Sunlight dims and the blue glow from the Lawrence Welk Show is a dull disco ball flickering a rhythm into the room. I know it is past my bedtime and the realization that it doesn’t make any difference to anyone but me lights me up. I am a party to the evening, not the center, and I revel in the shadowy watching, a thrilled observer. My grandparents are lit up too. High-balls all day, starting at noon. They play cards, watch soap operas, hold court as my eight aunts and uncles pass through the day with their various dramas and concerns.
The house is small, with dark gold walls and odors of fried food, gas burners, and sunny bodies. Outside, the smell of Orange County while there are still oranges. On hot mornings the entrance hallway is a relief, cool and comfortable, reflecting piles of dark ivy and my grandmother’s freshly-watered fuschia. The furniture is worn and velvety. Over the couch a painting hangs, a very distant horse-drawn carriage crossing a bridge through a lush green forest. I guess I am young enough to know how to put myself inside the painting, to live inside the light and smell of the forest. Later, I will come back and see the painting and its two-dimensions with a shock. I will remember the feeling and the life I had with the painting, but I will no longer know it. But this is long after.
The living room is colored by a reflection of the back porch overhang, a kind of green, rippled fiberglass that probably doesn’t exist anymore. When the sun hits it, the world goes sodden in green, exotic and vibrant and I have a hunger to taste the light. Emerald sunlight bounces into the living room and calls me outside in a trance.
Orange trees shade the yard, and one crabapple which is an early lesson in disappointment. At the back is the brick wall separating the houses from the drain ditch which runs down the center of all Southwestern housing developments.
I enter the light of the patio ceiling and my eyes fill with its green blessing. I slip across the grass to the back corner of the yard, where a stand of bamboo creates a fort big enough for only me. Inside the stalks it is actually roomy and comfortable when I sit on the soft dark soil. I draw pictures and hang them around me on the bamboo. I designate separate rooms in small clearings among the stalks. It is a house. It is mine. No one but me fits in there, and I sit in the shady center. I spend my time singing, drawing pictures for the walls, and days unfold in afternoons. I live whole lives in each of them.
The sun goes down and I’m called to the house. The walls flicker with TV light and the music is louder. My grandfather comes out of a back room, carrying a shiny hat like a pile of ribbons. He gives it to my grandmother and we laugh when she puts it on her head. Her expression changes, and the hat makes her someone new. She crosses her arms and sits in a big armchair, and my Grandfather sets up a dinner tray in front of her. He places a candle in the center of the table.
“Spirits!” She cries, “Let yourselves be known! If you are here, make the candle move!
“What was that?!” I jump, and my Grandmother giggles, I guess to show me that everything is alright.
My grandfather makes an audible blowing sound, and the candle moves. My grandmother sighs impatiently, and then the two of them start to laugh. I join in, watching them share the joke and I laugh at the way they dab at their tearing eyes and hold their stomachs. Begin the Beguine starts and my grandmother rises regally, her bone-thin frame swaying as my grandfather pulls back the table to allow her to drift to the center of the room, and her face is pale and closed and lit by television and candle too. The hat is tilted now. The music is louder and the air crackles with energy and I marvel that life can be so electric and so fun. My grandmother wears a thin shiny robe and she is willowy and glamorous; she moves beautifully and then makes jokes and faces and is captivating. What a gorgeous time she came from, what a jolly and manic and trusting and lovely time. Her skin so soft and her limbs and fingers so long and frail, she hums the song. My grandfather, the dark and graceful dancer, watches her with his kind eyes and big rubbery lips and fingers. They are 1940 incarnate, locked in a nostalgic sway.
I sneak into her closet and press my face into the lame gowns hanging like ribbons of light, slide my foot into a gold slipper with feathers on the toes. I caress a quilted jacket, and I cough as my grandmother’s laugh rises from the dust. A heavy car with big fenders swerves through a corn field. She lifts a bottle of yellow liquid to the heavens and holds on to the windshield and stands and sways as the convertible comes to a stop under the china blue sky. She takes a drink and grimaces, thrusts the bottle to the backseat passengers and throws herself down on the wide bench seat as the alcohol burns its way down her chest.
It is her favorite epitaph, glamorous and removed. She can say it wryly and caustically or as now, with a kind of cheering impetus to the action. She is always at the center of the action. Her father owns the largest woolen mill in Wisconsin, and her mother has bureaus of cashmere sweaters in every color. Her parents are pillars of society and she is the best dancer in town. Her narrow light body graces every social function and sets the rhythm of the party. There are servants to care for the house and young men to care for her delicate beauty. She can be jealous and vindictive but she is always fun. She reads Tarot and gives love advice to the girls and some of the boys.
“All of me! Why not take all of me!”
“Sing it darling!” The driver is a boy with red hair and a high voice. He takes the bottle from the backseat boozehounds and swigs it.
“Half a love never appealed to me!”
“Oh, I love that voice! Benny Goodman is going to love it!” The girl in the backseat rises up to declare it and is pulled back down to the car seat by gravity and moonshine.
Tomorrow morning, the girl will meet the car in the cool of the morning, running silently down the path through a pre-dawn mist and will sleep off her hangover on the drive to Chicago.
Benny Goodman is auditioning singers for his tour. My grandmother spends the day in a line of women, sneaking peeks at the most glamorous among them but maintaining her straight and haughty air. She makes the first cut.
“You do all right tomorrow night at the real audition,” she is told by a sharp-faced man at a table of men, “and we leave next week for two months. Your family okay with that?”
“Y-yes. They’ll be fine.”
She steps across the stage to gather her things. They won’t be fine. They will never allow it. They don’t know she’s here, they don’t know she’s good, they don’t know anything about desire and hunger. She could stay tonight, but they will come find her. Her father’s presence overwhelms her as she bends over to pick up her purse. She can pass the audition tomorrow but she will never be able to leave with the band. The eyes of the glamorous women bore into her faking heart as she steps toward the stage door. She will not pass the audition. She will never have the strength to defy her father and Benny Goodman will see right through her. The boy turns the car toward home.
She holds her head up high. Mr. Goodman wanted her but she wants more. She has more in store, something better. At least that’s the language she spreads around. Inside is a crawling, sick and frustrated thing that stops her from eating and wants only speed. She sneaks out of the house at night for rides through the countryside with the wilder kids, of whom she is now one. The land is open and empty and there is plenty of cover for people who want to hide. She starts smoking, and carries a flask of bitter homemade wine someone’s uncle makes. Only when she’s drunk does she sing, her voice now deeper and raspier with frustration. It’s so early for such disappointment; she lies sleepless in disbelief and tragedy. She gives Tarot readings and every time The World appears for someone else she lies about the meaning. The World is her card only. She is the one promised the world, and she will be the one who gets to discover it. She alone will have it, that beautiful spinning orb of promise that sits heavy in the pit of her stomach and overwhelms her nights.
Several older men in town take an interest in the hunted look behind her pretty eyes. One of them comes to ask her sister out, and liking his dark good looks and his popularity in town, she appropriates him. He is starstruck; she is wild and fast and talented and he is methodical with a slow burning and endless sexual charge. She isn’t interested in him much beyond the physical at first, but then comes to like his willingness to slip into the background to watch her, sees how he waits patiently for his time, and how he always seems to be celebrating her with a passionate intensity.
It helps his cause that he isn’t up to her parents’ standards. They see her spirit and
she wants to waste it on the wrong man. She lets them think that he is her rebellion. While they are worrying about the wrong man she makes plans to become a journalist, and although her father has forbidden her to apply to Northwestern University, she will move to Chicago and get a job with a paper there.
“Anyone you want!” Her father declares, peaceful in his place in the world and his daughter’s options.
“Anyone you want!” Her mother, used to mimicking her husband, almost sings the words to her most challenging daughter.
She’s had enough of these restrictions. She will travel the world and write. She will never marry. The cards burn on her fingertips as she pulls the Tower card, and the Hangman, the Queen of Wands and the Prince of Cups. The World is hers.
Then, one morning she wakes and finds that war has tilted the focus away from her. Overnight it breaks apart her insular universe and brings a seriousness to daylight. He is called up to service with every boy she knows. The horror and romanticism of the moment overwhelms her and she promises to wait, and she falls in line with the girls left at home who work and worry and contribute to the cause. A line of resentment straightens her spine, but she falls in line. When she sneaks out of the sleeping house into the moonlight there is no one there to meet her. She stands at the edge of the lawn by the line of red cedar and she hears the drums of Sing, Sing Sing rise up through the misty air to the stars, and as the trumpets start a train of regret runs down the tracks of her spine to that spinning pain in the middle of her stomach. All the lost future and all the lost dreams spill out of her vision and the train circles the heavens as that beautiful swing echoes through the halls of the stars. Her father is a pillar, her mother a loving presence. Their love is a big stone wall.
So she clings to his absence and knows he is the way out. She notices that she misses his steady patience and her body hungers for his physical presence. With him, she is the center. She has to be the center somewhere.
She writes that she will marry him. There is a dull thrill when she tells her parents and sees their faces fall. But they are distracted by the war which is ruining everything. It’s best that she be safe.
It takes only a few years for her father’s reservations to be proved true when my grandfather fails in business. His men’s clothing store is gorgeous and his customers all friends. But his kind and magnanimous manner doesn’t help when it comes time to collect from his friends. They leave Wisconsin in shame masked as opportunity, and move their now seven young children to California to live in a low-rent district in Anaheim.
The development is a mile away from the construction of a new amusement park, and at first the sunshine and the palm trees wins them over. Then two more children come, and now it is 11 of them in the 4-bedroom house. She has two nervous breakdowns in those years, when even drink can’t stop the train from rolling.
No breakfast for her. High balls, television, soap operas. Cigarette smoke and children coming and going. TV trays and card games. A house of children who take care of each other and learn to idolize and care for her. He is injured in a low-paying job and ends up on disability, so they are together all day long, and she is the center of it all. I rarely saw her leave the house.
I am put to bed in a room that had maybe been my mother’s, but now is a cross between a closet and an empty bedroom. I lie under clothing hanging low above me. I listen to the music from the television and my heart is still racing with the excitement of the music and laughter and dancing. The magic of my grandmother’s seance thrills me, and I turn it over and over in the dark and scary room. I focus on the music on the other side of the wall, which becomes a commercial, loud and ignored.
My grandmother thrusts open the door and kneels by my face. She is unsteady and intense. She must smell of liquor.
“Listen. I need to tell you something, okay? Here, I need to tell you. Don’t get married. Don’t have children. Go to college, travel the world, live your own life. Remember this. Live your own life.”
“Darling, what are you doing?”
“Listen to me.”
She presses on the bed to stand up, and I struggle not to roll out with the weight of her pressing down. My grandfather comes sleepily to grab her arm and lead her out of the crowded room.
The door closes, and all goes quiet. I fight the panic of darkness with vigilance, keeping my eyes taut and wide until they adjust in a comfort of streetlamp glow. It’s like moonlight, with its still and silent promise. I pull the breath of it into my heart, and sleep.