hand like an old friend, checking the cord to see how much play it had in it. Not a hint of perspiration glistened on his thinning forehead, and as the band started the introduction to “Fly Me to the Moon” Ray Richardson began snapping his fingers and urging the instrumentalists on. When it was time for him to sing he never missed a beat. I could tell. I knew the song. I knew the arrangement. It was pure Sinatra, all the way. And standing at the front of the band, waving his hand, pointing his finger to the heavens, stomping his black patent leather dress shoes, singing for all he was worth, was Ray Richardson of Chicago, the man who figured Sinatra was dead and he was the guy who might as well take his place.

To be honest, he wasn’t that good, but there was no one in the park who could have convinced him of that. As far as he could tell, he was great.

He sang four songs before returning to the shadows of the audience, and then the band went into a Glenn Miller set. With the opening bars of “In the Mood” the floor became tangled with dancers, kids from the city’s private schools trying out the wild gyrations they’d mastered learning Swing Dance, all athletic twirls and dips and hops and jumps, the older couples surrounding them, searching for a night’s joy from dances gone by, homosexual sons dancing with their mothers, fathers dancing with their daughters.

“Look at that guy,” my wife said. “He’s disgusting. Talk about a cradle robber.”

The man in question had a ball cap pulled low across his forehead and wore jeans and a red tee shirt tucked in so tight I wondered how he could exhale, but this didn’t stop him from honing in on every group of females- preferably those forty years his junior- and asking them to dance. This was not a new sight to me; I’d seen this Lothario in action lots of Saturday nights previous. I was just surprised my wife hadn’t noticed this guy before along with everything else. Usually she never missed a beat.

The old guy didn’t bother me that much. I had to at least give him credit for effort. He wasn’t afraid. And he had good taste in chicks too. I never saw him dancing with a dog. I don’t know if he ever got completely lucky or not, but it wasn’t like he didn’t lay his money down and try. It was more than I ever could have said for myself.
I’d forgotten how to try that hard.

She was maybe twenty yards away when I saw her. There wasn’t any doubt it was her, even if thirty plus years had passed since I’d laid eyes on her, and it had probably also been close to that long since I’d even given her a thought. It was as if she’d died back then when there had been no more usefulness or room for her in my world. So had I been for a goodly portion of my life, believing that outside of my own vision and sensibilities there was no existence of any importance for anyone.

Sherry Cole was the first hippie girl I ever truly encountered. She wore her hair in an Afro and favored army jackets and carried her books around in a canvas backpack. She wore wire-rimmed glasses like John Lennon and read Carlos Castenada and was always ready to share a number or a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine. Of all the girls I knew at college back then, Sherry was the coolest and the hippest. And she was a good old English major, just like me.

The only problem Sherry had was she just wasn’t very pretty.

It wasn’t like she was difficult to look at. That wasn’t it at all. It was just she was plain and she tended to blend in with whatever was around wherever she was. It was like you looked at her and you were looking at a wall with no pictures on it. There was nothing offensive about it- it was just there was nothing much to see.

One night a bunch of us went in mass to hear some up and coming protest singer perform his songs of indignation about the war in Southeast Asia and Richard Nixon and an overall lack of sexual activity in his personal life, and along the way the wine got uncapped and the grass got rolled and we all imbibed and inhaled, and on that spring evening with the moon and the stars in full view Sherry Cole suddenly didn’t look so plain or non-descript to me anymore. We listened to some songs and our eyes met and we stole away just like that so our lips and hands could follow suit, and for one night we were together and passion and poetry ruled for a brief time.

But I could only stay drunk and high for so long. By the next day I had to take great strides to avoid Sherry Cole, for I was young and full of dreams, and it would not do for me to acquaint myself with someone so much plainer and ordinary and nowhere near as wonderful as I imagined myself to be.

I could have gone over then and spoke and acted as if everything had always been fine between us, but Sherry was with some other man- probably her husband- and he was as old as me and plain and uninteresting like this woman beside him, and so it would be a waste of time for all of us, he and I, the past, the present, she and I, the murky mystery of who we’d been in those days and what we’d done and what, if anything, we’d received from each other, of my wife and me, our present, our future composed of these Saturday nights in the park creating lives for the strangers who stumbled and strolled and danced across our sight.

I sat in my lawn chair and did what I’d saw fit to do for three and a half decades. I categorized old Sherry as a non-entity and excluded her from my thoughts. I made her dead all over again. This was the easiest path for everyone to take.

In a little while the scene, as it was prone to do on those nights after an hour or so, became stale and predictable and offered nothing new for our imaginations to conjure, so we folded up our chairs and walked back to our car parked out on the street. As we passed the corner of the building behind the bandstand Ray Richardson, his tuxedo tie undone, puffed on a cigarette and talked to a long lean woman in a tight yellow dress. He leaned against the wall and grinned through the cigarette smoke. He was about as ring-a-ding-ding as a fellow could be.

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