Yuma, Arizona c.1940, San Carlos Hotel, 1st and Main.
Sonny took the handkerchief from the top pocket of his valets’ uniform and dabbed at his pale, freckled forehead. It was a stroke of misfortune to be born a red head in the middle of Arizona, the result of his parents Scottish/Irish heritage. Sonny replaced the handkerchief and recalled the lecture he had received at his interview some 2 months previously with Mr Muncie the manager.
‘This is the finest hotel for miles, Sonny, the first with air conditioning. It’s not some local dive, so don’t let me see you mopping your brow.’
The ‘San Carlos’ was certainly no dive. Sonny’s ambition to be an architect had kept him alive through some dull jobs as he worked his way through college; he loved this job because the hotel was beautiful. It rose of out of the hazy Arizona heat like sculptured ice, a five-storey Art Deco beauty crowned with three roof top pinnacles. The wood panelled lobby and coffee house was always busy with both paying guests and the more well-to-do residents of Yuma who enjoyed its glamour and, of course, its air conditioning.
In the piano bar Johnny Darin played and sang slightly hammy versions of Gershwin and his favourite Kate Smith standards like ‘When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain’. The reason for many of Yuma’s residents in the lobby were sat in one corner of piano bar playing poker; Alan Ladd, John Wayne and Ward Bond, on a break from filming some big new Westerns nearby, knocked back Wayne’s favourite Sauza Commemoratio Tequila (which Mr Muncie had to order in especially for the ‘Duke’), laughing raucously as Twila the waitress, peroxide and red lipped, hovered ever helpfully nearby.
Sonny looked over at the reception desk where Virginia worked, and his heart skipped a beat, as it always did. Her auburn page boy style hair reflected the light that came in through the windows as she bent her head slightly over the paper work on which her attention was fixed. He stared at little guiltily for a moment at her wrists as her pen efficiently stroked against the page; tiny though her frame was she was smart and funny and seemed to possess bottomless wells of energy. She could work a double shift and still look as neat and smart at the end of it as she had at the beginning.
On more occasions’ times than he wanted to remember, Sonny had tried and failed to ask her out for a date. Night after night as he made his prayers, he would always end with the same one: ‘…help me find the words Dear God; what do I say to her?’
Sonny’s silent reverie was broken by a tap on his shoulder and looked up at the great looming presence of John Wayne. Blushing to roots of his red hair, he straightened himself up.
‘Yes sir, Mr Wayne, what can I do for you?’
‘Well Sonny, you’re looking a little down there and my friends and I want to know why that is. Ward and Alan reckon that Mr Muncie must be giving you a hard time.’ The ‘Duke’ leant down as though a co-conspirator. ‘But I’m thinking it’s got something to do with the pretty lady at the desk over there.’ The ‘Dukes’, eyes sparkling with amusement at Sonny’s embarrassment, winked at him. ‘You want a little advice Sonny? What you got to do with a lady like that is stride over there, take her by the hand and tell her what a fine woman she is. Tell her she is the only woman you will ever want.’ The Duke slapped on the shoulder. ‘She wants a man Sonny – if you want to be that man, then you go over there and be that man.’
‘Yes sir, Mr Wayne. But – what if, what if she doesn’t like me in the way Mr Wayne?’
‘Then you take it like a man Sonny.’ The Duke nodded his head, and turned back to the bar.
Sonny watched as John Wayne strode away and considered the situation. He looked over at Virginia and saw her looking right back at him, the sweetest and most welcoming of smiles on her lips. Yup, thought Sonny. No doubt about it – its time to be a man now.
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