The daughter waits for her mother to leave the house.
There they are, three people together but in different
worlds: The Mother, Gerry; the daughter, Adrienne; the
friend, Beverly. Each in the same moments in time close
to the same place in space: Mother in her house,
preparing to depart; daughter outside the house,
standing next to a van; friend in the van, sitting
behind the wheel — moving truck parked at the curb.
Mother stands in her upstairs hallway enclosed in a
chaos of silence. What else is there to do? It is over,
done with. She sees, hears, feels only that which is
directly in her path. There is no one, no sound, no
movement, because this is the last time. Walk down the
spiral staircase, step across the purple carpet, turn
off the crystal chandelier, open the front door, step
across the threshold, close it, insert the key, lock it.
She touches, then pats the surface, strokes the heavy
grained, varnished wood; it is warm. She remembers, it
could have happened five minutes ago —
I threw Stuart’s mother, Elsie, out
this door, grabbed her by the back of the neck and the
seat of her pants, out she went, crazy bitch, trying to
break up our marriage.
Now, Mother walks
through the patio filled with the dying camellias, her
high heels clicking against the porch tiles. She pulls
open the gate, warped and twisted with age and neglect,
the latch is broken, closes it as best she can, making a
Stuart will have to hire someone to fix it.
She turns, her back to the house, sees her —oh — so
familiar street, the parkway lined with messy purple
flowering trees: why can’t I ever remember what those
trees are called? The traffic is howling by.
Years ago, no traffic, no sirens, no helicopters; a
quiet street: pregnant. Richard, the sought after son.
The daughter, Adrienne, watchful of her mother as she
fusses with the gate latch, thinking, "As though
latching it matters now." The reflection from the
overhead glare of the sun on the white cement driveway
makes her shade her eyes. She shifts from one foot to
the other; edgy, impatient, forced immobility seeps out
and spills over her feet to form a naked, minute shadow.
Her back is killing her. She continues to watch as her
mother stands there, back to the gate, lingering,
staring up and then down the street. And then as though
she is writing one of her research papers she
deliberately revisits events of the years gone by,
gathering her materials, organizing the scenario: of
what had brought them to this final day: her eyes
narrow, fingers tapping her thighs, she begins:
Learned, as I grew up that this architecturally
styled Spanish house was one of three built next to
one another in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.
This two storied, four bedroom, three bath, two
balcony house with vaulted and beamed front room
ceiling, formal dining room, maid’s quarters,
spacious kitchen, den, breakfast nook, huge front
and back yards, front patio, front and back
balconies, cedar lined closets, built in cupboards
lining the walls, a spiral staircase, a great
The $17,000 price to be an extravagance.
Dad’s law practice was flourishing.
Another baby was expected.
There was room for each one of us, at least for a
That was then. Dad died.
It was the 1994 Northridge earthquake that
foreshadowed, set the stage, and began the beginning
of the last act.
W .C. Fields was right when he said: "There is no
proof that earthquakes aren’t all bad."
Adrienne’s concentration was broken by a flutter of
movement, the scent of tobacco. She looks up — the
driveway. Mother’s still there, now smoking a cigarette
— she will be patient; she returns to her thinking:
Mother should have left — years ago, Albert died —
Albert, her last companion: ashes in the garden. It was
too much for her. Fifty years — her house is exhibiting
all the symptoms of age as well as was the occupant:
eighty-three, alone. Mother and the house both are now
shattered by time and events. For the house is a chimney
pulling away from the walls, windows that would no
longer close, roof tiles broken, ceiling leaking, pipes
leaking, the walls mildewing. Everything of what was in
and what was out so utterly destabilized by age and then
add the trauma associated with movements of the earth.
For the Mother it was also time and neglect plus
loneliness that was stealing away her youthful vitality:
dental losses, sight impairments, unsteady mobility,
judgment and memory failure.
A familiar clicking sound interrupts Adrienne’s
concentration. The Mother is moving down the last thirty
feet, maintaining her balance from step to step, with
the daughter poised, ready, almost sneaking behind her,
in case — muttering, if I hear about dancing and
balance and her legs again I’ll choke, but there is such
dignity, such pride and vanity in one little body. And
she won’t want help getting into the van, but I have to
do it anyhow.
Little by little, step-by-step, tottering down the
sloping driveway, to the vehicle parked curbside. Then
into it and then the ride to Adrienne’s ranch an hour
away, to stay there the night before the longer
three-day journey north. And, no, she doesn’t want help
getting into the rented van, Adrienne insists:
"Place your left foot and leg in first, put your left
hand on the front grab bar, pull and swing your body,
fanny first, onto the seat. I’ll fasten your belt."
Mother is seated, belted in. The door closes
decisively. Her two dogs on their rugs in the third
seat: no, no, no, I told them, not my dogs on an
airplane; too hard on them, even for a two hour flight.
Her body is rigid, feet on the floor, hands folded in
her lap, statue like, head positioned to the front; a
painted smile on her lips, but hidden behind the
darkening of her transitional lenses her eyes are fixed,
sightless; she closes them, but still she is looking,
trying to open them to the closed window within.
No, no, no. I’ll never, no never give up my high
heels — "Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your
worries on the doorstep" — my legs, my strongest
feature, won’t function today.
Her hands clammy and rigid, gripped her upper legs,
then she crosses her right leg over her left, feeling
the ankle straps of her four-inch high heel shoes, her
whole body shuddering, this time not with cold but with
fright. She reaches over to her left, wraps her arms
around her foundling dog, Laurie, takes in a great
breath, reaches once more, into her unconditional self —
makes contact, her memory… she had danced with the then
renowned Ted Lewis Band, 1926, her first theatrical job
in America; danced with her sister Willa — the New York
newspapers headlined her, Belgium Beauty; before that in
Europe; her Mother the café entertainer, World War I.
Willa, Willa, poor Willa, Did I put
my jewels in the purse? Stuart and I danced.
We won contests. He loved my dancing, and the rest of
me, too. Dinner at 5:00, he insisted, Prime Rib every
Wednesday. Could that be true? No, no, that isn’t what I
She drags her bag across the
floor, pulls it onto the seat; the house keys are still
in her hand. I can throw away the keys, no, not yet.
"Life can be so sweet, on the sunny side of the street."
Did I turn off the heat? She drops the keys into her
bag, into obscurity; pats her dogs, gives them each a
cookie, gets slobbery kisses in return. She isn’t really
ready to be ready.
And what is the weather like
this day? Is it sunny? Yes, but it could be anything,
windy, raining, with thunder and lightening, hail, snow;
Mother wouldn’t notice, it doesn’t matter: she is cold;
she was always cold, and now she has the bitter taste of
bile in her mouth, painful knots in her stomach force
her to stretch, straighten her body, she fumbles around
in her bag, her quivering
hands find, grasp, pull out her
cigarettes, she shakes the pack, cigarettes spill out,
she grabs at one, fumbles around in her bag again, finds
her matches, pulls off one, strikes it, holds it, lights
her cigarette; cigarettes scattered across her lap,
unseen. She sits there bitterly detached, shivering,
even though the sun’s heat is radiating through the roof
of the van, through the clouds of smoke that swirl
around her head.
Something’s not right — me —
Scared? "I used to walk in the shade with those blues on
parade. But I’m not afraid …this rover’s crossed over"…
Frightened? I feel…damn, I feel
— empty, hollow, alone — no man in my life— old? No —
not this chick— it’s the car. Yes, the damn car, the
drive, the bitchin drive:
She has always told herself and
others of her dread of going in an automobile. Once or
was it twice she had tried to learn how to drive, was
that 60 years ago?
In her last spouseless years it
was taxis and buses or walking to the Farmer’s Market
and Gilmore Bank, Good-bye Farmers Market, good-bye
Gilmore Bank, good-bye Third Street walks, good-bye
dinners at El Coyote, "On the sunny side of the street".
Mmm…ta, ta, ta, "the pitter-pat and that happy tune in
your step…Is anybody happy? No, It’s… Is everybody
happy?"… But her first husband, her stage door
Johnnie, had been such a grand driver, so handsome, so
chivalrous. He came home one day driving a new 1933
luxury Cord. No job, no prospects, owes money to friends
and family; I’m in a $ 1.98 Mode-o-Day dress, Adrienne
isn’t paid for. That was it, the end of our marriage.
When she developed her fear-of-driving she could not
remember, but it lasted through two more husbands.
To regain her stability, her
poise, she leans back and inhales. She has cupped her
left hand under her right and holding firm, lifts the
cigarette to her lips, takes a second drag. Even, deep,
Smoking is not going to be the cause of my premature
death, I mean, after all, how premature can premature be
at my age?
Her dogs are curled up on their
blanketed seat. Her eldest daughter is seated in front
of her. Beverly, the friend, is at the wheel. Without
turning back, Adrienne says, "It’s OK to look back, mom.
Say your final goodbye." Beverly says, "Close your eyes
Gerry, we’re ready to move out."
She has to do it, take that one
last look. She turns, extends her arm out the window,
her cigarette falls into the wet gutter — she turns
back, fumbles in her purse, sees the cigarettes all over
her lap, grabs one, pulls off a match, lights another.
Smoke coils and drifts out the window. Bev reaches for
the key already waiting in the ignition switch.
Again, Mother twists her body around, this time
keeping her hand in. As she turns, time turns with her;
her eyes clench shut, she does not struggle to open
them. She is inadvertantly delving into her long gone
private world knowing who will not be there: the
children, Richard and Cynthia, the grandchildren; and
all her friends, her neighbors: no one will be there
waving their good-byes. No one. No Edith, no Sally, no
Frances, no Frankie, no Pauline, Bernice, Francine, no
Chris and Nancy, Todd and Kyle, the Heckler boys,
Jerry and Ronnie, Patty, the Cherrys, the Bruckners,
Mrs. Muckler, the Millers, the Pastel boys: they all had
either moved, died or were in nursing homes. Strangers,
now unfriendly Hassidic Jews with countless unfriendly
children occupy the houses on both sides of the street.
Mother looks back: the street more than empty —
barren. "Stuart…my God…Stuart. Without opening
her eyes she caresses her ample wealth filled breasts,
nods, money’s all there. Then she stabs her hand into
the depths of her purse, twists it around, pulls out her
cosmetic bag, feels for her lipstick, finds the familiar
shape, pulls off the interlocking cover of the long
cylinder, twists the tube, raises the red stick, she
paints her trembling lips, flecks of red stain her front
teeth, she runs her tongue over them; sucks in saliva,
the stain spreads.
Her eyes open, she drinks in the
images as she would drink a cup of tea.
She sees a white stucco two story Spanish style house
with red roof tiles, a low garden wall of peeling white
painted bricks that enclose the patio, the front
balcony, a flower garden she has always planted with
Zinnias, Snapdragons, Pansies, and the Iris, the ginger,
the Coral tree, the one remaining palm tree of the three
that once marked the south side of the property.
Adrienne looks and sees what Mother doesn’t: a dying
grass covered slope, broken cement flower beds, the
leaky sprinklers making their moss covered marks on the
sidewalk, the wrought iron gate hanging from crumbling
adobe posts, the rusted entrance bell, the twisted mail
box, the broken address stone, 140 South, the cement
driveway, now cracked with age, shifting down the
Something flashes through
Mother’s memory, unexplainable: riding in the trunk of a
car — it’s gone. Thinking: I never even handled the
finances until Stuart died, I gave him a son, he gave me
a sable coat, my furs, are they safe? I think I did
well, for what I wanted to be, a kept woman. I promised,
I was promised that I could die in this house; my
promise to him, my beloved Stuart, his shrine, his
castle. She chokes back a deep sob, the corners of
her mouth quiver .
Mmm, these last years, empty, lonely years. Albert,
dear, devoted, Albert did his best. "And If I never have
a cent, I’d be rich as Rockefeller."
This last morning she had
labored, struggled to dream on, resisted wakefulness.
Her bed was empty, cold, the room was cold, everything,
everywhere was cold. She had punched the furnace button
to ON, full blast, her last hurrah! — her husband had
disapproved of the heat on high.
As usual, she had gone
downstairs to the kitchen; made herself a cup of tea, a
bowl of oatmeal, a bite or two, at the sink to have a
cigarette. What will happen to my beautiful stove?
She washed her dishes, stacked them to dry for
later, padded back up the stairs, threading her way
around, between, and past all the pieces of her life,
now labeled, enclosed in cardboard.
For almost a month Adrienne
and Beverly had been sorting, packing, stacking, tagging
boxes for the movers. Every room was stripped. Adrienne
had innocently asked, "What do you want us to pack?"
And this very morning, as she
prepared herself before the movers and carriers arrival
to finish up the last of what she termed "their dirty
work," she mused on the fact that:
It’s been twenty-seven days of
preparation, hmm, Stuart and I were married on the 27th
Standing there, wearing a silken
purple robe, in her ornate Roman style bathroom with the
vanity lights framing the entire mirrored wall, she put
herself together: lavish, theatrical makeup applied to
skin, eyes, lips (it took her longer these days,
glaucoma slowed down the artistic application). Curlers
dropped into her hands, hair combed out, sprayed into
place (she had been a blond for more than sixty years)
nails polished a favorite bright red (she had been a
manicurist at Yalmer’s Barber Shop at Paramount Studios
in the early
1930’s). Thinking but not
thinking: now, my
nails are not as strong and long as they once were; I
have my father’s beautiful hands. Hair formula Mark,
wrote it down. Purse, yes, he put it in my purs.
Absent-mindedly she lets her
robe slip off of her shoulders to the floor; reaches for
her elaborate lingerie, leans against the shower door
that encloses the enormous sunken tub.
For the journey, she has
selected her most appropriate traveling clothes, a
one-piece safari jump suit, which she smoothes out over
her petite, beautifully proportioned figure, (the 1962
implants had restored her breasts to their original
fullness). Next in the sequence, her sparkling gold four
inch spiked high heels, she sits on the commode to do
this, then comes the dangling diamond earrings, jeweled
rings on her fingers and bracelets to match.
A cigarette is lit, inhaled,
placed on the edge of the sink; she lifts her colossal
purse up to the tiled sink apron and begins to check the
contents and as she inventories she adds whatever is
left within her reach: in drops a bag of jewels, a bag
of money (the big bills are slipped into her brassiere).
Next in, her wallet, pictures, folding umbrella,
tissues, matches, lighters, six packs of cigarettes, a
box of dog biscuits. She is all set: her journey to a
new house, close to her number two daughter’s house in
Oregon. Stuart’s first
born when he was thirty-eight. I knew that he had to
have a family to round out, fill in his lonely life. I
couldn’t save him — Elsie, evil, controlling, lying,
bitch, she finally took her son back. I’ll never get to
visit his grave again, but I left my words there:
He Lived With Honor
dust at my feet, on the sunny side of the street".
Bev checks on the dogs, they are
calm. She smiles as she thinks, by now
they should be relaxed, quiet, with
the soothing effect of the tranquilizers I gave them.
But, Adrienne is not smiling, her eyes shift from her
mother to the old house, she glares at it, the old house
I will never fucking ever
again have to see, hear, smell, stay under your fucking
roof, walk up your fucking long, narrow driveway, the
very one, you’ll remember, that was witness to my dog
Ginger being torn from my arms, witness to the screaming
of "If you don’t like it here, go live with your
father." How many times did I wash your damn cement
surface? It was never enough to clean away the pain.
Never again will I open your fucking gate, see your
fucking garden, sit in your fucking rooms full of the
fucking display of gaud, of gold and purple, climb your
fucking spiral staircase; enter the fucking room that
was once mine, decorated by a fucking stranger for a
stranger: fucking Early American maple, frills, do dads,
a canopy bed, ugly. Never fucking again to be fearful
about being late! Never will I have to remember the
sneaking in your fucking giant front door; pressing down
hard to prevent the squeak; never fucking ever again.
Her left hand races up to her
mouth; covers it, just for a second, then she passes her
tongue, front teeth over her thumbnail.
No, I won’t begin that childhood
habit, not now, not ever again. I have strong,
well-manicured nails now, like Mother’s.
She turns, 180°, her back to the
house, looks up the street, down the street, across the
street. I can never remember the name of those trees,
messy purple flowers, Eddie Gonick lived in that house,
great pal, lovely mother, mean father, the Dietz’s lived
there, the Silks, there …the umm, what was their name,
the father owned a glass company, and over there, Mrs.
Muckler, grew enviable Camellias, and the crazy
Bruckners, next door. She shouted day in and day out,
"Raymond, Raymond, get in here." There’re all gone now.
She bent down, a fleeting look into the van, smiled,
nodded, Beverly smiled, nodded back. Adrienne
straightened her body, lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply,
turned back to face the house. She couldn’t stop the
continuing procession of intruding thoughts: and I
won’t have to travel down
the 405, veer left to the 10 to Fairfax, to Hauser, to
140. Thank God, I’ll never have to swallow the anger,
the pain; shit, I couldn’t do that very well, could I.
And then that horrible, distorted portrait on the wall
in the living room, Mother and her three children, she
has four. She had it painted for their father. I knew
that. It still hurts.
But finally, a smile, she
remembers her impressive Step-dad: their Saturday
afternoons at the tennis club, Sundays the tennis courts
at the Doheny Estate, the shopping trips, days at his
office at the Subway Terminal Building in Los Angeles,
and most of all their long walks together. They could
talk away from the house with its ears in every room.
God, he was so honest and knowing, he understood
so much, died too soon.
Bev knows that soon the doors
will be locked, seat belts secured. The engine will
quietly come to life — She watches in the side view
mirror as Adrienne stretches out her hand to her Mother.
The Mother of 140 South Martel
has left the house.