Purple Manta Ray: Death of a Playboy
The other night I heard Paul Mauriat’s 1968 hit “Love Is Blue.” It’s forever associated with my childhood bedroom where I’d notate the weekly Top 40 while building model cars like this one, the purple Manta Ray, the only one I ever photographed.
My friend Paul’s father, who worked at the Ford plant just down US 1, always wore neatly ironed, striped linen shirts & combed his hair after his shower like he was in a rockabilly band, & maybe he had been. Like a young Frank Gorshin, with a smile sharp as a blade & stinking of a brisk splash of Aqua Velva, exhaling onto the couch after his shift, feet up on the coffee table, a bottle of Country Club – it’s called malt liquor because it’s a totally different kind of drink – in his right hand.
He was cool – or at least as much as a constellation of product choices & a few borrowed affectations can hint at – he had over 50 LPs (a lot back then – for a father) from Dave Brubeck to Martin Denny, through to Gene Vincent & always had a stack of Motor Trend, Playboy & cheesier magazines piled neatly on the lacquered coffee table, although it was probably Paul’s mother who piled them up so neatly – & chronologically.
& yet, for all of what he projected that helped distinguish him from my “foreigner” father – a kind of native cockiness that fostered entitlement to ignorance of one’s own history – the more he stared at the Admiral television, the more his eyes began to resemble punched-out hollows in drywall – it wasn’t that glamorous working at the plant making Ford Fairlanes, after all – the more you got the sense that there was probably something pending, something heading for a crash behind the shirt, the gold Ford Galaxie with custom chrome trim, the matching bowling shirt & ball, the shoes by an unpronounceable Italian designer.
We weren’t supposed to touch the stack of skin mags – although you could & did – slip a Gent inside Motor Trend & act like you were reading an article about the new Pontiac GTO – & what a perplexing joy were those mysteries of a woman’s luscious but unattainable architecture. Nipples – pneumatic & yet like candy – so enticing that we could barely “contain” ourselves. & contain you had to because an inopportune boner instantly flagged you as a perv ripe for schoolyard shredding; indeed, it could ruin your life, following you right into your death bed.
Playboy taught us – or me at least; Paul became exactly what he said he despised, a cop – about the glorious & febrile blend of freedom of expression & personal liberty that appeared intimately related to a proper appreciation of the most delirious of feline curves, curves that took your breath away, curves that made you think about the likelihood that god existed & the promise of enhancing that freedom by having the ideal woman next to you in the leatherette bucket seat of the ideal car, something where the mere recitation of its specs – & hers – could be construed as pornography in some unenlightened circles.
Playboy taught you to read books to distinguish you from your peers. Guaranteed. Reading could lead to status &, of course, that this status leads to beautiful women was first suggested by Playboy. Literature – Vidal, Heller, Henry & Arthur Miller, Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams – naked women & luxury goods all rubbing against one another to create today’s ideal man, with the absorption of Playboy causing positive modifications to your genetic structure.
You had to “get” their precise substance + style + product lines equation so you could acquire the proper measure of esteem that would afford you the kind of freedom that led to self-satisfaction. You watch James Bond order up his beloved Vesper Martini & you marvel at the admiring coterie, wide-eyed, watching his every gesture, as he elaborates the suave movements, bemused smile, rubbing his cufflinks … Of course the dreadful toil, the slave labor, blood diamonds & ruthless pursuit of filthy lucre were kept tucked away far from the naked eye.
The whole world would simply be a better place if we could all fully comprehend the parameters of this lifestyle, all saw the movies of Michelangelo Antonioni or Rod Steiger & appreciated the awesome nature of beauty as embodied by Ursulla Andress, Mamie van Doren, Ann-Margret, the Girls of Rio, the Girls of Paris, “007’s Oriental Eyefulls,” the inscrutable nature of modern art & the joyous thrust of the Jaguar XKE so that lines of fiction & the XKE’s smooth, aerodynamic lines would vanish at a shared point on the horizon. We could sit there silently lightheaded, entranced, forgetting to breathe for hours at a time.
A life is an accumulation of appropriated & reworked assumptions based on misconceptions, misapprehensions, delusion, gossip & outright advertising hype & the things that happen to you when your pants have a perfect taper & sit magnificently atop your shoe. We – me, Jamey & Paul came up with long lists of the products, those puzzle pieces of who it is we were going to become via what we were going to buy: Corvette, Winston, Van Heusen, Bacardi, Mickey Mantle, Rat Pack, Dave Clark Five, product fetishism, Wink soda, H.I.S. slacks, Twister, Ray-Bans, the Locomotion, the Hanky Panky, Beatle’s moptop hair, Batman, the Monkees, Ballantine’s Ale …
My purple Rail, the Sting Ray two-wheeled corollary to the Corvette, came with us when we moved from mysteriously scented bower Central Jersey in the shadow of a stone’s throw from Dow Chemical, some drug plant, Pittsburgh Paints, the Ford plant, leaving Jamey & Paul behind for Upstate New York. Here in the Horseheads subdivision I’d ride around on my Rail with its ultra-cool extended frame of 4 inches & a sophisticated reworking of the banana seat & hi-rise handlebars with a curvature that oozed individualism & special hub cleaners made of strips of old leather & a discarded pair of cufflinks. I washed it regularly polishing the rims between the spokes with the kind, patient attention one has for something purchased with one’s own pocket money earned shoveling snow.
In the summer of my 13th year I sometimes parked my Rail in Barbara C.’s driveway, the kickstand puncturing a hole in the sun-warmed asphalt so deep that it would sometimes tip over. This did not endear me to Barbara’s parents & jeopardized our [my] marriage plans. Me & new friend Mike H. [popular because his parents had a swimming pool] would sit there for hours just thankful we had been allowed into her presence – that slight shimmer of perspiration clinging to the invisible hairs on the smooth skin of her ever-so-slightly smiling hint of cleavage.
Barbara’s mom brought Kool-Aid, snacks made of Rice Krispies, lard & pancake syrup, as we played endless rounds of Risk, Clue, Monopoly, & Life. Yes, we’re all kind of uniquely crazy in his or own incomprehensible way at age 13. They claim its due to the addling effects of hormones coursing down your arteries in the wrong direction – heart palpitations, weird sweating spells, uncontrollable boners, acne, wet dreams …
I drew Barbara’s breasts as I imagined they might look: as plump chickadees. I hid the sketches in the back of a drawer filled with longings & spare plastic car parts from the model cars I had built.
At around 4 PM we’d start staring out from the shade of the garage into the blinding sunshine: there stood my Rail at a fashionable diagonal, the way you see bikers park their Harleys, streamers flickering in the humid breeze with a sliver of flagstone under the kickstand, Barbara’s solution to the holes in the driveway to not catch hell from her dad, a strict disciplinarian. You know, ex-Army, easily peeved by the messy, wandering soul misled by curiosity.
We’d fix our gazes on the split-level house across the street from Barbara’s garage in a sober aim-sight interlude of silence. The silver-blue Sting Ray pulled into the driveway with an elegant, breathtaking sweep like you only see in car commercials. We watched the bachelor climb out of his Sting Ray & open the door. The slender, perfect-legged young woman in her peach-tint op-art print miniskirt climbed out, holding a tiny tote bag [clean panties, toothbrush, eye make-up, & credit card?], standing there like a plastic figurine on a cake about to be delivered to the right address as he locked the Sting Ray’s doors.
There was indeed a wild world out there but we weren’t quite sure what that meant. I pushed my taped-up glasses back up on my nose pressing on the middle where my father had glued the 2 broken halves together with amazing industrial glue he brought home from work – but still you & everyone noticed they’d been broken in a round of very cutthroat basketball under Mike’s driveway hoop.
We figured the bachelor worked for Playboy as a model for ads or as the centerfold interviewer or as a stunt double for some secret agent in a series or as Hugh Hefner’s righthand man, never wondering why he’d choose to live in this boring subdivision so far from the glitz.
How can you live so close to someone – 6 houses this way – & not know a single solid thing about that person other than that he’s a bachelor with a Sting Ray & lots of girl friends & plenty of good taste in almost everything from how his pointy black shoes & tapered slacks met perfectly at the shoe top to his gleaming hair combed back aerodynamically.
“I’m gonna check his mailbox when he’s not home, gather evidence.” I was more talk than action.
“Maybe I’ll ring his doorbell, ask if I can mow his lawn.”
“Yea, right, you’re chicken to even think it,” Barbara wasn’t impressed & she was right.
“Maybe I’ll see his girl friend walkin’ around topless.” The bachelor bounded up the front steps, unlocking the front door before she made it to the top, then holding the screen door open as she entered.
“He’s got everything any guy can ever want: the best car & real living Playboy bunnies,” Mike was just as impressed.
If you held up an ad for Haggar slacks or Arrow shirts or Binterhoff cravats from a Playboy next to the guy & squinted you indeed would have noticed what we noticed: he was it. & didn’t he nod our way once with a dark, all-knowing sense of bemusement or mischief?
Shortly thereafter I purchased the Revell 1/24th scale model of a Manta Ray, a then-late-60s trumped-up prototype that was meant to replace the Corvette Sting Ray. Some kids built fighter planes or aircraft carriers; I built cars – Camaro, Corvette, Buick Wildcat, Plymouth Barracuda … I spray-painted it candy-flake purple, spent weeks customizing it with chrome exhausts & customized hubcaps & a lowered chassis to make it look like it was a floating sting ray or manta rays skimming across the sandy sea bottom.
Finally, weeks later, when it was done, I held it aloft in the early Saturday morning sunlight. Impressive indeed. I thought I’d captured something of the essence of how we should move through life with style, purpose, grace. I showed it to my parents, my brother, my friends & I’m not sure even Barbara truly comprehended what I was getting into here; &, no, it had nothing to do with any pyschotropic effects associated with the Testor’s glue.
It wasn’t until years after the tragedy that I realized that in my fanatical efforts I had crafted a fitting memorial to him.
One September day we came home from school to a crime scene with cop cars parked at odd distressing angles & several blank-faced cops with those caved-in eyes from lack of sleep standing stock still, preventing any of the curious from getting too close.
What we heard but never got to read about in any newspaper was that he shot himself in the head – BAM, dead as dead can be. Some later claimed they had heard the gunfire but that was just idiots trying to pump up their self-images by associating themselves with something big like a mysterious death. Suspicious death or suicide? We would never learn the truth. Some say they snuck into the backyard & saw the dramatic spray of blood on the kitchen walls, floor & ceiling – brown not red. I did the same on more than 1 occasion & I can assure you there was no blood.
The house stood empty for about half a year; no car in the drive, advertising circulars piling up inside his mailbox, grass growing. Maybe I could cut it for “him” as a gesture of respect.
The house was finally sold the following spring & I don’t know if anyone ever told the unsuspecting homeowners that the previous owner had blown his head off. Nobody I asked knew anything; it was like everybody in the neighborhood – including Mike & Barbara – had decided at some secret meeting I wasn’t invited to, to ignore all my questions. Maybe they figured ignoring death is the best way to go on living. Just as they had scrubbed the walls & the real estate agent had painters repaint the entire kitchen.
& by summer, Barbara had banned us from her garage; she was now too mature for us. So I spent much of the summer playing hoops in Mike’s drive, keeping an eye on the house 4 doors down. Just staring & staring until 1 day Mike clobbered me with a ball to the head. As I reached down to pick up my glasses I was plotting how I was going to tell the family about the man who had lived there & how he disappeared. But I never did.