If Sara had given it any thought at all, the idea of her dad coming to live with her would have been out of the question. But something in his voice that night on the answering machine, something soft and broken in his once rough baritone when they spoke the next night, said that this time he really needed her. She had contacted her mother who was surprisingly agreeable - offering, if her ex-husband would have her, to take care of him during the day when Sara was at work.
Sara sat in her favorite corner of The Coffee Shop sipping on a latte waiting for her father to show up. The story of how her parents met was one her mother never tired of telling. Lori Watson grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts and never felt a thing until the night she heard Jo Novo’s voice.
Sara’s father, named for the famous Portuguese Fado singer and composer, Joao da Mata, grew up in a musical household in East Providence. Joao, everyone called him Jo, played guitar effortlessly before the age of ten and by twelve had his first singing group. The Silvertones were four guys, boys really, who covered doo-wop songs, “Cryin in the Chapel’ by the Oriole’s or “Only You” by the Platters sung in the kind of tight harmonies that made you think of city streets cooling on a late September evening. Jo and his three friends practiced each day on the stoop on Roslyn Street or in the schoolyard at East Providence High. Jo sang lead. A tenor then, his voice floating high and strong over the top of “In the Still of the Night” had already captured the attention of some of the older girls. That was 1962. After seeing the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five on Ed Sullivan in February 1964, Jo knew that the Silvertones were finished, doo-wop was over and rock’n roll was it.
His new band The Phantoms was a five piece combo that rocked high school dances throughout Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts until 1969 when their lead guitarist and keyboard player were called up for the draft. Jo struck it lucky with a low number in the lottery avoiding Vietnam. He took some courses at Rhode Island College and did everything he could to keep the band going.
One night in the summer of 1970 Jo was playing at the Strand Cafe on Mason Street in Fall River. It was a hot evening, August humid with barely a damp breeze, the sun was red and swollen just above the horizon. The other guys in the band were taking a break, drinking cold cans of Shlitz at the bar. Jo stayed on stage playing a couple of acoustic numbers. The house was nearly empty, with the exception of a long legged blond in a flowered mini skirt sitting alone and attentive at a table up front.
Jo was playing a song he’d learned as a child from his grandfather - a traditional Fado song he had translated called “Only Time Will Tell.” Lori thought he was singing directly to her, and by the end of the song, Jo knew he was.
“Only Time will tell what love will bring,
If two hearts are truly one.
If our love is to be a living thing,
It needs rain as well as sun,
Love is all we have in this life, that’s just as well.
Will this love last? Only time will tell.”
They married on Easton’s beach in Newport in June of 69. The combination of love and mushrooms made the Atlantic shimmer and swell blue, green, gray, and tumbled gold with sun, breaking in a splash of diamonds on the smooth caramel sand. The couple wore white. Lori, with a simple tiara of pale pink roses in her long yellow hair, her blue eyes echoing the sea, incandescent. With white sand warm beneath bare feet, surrounded by friends and family, solemn beneath a tent of cloudless azure sky, the couple felt the strength of their love even as they acknowledged its vulnerabilities. In that moment their love seemed to have come down to them through the ages. It was a love as ethereal as the seagulls pivoting cry, but also something real that they could hold, as each held the others hand.
Brother Bobby, a young Capuchin, clothed in his brown habit, a rosary tied about his waist and shod in sandals, married the two. Bobby, with his long dark hair and beard had the appearance of none other than Jesus. His deep green eyes drawing the words up from the red leather bible open in his slender hands. So deliberate was his voice that the vowels in each word he read seemed to float like full round bubbles in the soft salty breeze. Larry, Jo’s best man handed the rings to Brother Bobby. Two simple gold bands made holy in the living air, in the words they said, repeated by the breaking waves.
Sara had studied those black and white photos of her parents wedding on the beach, Her mother adding all the colors of the day. The wild party that followed with it’s feasting and drinking like a medieval marriage of two royal houses.
In the years that followed, Jo and Lori saw their share of rain and many times Jo flew too close to the sun. They held out as long as they could. Sara was born in 75, with the hope that a child might make the marriage stronger, more stable. But if their love was a living thing, by the mid-eighties, it was on life support. Rock’n roll and the road had done more damage than any amount of apologizing could repair. Now, Jo was that damage. At 65 his liver, his lungs, and his hearing from years of loud music, were shot. Over time the groupies became fewer. They were older now, sometimes prostitutes or strippers he’d meet in the clubs. Hoping to be immortalized in a song, hardened by alcohol and heroin, or anxious and needy from coke and crack, they eventually lost interest.
Jo had told Sara how he’d spent the last six months in a mobile home in Cranston. With no insurance, he’d spend long nights in the emergency room at Rhode Island hospital hoping for a prescription. Occasionally someone his age would recognize the gray ponytailed guy that Jo didn’t recognize and couldn’t face in the mirror, from his days with The Phantoms. Mostly, he stayed holed up in his trailer drinking. He was up to a bottle of cheap vodka a day and pain pills when he could get them, heroin when he couldn’t. Each morning he’d try to hold off, but as the pale sun crawled the drab green walls of his single room he’d start drinking. If he was lucky he’d pass out before the sun went down. Jo had heard about Sara’s early success, but felt it would be wrong to try to reach her then. It was her time in the spotlight and he owed her a chance to enjoy it. Hopefully she'd make even more of it than any opportunity he’d had. He lost touch with Lori at about the same time. He’d kept her letters. Sometimes when he was drunk, and feeling like he had nothing left, he would read them feeling sorry for himself and everything he had lost or thrown away. The trajectory of his life was such that he had no one else, nowhere to go, no choice. Sara had listened to his hollow voice, reminded of how the real things that happened to people always sounded like cliches.
Without thinking, Sara ran to hug her father. Maybe it was his songwriting skills, but Jo’s description of himself matched the tall paunchy, yet emaciated man who walked out of the harsh sun descending behind the bank across the parking lot.
“Daddy,” she said, tears in her eyes.
“Sweet Sara,” Jo said, his voice coarse with tears he could only hold back.
“You look tired daddy. Sit down over here. Can I get you something?” Sara was rushing to pull up a chair, looking over at Summer behind the bar, as if she wanted or needed help. Summer just smiled and continued talking with another customer..
“Do they have just plain coffee in this place?”
“That’s what I’ll have. Jo’s hands were shaking and his skin was thin like paper, translucent and yellow.
Sara thought maybe it was the twilight. She brought him a coffee. He added six sugars and lots of cream using both hands to lift the white cup without spilling the butterscotch looking liquid.
“Tell me, is your mother coming? God, it’ll be good to see her, at least for me.”
“No, she’ll meet us back at the house. She’s happy to help. Don’t say anything to her, but I think she’s missed you.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” Jo was quiet, a thought fluttered across his sallow face. “I’ve missed her too. I don’t know why our lives had to unravel that way. I don’t blame her. I was just having too much damn fun to see how much trouble I was in. By the time I knew what was happening, the two of you were gone.” He went to lift the cup again, but thought better of it. ”I really appreciate you taking me in, or back, again. I’m not sure why and won’t question it.”
“Daddy, this is what family does,” Sara said. She tried to smile, but the sadness she felt at first wasn’t softening into love like she had hoped. Instead it was hardening into fear - could they do this? How long would it take? How great would the effort be to care for this man who hadn’t cared about anything, but his next drink, or joint, or piece of ass? This first man who left her for the same reasons all the others did. Father’s don’t do that to their daughters.
“Honey, what is it?” Jo asked. “God you’re pretty like your mom.”
“It’s nothing daddy.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“It’s not something we need to talk about now. They’ll be plenty of time for talking.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“Well we’d better go and get you into bed.” Sara said. Just standing up, collecting the empty cream container and sugar packets in her empty cup, seemed to lift her mood. She could do this. She just needed to keep moving. Motion gave her a purpose. The other things would’t come out as long as she focused on the task at hand. Right now she needed to get this man, her father, home. That would have to be enough for now.
If you missed the previous installment of Success Through Failure click here: