I have the day off and it's raining. I might as well spend it at Maggy's as sit in my apartment trying to make sense of the things I learned looking at those photographs. I spent two days at work sleepwalking through the speaking engagements and fashion shows. I keep seeing flashes of scenes that seem more real than the crowd at the Biltmore, or the ladies at the Town Club who treat me like visiting royalty. When I return to Robinsons I sit in my plush office and stare at the wall across the room from my desk watching my childhood flash before my eyes like a flickering reel of black and white film.
There are big chunks missing in my memory of those early years, the years I had brothers and we were a family of six. That seems like a large family to me, since I've always been called an "only child." I remember myself as an only child and always wished for siblings. Not necessarily brothers, not like I missed those brothers, but that I didn't really remember them. I only remember tiny bits, like snippets of film. And they are not all pleasant tiny bits.
When I get to Maggy's she's swimming, doing slow laps in a white Esther Williams style bathing suit I've never seen before. She looks lovely slicing through the water. There is a bit of slackness to the skin of her upper thighs and arms, but with her short white hair and lovely fluid stroke she could be a woman in her forties. She had her eyes done in her fifties and so her face has retained much of its youthfulness.
I sit at the patio table on the veranda of her cottage, watching her and smoking. When she's through she grabs a towel and heads toward me smiling, shaking water out of her ears. "Well, I'm a bit surprised to see you today. I have to work this afternoon."
"I just dropped in to see if I could go on looking through the photos. I think I'd like to have a few. I feel the baby book needs pictures of 'baby' and baby's family."
"I was planning on letting you pick some to keep. But I thought we were going to work on this together."
"We are. But is there any problem with my sitting in your quarters while you're with Caroline? I just want to set aside a few of the pictures we looked at Tuesday evening. I've been thinking about Jim and his run-in with the law. Now I wonder about his daughters. His wife kicked him out and got a restraining order. He did not get custody or visitation with his three daughters. Do you remember the charges?"
"I can't talk about all that now. I have to get ready. Caroline and I are going to UCSB to see an exhibition of student work. I'm going to help her pick a few promising artists for fellowships."
"So can I stay?"
"I guess so. Help yourself to tea or coke. But don't take the pictures you want with you. I want to see what you take."
I feel demeaned by her mistrust, her assumption that I will rip her off. She seems to think the whole world is out to rip her off. Is this just more of her Great Depression neurosis?
I stay on the veranda, smoking, while Maggy changes clothes. Before she leaves, she says to me, "And don't smoke inside!" She gives me a withering look. Since she quit smoking she is like a religious convert in her zeal to get me to quit. This pressure from the woman who taught me to smoke at five years old just makes me want to smoke more.
I make myself cozy in her main room at the table by the sliding glass doors. All the photos are there in stacks like we left them. I quickly find the first one I want. Its the one of Jim holding baby me under the arms as I dangle there, looking off to the side. Jim is wearing shorts and a camp shirt. He has a funny hat on, like a beany without a bill. We seem to be standing under the shade of a tree in a dirt field. It looks like an overgrazed pasture. I keep having this feeling that something terrible happened at the swimming pool. I set that one aside and reach for the one with all the boys and me. They wear swim trunks, have towels thrown over their shoulders and I wear a very baggy cloth diaper. Who took this picture? I put this photo with the first one. I'm starting to search for clues. Why did we leave Texas? Why are they, these missing brothers, in all these pictures yet I have no clear memory of us as a family? There are a few pictures of Maggy and Chuck together and they are usually quite romantic. They seem to always be nuzzling each other. They always seem to be alone. But someone took the pictures.
I look at the whole bunch of photographs of my first five years, trying to figure out who the photographer is. In all those pictures there are only a few of JR, my oldest brother. And then I feel a vivid sense of loss. It engulfs me in a tightening of my throat and the gathering of tears.
JR seemed likeliest to be the one who took most of the photos, based on his absence from so many of them. I bet he's the one who took the pictures of Maggy and Chuck in moments of affection with none of the rest of us around them except for one picture. In that one photo I am trying to get their attention. We're in what looks like a campground and the two of them are at a picnic table. I seem to be holding up a flower or weed to them as they kiss each other. They are oblivious to me, and I am but a tiny, insignificant supplicant. Maggy is wearing a white peasant blouse with short puffy sleeves and a wide gathered neckline, exposing a lot of lovely shoulder. Her long dark hair is parted in the middle and braided with the braids crossing across the top of her head. I have on shorts and a similar kind of blouse in plaid. I too have my hair in short pigtails that are pinned to my head. Chuck is a very handsome man. If it weren't for the Airstream trailer hitched to a 1942 Buick sedan in the background of this photo, I'd have thought we were on a day trip, but this is the family on the road.
It was Chuck's dream to spend years seeing the country. The boys probably thought it was great getting taken out of school to live like gypsies. Even Maggy was okay with the idea until the reality set in after a month of trying to feed us and keep us clean and from killing each other while driving from camp site to camp site.
I remember Maggy telling stories about the horrors of that year and a half on the road. All the trauma for her was a result of traveling with four kids. We were the problem that brought the perfect love to an end in Salt Lake City in the Autumn of 1946. We were the ones with the flu as they drove us across the Mojave the third time. We all had diarrhea and vomiting. We ran out of clothes that didn't smell like vomit or shit. I remember her telling me this story a long time ago. It didn't mean much to me then. But now I wish I could remember more of her stories about the past she so seldom talks about these days. She said she just couldn't take the monotony and hard work of living on the road anymore. They still had a lot of cash. The first day in that trailer park in Salt Lake when she was supposed to be doing laundry, she took the rest of the cash and put a hefty down payment on a big stone house on 9th Avenue. That was when the fighting started. I remember the fighting. Nobody has to tell me about the fighting. We've never really talked about that, but somehow I know she'll tell me it all revolved around me.
I have a photo in my hand. It's probably the last one JR took before he joined the Air Force in 1947 when I was three. This photo of me was taken on the front porch of the house on 9th Ave. I look like the child who symbolizes The Great Depression. In this picture I sag against one of the ropes of the wood slat swing at the west end of the porch, my head lolling on my shoulder, eyes staring vacantly down and off at an oblique angle. My face is filthy and the romper I have on is torn and dirty. My hair blows in stringy wisps across my cheeks which are streaked with dirt as if I’ve been crying. My arms and legs are tiny and fragile looking and as dirty as my face. Filthy bare feet dangling, toes turned inward. Limp, perfect, dirty little toddler feet.
As I look at this photo I have a flash of memory and my hands start shaking. I get a feeling like I just might die of grief right now and a scene starts unfolding as I try to avoid seeing it.
It had to be a weekend day because Maggy was home. The boys had come and gone during the morning and early afternoon. It was warm enough that I was wearing a short sleeved dress. It was probably mid-spring. I know it was before my fourth birthday. I was playing on the front porch when a man came up the stairs and rang the doorbell. The door was open but the screen was closed. Maggy yelled from the kitchen, “Come on in, the door’s open.”
He was looking at me and smiling. “Hi. Remember me? I’m a friend of your big brother’s. My names Clark, remember? I used to live up the street with my family, remember? What’s your name? I forgot.”
Maggy had come to the screen and was listening to him. “Clark, how are you? I heard you enlisted in the Air Force. How're you liking it?”
“Fine, just fine, Ma'am. Is J.R. around? I’ve got a couple of days in town to visit family, and then who knows where?”
“J.R. should be back any minute. I was just going to run to the market, would you mind watching Judy while you wait for J.R.? I won’t be long.” She turned to me . “You remember Clark, don’t you? I’ll be right back.”
“Can I go?”
“No, you slow me down.”
“I can carry.”
“No you can’t. I’ll just have to end up carrying you. Stop this! Clark will stay with you until J.R. gets home and besides I won’t be gone more than a half an hour. That’s nothing.”
Clark looked at me and said, “I can do magic tricks.” He kneeled down and looked over his shoulder at Maggy as she started down the steps. I watched her, too. Her hair was in a ponytail, and she wore a white sleeveless blouse. She had a small white purse in her hand. She didn’t look back.
Then he stood up and walked to the southeast corner of the porch. He leaned against the stone and concrete pillar supporting the roof and said. “Wanna see something?”
I backed up toward the house and leaned against its river stone wall and rolled from shoulder to shoulder feeling the bumpy surface. I stuck my thumb in my mouth and stared at him.
“I’ve got a surprise in my pocket and if you can reach it, it’s all yours.”
“You’ll have to reach in to find out.”
I looked from his pants pocket to his face. He was smiling and his arms were spread wide, palms turned up. He whistled tunelessly and looked around. He shrugged his shoulders and looked down from pocket to pocket.
I inched my way around the porch from the front window to the east side of the house, edging closer until I faced him in the corner. I reached my hand up but could barely grab hold of his pocket with my fingers.
He said, “Here, let me give you a boost.” He put his hands around my waist and slid me up his leg until I could slip my arm down into the depths of his pocket. I felt around. There was a crusty wadded up hankie, a piece of paper, and a coin. I closed my fingers on the coin and pulled out my fist. He said, “Let’s see what you got,” and set me down. I opened my hand and found a coin smaller than a penny and few bits of lint. The coin was shiny and silver. I looked up and said, “It’s not a penny.”
“No, it’s better than a penny, it’s worth ten pennies.”
“I want a penny.”
“I’ve got something else that’s better than a penny.”
“It’s a little animal.”
“Better than a kitty. Come on and I’ll show you.”
I took a couple of steps toward him and he reached out and pulled me closer. Then he picked me up and moved a little to the right until his butt was resting on the ledge. One foot on the floor and the other dangling. He sat me on his lap and held me with his right arm. With his left hand he stroked his left leg, high up on the thigh. A bump wiggled there. He said, “That’s my little animal, wanna touch it?”
I shook my head no.
He said, “Look, I can make it jump. He ran the flat of his hand down the length of it and it jumped.
I leaned back in his right arm and laughed.
He said, “It won’t hurt you. Honestly, you can touch it. Here, I’ll put you down. You get right in front of me and reach up. It won’t bite.”
He gently slid me down so that I was positioned right in front of him. That lumpy, jumpy animal was above my face. He said, “Go ahead, touch it.”
I reached out my finger and poked it gently. Nothing happened. “Why don’t you try petting it, like you would a kitty?”
I patted it softly and it jumped. I pulled my hand back, and he said, “That’s ok, you can pet it, he likes that.” So I reached up and rubbed it. It moved again, and it was warm. He said. “Wanna see it?”
I looked up at his smiling face, his eyebrows raised in anticipation of showing me his animal. I shook my head up and down. He said, “I can’t take it out on the porch, I’m afraid it’ll run away. Let’s go inside.” He took me by the hand and led me to the screen door, opened it and gently pushed me in before him.
He told me to lie down on the rug in front of the sofa. Then he kneeled down at my feet and unzipped his pants. He said, “Here, move your legs a little so I can get him closer to you. I don’t want him to get lost in here. Now close your eyes. He’s shy.” He moved forward on his knees, bent down, reached up and pulled my panties down around my ankles where they got hung up on my shoes. He got them off one leg, and then he put something very warm and smooth on my tummy and wiggled it back and forth. I was nervous with my eyes closed, but it didn’t hurt. Then he pushed it at my peepee and it hurt. I opened my eyes and said, “Ow, that hurt!” I tried to scoot away from him, but he pulled me toward his animal and tried to push it in my peepee. I screamed, and he put his hand over my mouth and tried to put his animal in my bum. Then the back door screen slammed. And he was running. And the front door screen slammed. And he was gone.
Maggy came into the living room after setting her package on the kitchen table. She said, “Judy, what the hell are you bawling about?”
I was curled up facing the sofa, blubbering. Snot and tears streaked my face. My dress was bunched up under my arms and my panties wadded around one ankle. I just kept sobbing. She came around the sofa, sat down and looked at me for a minute. Then she said, “I know what will make you feel better. We’ll go on a picnic at Lindsey Gardens. I’ll make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Now put your panties on and come help me. We’ll wash your hands and face and you can put the jelly on.”
I don’t remember fixing sandwiches or walking to Lindsey Gardens, but I do remember having to pee. She said, “Just go over there behind that bush, no one will see you. Don’t pee on your shoes.”
I don’t remember the bush or the picnic blanket, or anything else, but I do remember the burning. The fire in my pee. I screamed and hobbled over to her, pulling my panties up and crying.
She said, “That’s what happens when you let boys do things like that. Don’t ever let a boy do that to you again!”
And then I'm back at Caroline Franzen's house on the lovely Riviera of Santa Barbara sitting at the table of my mother's cottage with the light glancing off the blue water of the swimming pool making little rippling movements on the surface of the table like dancing light. I lean over and vomit on the floor. I run to the bathroom and vomit again in the toilet. I can't stop. I'm on my knees having dry heaves, sobbing. I know without a doubt what I have just remembered is true. I feel it in my nerves, muscles, bones. I know it happened. And I know what comes next, but I don't want to remember it. Yet I can't stop the flood of images and sounds as if a film were playing and I can't leave the theatre. I'm helpless to stop the sounds in my mind. I have to get out of here.
Profile In Cowardice, Jason Chaffetz
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