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Friday, March 9, 2012

Not the winner!

I learned this week that I did not win first prize in the big short story contest I entered. Does that make me a loser? I don’t think so since I managed to actually enter and follow the rules by submitting a story that was under 1500 words and has a beginning and a end.  You can judge for yourself and let me know in the comment section.

The Gloved One 

At a time when the size of a woman’s hand still mattered, she stood behind the glove counter sorting kid from cotton.  The soft delicacy and undulating shapes of the long silk evening gloves were enchanting; the scent of leathers and suedes for daytime, intoxicating. Each pair was individually priced with tiny handwritten paper tags hanging by silk threads to hand stitched labels on the inside of the right hand glove. She was well suited to the tasks of quietly stacking and sorting her lovely merchandise behind the polish of the shimmering glass counter. It was as close to beauty as she might touch every day.

Ruth was a tiny woman barely four feet 9 inches tall; her delicate frame overpowered by the too large features on her face. Her thinning head of faded brown hair, which she put into the hands of the beauty salon on the 12th floor every Friday, was always in place, softly permed.  She was proud of her position; of the job she took a bus to everyday from her little apartment on a less than fashionable block in East Orange, New Jersey into the bustling commercial center of Newark.  Her world was encased in a 14-story building that filled an entire city block.  The store had its own telephone exchange, a completely new idea in it’s time, which shoppers could use to order sporting goods, inquire about exotic merchandise imported from all over the world, or request services from the dry cleaner, pharmacist, watch and jewelry repair center, or even the butcher in the fancy meat department. 

Men still wore hats, women as well. Nylon stockings and petticoats, girdles and long line brassieres were sold in the undergarment department discretely tucked in the back of the third floor woman’s department.  Fashion in the late 1940’s was, then as now, heavily influenced by the glamour of Hollywood.  But this was also the ready-to-wear age. There was no time for sewing. Post-war women were leading busy lives, some had jobs and required practical and simpler clothes for daytime.  Women were even wearing trousers. Glamour was reserved for the evening.

Back in the day 
But on the polished marble main floor where chill winds were masked by the double set of doors and there was a smell of damp wool and fur, Ruth would watch the flurry of active lives, once removed. The hustle and bustle of the crowds provided great opportunities for a people watcher. The two banks of manned brass elevators near the glove counter might provide the way to a rendezvous in one of the dimly lit small private dining rooms that surrounded the oak paneled main banquet halls on the 5th floor. Or it might take visitors to the sixth floor where all kinds of beautiful music, that tiny Ruth could barely hear, came from.  For beautiful music filled the air on every floor, piped in from the orchestra, broadcasting live daily from 6th floor center court. It provided a soft popular or classical soundtrack to the shopper’s experience. The original idea was to create an actual broadcast in the store to help sell radios, but the station became so popular that it was eventually sold to a major conglomerate and even continued to operate as an independent AM radio station well after the Korean War had ended.  On a large raised platform there was a magnificent grand piano draped with a brocade cloth for protection, surrounded by seats for an ever changing group of musicians under the direction of that month’s guest conductor or band leader.  Shoppers could relax in chintz-cushioned sofas during the afternoon concerts and sip tea served from silver service on carts that noiselessly rolled down the deep red Aubusson rugs pushed by white-gloved waiters.

It was a comfortable place to be a spinster.  By 32, Ruth was no longer considered marriageable material. Her dreams were dashed when her family rejected Harry, the shy waiter from the popular Tavern restaurant as not good enough for her.  She had liked the way he had kept their baskets filled with fresh rolls and brought the snappy blue and silver seltzer bottles right to the table, as soon as they sat down. When The Tavern had first opened in 1929, you could have a five-course lunch for sixty-five cents or dinner for a dollar. On Thanksgiving in 1944, the restaurant was closed to the public, serving free dinners to all the servicemen and women from the neighborhood.  The press had reported that almost 3000 dinners were served that evening.  Like her beloved store, The Tavern was a neighborhood fixture, a symbol of its time. 

The years passed quickly. Ruth stood behind that counter for over 35 where she continued to daydream about her day off, Sunday, when she could take herself to the movies and see and hear magic. Ruth was profoundly hard of hearing and had been since birth.  She wore a large beige hearing aid in her left ear with a strand of wires connected to a receiving device, which was usually clipped on to her bra strap or the neckline of her dress.  It was rather unsightly and she fiddled with it incessantly. The other adults in her family often joked that she needed to turn it up, since she always seemed to miss when someone asked her a question or her agreement on a particular matter.  But at the movies, she never missed a single word. 

This was her one great joy, the Hollywood that was peddled in fan magazines like “Confidential: It tells the Facts and Names the Names” and “Modern Screen” and “Silver Screen”--  glimpses into the sordid and steamy side of Hollywood that cost twenty-five cents apiece at the local newsstand.  Designed with garish covers of color-tinted black and white photographs of stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Rock Hudson and flimsy black and white interior pages printed with ink that came off on your fingers; they represented the beginning of the end of the stranglehold studios had over the press. Ruth’s younger brother Milton teased her about it and nicknamed her Hollywood so her adored young nieces called her Aunt Hollywood. 

The headlines on the covers of these magazines screamed things like, Exclusive: Why Liberace’s song should be Mad about the Boy or Liz will adopt a Negro Baby.  No other news outlet carried these stories. There were the original celebrities for celebrities sake -- the glamorous Gabor Sisters; Magda, Zsa Zsa, and Eva who collectively were married at least 19 times.  The charming British actor, George Saunders had even married two of them.  It couldn’t get any better than that! These slick publications were chock full of the scandals and sexploits of Hollywood’s hottest stars.  For a single middle-aged woman, like Aunt Hollywood, living such a cosseted life, what better daydream fodder than the magic that was post-war Hollywood, where courage was always rewarded, criminals were always punished and all the lovers lived happily ever after.

Aunt Hollywood shared her devotion and secretly, her lurid reading material with her oldest niece Joan, taking her several times a year to New York City, to the opulent and most wonderful Radio City Music Hall.  They saw the stage show and then a movie, frequently starring Doris Day.  Even then, a 10-year-old Joan knew these were just awful -- but going into New York City with her aunt and the glamour of seeing something in that magnificent movie palace was seductive. The theatre itself with its resplendent art deco architecture, massive golden chandeliers and aroma of freshly popped popcorn, was the best part.  Ruth always thoroughly briefed Joan on the bus ride into the city, recounting the latest scandal as reported by her tabloids, all written to keep movie fans returning to the plush seats in the “Now Air-Conditioned” theatres for more.  

So from Pillow Talk, and Please don’t Eat the Daisies and Lover Come Back, all starring the perky, annoying, Doris Day -- to adored Hayley Mills as the pixie Pollyanna, Ruth treated her niece to her magical world.  But it wasn’t all silliness.  When Aunt Hollywood took Joan to see A Dog of Flanders, a lovely film about a poor orphaned boy with aspirations to be an artist like his idol Peter Paul Rubens; little Joan wept inconsolably and had to leave the theatre. She sat on the great staircase in the lobby sobbing, while poor Aunt Hollywood, unsettled and unaccustomed to the frailty of little girls and their silent dreams, tried gently to console her. Grasping hands, their eyes locking; they pledged never to speak to anyone else of this moment when the images of the silver screen could provoke such a deeply felt emotional response. In this, they were united, a pair.  The little girl and her tiny maiden aunt had bonded; the gloves passed on to another generation. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

He went that a way

Upon the occasion of my first obituary

He went that a way

He was a complex man, more scoundrel than saint. He died this week at the ripened age of 84, stubborn as ever, hanging on for days longer than expected as I sat by the phone, posted inanities on Facebook for distraction and corresponded with siblings (real and by marriage) in the long distance death watch of our father.

His passing was long expected. He suffered from Parkinson’s for the last 10 years and rode around his little town in Oregon on his Hoveround© when he was able. I know little of that time and it’s just as well. He long had another family with who, on his second try, seemed to eventually fair much better.

For a man with a talent for both procreation and amassing women with children, he was probably most disappointed that none of his brood was an athlete as he was. Awarded a full scholarship as a baseball player his senior year in High School, he spent two years at the University of Richmond before he was drafted at 18 in the last gasps of World War II. He spent a year as a private, marching around Paris highlighted by attending a John Wayne Western where the sub-title read “Whoa Chevaux!”  (En Fran├žais - this rhymes!)

He returned to his studies, finished his business degree and met and married my mother. They started their family, moved to the Jewish suburbs from their Jewish neighborhoods in Newark and finally divorced after 21 years of wrestling in bitter wedlock.

A compact man just 5’9”, he was drafted by the farm leagues and played a couple of seasons in Baltimore. He was an athlete first and foremost and loved playing paddleball more than anything else -- including working -- and so he did. I’m sure that’s how he sold insurance -- when he did.

My father was not what one would call a great Daddy. He was an immaculate and well-groomed man and I think he was uncomfortable with the sticky fingers of children. He was always competitive. He didn’t just win at Monopoly, he relished in slaughtering us.

He shared his passions as he could, dragging his crew of then three plus my mother to every Revolutionary or Civil War battlefield within an 8 hour driving radius of our home. I remember car fights and Jamestown. 

He was never much of a financial success. He knew more about spending money than earning it. Once when the electric bill had not, yet again, been paid, and my mother had taken to bed in protest, we ate Chicken Delight© by candlelight. The side of cranberry sauce came in these little clear plastic rectangular packs, much like the jelly and jam assortments at your local diner today. He was impatient opening his and when he did, he was splattered in face. We held our collective breaths anticipating his rage. His temper was legendary -- only mollified by blinding headaches later in life. But instead he burst out laughing at himself and it became for me, a joyful memory.

What does one say about a man who moved to California to follow his Hollywood dreams and amassed Barco loungers as a professional game show contestant (but a winner nonetheless!); who actually won over $5000 on Jeopardy?  When I was 28 or so, visiting the sales department of the company I worked for, I saw him in a television commercial as a butcher. I never knew how or where he might pop up in my life as a source of laughter or pain.

Our nuclear family is long fractured. Such is the gift of divorce -- the gift that keeps on giving. As the eldest of a clan that at one point numbered eleven children, mine was frequently the inappropriate disclosure. Thanks for those guys.   

My brother and sisters established their own relationship with him, that’s not mine to tell but none rushed to his bedside or attended his funeral.  I had not spoken with him in over a dozen years after the final crossed-the-line disappointment. My instincts were to protect myself and new child, away from the toxins in which my father chose to swim.

When he and his wife moved to Oregon from Southern California, as his illness became more debilitating, he was in his way giving me the gift of not having to tend to or care for him in his final years. Oregon provides most generously for death with dignity. He was never a burden, as they say.

So this, my friends, is a formal closing of a long chapter in my life that was already mostly shut. The finality of it has brought with it a flood of memories and feelings and the ability to articulate what was and will forever be, the first man I loved.