In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, presented in two parts, 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. It didn’t happen this way, really — she was both younger when she came here and it happened at a later date — but, you know. Artistic license. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.
Sunday dinners should have been happy, festive occasions, but were not. Especially not in the 50s, when Sean was getting older before his time, lungs clotted with years of anthracite dust, when Margaret was getting drunk more often than she should and turning into a shrill harridan that belonged in a James Joyce short story, and when most of their seven kids hated each other but pretended to be a loyal family.
Donal had not yet moved to the head of the table, but sat to the right of his older brother, Little Sean, or just Junior, who sat at Sean’s right hand. Margaret was at the foot. At her right hand sat twelve year-old Jimmy (aka Seamus), who was the family’s reminder from god of their own unworthiness.
He was born with Down’s Syndrome when Margaret was 44, a condition she blamed until the day she died on “that damn Jew nurse who didn’t know what she was doing when she stuck that needle in him right after he was born.” No amount of science or lecturing in genetics would convince her otherwise. After all, to admit that Jimmy’s condition was caused by her age and her drinking would be to admit to… unpleasant truths.
There were no unpleasant truths at this table, only unpleasant subtext. Junior constantly harassed Donal, the only one of them who’d gone to college. Even now, when Junior was thirty and Donal was in his late twenties and should have just said, “Cut the shit, asshole,” the sniping and bickering went on.
And, the sisters. What a collection. Four women who truly despised each other but pretended to be best friends. There was Brigid, the oldest, married but always attending these dinners alone. Donal had guessed that she was prone to mother’s condition, but his sister blamed her weight gain and spidery facial capillaries on “my glandular problem.”
Next to her was Mary, the nun, who claimed to be the youngest but was, in fact, two years older than the next sister. She used her status as the only religious in the family as self-defense and self-justification. Her habit was her shield.
She also constantly whined, privately, to Donal about how Mother Superior was always confiscating their money, and they had never taken a vow of poverty, only chastity, and could he perhaps lend her ten dollars until…? And he always lent her the money, mostly because she was so seemingly guileless in her entreaties, but mostly because that was what family was supposed to do for each other.
Otherwise, if anyone ever mailed her money at the convent, they would stick it in a separate envelope inside marked “Family Photos.” For some reason, this kept ol’ Mama Supreme from dipping her claws in and taking the cash.
Then, there was Anne. Just turned twenty-one, she was the other rebel in the family, besides Donal, although Donal’s rebellion was a deep, dark secret that only Anne knew.
Anne’s, secret though, was quite out in the open. Of all of them, Donal loved and admired her the most, so the rest hated and resented her the most. When it was the fashion for girls to wear their hair up, she let hers trail down her back in a curly auburn spill that would have made Veronica Lake jealous.
When women were supposed to be quiet slaves to men, she’d let her boyfriends know that she wasn’t going to take any crap, and in private with Donal, she could curse like a sailor and drink like a Jesuit — not out of the sad necessity of many of her family members, but out of the need to say, “Fuck the world. I’m as good as any of you.”
She’d already been married, at eighteen, to some Polish boy from Forty Fort — a beautiful but brutish man who was probably more her attempt to escape early than her true romance. Married, and annulled, because he beat her once too often, which was once, and she just wouldn’t put up with that from anyone.
Mary had once told Donal, in strictest confidence, that she had heard Anne tell Sean, when he slapped her for some minor infraction at sixteen, that if he ever did that again, she would kick him so hard where it counted “that he’d be gagging on his man thing.” Donal had always wondered if it was just Mary’s dramatic side playing at trash the sister, but also never doubted it was true.
It was just so much like Anne.
Finally, there was Lucy, the youngest sister, and the most stoic. In a couple of years, her biggest claim to fame would be an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. Meantime, she was the shy, quiet eighteen-year-old sitting to Mary’s left, across from Anne, staring at her plate, occasionally looking up to flash an incredible smile that seemed reserved only for people she already knew. In public, she rarely smiled and rarely looked up. Donal knew in his heart she was a jewel, and that she would never know it, because she was next to last, forgotten.
There had been six other children, but times being what they were, they had not survived. Thirteen times, Margaret had done the squat of life and spat out a baby. Six times, they had died. Most of them made it a week or a month or two. One of them had made it to age twelve, but had died in his sleep one night, victim of a genetic condition the doctors had predicted would get him at either seven or twelve or twenty-one.
His name was Peter, next in line above Anne, and her closest friend until that fateful night when she woke up at three a.m. in the bed all of them shared and realized that her brother next to her was stone cold dead.
She would claim later, whenever she told the story, that she found him that way and calmly told Mom and Dad. Actually, she had completely freaked out and ran screaming through the house because she had lost the one person she loved, and was left alone with the others, who were family only because of biology, not affinity.
It was a house full of death, she always thought after that night. Babies dying suddenly, a brother going cold in her bed. Death a regular visitor, and then those goddamn Sunday services her mother dragged them all to, in which sad and silent people paid homage to a dying god. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be. Life was supposed to be fun. We were not supposed to crucify ourselves every day. But the rest of them did, in one way or another.
Anne especially dreaded going into Margaret’s bedroom (separate from Sean’s since Jimmy’s birth) where the religious statues were absolutely morbid. Margaret had a bizarre fascination for the Infant of Prague, a tiny crowned white and blond baby Jesus who showed up in Czechoslovakia one day, or so the story went. That, and the bust of Jesus, crown of thorns jammed on his head, dripping blood lovingly painted down his face.
This was god? This was the noble thing toward which they were supposed to aspire? No, thank you. Anne had had enough of martyrdom when George slapped her around that first and only time. He had seemed the perfect man, a big, dumb blond with shoulders to die for, an incredible face and not much to say. But here he was giving her thirty-nine lashes. Different church, same story. To hell with it.
And her family had been absorbed. Mary, the nun. Brigid, with her bizarre fascination with every alleged appearance by the Virgin Mary. Lucy, the quiet sufferer who dumped tons of self-loathing on everyone. At least Anne could take gleeful advantage of Lucy’s every revelation, playing her for the stupid patsy she really was.
And — Margaret. Mother. Hypocrite, Anne would have called her, had she gone beyond the eighth grade and learned such big words. But, not knowing such big words, she only knew that this woman would ignore any sin committed by any man in a Roman collar, while digging incessantly into any imagined sin performed by her own children.
A bitch-and-a-half for six days, and madam pious on the seventh. Anne hated her for that. Not that there was any love lost between her and the rest of them. Except Donal, because he seemed to understand. Dad was useless, a small, gray man with a benign smile and a nasty cough — off to the mines before dawn, return after sunset, way too often with a rat having eaten its way into his metal lunch box.
“Hi, kids!” he’d rasp. And thence to bed, church and Sunday dinner the only time they ever saw him for more than a few minutes.
Which was why the idea of moving away — far away — had gotten so attractive of late. And why, at this last dinner of the year, she had news to drop on them like the bomb on Hiroshima, and not only did she not give a damn what they thought, she relished the idea of seeing utterly horrified faces at this table, mouths agape and eyes wide above the roast beef and mashed potatoes.
So, when seconds came around and Junior paid ass-kissing lip service to thanking Jesus (not his four sisters) for the meal again and Sean, Sr. coughed and Margaret poured herself another glass of wine and Mary made the sign of the cross while Brigid stared at Margaret’s glass and Donal stared at Anne and Junior scratched his crotch and Lucy stared at her plate and Jimmy muttered out incomprehensible sounds that only Margaret, Donal, and Anne bothered to decipher, her news became even sweeter, and more devastating and more impending, and she grabbed another slab of red meat, threw it on her plate, and tossed out to the world, “I’m moving to Hollywood.”
A brief moment of silence, in which Sean snorts, Donal nods imperceptibly, Brigid considers grabbing the wine, Lucy does nothing, Jimmy stuffs food into his mouth and Mary tries to appear outraged, because no one has offered her the money to move to Hollywood. Then Molly takes a goodly hit off her goblet, red lipstick smearing the Woolworth’s cheap class “crystal,” before she blearily focuses on that troublesome daughter and says, “The hell you are.”
Let the games begin.
“I’ve saved up enough to fly to California, and I’m going,” Anne continues.
“Why?” Molly shoots back.
“What the hell is here?”
“Watch your mouth.”
“You just said it.”
“I’m your mother.”
In his mind, Donal racks up 15-Love. Anne’s serve.
“Don’t talk like that.”
“I’m flying out in two weeks,” Anne continues.
“So you’re made of money. Flying first class?” Molly shoots back.
“Of course not.”
Oh, bad self-defense, Donal calculates. 15 all.
“Why would you want to go there?” Molly demands. “Nothing but queers and hookers.”
Jimmy snorts around his food. “Hoo-ers,” he echoes, inadvertently giving a synonym for a word he doesn’t know.
“Better than coal miners and nuns,” Anne responds, pulling an ace in Donal’s estimation.
“Coal mining gave you everything you have, missy,” Molly spat.
“Except the bruises from George,” Anne smirked, popping a hunk of meat into her mouth.
“He was a nice boy,” Molly countered.
“Until the first time he got as plastered as you do,” Anne replied, sending Brigid and Lucy into deep self-denial while Sean suddenly found his cutlery very interesting, and Junior remembered all the words to his rosary.
“So nothing I do is good enough for you, is that it?”
“Yeah, it isn’t.”
“After all your father has done, slaving in the mines just so you could have shoes to wear to school. And me. Should we talk about me for a minute? Thirteen children I bring into this world, only to have them all turn on me. It’s terrible.”
“Not me, ma,” Junior moaned.
“I love you,” Mary spoke.
“I — not me,” Lucy offered.
Brigid grabbed the wine and poured.
“Hollywood is full of faggots,” Junior suddenly opined, eyes glued on Donal, who ignored him.
“At least they’re not wife beaters,” Anne replied.
“George may have gone to a different church, but he was a good Catholic boy. You think you’ll find that in California?” Molly spoke slowly, knuckles white around the stem of her glass.
“Of course not,” Anne answered, standing. “Why the hell do you think I’m going there?”
“Language!” Molly warned.
“Oh, bullshit,” Anne answered. “I hope I find some nice Jewboy to marry. Some rich doctor, and I may even damn well convert. “
“Don’t shout, please. No shouting,” Sean, Sr., finally spoke, voice heavy with phlegm.
“This whole goddamn town is choking us,” Anne added, stepping from the table.
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” Mary spewed, smug expression of righteousness aimed at Molly.
“God, god, goddamn,” Anne aimed back at her. “You wouldn’t know god if he bit you on your fat pimply ass.”
Lucy suppressed a giggle and Donal hid his smile behind his hand. God, if only he had the balls his favorite sister did. Then he could do things. But, instead, he watched in silence.
“You are not going to California,” Molly finally proclaimed.
“The hell I’m not,” Anne ended the conversation with a toss of her hair and a stomp out of the room. The momentary silence was deafening, until Molly finally demanded the wine bottle back, and Mary quickly grabbed it from Brigid and poured, over-filling the glass and staining the tablecloth. Molly took a deep swig of the red, then stared at Sean.
“She’s your daughter,” she said. “Do something.”
But Sean just shrugged and Junior shook his head and above them, on the second floor, a door slammed, and the rest of Sunday dinner — like so many of them — was consumed in silence.
“So what do you know how to do, honey?” Shirley eyed Anne over the dark bags under her eyes, flame red locks drizzling from her hair-net, the filter of her lit but neglected Chesterfield spinning idly between her lips as she spoke.
“This,” Anne answered, gesturing at the long chrome counter at Van de Kamp’s. “I worked a few places back home, coal miners for breakfast. These suits will be easy.”
“So you say now,” Shirley sneered, hiding her instant liking for this girl. “We get some real weirdoes in here.”
“Good,” Anne answered. “Keeps it interesting.”
“There’s a union for this?”
“Honey, in LA there’s a union for everything. Mostly good for leeching dues from you, then telling you when you can’t work because some honcho in a three piece gets a wild hair up his ass. The bright side is, we get paid more here than places that aren’t unionized. I take it you ain’t union?”
“No. I just moved here.”
“Ninety days, you get in. Hours are four to noon, and a half shift Saturday or Sunday, your choice. Personally, I recommend any time but Sunday afternoon. Those churchy bastards are really lousy tippers. When can you start?”
“I got it?”
“You want it, you got it. So, when?”
Anne glanced at her watch. “Now?”
Shirley laughed with a racking wheeze and smiled for the first time. “Kid, I like you. You’ll light a fire under some of the lazy keisters around here. Tomorrow morning?”
“Sure. What do I have to do?”
“Show up. Three-thirty, let’s say. I’ll let Miss Liberty know. She’s the night supervisor.”
“That’s her real name, and believe me it ain’t ‘cause this broad has ever carried a torch. Don’t worry. I come on at four, so you only have to put up with her for half an hour. Oh, we’ll get you a uniform. They deduct twenty cents a week for that until it’s paid for, but it’s completely tax-deductible. For the moment. Bastards. And that’s about it. See you tomorrow morning, then?”
“See you then.” Anne said.
“Unless I win the Irish Sweepstakes tonight,” Shirley laughed back.
Anne stepped through the heavy glass door and onto Wilshire Boulevard, which seemed to glow in the winter light of a late mid-morning. They called it the Miracle Mile, and right now she could see why. She pulled the list out of her purse; a dozen restaurants within walking distance of the bus-stop at La Brea, and Van de Kamp’s had been the first she went into. She considered the rest of the names briefly, then crumpled the paper, dropped it in a nearby trash-can, and walked back to the bus-stop.
Why check anywhere else? This had been easy, Shirley looked like fun and it was union. Anne wasn’t exactly sure what that part would involve, but it sounded great, and her father was a union man, close to retiring on disability now, and the union was taking care of the family, so it must be something good.
Her father. He was the only thing she really missed about home. That and the river, the Susquehanna, crossing under the two bridges that connected Kingston and Wilkes-Barre. It was a small town, but the view of the Market Street Bridge as you crossed up and over, passing the huge and elaborate 19th Century Courthouse, made it seem almost cosmopolitan, a mini New York City plonked into the despoiled greenery of Eastern Pennsylvania. The river was beautiful, at least when it wasn’t turning on the town and overflowing its banks. A lot of things were like that.
For the moment, L.A. was beautiful. Above her, a blue glass windmill spun in the still air, the long windows giving diners a view of passers-by on Wilshire, and vice versa. And there were plenty of people here, dumped out of offices, bustling back and forth. Men in sharp suits and fedoras, crewcuts and wide ties, the cuffs of their pants just so and sharply pressed, stepping in and out of office buildings, carrying briefcases and all of them in intent conversation, with plans, ideas, goals, and dreams.
Dreams that were happening above and around them in quiet offices where the miracle of air-conditioning had banished the outside world and fluorescent light made the rooms glow with hope. The tide of men was counter-washed by a flood of women in matching skirts and jackets, perfectly accessorized, purses clutched purposefully under their arms, a profusion of hats as they tottered along on three-inch heels, guided missiles aimed for the May Company that towered above Wilshire, all five stories of it.
Anne glanced down at her shoes; simple black flats she’d worn since High School. And her purse — brown, plain; she wondered if Shirley had noticed the mismatch, or if she’d care.
And then Anne saw the window at the May Company, a line of mannequins in the latest from New York and Paris and Dallas, all of them looking like Audrey Hepburn, staring aloofly at some point far above everyone’s heads, perfectly accessorized and coiffed and immune to it all. They wouldn’t have cared if their purses and shoes didn’t match, but all of their accessories did.
“A hat,” Anne thought. “I need a hat.” That and so much more, since she had come to town with so little. But she wouldn’t be working until tomorrow, and was sure she wouldn’t be paid for two weeks at least, so would have to set her dreams aside.
Except… this was the Miracle Mile and miracle times, and the businessmen who came in for breakfast on the way to hopeful prosperous days were optimistic and friendly and generous. Anne had started on a Thursday, and took Shirley’s advice regarding Sunday and, by Monday afternoon had made enough in wages and tips to cover half a month’s rent, pay the twenty cent a day round-trip bus fare and see three movies, with money left over. Breakfast was free, and she could manage lunch and dinner cheaply and every day was sunny.
Maybe this had been the place to come and the time to do it, after all.