The summer of 1957 left-hooked me. I should have seen it coming. Dad left on suspiciously extended business trips. Strange excursions, given his sedentary and lackluster job as an advertising sales agent for RH Donnelly. One day he even appeared outside our Flatlands apartment in a shiny cherry red Triumph, offering to take my girlfriends and me for a spin.
That summer I was sent to spend most weekends with my Aunts Florrie and Mae and cousin Ursula. They lived together in a small spinster apartment in a brick-faced building on East 16th Street. On July evenings the orange sun lingered low in the steamy sky long enough for a walk with Ursula down Cortelyou Road, to Woolworth’s, on Flatbush Avenue. There the summer’s special was a sweet swinging string of bright balloons, each more tempting than the next. Cloistered inside each one was a tiny paper talisman, a sacred tag announcing the price of a coveted prize. If I picked a winner, for a penny I would be rewarded with a banana split sundae, heaping scoops of coffee and vanilla and chocolate ice cream swimming haplessly in a pool of muddy fudge, dressed in hats of dreamy whipped cream. Atop the whole mess was a cherry, electric red.
But if it cost more than a quarter, I’d lost, and would content myself wandering aimlessly up and down the wooden aisles of display cases filled with cheap toys and trinkets. Stacked in neat piles, separated by green glass dividers, I’d find a treasure trove of office supplies, cream colored pads decorated with daisies on the front cover and boxes of yellow Adirondack pencils waiting to be sharpened, and pink erasers and paper clips and plastic cases for carrying pens in your pocket. And I’d imagine myself as a scribe sitting quietly at an oak desk, tapping my pencil lightly on the leather-bound blotter, waiting for the right word to float into my reverie and glide me on glorious syllables to the next comma in the strange sentence that was my life. Past the metal carousel of sewing notions, laden with Bakelite buttons and snaps stitched onto cards of glossy white paper, I’d meander, making my way to the perfumes and there I’d fall again into a trance, dreaming about what a woman who’d wear Evening in Paris, or Tweed, or Moon Drops would be like for a mother.
After a while, Dad came home less frequently, and then not at all. We migrated to another part of Flatlands, Mom and me. And after Mom cut it off with the cop whose wife kept hanging around our block, waiting for my mother to get home from work just so she could call her ‘whore’ to her face, we moved into the bog of Canarsie.
“Do you know what your mother is, little girl?” the cop’s wife would ask me.
“Of course,” I’d say, attempting to cut her of at the pass, “she’s an operator at the Telephone Company.”
“I don’t mean what she does for a living. I mean what she is. She’s a whore. She’s a thief. She’s trying to steal my husband and this little girl’s Daddy. Would you like that, little girl? Would you like it if someone was trying to steal your Daddy?”
“My Daddy doesn’t live here anymore,” I’d say, expecting a shard, the tiniest crumb of sympathy.
“It’s no wonder. With a whore like your mother for a wife, he must have been too ashamed to stay.”
It was around then that my father hatched the brilliant idea to take me to the movies every week. Perhaps he was at a loss for what to do with an eight-year-old. Uncomfortable with wordy intimacies, he must have resorted to this ritual as a way to fill the awkward space between us.
Arriving precisely at 5:15 p.m. every Friday night in his always meticulously shined gun metal gray Chevrolet sedan, he’d greet me with a single beep of the horn and I’d emerge from our East 57th Street “garden apartment” — a misnomer of the highest conceit — without either of us having to endure the effort of his laboring through another mindless, potentially uncivil conversation with my mother.
A man of habit, but not of studied insight, my father never consulted the local listings in the paper. No matter what they were playing, we always went for the double bill, either at the Kenmore on Flatbush Avenue or the Rialto around the corner, on Quentin Road. I preferred the Kenmore because I liked Mrs. Keefer, the little old woman — she was probably all of fifty — who staffed the ladies room on the second floor.
“Hello again Mr. Jones. Hello, Little Miss. You’re gonna like this one, it’s a winner. But the second one’s sort of a drag. You can come see me if you get bored with it, honey.”
We’d settle in the loge section of the darkening theatre, fifth row from the railing, always on the left. While the lights dimmed, I’d watch the arabesques of smoke from Dad’s Lucky Strikes float in the air, dancing like blue ghost-sisters and wonder where Mrs. Keefer was. Within five minutes, she’d be standing on the burgundy-carpeted steps. Leaning her large frame into the brass banister, she’d reach into her uniform pocket and pull out a cigarette. Once she’d lit it and inhaled deeply, she’d sigh and fold her arms across her broad chest. And she’d stay in that position, comforting me by the sheer fact of her being there, until five minutes before the film ended, when she’d resume her watch in the brown leather lounge chair just inside the vestibule of the ladies rest room.
In those days before PG, R, or X had entered the parental lexicon, my Dad’s predilection for routine launched my education in human behavior in ways he never intended, but didn’t interrupt. One particular night, there appeared on the screen the chameleon face of Joanne Woodward, first mousily quiet, then luminously sexual, and, finally, resolutely sane as Eve/Jane in The Three Faces of Eve.
“Honey,” she said, “there are a lot of things you never seen me do before. That’s no sign I don’t do ’em.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. She was talking to me, my mother was, through the face of Eve Black. She was helping me understand the secrets I’d held so close, I felt my heart choked by the grip of them.
On those few Saturdays when my grandparents were busy, or when Aunt Mae worked late shifts at the Beekman Towers switchboard in Manhattan, I’d have the misfortune of spending the night with my mother. Mother was never detoured by the prospect of my being at home with her into the path of alternative activities. Instead, she’d change the rules of her domestic management of me. She’d suspend the curfew on my TV watching.
While she and her cousin Faith played all night poker with “the boys” who frequented Ralph’s Bar and Grill, I’d watch Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces or maybe Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. If it was Cagney, mom would sit next to me a while and moon over him. “He’s my favorite, a little guy, but he takes no crap from anyone.”
Around midnight, when the bottles of scotch and cans of beer tumbled wearily together in A&P grocery sacks like sad sailors awaiting deliverance from a sea of boredom, Mom and Faith would partner up with the guys and wander down the hall to Mom’s bedroom “for some adult talk.” I was ordered to bed.
But one night the springs on the twin beds in my mother’s room started to squeak contrapuntally. I snuck out of my room, tiptoed over the creaky part of the floor, and peeked through the keyhole of her bedroom door. There was my mother, incandescently naked, gripping the stiff organ of some stranger with one hand and with the other rubbing herself while she watched Faith, gyrating on the bed, getting done in a very non-missionary position by someone else. Then they switched.
“Honey,” Eve said, “there are a lot of things you never seen me do before. That’s no sign I don’t do ’em.”
As Joanne Woodward let out a wild Eve Black cackle and put her head down on the bar, only to raise it the next moment reincarnated as the shocked and stupefied Eve White, I understood for the first time what kind of opponent I was up against in my mother’s hapless caretaking.
So that was it, I thought. The mother who cooked me spaghetti and meatballs from her Italian friend’s recipe she’d so carefully copied into a worn brown journal, or brought me with her to her office at the telephone company in Sheepshead Bay on Saturdays and let me assemble a stationary store’s worth of paper and pencils and clips so I could play Daily News reporter while she caught up with her office work, that was the Eve White part of my mother.
But the mother who played marathons of shuffleboard at the neighborhood bar, or who’d take me to Coney Island and park me on the merry-go-round, giving Mr. Salzstein, who managed the menagerie of carved wooden horses, enough money to keep me there for at least an hour while she crossed the street to ride the Cyclone again and again, by herself or with some sailor she’d have met in line, that was the Eve Black part. And so was the one in her bedroom that night.
I had felt such relief watching that film. I couldn’t wait for the next Friday night movie, hoping to discover more celluloid clues about the mystery of my mother’s accidental and itinerant mothering.
A succession of musicals, big splashy Technicolor dreams full of pathos and desire, played in revival one summer and my father and I went to see every one. Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, South Pacific, I remember them vividly. They taught me to understand how my mother could be swept off her feet by someone in a surrey with the fringe on top, even in the middle of New York; that chance could hit you up side the head and make you fall off the track of your life until you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and started all over again.
I saw my mother searching for Ezio Pinzo or Yul Brenner, for any prince charming she could conjure out of Canarsie, anyone who would make up a new life for us, far away from the bowels of Brooklyn, in some remote and mythical land where mere women married rich, French-whispering plantation owners or catered to Kings. And we’d all live happily ever after. But we didn’t.