Jimmie Fitz, Bette Davis and a Christy Mathewson Episode

In 1995 James J. Fitzpatrick came to the attention of the Townshend, Vermont School District. He wrote a research paper in early November for Mrs. Delisle’s Sophomore Honors English, tying characters in Macbeth to the Bette Davis film All About Eve. Most department members thought it was just too polished and unique for a fifteen-year-old. They searched the internet for evidence that could nail his sorry, plagiaristic ass to the bulletin board. They came up empty, swallowed their professional pride and gave him a “C” minus, guessing that his introvert nature would preclude making a big stink.

          All was quiet until late January when he turned in a history paper to Mr. Shaunessey on Bette Davis’ political views during the Great Depression. The prose style was equal to or better than All About Eve, though the research was thin relying as it did on three less than academic biographies. Two months later Shaunessey received a twenty-five page “conspiracy theory” paper concerning the strange circumstances surrounding Bette’s husband’s blindness and subsequent death. Ed Shaunessey put it in a class with all those “truth behind the Warren commission and who really killed JFK or Marilyn Monroe” papers he had gotten over the years. At the very least, though, it did solve the mystery. Jimmie Fitzpatrick wasn’t a cheat. He could write the hell out of anything, was a meticulous researcher but just a bit too hung up on Bette Davis.

          During his junior year there were no problems academically. He was tops in his class. It was politely suggested, however, that Ms. Davis, though a talented actress, was not a suitable subject for any English or History class projects. He followed that advice and began turning in quality non-Davis material.

          He was still very much a loner, no friends to speak of and certainly no girls in his life. Lunch periods were difficult. He sat alone and read. An occasional French fry or other aerodynamically available food would be sent his way. He brushed off the attacks as if they were pesky houseflies.

          Yet Social Studies and English teachers did have suspicions that he had not gone off Davis cold turkey. It was highly likely that he was dropping Davis film dialogue in the polite conversation. “I’m lucky. I’ve always been lucky. I’ll be lucky again,” was his response for several days to the innocuous, “How’s it going, Jimmie?” It was sheer circumstance that Pauline Wray happened to see The Little Foxes on the Fox Movie Channel and picked up on it. Other curious comments which didn’t quite fit the conversational moment were “I only want to talk about the nice things” (Baby Jane), and “my parents didn’t want me to be born. I didn’t want to be born. It’s been a calamity on both sides” (Now Voyager). These sent the faculty to the video store most weekends.

          The big turning point was his visit to the school nurse and subsequent referral to a primary care doctor, ophthalmologist and MRI exams. Six weeks into the medical process, a collective light bulb went on, and it was discovered that Jimmie Fitz’s headaches and vision issues were exactly those Bette had displayed in Dark Victory. Enough was enough. Guidance, the school shrink, and Jimmie’s subject teachers sat down with mom and dad.

          Mrs. F. was pleasant enough. She was relieved that he wasn’t in academic trouble. He’d always been a good student. When the subject of the Bette Davis obsession came up, she offered to take the TV out of his room as punishment. Mr. Fitz was a bit quicker on the uptake and came right to the point. “Is he a fag or not?”

          This threw the discussion for a loop for fifteen minutes. The psychologist did admit that Bette Davis had her devotees among the gay contingent, but sexual orientation did not seem to be the issue here. It wasn’t normal for teens, or anyone for that matter, to be so focused on one particular subject to the degree they were carving out an entire lifestyle to support its existence.

          An hour later they had a plan. Enough with the Bette Davis stuff—books, DVDs, tapes—anything relating to what had gone on would be taken away. He could watch all the TV he wanted, but it would be with the family. Mr. Fitz admitted that his carpet installation business took much of his time, and he’d never gotten Jimmy into sports. That would be a healthy outlet for him. They could watch ball games together.

          The school would provide counseling. Jimmie’s social interaction skills would be worked on by his guidance advisor, and monthly reports would keep everyone in the loop. Jimmy was brought in and read the verdict. He looked at the floor and muttered. When asked to speak up a little, he slumped a bit less and said that he really didn’t know that much about sports “but supposed they could be interesting.”

          The summer went well for Jimmie. He learned to drive. He helped his father lay carpet in the new condo units off Pickney Road on weekends. He was taken to minor league baseball games over in New Hampshire and taught how to keep score for the Red Sox TV games. His heretofore barren bedroom walls were bedecked with baseball greats of the distant past. He devoured books on early baseball history. Back in school for his senior year he wrote an English paper on the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal and its connection to The Great Gatsby. For AP US History he wrote two cultural history papers on the New York Giants in the John McGraw era. He applied and was accepted early to Bucknell University. When asked why this odd choice when New England was home to many fine colleges, he explained that it was where Christy Mathewson, his new icon, went. He found a web site and bought replica uniforms from the early 1900 teams, wearing the shirts and caps to school. He was slightly more outgoing than before, but his conversations, sooner or later, returned to baseball facts or the world as it was before Mathewson’s early death by complications of a wartime gassing in October of 1925. Anything beyond that date was of little interest to him.

          He showed up for graduation rehearsal in late May wearing a replica Mathewson New York Giant uniform. He was told it wasn’t acceptable and sent home. He was class valedictorian. He was slated to give a speech, but the administration grew anxious about what he might say. A look at the rough draft was more cause for concern. Christy Mathewson’s best pitch was the fadeaway. A time at bat was Jimmie’s controlling metaphor for the address. Most plate appearances end in failure. Most of us will strike out in life. Just when we think we have a chance, along comes the curve or fadeaway. And that’s what most of us will do in life--strike out then fade away in a nursing home. Death is ever present. It’s not called the dugout for nothing.

          An administrative ultimatum was given. Wear the standard cap and gown, suit coat and tie underneath, deliver a “normal” speech without any esoteric references or depressing themes; otherwise, stay home.

          On Friday evening June 5th, he wore a suit. The copy of the revised speech had been approved. It had enough clichés and trite platitudes to calm the nerves of any principal or superintendent. The commencement began. The flag was saluted. The weather, threatening all day, looked like it would hold off for a few more hours. A School Committee representative had kind words about the future of the United States being in such good, young hands and then introduced James J. Fitzpatrick as the opening speaker. He strode to the podium, tossed the prepared sheets over his head and gripped the lectern sides with both hands. In a not all together bad Bette Davis-Margo Channing imitation he managed to get out most of “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” before the band struck up “God Bless America” as he was escorted off stage left, to become Bucknell University’s problem in September.

Don Fredd: I have been published or will soon appear in The Transatlantic Review, The Southern Humanities Review, Rosebud, The Armchair Aesthete, Word Riot, Prose Toad, Tribal Soul Kitchen, WriteThis, LitVisions, Grasslands Review, VerbSap, Bullfight, The Pedestal, 3711 Atlantic, Megaera, Double Dare, Slow Trains, Pointed Circle, Raging Face, Cautionary Tales, Slip Tongue, Anti-Muse, Wild Violet, Poor Mojo and SNReview. Poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The Paumanok Review and the Café Review.

© 2005 Underground Voices