The White Cadillac and Erasable Tattoos

by

06/19/2022

Neighborhood: Babylon, Williamsburg

Red leather and chrome trap my eyes.

I could be in the kitchen washing dishes or helping my mom cook dinner. Maybe walking home from my best friend Lynda’s house or reading a book in the backyard. When I think about the white Cadillac, I feel happy.

When the Cadillac is parked in the driveway next door, I pay attention. My shoulders relax and drop back down. I know right then that I am no longer living in Brooklyn on Madison Street where Bobby beat up Teddy, and Sally’s dad slapped and punched her in the front of their house, and where the old man in the grocery store, with his hands in the front of his pants, took a loaf of Italian bread from the wooden bin. A street with abandoned and dilapidated cars. In my new neighborhood, with driveways and lawns, on most days nothing crazy happens.

The new white ’62 Cadillac convertible with red leather seats, parked on the asphalt driveway, might as well have swirled through dark sky and grey clouds into the light and color before landing in this southern Long Island neighborhood. Like Dorothy in Oz, when I first walked out of my kitchen door and saw the immaculate Cadillac, its long, shiny white body with tailfins and no rust, whitewall tires, and a windshield as large as the windows at St. John the Baptist Church, where my friend from Sunday school had her First Communion, the world went from black and white to color. The dazzling white Cadillac confirmed that I had found a new and forever home.

The Cadillac wasn’t the only fascination that held my eyes.

Sylvia, the single mother who lived next door, wore her cherry-red hair piled like a crown on her head. An occasionally worn Yankee baseball cap offered shade for her hazel eyes. Her look always made me think she was lost or trying to find something important that had fallen. Sylvia walked and moved like she wasn’t there. Just smooth and easy. Green and purple shift dresses were her favorite. Sometimes in the evenings, she wore black. As a young teen, I never tired of looking at her. I would have bet my weekly allowance that when she walked down the street, heads turned. Mine always did.

Sylvia’s son, Ray, similarly redheaded, tall and lean, worked a night shift. At least that’s what the neighbors said. “They’re that family!” I wondered if we would become “that family.”

Every Saturday morning at eleven, two towels in hand, Ray washed the convertible. Blue plastic bucket, soapy water, endless circular movement, one section at a time. He waxed until two or three in the afternoon. Afterwards, a bottle or two of Budweiser quenched his thirst as he sat on the stoop eyeing the meticulous sheen of the polished car. I know because I watched him from my bedroom window.

The convertible never showed signs of its travels — no dust, tar, sap or dirt, no scratch along the side of the door or dent in the rear fender— though the car disappeared every day, going who knows where. There were always rumors and gossip circulating. Ray was overheard telling Sylvia something, or someone in the neighborhood was eavesdropping and spreading tales about where Ray and Sylvia went. I often walked by the car and peered inside at the seats and the floor, looking for a clue.

Even now, many years later, I can picture it. Peeking from my bedroom window, I see Ray walk out of the kitchen door, get in the car, start the engine and glide into the street. Sylvia strolls out of their home. I never saw either of them dressed in jeans or eating an ice cream from Bungalow Bar. Unlike me, they never grilled chicken and corn on the cob in their backyard, or raked leaves. I imagined them going to a nightclub, hotel bar, or expensive restaurant. I never saw them walk back into their house, and it was hard to imagine them carrying bags of groceries, a case of beer, or a twenty-five-pound box of laundry detergent. They were mysterious and not like every day you and me.

There was one more member of their family who didn’t seem to fit. Carol, short with bushy black hair, looked neither like Ray’s sister nor Sylvia’s daughter. When she greeted the family, her voice was louder than the engine noise from the rusty Ford that picked her up after dinner most nights. Hours later, signals of Carol’s return were the crash of a bottle, a thud against the kitchen door, then laughter, shrieks, momentary shouts. Carol wore her love close to her skin.

One late night, sneaking peeks through my bedroom blinds, I saw Carol sitting on the concrete steps illuminated by the dim porch light. It looked like she was writing. Was that a sheet of paper covering her lap? Windows slightly open, I could hear a sound or two, not a song but a strained whisper. I walked quietly downstairs, out the kitchen door and across the driveway, hidden from sight crouching behind the myrtle tree. Carol never lifted her head. With fingers holding only a wooden matchstick, Carol was carving her thigh. I can’t remember if I actually saw or just imagined blood dribbling down her leg.
I raced back into the house.

Days later I saw Carol leaving the house. She had on tight black shorts and a bulky black sweater. Carol was walking to the curb to pick up a newspaper when I noticed “Donnie” in cursive scarlet on her thigh.

I had questions. Why doesn’t Sylvia have friends? When Ray washes and waxes the white convertible, why does he wink and smile while singing Pretty Woman? Is “Donnie” Carol’s boyfriend or girlfriend, a cousin, or a name she likes? Is “Donnie” the person who picked her up every night?

I liked Carol but was too scared when she saw me to even say “hi”.

The next day after school I stopped at the corner drugstore and looked through the tattoos hanging on the rotating stand. Aaron, Abraham, Adam, Alan, Albert, Alexander, Andrew. I cupped my hand over each name so no one else could see them, looked and held them, and then placed each one back on the hook. Until I got to Brody. These names were fun to say and different from names in my family: John, Anthony, Joseph. Was Brody a real or made-up name? I rushed to the cash register and bought the tattoo.

While the family watched TV, I locked myself in the bathroom with hot water left in the teakettle. Luckily there were three Brody tattoos in one box. The first time I peeled off the clear plastic that covered the name Brody and placed it on my thigh I added too much water, soaking and tearing the tattoo. The second time I tried, I placed the tattoo on my thigh and removed it too quickly. By the third try, the name Brody was stamped on my thigh. The blue, black and red color design would last a few weeks, not for the rest of my life.

That night, I tiptoed to my bedroom and searched through my dresser drawers for black shorts and a bulky sweater.

On my next birthday I would be thirteen. I already knew that I might not want Brody to stay with me for my lifetime. Brody would vanish, but I would keep watching and listening for Carol.

***

Flo Gelo was born in Brooklyn, where she lived through her pre-teen years. This story follows her move to Long Island and to a first awareness of attraction, both to suburban life and love. A trained museum guide, she has published articles using paintings as inspiration as well as numerous articles in professional literature about illness, death and dying.  Flo lives in the Philadelphia area. 

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