In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I present the second of two parts, in which I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. In part one, we see her large family back home in action as she announces her big move to their shock, then arrives in town and gets a job as a waitress on Wilshire Boulevard. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.
The hours and the days and weeks went by, and Anne was enjoying herself, even though she was just covering expenses with very little left over. Things in L.A. were more expensive than back home, but the pay was better as well, and there wasn’t a coal mine in sight.
And she seemed to have become popular with the businessmen of the boulevard, who filled her stations as they piled in for breakfast, treated her politely and tipped well. There was one in particular she had noticed, a man who looked amazingly like that actor, Tyrone Power, but he always sat at the counter.
She was nowhere near forward enough to talk to him. Besides, there was an unwritten rule that the girls didn’t steal customers from one another. Still, she often contemplated smacking him with a menu as she went by, telling him, “There’s a really nice booth over there in the corner, honey…”
She’d had to buy new shoes after a few weeks and got them at Woolworth’s, cheap sneakers but at least her feet didn’t hurt as much anymore. That was about the only extravagance she could afford herself, even though it was no extravagance nor a luxury at all.
The luxuries lived behind the plate glass windows of the May Company, and every day after work she’d walk by to stare in the windows, watching as the fashions on the aloof mannequins changed from week to week.
It was a Tuesday in March, the first Tuesday in March in fact, that she realized two things. She hadn’t gone to church since she’d come here — she’d felt no need. And, tomorrow was Ash Wednesday, something she didn’t even remember until she heard a couple of customers talking about how disappointed they were that they couldn’t make it down to Mardi Gras this year.
She thought for half a second about finding a Catholic church tomorrow, getting the old smudge on the forehead, then realized there was no point. Her mother wasn’t here to watch her. No one was. Ash Wednesday had been one of those few moments of collaboration among the children growing up.
Every year, one of them would be designated to go to church, then they’d all meet up secretly near the playground and swap the ashes around, hoping Margaret would never be the wiser. At least they never had to include Jimmy in their plans. Margaret always took him to church herself, and he was too mentally deprived to fear or loath it.
At least Donal had stayed in touch. He wrote to her every week, and she wrote back occasionally, sending her letters to his office at the College instead of to home. He was coaching the school debate team now, and if they did well enough, they might be coming out to UCLA in the summer. She hoped they did. He was the only member of her family who had grown greater with distance.
And she stood in front of the May Company windows again, but since it was a special day, she decided to go inside, just for the hell of it, see what the big attraction was. She pushed her way through the glass and brass revolving door and found herself in Mecca, racks of clothes and housewares and all the latest fashions and technology of the day arrayed before her and above her. There were a thousand Siren calls in the place, but any approach would be dashed on the rocks of insufficient funds.
Still, she wandered and gazed, avoiding the helpful salesgirls with sorry downcast “Just lookings,” finally finding herself standing in front of a tall revolving rack covered with hats, each one lovingly balanced on a small velvet dome just so.
She turned the rack, admiring them all but not touching, and then her eyes fell on a simple low-brimmed cloche in tan, the exact same color as her one good pair of shoes, the ones she never wore because she had nowhere to wear them.
The ones that went perfectly with her green wool skirt suit, which she also never wore but kept wrapped in plastic in the closet so the moths could not enjoy it before she’d had a chance to. She imagined herself decked out in that outfit, wearing that hat, maybe even a purse to match, going somewhere interesting, having Sunday brunch served by someone else, perhaps running into that man who looked just like that actor, Tyrone Power, finding out who he really was…
“That’s a beautiful hat,” a Salesgirl had materialized, a perky young woman in a May Company blazer, hair and make-up perfect. “Here, try it on.”
“I… I was just looking — “ Anne protested, but the girl plucked the hat from its pedestal and placed it on Anne’s head, adjusting it to her satisfaction.
“Oh, you look lovely in that. Here, see?” The Salesgirl picked up a hand mirror and held it up and Anne caught her breath when she saw herself. The hat was beautiful, adding just the exact something to her appearance, her auburn hair emphasized by its fawn back hue. She stared for a moment, imagining herself owning it — then imagining it sitting in the closet, with her good shoes and green suit, gathering dust, a dream deferred, something to wear and nowhere to wear it.
She carefully took the hat off and set it back on the pedestal.
“It’s lovely, but…” she shrugged.
“You can never have too many hats,” the Salesgirl chirped, annoyingly perky. “We also have bags and gloves to match.”
“I really… No, thank you.”
“Okay. But if you change your mind, let me know, Anne.” Seeing a no sale, the girl vanished. Anne looked down at her blue and white uniform, realized she was still wearing her name tag and took it off, slipping it into her pocket. She looked at the hat again, turned the rack and looked at the others, which only made this one object more desirable. There was nothing else on that rack she wanted, but nothing she could afford.
Or, was there? She realized she had no idea how much that hat was, so she picked it up again, making sure the Salesgirl was nowhere in sight, then turned it over and fished out the price tag, turning it over, seeing the number.
Seven-fifty they wanted for it. That was dinner for two weeks, bus fare for a month. That was… it was ridiculous, is what it was. Maybe seven-fifty was nothing to all the women who came here to visit their husbands at work, then go shopping, then go back to their big houses with maids and tennis courts and swimming pools.
But to Anne, right now, seven-fifty might as well have been a million bucks. She put the hat back and quickly walked out of the store.
Celebrities lurked in L.A, and quite a lot of them wound up at Anne’s tables, although she didn’t recognize half of them. That was never a problem, though. Gladys, now one of her best friends, would always sneak over and whisper to her. “Do you know who that is at your station?”
And Anne’s reaction was always, “Yeah. So?”
Before she’d come to L.A., she’d imagined what it would be like to see stars in person. Her first encounter had been Lana Turner, in the grocery store, looking decidedly unglamorous. She wasn’t wearing a tight sweater, but a loose-fitting blouse, dungarees, and a scarf on her head. If she was wearing any make-up at all, it was nothing more than a discreet splash of lipstick.
She pushed her cart down the same aisles that Anne did, buying all the same things, although the more expensive versions. Anne had played the old game of staring while pretending not to and wound up quite by accident behind Lana in the checkout line.
When Anne saw that this screen goddess was buying TP and tampons, too, a lot of the truth about what L.A. really was sunk in, and she was never starstruck after that. L.A. was a factory town, just like Detroit or Muncie or Wilkes-Barre; the only difference was that instead of cars or clothes or coal, L.A. made movies.
“Guess who I saw at the store today,” she imagined the conversation in a motor city suburb. “The guy who paints the red parts on the Chevy.”
And, after all, weren’t actors just the same? The visible result of all the work of many unseen faces? They were the tail fins and paint jobs; but the real heroes were the ones who designed the cars in the first place and figured out how to make them run.
In Detroit, the engineers were king. In L.A., the engineers who were screenwriters and directors and editors and stunt-folk could walk down any street at any time and not even be noticed unless they were someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles.
“You hear about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood?” Shirley had told Anne once, one in a series of many off-color jokes.
“What about her?” Anne asked.
“She was so stupid she screwed the screenwriter.”
Anne supposed that if Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole had sat at her station, she might have been impressed and a little fidgety. Then again, Sinatra was, well, Sinatra, and Cole was, despite everything else, a black man, and Anne had never met a black man in person before coming to L.A.
Her first, in fact, was Otis, the fry-cook, who was always singing in the kitchen, but the two of them hardly had time to speak to each other, beyond cryptic shouts of “Adam and Eve on a Raft” and “Burn one!”
And, among the waitresses, eighty-six. This was an ancient secret code, and Shirley had told her that it came about because it rhymed with “nix.” It meant that the customer coming in was to be avoided at all costs.
Either they were a lousy tipper, or extremely demanding and petty, the type of person who would send their toast back three times because it wasn’t done exactly right. Maybe people could act like that at Ciro’s or the Brown Derby.
But this was Van de Kamp’s, for Christ’s sake, a store-front diner of good reputation but low prices for the working stiffs of the Miracle Mile. As far as Anne was concerned, if a customer was a royal pain in the ass, they’d get the same right back, and to hell with a tip. Politeness got politeness, and she refused to take any crap from anyone.
And, so, after a few months, Anne had developed a reputation as a hard-boiled waitress. The other girls were in awe of her ability to lay it on the line and tell the nasty truth to a customer, at risk of tips. Anne managed to offend a lot of the women who came in, but endeared herself to many of the men, who would take her abuse and leave generous tips, almost in spite of themselves.
Anne had permanently endeared herself to Shirley the first time Mrs. Rothburn had come in during Anne’s tenure. Mrs. Rothburn was somewhere between sixty and death, a specter of wrinkled parchment skin stretched tight over a skull, always wore the same red wool suit with matching tam, and always brought in her dog, a miniature Doberman, Baby. Mrs. Rothburn and Baby would sit in a booth, and any comments about violations of the health code would be met with a cold, haughty look that said, “So? Insult me and kiss your tip good-bye.”
And, for months, the other girls had silently served the two of them in their back booth, returning the toast to the kitchen four or five times, enduring diatribes about the runny eggs, and waiting anxiously for the moment when Mrs. Rothburn would clear the booth, leaving a lousy five per cent tip, opening up the space for a more gracious customer.
Until Mrs. Rothburn entered one morning, amid whispers of “Eighty-six,” and wound up at Anne’s station. Anne grabbed a menu from the rack, turning to Shirley to ask, “Isn’t that illegal? Bringing a dog in here?”
“You try telling her that,” Shirley spat back.
“Okay,” Anne replied, strutting to the booth.
“You can’t bring the dog in here,” Anne said by way of introduction. Mrs. Rothburn eyed her up and down with a withering stare.
“Baby and I have been eating here since before you were born, young lady,” she said, snatching the menu away and slamming it, unopened, on the table. “I would like the breakfast special, eggs over easy, not overcooked, toast well done, and a glass of orange juice for Baby.”
“I can’t serve the dog,” Anne answered, unaware that every waitress in the place was watching from afar.
“You certainly will,” Mrs. Rothburn shot back.
“I certainly won’t. It’s a violation of the health code.”
“Health code, schmelth code. You will get Baby her orange juice, or I will have her bite you.”
Anne inhaled, glaring at this strange creature. “Lady,” she said, stuffing her order pad into her apron, “Either of you bitches gets their teeth near me, I will bite that little rat right on the ass.”
Everything stopped for half a second, while Mrs. Rothburn stared back in disbelief. Finally, she stood, stormed from the booth to the door, and announced dramatically, “I will never come back to this place again. Really. The nerve.”
As she swept out the door, the other waitresses and the regulars applauded. Anne took a modest bow and, when Mrs. Rothburn finally returned two weeks later, it was without Baby, and she insisted on sitting at Anne’s station, was practically deferential and actually left a fifteen percent tip. Anne only wished her mother could see her now.
After all, she was the one who had unintentionally taught Anne how to handle difficult, pushy, obnoxious women by giving her plenty of practice in doing it.
She realized, though, the morning that Mrs. Rothburn came back, that this weird town called L.A. was her home now. Pennsylvania was a distant memory, with no reason left there to ever return.
Easter was approaching, only a few weeks away, and Anne felt that she had to do something. Despite the miles, that old Catholic guilt still lurked. No way she was going to waste her time following her mother’s old weekly rules, but it was The Day, the one day of the year when lapsed Catholics still felt compelled to play along.
There was a church down the block from her house, and for a long time she thought it was a Catholic church. It looked like one, it was named after a Saint, it was always jammed on Sunday. Maybe she’d go there. She’d almost talked herself into it when she walked by one Saturday afternoon, then read the sign for the first time.
It said, “Anglican Catholic Church.” Not Roman? She didn’t know there was anything besides Roman Catholic. Well, okay, there was that Armenian Catholic church back home that she had gone to with her best friend Beverly once, to Margaret’s consternation. But if it wasn’t Roman it wasn’t Catholic, as far as Anne’s mother was concerned. There was only one church, accept no substitutes.
She asked Shirley later if she knew the difference. Shirley’s father was Jewish, her mother was Lutheran and her husband was Catholic, and she’d actually had one semester of college, so she knew a bit about religion and history. “Anglican Catholic,” she explained, “is the church started by Henry the Eighth when he got all snippy about the Pope not giving him a divorce.”
“So… it’s Protestant?”
“It’s English,” Shirley said. “All the ceremony, none of the guilt, from what I hear. You’d almost never know the difference.”
“Really?” Anne thought about it. All of the ceremony. Everything necessary for Easter. And a good Irish Roman Catholic girl spending that holiest of days in an English Protestant church would be enough to make Margaret dig a grave and then roll over in it. If only she ever knew, which she never would.
Or, hell, maybe she’d just go to the movies on Easter. She assumed that, unlike Wilkes-Barre, the theatres in L.A. would still be open that day. It was still just a factory town, after all, and movie palaces were the real houses of worship here.
Anne shrugged, balancing two trays.
“So?” Gladys stared at her. “You going to get his autograph?”
“Of course not.”
“He came here to eat and be left alone, just like anyone else.”
Gladys stared at Anne’s customer, and Anne gave her a cautionary stare. Gladys vanished into the kitchen then, and Anne continued on to serve her stations, starting with her celebrity in the back booth; grilled cheese and chocolate shake.
And… he came in for an early lunch, the man who looked like Tyrone Power, with a couple of associates, and they took a booth in Anne’s section. She wasted no time in getting their menus to them, and as she passed them out and asked if they wanted coffee, she noticed the man look at her, then look again intently.
He glanced away before she looked back, but she stared at him a moment. He was handsome, with a brilliant smile, and seemed like the kind of man who would completely care about anyone he loved.
“‘Scuse me, miss…” It was her celebrity, two booths away. She walked over and he asked her for more water and she came back to refill his glass. He seemed like a nice man, too. Just a person, despite his fame, despite the fact that everyone else was trying to stare at him without being noticed. That had to be utterly nerve-wracking.
If that’s what fame meant, then Anne didn’t want it, didn’t want to be a product of the L.A. factory. Then again, Memphis was just a factory town, too.
And the man who looked like Tyrone Power seemed to take special notice of her when she came by their booth, smiling yet looking away coyly as he ordered, but doing nothing more. She was trying to think of a way to impress him when she noticed the wedding ring on his finger and her heart sank. So much for that.
But when she came back with the check, she noticed the wedding ring was gone, and the man looked at her name tag, said, “Anne is a beautiful name.”
“Thanks,” she said. “What’s yours?”
“Bob,” he said simply.
“Hi, Bob. You know, there’s usually a booth when you come in in the morning. Much more comfortable than the counter.”
She walked over to her celebrity customer then, hearing the quiet comments from Bob’s friends. Yes, he was interested in her, and they all knew it and… well, she’d find out, wouldn’t she?
But she’d be cool about it. She always was. That was her other survival technique. Yes, she could fire off blistering retorts when offended, but she could also hold it all close to the vest when she was interested, and she was very interested in this man named Bob, even if he did have a wedding ring.
She gave the celebrity his check and went back to the order window, where Gladys was grabbing dishes.
“Are you going to get his autograph?” she asked.
“No,” Anne said.
“Can you, for me then?” she asked.
“Gladys, he just wants to eat and be left alone.”
“Yeah, but it’s — “
“It’s a customer,” Anne said.
And that customer was leaving now, but he called out thank you to Anne as he left and when Anne got back to the table, she found out that letting him eat in peace had paid off. Sitting there for his dollar-ten order was a ten dollar bill, and he’d written “thank you” on the check, signing his name beneath it: “Elvis Presley.”
She gave Gladys the autograph, but she kept the tip.
On Easter Sunday, Anne went to church for the first time since arriving in L.A., deciding to try the Anglican place down the block, and enjoying it very much. Shirley had been right. It was all of the pomp and ceremony, all the glitz and glamour of Catholicism, with none of the guilt.
The place was not oppressive or gloomy, and neither were the people. In fact, at the post service coffee klatch, everyone came over to introduce themselves, welcome her to the church, and mention how much they just adored her new hat.