Blondes and Brunettes
by John O'Toole
I was deeply in love with my mother back then but not entirely aware of the fact as I am now. She and Dad lived in gentile squalor in the only rental unit in a lakeside condo, and I remember how the trees around there used to wave me in toward her on my way home from work each night. I would see them from the el train and sometimes ignore them, telling myself I should and did despise her, for all the usual bullshitty reasons from my shrink. Then proceed, love forgotten, guilt assuaged, to my own little dump two stops down the line. Other times, of course, I would succumb, stopping off for her dried-up burgers and Tater Tots, the trees winning out with their beauty and grace, swaying like long-skirted violinists. Just the sort of classy encouragement required to wallow in my soiled little playpen.
At the same time trying frantically to find a suitable replacement for the poor old bitch. Back in '79 it was the Sunshine Girl, one Lisa Joy Buckwalter, tall, blonde and blue-eyed, buxom yet athletic. In May of that year -- a Friday, I believe -- a DC10 crashed on takeoff at O'Hare. That morning Lisa had accosted me at work with her usual blather about what a gorgeously sunshiny day it was, and didn't I just feel like hurling my pale, flabby self into Lake Michigan to frolic with the dolphins or the giant squid or whatever. The simple truth was, I hated sunlight, always had. To the point that, when later that day Miss Lisa heard the air crash news on her Walkman and passed it on to the rest of us, I couldn't help presuming that the very last thing those poor passengers saw was the big dumb sun glaring through their little windows, seering all color from their clothing and surroundings, exposing lines of dust motes like escaped cons in a searchlight. Had any of them survived, I am certain that, forever after, they would have associated sunlight with terror. As I always have.
And though the news of the crash, (in cahoots with the coming of dark (delicious), and the mere thought of those temptress-trees) had me anxiously making plans to snarf Mama's meatloaf that night, nevertheless, when quitting time came, I fought the urge with all my strength, walking Miss Lisa (at her invitation) to the Foster Avenue el station, and asking her out for the umpteenth time, this particular dream date involving a pizza at Papa Girodano's and a movie at the Bryn Mawr Theater (directly across the street from my fourth floor room in the Bellle Shore Hotel), the movie a sci fi shocker called "Black Planet," starring my then-current cinematic heartthrob, Susan Alexander. "With Susie Q there," Miss Lisa giggled. "What the hell ya need ME for?" Now how in God's name to take THAT? Jesting innuendo? ( For THIS, he said, pulling her into his manly arms and crushing her luscious red lips with his own.) Touch of gentle humor to ease the rejection? Difficult to tell. Because, though Miss Lisa did not, for the umpteenth time, turn me down that evening, she didn't exactly accept either. She ran.
Now of course any sane man, particularly one in the lousy shape I was in, would certainly have concluded, after that many turn-downs, that the better part of valor was to let her get away, a girl's sudden gallop up the goddamn street, even a girl as athletic as Miss Lisa, constituting the ultimate in abject rejection. Perhaps. The problem being that the two of us had enjoyed those little strolls together (sadly, NOT hand in hand) each evening for the past seven months, a purely Platonic arrangement, or so I had gathered, for the free exchange of shop-talk and gossip and the night's TV viewing and whatnot. So that her sudden change of gears had me more than half-convinced that I'd been pressed into playing the satyr, in hot pursuit of her sumptuous charms.
So I chased her.
Under the CTA viaduct, up Foster past the sign painter's shop, the little snackbar on the corner with its peeling blue paint, elderly black men hunched, nibbling fries in the window. Up a block where the trees spread like fat brown mamas at a picnic, green-kerchiefed heads wagging gently in the windows of the old but well-maintained bungalows of Evanston's black middle-class. South onto Ridge then, its cramped traffic stalled between the ornamented grey-stone walls of apartment buildings crammed with books and Persian carpets and Northwestern professors. Miss Lisa still well within view up ahead, her fulsome figure, in jeans and green windbreaker, deftly hootchy-kootching through the honking clot of cars.
Hitting the Davis Street sidewalk at a canter, breaking again into full gallop through downtown Evanston, streaking by the colonial-style Women's Christian Temperance Uncion building, the six story parking garage, the Davis el, the Woolworth's. Occasionally glancing over her shoulder with an arctic flash of teeth, which could have been either a grin or a snarl for all I knew. I was four blocks behind her now and losing ground quickly. The next several blocks, up to Sheridan Road, then south along the lakefront toward Chicago, were for me a grueling ordeal of heart-thuds and sore legs, blurred vision and the sort of breathing one might hear from an asthmatic convict in a gas chamber. Longing for the second wind that euphoric runners always swear by. Miss Lisa apparently still on her first, her blonde hair whipping like the mane of some Disney-animated pony. GO, SUNSHINE! GO! Long legs pumping, bounding over endless yawns of flat, lakeside lawn, her shadow stretched like taffy as the sunset put the great green to sleep with its shade.
Reaching Dempster Avenue I lost sight of her completely. Knees now buckling, heartbeat hummingbird-fast, I dragged my quivering, rubber-muscled carcass to the el and rode the last couple of miles into the city. Out my window, sunset gory as a surgical incision, accentuating every streak and blotch on the pane. One of those new cars purchased for the bicentennial, body nicely rounded, interior of beige and chocolate-brown, seats hard as convent floors but contoured for the average butt. At night the windows would blacken, clean as nuns' habits. Darkness did that, absorbing filth, artificial lights lending coziness and order. But dear God, the endless dust meadows now, the archipelagos of scuzz, every hand-smear on every metal pole, all shown in bland relief like a cancer on an X-Ray. The blinding stuff flooding in, shorting out the nerves. When I was three they removed my left eye, and for some vaguely therapeutic reason bandaged my right eye as well. Three weeks later when they took the bandage off, I suffered my first anxiety attack and fell off the treatment table and, before they could catch me, scurried into a corner where, eyes tightly shut, I shuddered and wimpered till Mama had finished chatting with the doctor about how pleasantly surprised she had been that the socket hadn't turned out half as gory as she'd feared. Or was that the time she had the miscarriage at home and, for reasons unexplained, shoved the damn thing in my face?
It was dark when I reached their lakeside home. Set on a sloping parkland, the ten story building formed a huge V of steel and glass that reflected the lights off Sheridan Road and served as a foil for the wind off the lake. Stretch of beach, the night air lightened with barbecue smoke, promenade deserted, stringing its nightlights out onto Farwell Pier. Mama and Dad rented a basement unit, the living room furnished with a greasy dinette set, a few tons of boxes they had never unpacked, and a dirty pink sofa that sat against the wall like some fat broad rotting in a state-run asylum.
With the rent they had paid in their three years of occupancy they could have bought the damn place three or four times over. Dad in his nicotine parlor off the main room. Seated in his Naugahyde armchair, portable TV showing the latest on the plane crash, cigarette butts piled like Auschwitz corpses in the standup ashtray at his side. Bucktoothed grin. Foggy-grey crewcut. Big bulging eyes like eggs being laid. In a cheery mood that night despite the downed DC10. "Hiya, Sport. Betcher glad it's Friday." The ashtray a retirment gift from Amstead Industries, where he'd worked for forty-two years as a statistics clerk. A "pencil pusher," as he'd always put it, as in "I don't want you growing up to be a pencil-pusher like your old man." And though nothing but a lowly clerk myself, I guess he figured that, with my B.A. and the fact that I worked for a university punching computer keys instead of pushing pencils, I had thereby made a glorious succes of myself. Dad had hated his job, just as I hated mine, but I wasn't all that crazy, as he had been, for Fridays, the difference quite obviously that he'd had a wife and kids to spend the weekends with, whereas I had no one but him. And my current love, Mama.
The intense relief of Friday nights he now relived vicariously through me, and though at times I would attempt to explain to him my ambivalence in the matter, that particular night I simply didn't have the heart. So I grinned and said "Ah, Fridays. Wouldst that every day could answer to that fair name." Leaving him chuckling contentedly to himself, I shuffled off to hobnob with the love of my life.
She had once been a beauty, tall and svelte, hair dark unto black, in high waves above her aristocratically narrow face. In old age she had shrunk a good half a foot, partly due to the widow's hump bulging now through the material of her aquamarine shift. She had chubbed out as well, on what, no one knew, as neither Dad nor I had ever seen her eat, except the occasional folded-over peanut butter sandwich, one of which waited patiently now on the sideboard of her cramped, galley-shaped kitchen as she flipped those little hockey-puck burgers of hers and dished to me the latest dirt on her friend Jean's fat daughter Ruthy who had gotten stuck in a seat at the Bryn Mawr Theater and been gallantly rescued by a pair of handsome firemen with one of those jaws-of-life devices. The two of us laughing ourselves silly over this, Mama's face, (bisected by a waxy white scar, the result of flying head-first through the windshield of her father's 1917 Model T), now a mixture of mirth and stirring migraine, squinting and twitching, wincing and abruptly going pale as the vestments at a Mass of the Angels, her uncontrolled hilarity having brought on a sudden acute case of nausea that had her moaning "Serve yourself, honey" and loping hunchback-fashion to the bathroom to vomit.
So I ate my burger and Tater Tots that night at the greasy old dinette with its palm prints and gravy-blisters and toast crumbs riddled with fossilized raisins. Dad munching his in his nicotine den, where he always took his meals except on Christmases and birthdays. Oddly enough, considering the dump's cramped confines, the three of us, to my knowledge, had never once been in the same room together. Not that Mama would have minded had I invaded her sickroom during that night's, or any night's, damnation migraine. Nor Dad should I decide to pay his cancer cell an after dinner-visit. Which I did that very evening, WBBM's weatherman, an ex-airline pilot, reporting live from O'Hare, with appropriate microphone gestures, about how the DC10 just sort of upended in mid-air and crashed tail-first to the ground. Dad did a "tsk tsk," cigarette smoke sputtering from his mouth in baby clouds. "Jeepers. Poor people," he said.
I abruptly thought of asking him a very simple question. The question itself no sudden inspiration; I'd pondered it practically all my life, just never even dreamed of actually posing it till now. Possibly because it was the sort of question I figured I ought to know the answer to myself, simply by looking in a mirror. Which naturally I had done, compulsively since childhood. Simply couldn't trust my own eye, though, my theory (never proven or confirmed) holding that a one-eyed person sees everything lopsided, the handsome looking ugly, the ugly quite handsome.
My dad, for example, might not have been lame. I might simply have been SEEING him lopsided. His thin torso slumped now, lanky legs at odds in the ordeal of sitting with a bum left hip. Ash-smeared trousers shedding like a snake's skin. BVD waistband exposed, into which he'd tucked his lumberjack shirt, the one with the torn pocket hanging like a tit. Weather guy grimly describing many of the bodies as burned beyond recognition. "God rest their souls," my Dad said.
"Dad, am I ugly?" I asked him right out.
No spirited denial. No don't-be-silly scoffing from the man. No astounded gasp at such a crazy-nut question. Dark eyes spitting blue in the TV's ghostly light, he sucked on his cigarette as though it were a snorkel. "You're handsome as a god," he finally said, fishing in his pants for his brown rosary beads.
So I left him and took the el south to Bryn Mawr Avenue, bought a ticket and moped in to see "Dark Planet" for the twenty-second time. As a connoisseur of darkness, I think I loved theateer darkness the best. Exactly the way I imagined death. Hopelessly, eternally anchored in dirt, my soul now and then sneaking out to possess some young actress. The bodies in surrounding graves no slouches themselves. Hardly your usual fat, hairy growths of dead peasant. Nor the customary rashy upper arms and bloated ankles. God no, these folks were aristocrats and saints. Each Incorruptible, body and soul.
On the Bryn Mawr Theater's screen, huge images of rust and steam and brooding dark greens. The starship through whose cramped corridors our heroine (lovely Susan in the part of Sgt. Brimley) slinks and ducks and trots and climbs, her Jane Fonda-chin jutting out beneath the unselfconscious pout of great bones, sleeves of her flightsuit rolled to her elbows, tidal wave of dark mane rearing off her brow. (Pauline Kael, rest her soul, had described it as a "storm cloud," but storm clouds aren't dark enough for me. No, not nearly). Girlishly swivelling those boyish hips of hers, sauntering into Sick Bay to confront the crooked medic but instead ending up with a face full of monster. This one too lifelike, resembling a fetus with afterbirth attached. Susie pulls her ray gun and stuns it, pries it off. She and that crew of hers, sweating and grunting, rank with effluvia. To the point at which I began to smell my own farted-up pants as the sweet aphrodisiac, Eau d'Susan. Or Eau d'Sgt. Brimley. Eau d'HER, for Chrissake! Lemme at her!
But in due course she faded from the screen, kittycat cuddled in her long, skinny arms, and up came the house lights and up I rose from my dirt-tattooed seat cushion, the Bryn Mawr Theater now as dusty and grainy-Godforsaken as newsreel footage of a World War II cathedral.
In the men's room with its burnish-colored wet tissue wads, its Vaseline-green walls and skinny Puerto Rican guys and old men crushed like milk cartons queuing at the urinals, I sniffed those sickly deoderant cakes that smell like somebody pissed in Hawaiian Punch, then took out my comb, tried combing my flaccid dark forelock into a wave or a storm cloud over my aristocratically narrow brow. Partly from sheer willpower, partly because I hadn't washed it in five days, the damn thing pretty much stayed where I'd combed it, instead of falling forlorn into my artificial eye.
The sleeves of my denim jacket rolled to the elbows, and swivelling my boyish hips as girlishly as possible, I sauntered from the theater to slay a few monsters.
About the author:
John O'Toole recently moved to Los Angeles after spending most of his life in Chicago. He studied playwrighting at Chicago Dramatist's Workshop, and has published short stories in "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" and "Detective Mystery Magazine." His poetry has appeared in numerous periodicals both here and abroad. His novel, "Loftus", has been accepted for serialization by Muse Apprentice Guild, along with three short stories.