Home of the Brave
It is 1955. My mother, 25 years-old with long, swept back chestnut curls, deep dimples and pearly teeth, is wearing an apron over her tightly-waisted, flared skirt falling just below the knee, and cap-sleeved cotton blouse, all hand-made and carefully ironed. I am two and a half years-old and the earth is shaking pots and pans off the stove and dishes onto the floor, as my father clutches me in one iron arm, while gripping the door jamb with his other hand. An overhead electric brass chandelier in the living room of our rented first-floor farmhouse dwelling swings so erratically that its transparent bulbs shatter against the ceiling.
A young, enterprising, footloose couple who have recently relocated from Alameda, California, the Bay Area, my birthplace, though not theirs, to the tiny town of Fallon, the “oasis” of Nevada, so-called because a river runs through it, my parents are working to establish their own restaurant on Maine Street. Not Main St., although it is that too. They think the young, slow, forward-looking West is full of promise, “a good place to raise kids.” My father cooks 16-hour days in his whites, wearing a tall toque and a starched towel tucked into the waistband of his pants in lieu of an apron, which inevitably takes on the streaked, bloody colors of a furious sunset. He butchers his own meat so that he knows it is fresh.
After he drives the five miles home in his heavy, drafty, slow Chevy, sometimes in the wee hours, he tosses a 45 on the record player, gets me out of bed, perches me on one crisply starched, white knee, and sings along with the record, cigarette in his free hand, cocktail at the ready, while my mother fries him a hamburger.
Tonight, he has chosen “This Old House.” Shaky. Old. Cold. Absorbing the rhythmic language like a sponge, I enthusiastically sing along with my father and Shakin Stevens to the hammiest of my toddler ability. Dad squeezes me in his muscular arm and takes a generous swallow of his drink, while we laugh conspiratorially. Again! So, he reaches over and places the needle on the outer rim of the black disc. There is a crunching, crackling sound. Then the lights flicker, expire, and the world rumbles.
I have a photo, taken just before the earthquake, with the Fallon Coffee Shop as backdrop. My cousin and I, dressed in rick-racked skirts and beaded moccasins, cowboy hats pushed back on our heads, squinting into the sun, pose dutifully in front of a stone wall on which has been painted, “The Fallon Coffee Shop—Steaks, Chops, Seafood.” A cave into which this family has rolled all savings and debts, the restaurant will be roped off and quarantined only a few hours following the big shake up. Bill and Alice will lose everything, right down to the food stocked high in the walk-in freezer. Bill will nurse a grievance against the local, crooked authorities for the rest of his life because he hadn’t been allowed to rescue the meat, at least. We will pack up and move into town briefly while they figure out how to begin again.
Meanwhile, festive photos are snapped of the wide fissures in the earth. Dressed to the nines, my aunts and grandmother, who have traversed the pioneering desert in my father’s wake, teeter on the edge of the widely cracked ground in Sunday hats and heels, smiling broadly, obviously having a grand old time, oblivious of aftershocks. Sadly, those photos were swallowed up by a different marriage, not mine, living on only in my memory.
Our new, erstwhile, tiny house with the fenced yard is outgrown shortly after my brother joins us. My father, gambling on another business brainstorm and my mother, perennially game, plant an 8 ft. by 40ft. trailer eight miles outside town at a crossroads where nothing grows for long, including their new restaurant, this one destroyed by sleight of hand and trick of man. This naively optimistic gypsy existence will roll on for years, its heavy boulder flattening my family each time it becomes too heavy to push upward, inexorably rolling back down over our flattened forms. I will learn to predict impending landslides by spitfire words and an undertow of silence. My father oft repeats the dictum, “When poverty walks through the door, love flies out the window.” My mother hangs a wooden plaque in pride of place. On it is painted, “Fate makes your relatives. Choice makes your friends.”
It is 1962. I am eight years-old and like wearing my bangs down over my eyes so that I have to squint to see. Everyone says I look like a sheepdog, which is, in my circumspect view, a distinct improvement over being compared to a pig. I am fat and smart and funny, a real ham, they say, yuck-yuck, oink-oink. Baseball is my passion, though Dad is teaching us golf after school, as well. I can hit a ball as far as any boy in my class and throw even farther. I don’t run like a girl. I do the popular boys’ homework so that they will like me. I’m always first pick for their teams.
When skinny little Bruce and I tie for perfect spelling at the end of the school year, our teacher presents us with congratulatory gifts: Bruce is awarded a new baseball; I get a dainty golden bracelet that won’t close around my large wrist. I hide it under the cotton wool in its white box, shoving it to the very back of my drawer.
Sitting on the scorching, wooden steps leading up to our trailer door, wiping the dusty sweat from beneath my shaggy bangs, I draw boats in the dirt with a twig while recalling the previous summer’s car trip to San Francisco. We had stayed at the Travelodge at Fisherman’s Wharf for three whole, swimming pool filled days, in spite of the cool, exotic mist, which had animated my imagination and invigorated my body. Evening foghorns eerily escorted in the scoop-necked fog at cocktail time.
One rainy morning, we took an old streetcar with streaked, steamy windows out to the zoo, and then looked through a telescope at Alcatraz Island. In the bay, in the ocean, beyond the not golden bridge that had to be painted, end to end, year round. Dad, in his didactic element, had explained it all. At night, we ate steamed clams with crusty sourdough bread and Shrimp Louie, strolling the fishy wharf, buying tiny turtles with painted shells that, unfortunately, did not survived the sweltering trip home. Neither had I. I’d left my heart in San Francisco.
“Why can’t we move to California?” I’d been pestering my father ever since.
“Oh no,” he would respond resignedly, “a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”
“I would though, Dad, believe me, I would.”
Guess I’ll go up and see Billy, get out of this shriveling sun. You could fry an egg on the pavement, if there were any pavement. People like to say that, but I don’t see the point. What would they do with the egg afterward? Eat it? Yuck. Billy S., whose grandparents own the gas station cum trailer park where we live, is my best friend. After school, when his many chores are done, he and I take shelter in the shade of the one elm tree, get trapped in imaginary landslides, get kidnapped and held in damp dungeons, where we plot our escape. We always begin our adventures by drawing lines on the ground and in the air to indicate the strict boundaries of our confinement.
One afternoon, lightning suddenly cracks, thunder booms, the dirty dirt turns into mud and pothole puddles fill up in a matter of seconds. I hear my mother calling my name, but I don’t move, because I’m trapped in the dungeon, in another time and realm. Her escalating voice tightens its chords, repeating, shortening the vowels in my name with each repetition of it. When she changes the stress from Dúnya to Dunyá, I know I’m in real trouble. Uh-oh.
The dungeon dissolves, opening up a life-sized view of Mom in full sail, red-faced, bobby-pin crossed pin curls soaking up the rain, striding toward us purposefully. I get up and run to her, splashing through the mud, apologizing, explaining about the dungeon. Her lips become even tighter. She chases me, sodden and muddy into the tin-can shelter we call home, where angry rain pellets tattoo a din on the flat roof. Then, efficiently, she yanks one of my arms with one hand and slaps my wet butt with the other, tersely commanding me to get out of my filthy clothes. Banished, I repair to my upper bunk, silent as the tomb, until she gets over it. Retrieving my paper dolls from under my pillow, I dress them in unimaginable splendor. Mom goes back to ironing white sheets, while conducting a spirited, ping-pong conversation aloud with Dad, who isn’t present. She supplies his dialogue.
It is 1967. I am nearly 14, self-conscious, introverted, deliberately shy and morbidly anorexic, although there is not a popular term for the disorder yet. One Sunday, as the priest tries to pilot a brittle, dry wafer into my open maw, I fall backward from the communion rail, pink and purple mini-dress riding mortifyingly high above matching pink fishnet tights, while imitation alligator pumps snap off. Later, at afternoon dinner, my Aunt Mary takes spiteful satisfaction in luridly embroidering the incident for those who weren’t on the scene, pronouncing that these short skirts are made for girls to humiliate themselves in. Aunt Frances hisses that at least my periods have stopped, thank God. How does she know? Ever literal, I think, resentfully, that I wouldn’t necessarily have been cursed with it on this particular day, anyway. I jab holes in Aunt Mary’s dry, overcooked roast beef, and cut the slice into tiny pieces, camouflaging them with uneaten canned green beans, while nursing my twisted ankle and pride.
My friends congratulate my will power, urging that, with my height and big eyes, if I continue to lose weight, I might become a model. Like Twiggy. Mom takes me shopping for the bikini of my dreams and lets me choose the one I want, regardless of price. Dad is dark and morose; this dieting must cease. I am too intense, should read less and get more fresh air. Furthermore, my white lipstick, heavy mascara and long, lank hair make me look like a ghost. It’s not wholesome. I write with a number 4 lead pencil with as little pressure as possible. I am disappearing.
It is 1969, another Summer of Love, for kids able to go to San Francisco. I’m 16. The whole fam damnly, including Mom’s extended Southern clan, is squashed into Cousin Joy’s parlor in Mississippi, straining toward a black and white TV that no one can stop rolling, no matter how much fiddling with knobs, banging, and cussing is directed at it. The men are running through cases of beer, the women, iced tea. A nauseating haze of cigarette smoke hangs like a pall. The ruins of an ample buffet of fried chicken, hush puppies, corn bread, and numerous mayonnaise and jello based salads sprawl on side tables pushed against one wall. Flies torment the room, despite humidity-trapping netting at the windows and porch.
An incongruous, inappropriate, almost holiday atmosphere pervades the stifling, close room. Comments of “Well, lookie there!” and “Can’t hardly credit it,” and “Just imagine that!” punctuate the “live” broadcast. This is the first time I have ever met most of these people, my mother’s family, and I feel distinctly foreign of speech, dress, manner, thought. “There he goes!” shouts an uncle. Alan Shepard is taking his first slow-motion baby steps on the moon, Stars and Stripes waving in the lack of atmosphere, in the twilight’s last gleaming.
Two hours ago, we buried my mother, Mom, Alice, nicknamed “Jimmy” in childhood, I’ve just learned, in the seeping mud after not one, but two open-casket services demanded by my paternal grandmother and the Catholic Church, to which my mother had been forced to convert in order to marry my father. The first ordeal took place in Fallon, after which a car caravan to Mississippi hit the road with my father and uncle popping No-Doz all the virtually non-stop way. No amount of sugary iced tea can rid me of the bitter taste lodged in my mouth or of my acid reflux. It seems to me as though Alan Shepard is bouncing on Mom’s new grave in some sort of broadcast circus travesty, for public consumption.
Got up in my favorite pink and black striped, but fading dress, a rather old-fashioned, torso-fitting design with low bodice, long sleeves and a ballooning skirt, all trimmed with ecru eyelet lace, I am nearly every inch the tragic, picaresque, novel reading romantic. These are pre-Granny Skirt days, at least in The Oasis, so the effect is tempered by the shortness of this dress that falls only to mid-thigh of my long legs, which do not go unnoticed even in these spirit dampened circumstances.
Desperate for air, I leave the room, followed by a cousin a year my senior. With no preliminaries, he slips his arm around me, ostensibly for comfort. People seem to be warmer, more affectionate down here. Before I register what is happening, he is kissing me in a distinctly uncousinly fashion. Like Scarlett, I need badly to be kissed and often, so I surrender, kissing him back, not caring a fig that he is my first cousin or that he is taking advantage of my vulnerable situation. At that moment, all I want is to replace the bitter taste in my mouth with a novel one. To pretend for a small, creased interval that the future doesn’t promise only earthquakes, or if it does, that somebody will take the trouble to pull me out from under the rubble.