Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Last Of The Savage Women (new 2nd chapter of The Narcissist)

Eighteen years ago Maggy moved to Santa Barbara. I'd moved there six months before, in part to get away from her, but mostly to be with Charlie. When he and I first left Salt Lake we'd lived together in Salt Lake for four years. Moving to Santa Barbara was moving home for him. For me it was moving to paradise. The climate reminded me of the Italian Riviera. The house sat on eighteen acres of Madrone, Bay, Eucalyptus and Oak forest. It had a view of the jewel that is Santa Barbara directly below with the curve south toward Montecitto and north toward Golita. On a good day we could see the Channel Islands. For a couple of blissful months it was perfect. Charlie set about improving the house and landscaping and I got a great job at Robinsons. Then Maggy started dropping in.

She'd call from Salt Lake and say, "Hi, I'm coming to see you. I'll be there next Thursday and I'll stay for a week." I'd be standing there with the phone clutched to my ear and my mouth hanging open, listening to a dial tone, heart thudding as adrenalin flooded my system. I could never beat her to the draw. She'd never been to Santa Barbara. We had room, didn't we? I could pick her up at 7:30 Thursday night. She knew how to entertain herself. She was a grown-up. Whenever I heard words like that from Maggy I could not help but roll my eyes.

Six months later Maggy has a great job and Charlie and I have separated. Now I have an apartment near Alice Keck Park on Garden St. And Maggy is living in a villa in the hills of the Riveria, looking down on me again.

She got a job as Caroline Franzen's companion. Caroline is a wealthy widow with an estate on the Riviera just above the Mission in old Santa Barbara. Now Maggy knows every art or film luminary living within a hundred miles of Caroline's house. There is a Salon every Wednesday evening. Maggy is in heaven. She has one of the cottages with a view of the pool and a place at the table of a world she has only dreamed about. Maggy had been a fine arts major and had been named Designer/Craftsman of the year when she graduated. She wore her Phi Beta Kappa key around her neck on a thin gold chain.

I went to her place every other day or so to keep her from dropping in on me. One of the things she been saying she wanted to do was organize the photographs she's kept over the years. I'd offered to help her put them in books. So on this balmy December afternoon we are sitting at her table with the light reflecting off the swimming pool with the photographs spread out into decades, starting from her childhood. And in seeing her life laid out like that, much of it in black and white, started her on a shocking trip down memory lane.

She had portraits I'd never seen of my grandmother Savage looking like a Mexican Madonna and a young, angular, serious Gramps standing stiffly next to her looking down on her as she gazes into the infant face of my Uncle Lindon. Without a doubt my grandmother was a woman whose ancestors had been on this continent many centuries longer than most. I look from this lovely portrait of mother, father, and child, to my mothers face. She has grown more to resemble her mother than I dare tell her. She looks like a blue eyed Eskimo. Her nose is flat across the bridge and her nostrels flare broader than mine. I have my father's, uncle's, grandfather's hawk nosed face. I share their high cheekbones, and angularity, but I have my mothers hairline, mouth, and voice. People often say we look alike, but I think it's that we talk alike. We are rather direct, sometimes our blunt, to the point speech seems rude. I try very hard to soften the edges of my deep strong voice.

Maggy was the the second child. Then came Lucinda, the real baby, and the only family member I look exactly like. Maggy often calls me Lucy. I wish she'd named me Lucy. I liked my aunt. In this picture, Sonny looks so slim and earnest. Lucy seems distracted by something to the side and off in the distance, but Maggy looks straight at the camera as if taking a dare. She is the fierce one of the Savage Women. You can see it in her face even as a six-year-old.

Maggy's been telling me stories of hardship and deprivation during the Great Depression all my life, so I expect to see a family in distress in these photos. I see photos of a family that looks well groomed and glossy, if a bit serious. They stand well dressed in front of a small house or in front of a car. Gramps was a Ford salesman. She has been saying things in a voice like someone narrating a film. But the moment she starts talking about her Daddy, my Gramps, her voice grows venomous. She says, "I tried to get that stupid bitch to leave him all my life." Her finger stabs at a snapshot of Grandmother as a young women wearing a printed shirt dress that comes just below her shins. She stares unsmiling into the camera. She's broad shouldered and slender. She's wearing lace up leather oxfords with stacked heels. Her hair is in a roll at the nape of her neck. She looks very stylish to me. And I never experienced my grandmother as a bitch. Mildly annoying, but the very antitheses of a bitch. My experience of her was of a sweet and generous woman who complained a bit too much. But the last time I saw her I was fifteen.

I stare at the table and realize that much of Maggy's life has been a secret, or rather a mystery to me. She's told stories, but these photos are the illustrations, the cast of characters. There is a snapshot of her in a nurses uniform and I've never seen it before. I look across the table at her and she says, "I dropped out to marry Chuck. It was war time. I met him at a dance and I was mad about him. I had brain fever for that man. He had a big house off base in Paris, and the boys seemed like an adventure, but you were a surprise." She's looking of the portrait photo of Chuck just before she married him and he is indeed a handsome man. He looks a bit like Clark Gable. He has dark hair and a slight dimple in his chin. He has a mustache and dark eyebrows and dark lashes. But there are no wedding photos, there are no snapshots of her pregnant wearing maternity smocks. I ask about this omission, and she tells me that it was one of the worst times of her life. She would have killed anyone who took a picture of her. Besides, nobody had the money for such luxuries as pictures all the time. There was rationing of everything during the war and for years after.

Then she says, out of the blue, "Chuck was involved with a smuggling ring. He sent me money. Lots of it. I hid it. He was a Supply Sergeant. He could get his hands on anything. I saved the baby dress he sent you. But remember my star sapphire ring?" I do. It's exactly the glacial blue of her eyes. "Chuck sent that to me. I have no idea how he came by it. It's set in platinum. I still have the baby dress too, along with your baby book."

"I had a baby book? Why haven't I ever seen it?"
"Because every time you get your hands on something I never see it again." I think she's projecting here, but decide not to get into it. The message is, I'm irresponsible. I try to lose interest in the baby book. But just as I move on she gets up from the table and goes to her closet. I watch her stretch to a top shelf and she pulls down a box. It holds my baby book. She proudly carries it to the table and hands it to me, saying, "You can have it now." I open the pristine book. I leaf through the empty pages and tears start to leak from my eye. I put my hand over my mouth. Maggy says, "What the hell are you crying about?"

It was entirely devoid of photos or mention about the “baby”. The only page that had anything written on it was the page about baby’s pets. Two Dobermans, Gin and Vermouth. No pictures, no writing anywhere except that page, just the breed and names of the dogs. I have kept it as evidence.


The next batch of photos is of my first year. For the first time the boys are not just lined up like stair steps. Now there is a baby being held by one or the other. They don't looked pleased to be pressed into service like this. There's one picture of Jim holding me. My youngest half brother is about six and I am probably three months. He has me under the arms and I dangle there, a long thin baby in a sagging diaper, my head turned to the side. His head is cocked slightly to toward his shoulder. We both look really uncomfortable, but game. And as I'm staring at that picture I have a vision of a swimming pool and a feeling of terror.

"Did the boys take me to a swimming pool?"
"Yes, they took you to the pool on base."
"Just the boys?"
"Yes, why?
"I don't know. How old was JR?"
"Sixteen. He was old enough to babysit you. Chuck and I needed time alone." I feel something like an electric shock run down my spine. The hair at the back of my neck prickles. I recognize panic creeping up on me.

"Here, look at this one." She hands me one of the two of us. "This was your first Christmas. You were six months old." She beams as she hands it to me and in the picture she is lovely, she has the glamourous good looks of a film star. Her hair is black and shiny, pulled back from her face exposing her widow's peak and the broad planes of her cheek bones. She has the most wonderful smile. She has full curved lips and even white teeth. Maggy was a gorgeous woman. She's still a very handsome woman. In the photograph we're looking at, she has me balanced on her knee, her face above mine and she leans into the light of an elaborately decorated and brightly lit Christmas tree. My eyes are glistening in the light from the tree. My wet lips are parted. She looks from the picture to me and says, "You have me to thanks for your good looks."
"Thank you Maggy."
"Too bad you don't have my temperament."
"You'd have been happiest with a clone, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, I think I would have."
"Why did you have me call you Maggy?" I can't believe I haven't asked this before. She hesitates for a moment and then says, "Because the boys called me Maggy and I didn't want you to feel different."
"Do you ever hear from them?"
"No, do you?"
"Not since Jim was arrested."

4 comments:

Beach Bum said...

I stare at the table and realize that much of Maggy's life has been a secret...

The keeping of family secrets is something that bugs the hell out of me. Can't tell you how many times I have apparently been in the wrong place at the wrong time and started to overhear some tidbit of family information unknown to me only to have my family members suddenly shut up once they know I'm around.

Tried to explain this to my wife once and how I had come to just ignore the habit. If I'm to be left out, well dammit I have my own secrets to keep. Trouble is secrets don't stay secret and when a wild one pops up trying to explain my ignorance of whatever it is seems to puzzle my wife and her family.

Anyway, great chapter and I related to the subject.

Utah Savage said...

Boy can you write, Beach. You must write it all. The best stuff is always about someone's secrets.

I'm awfully happy you can relate to it. It always makes me feel better to know that a smart man can relate to what I'm writing.

Since I'm rewriting this chapter in this way, I have to tell several chapters in just this frame. Through the lens of a camera and my mother's memory. But it allows me to talk to the old woman about the young woman she was once. It's an interesting exercise in unraveling a puzzle. I have to show the backstory in a way we all can imagine or have experienced.

Randal Graves said...

Almost makes me wish I had a secret, but I already spilled the mustard.

Good stuff, it very much has the feel of a camera lens. Certain paragraphs are flush with sharp, short sentences, which give the feel of scanning a photo as one eye takes the entirety in, the other picks out bits and pieces of detail.

The one thing that bugs me linguistically is the word 'bitch' repeated so closely, but I'm a sucker for a thesaurus. The more adjectives, the merrier. Unless you were going for a hard emphasis, then nevermind.

Utah Savage said...

Randal, in this context I think bitch is the only word I can use. Maggy has called Grandmother a bitch. Nowhere in my memory do I ever remember my grandmother acting like a bitch.