I was up early mowing everything that grew as part of our lawn—choke weed, dandelions, stink bombs, and seedlings from the Manitoba maples that lined our street—when the moving van pulled up in front of the house across from ours. The place had been vacant since the winter. Mr. Luoto had died there the day after Christmas leaving it not only vacant but the topic of every conversation amongst the neighbors. Everybody was so concerned about poor old man Luoto and his house.
“Dead ten days already before anybody even noticed. Poor Mr. Luoto had nobody. Poor Mr. Luoto, not a soul on this earth who cared about him. Can you imagine? How awful.”
I didn’t have much sympathy for Mr. Luoto. I thought he stank. He was a mean, old coot who hated kids, dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and anything that breathed. He walked around the neighborhood snarling at the world and everything in it. I heard he had a wife and a kid once but they fled one afternoon while he was at work, taking all the furniture and the family dog. As far as I was concerned Mr. Luoto’s death improved the neighborhood. Mr. Luoto’s house was just like everyone else’s on the street. Built around the Second World War for vets as incentive to breed large, happy families who slurped Campbell’s soup from Melmac bowls and watched Bonanza on Sunday nights. Or perhaps they were some misguided token of appreciation for having endured the horrors of war. I don’t know for sure. Anyway, the ‘wartime houses’ weren’t much of a prize but they were affordable and allowed my father to become a homeowner on an income that was modest and made even more so by his weakness for red wine and vodka with a whisper of orange juice and other demons. I was always a little embarrassed by the look of the neighborhood. It wasn’t exactly the wrong side of the tracks, but it wasn’t the right side either. I envied my school friends, who lived in the new subdivision two streets behind ours with fathers who wore ties to work and mothers who golfed with their friends on Wednesday afternoons. Some of their mother’s even worked as nurses and teachers or at Eaton’s selling lingerie and perfume. Those were the ones I was most in awe of because they dressed so nice and always smelled like Chanel No. , no matter how hard they had worked that day or how hot it was outside. Mind you, how much of a sweat could you work up folding and refolding underwear in an air-conditioned store all day? The truth is, it wasn’t that the families from Glenn Park were a whole lot richer than we were; they just looked it. Not all of the fathers wore ties to work either—a lot of them worked in the elevators shoveling grain or at the Abitibi Mill slopping pulp but somehow between selling perfume and slopping pulp they were able to live in a neighborhood that put them at least one notch above ours. And that was just enough for me to be self-conscious when any of them came over to our house and saw that we didn’t have wall-to-wall burnt orange or avocado shag carpets or a picture window in the living room. Ours wasn’t a tidy three-bedroom rancher with attached garage, basketball hoop and paved driveway. Ours was one of those blue-collar houses from “that wartime neighborhood.”There’s nothing like the snobbery of the middle class.
Early that spring (around the time both John and Paul got married and Jim Morrison was charged with a total of six counts of “lewd behavior” at a Doors concert in Miami) there was a flurry of activity as the builders, painters, plumbers and electricians took over old man Luoto’s house. Day after day they came, putting up new walls, replacing the roof and all the windows, adding on here, tearing down there. And then one day, as if by magic, Mr. Luoto’s house was transformed into a quaint, New England Cape Cod—a page right out of Better Homes and Gardens— completely ruining the monotone uniformity of the street. And then suddenly poor old Mr. Luoto wasn’t so poor anymore with his “hoity toity, who does he think he is?” new house. About an hour after the movers left, a black Cadillac pulled up in front of Mr. Luoto’s house. I had never seen a car like that in our neighborhood before, at least not parked and looking like it might stay. She sized me up from the back seat of the car like some teenage movie star, kind of like Hayley Mills or Marsha from the Brady Bunch. And I looked at her with the ignorant curiosity of a small town girl who had never been further than Duluth in the back seat of her father’s fifty-nine Ford with the rust on the fenders and cigarette burns on the driver’s seat.
She smiled at me first and I was obliged to smile back. And that was it.
She was pale and interesting looking, the complete opposite of me. Despite minor skin eruptions, I was actually feeling pretty good about the way I looked until she showed up. Next to her I looked over-cooked like Mrs. Korkala’s Finnish rye bread. Anyway, I was all excited inside about her sudden appearance because I had been anticipating something incredible happening that summer and as soon as I saw her I knew it had something to do with her. I don’t know, maybe it was watching all the reconstruction going on across the street; or my sixth sense was at work, but I just had this feeling in my gut that this summer it would be different. There would be something besides cutting grass, fighting with Harold and looking after my kid sister, Danny.
She got out of the car first and approached me as though we were old friends. There was nothing of the teenage awkwardness in her walk, not a bit of hesitation or shyness. Her fine blonde hair was cut in one of those fashionable pageboy styles I saw in the March issue of Seventeen magazine. She had sea green eyes with flecks of gold that reminded me of cat’s eye crockers, the oversized marbles, that we played with in the spring when the snow was just starting to melt and we could shoot without our gloves on. They stood out because her skin was so shockingly pale, almost as if it wasn’t there at all, like she had no face, just these big eyes. She was tall and thin and elegant like Twiggy. Next to her I felt very short, over-weight and too dark in my cut-off shorts and ripped tee shirt. She stared at me for what seemed like eternity while I, paralyzed by inadequacy, inferiority and my obvious lack of fashion sense no matter how many issues of Seventeen I had read, was unable to do anything but gawk back. And that’s when she started talking to me about the youths in Asia. As if I cared.
“What?” I asked, rolling my eyes in opposite directions and crossing them at my nose. This was a bad habit (or talent, depending on your perspective)—an automatic reaction to totally insane things like that.
She started to howl like I was the crazy one. As if things weren’t awkward enough, then she goes and makes it even more uncomfortable by laughing at nothing. I wanted to pull up the grass and crawl under but instead I started to yuk it up too. At what, I hadn’t a clue.
“That’s pretty far-out,” she said catching her breath. “Far-out?”
“That bizarre thing you do with your eyes.” “Yeah, well. It’s a gift,” I said, lowering my eyes just in case I started to roll them again. Sometimes I couldn’t control it and looking into those alley-eyes of hers was too intense especially when she was making such a big deal about mine.
“Quite the talent. I’m Beth Luoto, by the way,” she said, taking my hand and shaking it. I didn’t know which was weirder, her having the same name as old man Luoto or her shaking my hand. The only people I knew who shook hands were old like my parents. “I’m Jo. Jo Fasano,” I stammered. She was still pumping away at my hand, which was starting to make me nervous. What did she think I was—a well? “Interesting name,” she said, releasing my hand finally and crossing her arms over her flat chest. “Is that Italian?”
“Sorta,” she mimicked. “Is that like sorta pregnant?”
“It is,” I stammered, suddenly feeling defensive about my heritage and wondering why it even mattered. Why give someone the third degree over a name? Further proof that she was a certifiable loon and I should run for my life. “Italian I mean. Not pregnant. My grandparents were from Italy. But we’re all Canadian now eh.” “I’m American huh. I was born in New York. There were lots of Italians there. Not a lot of Finns so my parents left. Actually that’s not true but it sounds good. That’s just where they were when they had me. They were visiting, you know like tourists—right at the top of the Empire State Building my mother goes into labor, seven weeks early. So I ended up being born there but we’re actually from Minneapolis. Talk about your colossal bore.”
“I’d give anything to be in New York right now. Broadway. Off-Broadway. Off-Off-Broadway. Who cares? Just so long as it’s the theater and I’m not stuck in this God-forsaken place.”
“I guess you’re a little ways from New York up here eh,” I said like a total moron.
“Oh please I’m a million miles away from everything up here. I might as well be on the moon. This is worse than Minneapolis and things can’t get much worse than that. Trust me.”
“I almost went to Minneapolis once. When I was eight. Our car broke down just outside of Duluth. By the time we got it fixed my father was so cheesed off he turned the car around and that was the end of our trip to Minneapolis. I was real disappointed too because I was really looking forward to seeing a big city eh?” “You should see New York. I’m going to be a super famous actress some day. I’ve already got my stage name picked out and everything. Elizabeth Evans. Whadoya think?”
“It’s okay I guess. What’s wrong with your real name?”
“Everything. Tell me who sounds more like a movie star?
Bernard Schwartz or Tony Curtis?”
“Is this some kind of test?” I asked.
“No test,” she laughed, “just answer the question. I want to know what you think.”
“Okay then, Tony Curtis sounds better,” I answered, confident that I had gotten the right answer just like a contestant on Jeopardy.
“And who sounds sexier Roy Scherer Junior or Rock Hudson?”
“Rock Hudson,” I answered, “but Rock is kinda stupid.”
“And do you think John Wayne could have pulled off all those Westerns if he’d stayed a Marion Morrison?”
“I never thought about it before. I guess you’re right. But those were all wimpy names and yours is kinda nice.”
“Nice? I’m not going for nice. I mean you have to have the right name to be a star. It’s all part of your image. Tell me who would pay to see Elsbeth Luoto?”
“I don’t know. No one I guess,” I said, but inside I was thinking— me. I would go see a movie with her in it, no matter what her name was. In a New York minute I would have even traveled to Off-Off-Broadway to see her perform.
“Precisely. But Elizabeth Evans, now that’s a groovy movie star name.”
“I get it,” I said. The truth is I didn’t get it but then I was never all that big on movie stars anyway. It was obviously very important to her though. And already, just minutes after meeting her I knew somewhere deep inside of me that whatever was important to Beth was going to be important to me.
“Remember it Jo-Jo Fasano. ’Cause one day you’re going to see me in all the movie magazines, right next to Robert Redford and Paul Newman. I’m going to be famous, more famous than Elizabeth Taylor even,” she laughed as she rolled back onto the sweet smelling grass. She crossed her legs at the ankles, cradled her arms behind her head and gazed upwards as if this dream of hers was painted across the endless blue sky. That’s how large it was. Not sure what to do, I dropped the rake I had been clutching and flopped down beside her. An outsider would have thought that we were two old friends who knew each other forever. Just think, me lying on the grass next to someone more famous than Elizabeth
Taylor. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
“So you’re related to old man, I mean Mr. Luoto?” I asked after we had been lying there for awhile staring up at the sky.
“Old man Luoto was my grandfather,” she answered.
“Sorry eh. I mean for calling him old man Luoto like that and that he’s dead.” I could hear the idiotic words pouring out of my mouth; tripping over themselves with the grace of an elephant, yet for some reason I was powerless to stop them. It was like my mouth took on a life of its own, completely disconnected from the rest of me.
“Don’t be. On both counts. I never knew the man, didn’t even know I had a grandfather until he died. The only thing my father ever said about his childhood was that he was born in Canada. He’s not the kind of guy you ask questions of, and the truth is, I’ve never been all that interested in anything he had to say anyway, so even if he did talk about it I probably wasn’t listening. Six months ago if you had said I would be living up in the middle of Nowhereville I’d have laughed right in your face. And look at me now.”
“So are you movin’ in there?”
“Uh-huh. I still can’t believe it. My father accepted a position at the university after the old coot left him the house and a ton of money he had stashed away that no one knew about. For some inexplicable reason, that only my father and his shrink understand for sure, we had to move into this house. He’s absolutely obsessed with this place. He didn’t even want to fix it up but my mother drew the line on that point. The place was unlivable, not to mention that he died in there for God’s sake. It’s just too weird.”
“Wow! That is weird eh. Do you think you’ll stay?
“Not on your life. The first chance I get I’m off to New York to study acting. My parents can stay here and figure this psychodrama out on their own. One way or the other I’m out of here.”
“What about the youths in Asia?” I asked.
“Huh?” she gave me this look—akin to my eye-rolling thing, only more like she thought I was nuts.
“You asked me what I thought of the youths in Asia,”
I explained. “I thought maybe you were thinking of going there.” I struggled to make sense of our conversation and desperately tried to impress her with my worldly knowledge, which was obviously non-existent. The second I opened my dumb, hick mouth though I knew I had said something so idiotic even a monkey would have been more eloquent.
“Huh? Who said anything about Asia? I deplore the place. I said euthanasia. Look that up in your Funk & Wagnall’s Jo-Jo Fasano.”