The year I was five – this was during the blackest days of the 1930's depression – we lived at the Chester, a run-down theatrical hotel on the seedy edge of downtown. My father had a job hawking ice cream during intermissions at the Empire burlesque theatre. When the house lights were turned on, he went up and down the aisles with a tray of Eskimo Pies hanging around his neck. It was the only work he could find. Years later my mother told me he use to say, "If I'd known I'd wind up as a candy butcher in some goddamned ass emporium, I'd have slit my goddamned throat."
Packed away someplace is a picture of him taken in his office before the company went bankrupt. A photograph of my mother and me is on his desk. He's wearing a coat and tie and has a look of assurance. My mother always said the depression years took the heart out of him. 'Exacted a toll,' as he'd probably have put it himself, or maybe 'purloined their pound of flesh.' That was the way he talked. Not long after he went to work at the Empire, the waitress at the Greek restaurant next door to the theatre had a fight with the owner and walked out. My mother, who didn't know anything about working any place, went and asked for the job. The Greek handed her an apron. When she came back to the hotel that first night my parents had a big argument. My mother threw a lot of change on their bed. "Count it!" she said. "More than two dollars in tips! You think we can't use the money?" My father just went out the door, slamming it so hard that something fell off the dresser. When he came back they started yelling at each other again. It woke me up and scared me so much that I peed on the teddy bear that went to bed with me. My mother began to cry and my father stopped yelling and I went back to sleep.
After that they left the hotel together and came home together at night. Lucy, a daughter of the McCulloughs who had managed the Chester since they came over from the old country, took care of me. Lucy was 16. She had shiny black hair and I thought she was beautiful, which she might have been if not for a mouthful of buck teeth.
Some other people who worked at the Empire stayed at the Chester – stage hands and a couple of chorus girls and an odd pair my father said were a comic and a straight man. I never saw much of any of them. When I was up and hanging around they were either at the theatre or in bed asleep.
The hotel was in an ugly part of the city, the nearby streets lined with old brick buildings and empty store fronts. Nothing was green because nothing grew. The air was usually gray and smelled the way toast does when it's starting to burn. My father must have considered raising a daughter in such an unacceptable environment as another of his failures, but I didn't know there was any problem.
Our hotel room was big enough to hold two beds and a dresser and a few other pieces of furniture. The bathroom at the end of the hall was for everybody on the same floor. It smelled of lysol. There was a bathtub and a toilet; little squares cut from newspaper were stacked on the window sill. In the winter the room was cold because the radiator didn't give off much heat and I would cry and complain when my mother said it was time for another bath.
John was the youngest McCullough. His mother had to shave his head because he kept coming home from school with lice. She called them "craytures." John wasn't too swift. Keeping the hotel bathrooms supplied with the newspaper squares was his job but he kept forgetting or cutting the squares from slick magazine pages. Ruth was the oldest. A senior at a religious college for women, she belonged to a sorority and used fancier words than even my father did - words like rapprochement, or sine qua non, or quid pro quo. Sometimes that set Mr. McCullough off and he could be heard cussing halfway down the hall, "God dammitt, girl! Speak English! Jaysus, Mary and Joseph!" Not much ever happened around the hotel so it was exciting when Ruth invited her sorority sisters for afternoon tea. A table was set in the corner room which was furnished like a parlor and used for company. She filled a vase with real flowers and bought little candies to put in a fancy dish. I heard her ask her mother for some cloth napkins. "I want everything to be nice," she said. "My friends are from very good homes." Her mother looked at her and said "cloth napkins" and then "Jaysus" and walked away shaking her head.
The sorority sisters arrived wearing hats and high heels. They all smelled nice. I didn't want to miss anything so I hung out in the doorway listening to everyone laughing and talking at the same time. Ruth served tea in cups with flowers painted on the sides and when she passed around the candy, a big cockroach waving its antenna crawled out of the dish. One of the girls screamed. Another one jumped up and spilled her tea in her lap. Ruth's face was turning red when Lucy came down the hall and dragged me back to our room so I never did find out how the party ended.
Ruth and Lucy weren't a bit like their mother. A heavy woman, she wore shapeless dresses and shuffled around in felt bedroom slippers because she had bunions and couldn't get her feet into shoes. She had a goiter the size of a cantaloupe on the front of her neck.
Mr. McCullough was built like a prize fighter and if he wasn't smoking a cigar, he was holding one. He didn't pay any attention to me although I was usually underfoot. He belonged to the Knights of Columbus and marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade that started out from St. John's Cathedral down the street from the hotel.
The McCullough family spent most of their time in a section of the basement fixed up with some furniture and a stove and an ice box. But what with no windows and pipes across the ceiling and the furnace and the coal bin and the laundry tubs, it was still a basement. There were more cockroaches down there than there were upstairs.
Lucy was conscientious about taking care of me. She read me stories. Sometimes she took me to the library where a big statue of a man
sitting and holding his head was at the top of the steps. I thought he looked as if he was trying to go to the toilet and asked my father about it. He told me I was perceptive.
Until the people with a little girl my age came to the hotel I didn't have anyone to play with. One afternoon Lucy brought Ellen down to the basement where I was setting up a toy tea set for a party with my dolls. Ellen was pretty. She was also thin and didn't have any baby fat like I did. She giggled a lot.
"You're invited to the party," I said and told her she could bring one of her dolls. She said she didn't have any.
"Then you can play with Daisy and both of you can be hostess." I handed her my biggest doll and then, with an unusual burst of generosity, added, "You can have her for keeps if you like." With a hole in her head where a cat had pulled out a wad of her yellow hair, Daisy was not in mint condition, but I never gave up anything of mine if I could help it. The novelty of having another little girl around had carried me away.
Mrs. McCullough gave us cold tea for the pitcher that came with the set and Lucy spread catsup on a slice of bread then cut it in four pieces. She told us they were cakes. Ellen poured the tea and began to talk in a high voice that was supposed to be Daisy's as the hostess. After that Ellen and I played every day. We took turns sliding down the banister from the upstairs main floor to the street entrance where 'Hotel Chester' was painted on the glass door. One hot afternoon someone opened up the fire hydrant on the sidewalk. We put on our bathing suits - the limp cotton kind sold in dime stores - and ran through the water gushing out in the street. A storm was brewing over the lake and I remember the green bottle flies were biting the way they do when it's going to rain.
Ellen's parents never seemed to bother about where she was or what she was doing. I hardly remember her mother, but I never forgot her father. He was fat and wore glasses without rims. I didn't like him. The family wasn't at the hotel for long – maybe a couple of weeks. The day before they left, Ellen said it would be fun to spend that last night together. She asked her mother if I could sleep in their room and her mother said she didn't care. At first my mother shook her head, but when I began to whine she said all right if I was sure that's what I wanted to do.
Ellen talked about it all that day. We were both keyed up to be planning something so different. At nine o'clock I put on my pajamas and Lucy walked down the hall with me. Ellen, in her nightgown, was waiting outside their door, hopping up and down and giggling. She took my hand, put a finger to her lips, and we tiptoed inside. It was dark with a green shade drawn across the window to block the street light. The room was about the same as ours - a big bed and a smaller one that was Ellen's. Her parents were asleep.
She and I climbed in her bed, Ellen next to the wall, me on the outside. Neither of us was tired and we carried on a whispered conversation. Pretty soon Ellen got the giggles and couldn't stop until her father turned over in bed and told her to shut up. For a while we were still, lying there making funny faces at each other, rolling our eyes and moving our lips without any sound coming out. When she got the giggles again her father yelled out at the top of his voice, "God dammit to hell, I said shut up!"
It scared me and Ellen put her hand over her mouth. We weren't sleepy and it was hard to lie there in the dark bedroom. A ray of light was coming from under the window shade and I think it was Ellen who started to make shadow puppets on the wall. We got interested and creative and began to whisper, inventing silly names for the shadow puppets. We were having a good time.
It wasn't long before Ellen's giggles came back harder than ever. This time her father jumped out of bed, leaned across me and hit Ellen in the face. He hit her again and then again. She screamed and put her hands over her nose and I could see the blood pouring through her fingers. It looked black in the dim light of the room.
Her father climbed back in bed. Her mother never stirred. Ellen cried silently into her pillow until she fell asleep while I lay rigid beside her, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, awake for hours. Daylight was showing under the window shade the last time I saw Ellen, her pillow damp and stained, her face smeared with dried blood. I looked across to the other bed where the covers had fallen to the floor. Her father, his back to me, was lying on his side, nightshirt around his waist, his enormous bare ass glowing white as marble in the early gray light. I took one look and shot out of bed and ran for the door. I wet my pajama pants and left a trail on the corrugated rubber matting all the way down the corridor to my parents' room.
The family left later that day. I didn't see them go.
After that no more children came to the hotel and there wasn't anyone for me to play with. Maybe I missed Ellen a little but I'm not sure I did especially. I know I was sorry I'd given Daisy away.
Eventually, when things changed for the better, we moved to an apartment and I started school. My mother corresponded with the McCulloughs for a while. We knew when they sold the hotel and when Lucy and Ruth entered a convent, but gradually we lost touch. One day an article in the local paper reported that John was running for a seat on the city council. My mother laughed and read it aloud. "As I recall," she said to my father, "didn't you always claim he had the IQ of a carrot?"
"Makes him a perfect candidate," he told her.
About the author:
Semi-retired copy editor for a Whittier CA daily newspaper and long time free lance writer - fiction, essays and travel articles. Currently Betty is wearing out her computer and her eyeballs revising a whodunit in line with suggestions by a possible agent.