Three Broken Hearts
It was a Saturday in March 1963. My father and I were having lunch at the Rendezvous Room in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Somewhere during the meal I told him that I had been accepted to the Western Forensics Institute, a summer institute at USC for high school debaters…
“You speak well,” he said. Dad saw in me the same traits that had led him into acting.
“And now you’ll learn to think your way through difficult situations. I always want you to have a plan.”
I ran a hand through my curly, black hair that I could never comb properly. I was about to say something about free trade, that year’s debate topic, but didn’t, for behind my father and closing on us fast was a woman with a deep tan and flaming red hair.
“Gerry,” she said in a theatrical voice. I thought she wanted his autograph, but then she sat down and Dad introduced Miriam to me. Maybe she was a friend who had chanced by. A necklace settled into her cleavage.
Had I not been a naive high school sophomore, I might have applauded Miriam’s arrival, because my father’s second marriage was crumbling. During my visits every other weekend, I heard the fights. Sometimes I saw them. Mai, the script girl from Sweden who had worked with Dad on his television series, was the reason that he’d left my mother seven years earlier.
Miriam never stopped smiling while she talked, about what I don’t remember. Dad finished his bacon and eggs—he always ordered bacon and eggs—asked for more coffee, and lit a cigarette before leaning back in his chair to listen to whatever Miriam was saying. He looked so suave in his jumpsuit, his thick, black hair combed just so.
Her words faded into the murmur and clinks of silverware against dishes that came from the smartly dressed patrons at their tables, spaced comfortably apart in the Rendezvous Room that was awash in purple tablecloths, candelabras with fuchsia shades, white armchairs, and pink napkins.
I thought about Monday’s geometry test. I also thought about Jo Anne, a serene little pixie, the girl with the most angelic-looking face on Beverly High’s speech team. At the end of a recent tournament, I’d started to suggest that we should see a movie together—Son of Flubber or To Kill a Mockingbird—but before the sentence was out, she’d said her parents wanted her to sit for a portrait that night—a Saturday night—and I’d believed her. As she glided away, I’d recalled the lyrics from Steve Lawrence’s song “Portrait of My Love,” how painting his beloved was impossible “for nobody can paint a dream.”
I fidgeted in my seat after finishing my sandwich. Eventually Miriam left and my father and I went to play miniature golf, only one round because Miriam had stayed for so long.
I forgot about her until two Saturdays later when, again at the Beverly Hilton, she reappeared, this time in a sleeveless sundress. Her red hair looked wilder than before; her cleavage, a deeper canyon. While they chattered on for at least an hour, I slipped into daydreams of Jo Anne. I still had not asked her for another date.
Two weeks later Miriam materialized again and flopped her breasts on the table. This time she asked how I liked school. I said I liked it fine and took another bite of my club sandwich. She wanted to know my favorite classes. French, modern history, English, geometry, I said and then bit into my pickle.
My father sat quietly, smoking a cigarette. A waitress refilled his cup of coffee. “Thankyou, darling,” he said.
“My daughter is your age,” Miriam said to me. She also had a son, George, who was a couple of years older.
“Oh,” I said.
“You’d like Nancy.”
“Gerry,” Miriam said, “let’s have Nancy and Tony together for dinner one night.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t imagine the four of us joining Mai and her two sonsaround the dining room table at Dad’s rented house atop Kings Road with its commanding view of the Los Angeles basin, all of us looking out at the lights, saying little to each other, except for Mai’s sons. Her eleven-year-old probably would ask when Dad would get a part in another picture, a sensitive topic as too much time had passed without work.
After Miriam left—hours later, it felt like—Dad eased his 1952 Jaguar out of the parking lot between the Beverly Hilton and Robinsons Department Store and headed north toward Sunset Boulevard. The marine layer was turning the sky gray, the air chilly.
I asked if we could still play miniature golf.
“It’s getting late,” he said in his that’s-all- there-is- to-it tone of voice, the one he used when he’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio. Miriam had ruined my day again.
I didn’t call Jo Anne that weekend. I decided to ask her in person, in forensics the next morning. But she arrived moments before the bell rang and zipped out of the room right after class, her thin legs carrying her to where I never knew because I didn’t see her for the rest of the day.
I turned sixteen in May, and to celebrate, my father and I played miniature golf and then planned to have dinner at my grandmother’s. We were halfway through our game at my favorite course, the Gittleson Brothers on Hollywood Boulevard near Silver Lake. One of the holes, the Volcano, featured a four-foot-high mountain with a caldera at the top. Another ran over a hundred feet in a gentle curve along the back fence. A third featured three drawbridges, only one of which led to the hole. I scored par for all of them, my only sports triumph that year.
My father flicked the remains of his cigarette into the trash before he said, “Is it okay if Miriam and her daughter come tonight?”
Something told me my answer would make no difference. I should have said I was upset, that I was looking forward to a family dinner, not to sharing my birthday with strangers, even if one of them was a girl my age. Instead I mumbled “okay” and shot over par on the next hole.
My father’s mother lived on North Detroit Street, a block west of La Brea Avenue, a middling section of Hollywood, on the ground floor of a two-story stucco whose apartments surrounded a swimming pool. She’d moved into the place in 1957, a year after my parents’ divorce, after my mother had finally ordered her out of the granny flat behind our house. Neither Grandma nor I had understood why she had to go. She loved my mother along with me, and at age ten I didn’t think of my grandmother as the mother of the man who had left my mother.
The card table Grandma had set up almost filled her studio apartment. She’d draped it with a white cloth. Around it were the folding metal chairs, olive-colored, in which her friends, “the girls,” sat for their weekly game of canasta. The smell of cooking meat floated in from the little kitchen. I sat on one of the two identical sofas that were built into the wall and rested an arm on the faux wooden credenza between them. While we were alone, I thought about asking Dad for advice about Jo Anne but hesitated. I remained as shy about discussing her as I’d been about calling her, and before I could rev up the courage to say anything, there were several staccato knocks on the door.
Nancy, Miriam’s daughter, had a pleasant smile, a pleasant tan, and a pleasant voice along with pleasant dark hair, straight to her shoulders, where it ended in pleasant curls. And this pleasant girl appeared as uncomfortable as I felt. I’m sure that, like me, she was trying to devise a method to speed up time.
I know that Grandma served meat because my father wouldn’t eat anything else. She cooked it until it surpassed tender and turned close to mush. Then she added plenty of gravy, which she knew I liked. I ladled it on thick, over the potatoes as well as the peas, which were faded and runny, because they probably came from a can. The combination tasted soft and good.
I ate steadily and quietly, as did the others, while smells from the kitchen lingered around us, going nowhere because the windows (which overlooked a back alley) were closed with the curtains drawn.
Midway through dinner Miriam said, “Tony, aren’t you getting A’s in school?”
Why did she say it that way? Embarrassed, I stammered, “Not really,” which was the truth. My sophomore grades were salted with plenty of B’s. No one asked Nancy for her marks. Jo Anne, I knew, was scoring all A’s.
Miriam said, “Tony, are you winning lots of debate tournaments?”
I looked at the curtains beyond her and said I’d won one or two, which was true. The words came out slurred, minus the timbre becoming a member of a speech team. Nancy kept on eating.
From Miriam again: “Tony, what are you doing this summer?”
“How wonderful,” she said when I answered, and then after a pause, “Nancy, isn’t that wonderful?”
I’m sure Nancy said it was wonderful.
On it went. Nothing about the space race or Red China, topics that, had my father and I been alone, we would have dissected while Grandma beamed at us with pride. Instead Miriam kept lobbing softballs. What’s your favorite subject? What clubs are you in? Are your teams winning? (Since I went to Beverly Hills High and this was spring, she was referring to tennis and golf.) At least Miriam didn’t, as Mai always did, inject comments about my father not having enough money.
Toward dessert I asked Nancy about Palisades High, her campus of modern buildings with flat roofs a short distance up a hill from the beach. You could spend lunch surfing and return to class before the tardy bell rang. When I mentioned that, Nancy smiled; if for real, I couldn’t tell.
Out came the birthday cake, a bundkuchen with a golden-brown exterior, and inside a soft yellow substance that I knew would taste moist and sweet. Sixteen candles ringed the top. After the group sang “Happy Birthday,” I mouthed a fast thank-you before launching into the cake. Then everything fell still, as if the singing had drained the room of energy.
Dad and I didn’t talk about Miriam during the ride home. I’m sure I thanked him for whatever birthday present he gave me, an item long since forgotten. I may have mentioned an upcoming test. I should have mentioned Jo Anne. I should have mentioned Miriam. I should have said a lot of things but couldn’t frame the words. When we reached the house where I lived with my mother and her second husband—a two-story colonial on a leafy Beverly Hills street—we hugged each other.
Decades later I’d learn that the evening was far from Miriam’s first visit to 1211 North Detroit Street. I wonder if I should have appreciated my grandmother, the enabler. While she played canasta with “the girls” at Flossie’s house, her studio apartment on North Detroit Street became a paradise for my father and his latest lady. I never learned which of the two sofas that pulled out into single beds Dad and Miriam chose. Probably the one closer to the kitchen, because whenever I stayed over, Grandma slept in the farther bed. But maybe they tried out both.
Later that week at school, Jo Anne and I passed each other on the second-story breezeway between the foreign language wing and the main building. I paused to say hi.
“Oh, hello,” Jo Anne said without slowing down.
At least she’d said something to me, and so, buoyed, I made a decision. As hard as it would be, I planned to ask my father for lessons in how to win Jo Anne. If anyone could teach me, Dad could. Some had compared him to Humphrey Bogart. Women loved him. I saw them turn their heads each time we entered a restaurant, exactly what they did two Sundays later, back at the Rendezvous Room.
My father asked for eggs and onions with burnt toast on the side. I ordered a hamburger.
“Darling, can I have coffee while I wait,” he asked the waitress.
I took a breath and started to frame my opening sentence. “There’s this girl in school, and I’m thinking, I mean, uh…”
Miriam approached from behind me this time. When she left—two? three hours later?—my courage had dissipated, not to return for the rest of the weekend. And Dad did not revive the subject.
He dropped me off Sunday evening, early enough to do my homework.
Normally, before opening my three-ring spiral notebook with its orange-and-white stripe across the cover, I’d glance at the motley junk on the bookshelf above my desk: campaign bumper stickers, the shark’s tooth on a leather lanyard, a tiki god hanging from the bottom shelf, and a James Bond thriller protruding from the other paperbacks. Tonight I didn’t perform this pre-homework ritual. Instead I opened a textbook—Modern Chemistry—read the same sentence six times and still didn’t know what titration meant. I switched to French but couldn’t conjugate a single verb, even in the easy future tense. The same with geometry: the side-angle-side theorem felt inscrutable. I scratched my cheeks and pursed my lips. I ran my fingers over the burlap cover of my notebook and opened it to one of the tabs. My eyes blinked until they closed. I wanted to stand; I wanted to sit. That’s when, dressed in a white robe, my mother came into my bedroom to say good night. It was getting late; she and Stan were going to bed.
Mom said, “You look as though you’re ready to cry.”
All I said—since I had yet to conclude that my father was having an affair with Miriam, and yes, I was crying now—was that for the past couple of months, a “friend” of his kept popping up and preventing us from spending time alone.
“Now who again is this woman?” my mother asked as Stan walked into the room.
“A friend of his.”
I might as well have said “his bedmate.” My mother’s body turned stiff. Her face assumed a look of disgust. “I’m calling him,” she said. “Gerry can do whatever he wants with his marriage, but I will not let him drag my son into it.” Each word came out with increased punch. She seethed in a manner I’d never seen from her and now I felt guilty. Although Dad had not asked me to keep Miriam a secret, I felt as if I had breached his trust.
Stan shook his head. “Your father should never have done this,” he said, just above a whisper. I sensed him tiptoeing through the subject, unsure how deeply to plunge into his stepson’s relationship with his father, and I couldn’t provide any guidance. I felt confused and wanted the hurt to go away.
Perhaps I should have felt hopeful. If Miriam could give my father comfort and solace, who was I—who was my mother—to stop them? If anything, I could have hastened Dad’s move away from Mai, especially if I’d feigned interest in Nancy. I didn’t think of it then, me with the daughter of the mistress, a wicked combination that, on some level, might have excited me as well as Nancy if she knew—did she know?—that my father was married. I never tried to imagine Nancy, her mother, my father, and me watching movies together at the Egyptian Theater, riding into the tunnel of love at Nu-Pike, or trotting horses through Griffith Park. Only years later did I learn that Miriam was a widow. Had I known, maybe I would have felt sorry for her. Maybe she was feeling sorry for me.
I didn’t hear what my mother said to my father, but the next time I saw him, Miriam did not materialize. We played miniature golf, again at the Gittleson Brothers, and as we walked among the trees from one hole to the next, we discussed Southeast Asia and Khrushchev, topics that made me feel comfortable. Not one word about Miriam passed between us. I sunk the volcano hole in one stroke, the drawbridge in two, and finished under par. My success steeled me, as we got in the car, to mention Jo Anne. I tried to think of an opening as we eased along Hollywood Boulevard, dropped down to Santa Monica Boulevard, and then stopped at a car wash. As his Jaguar rolled through, I was still crafting my topic sentence about Jo Anne.
About thirty feet away, also awaiting her car, stood a woman in a sleeveless dress. Her straight, brown hair was thicker than Miriam’s, if that was possible, and while she was not nearly as buxom, her figure kept me looking. Even from our distance I could sense moisture on her full lips. She glanced at my dad, longer than she had to, which gave me time to notice her body. She had an elegant, steamy quality. Dad offered her a return look before, slowly, withdrawing a cigarette from its pack.
She watched my father tap a finger against his Virginia Round, as he always did to make sure the tobacco was firmly packed. Dad’s lips remained together; she left hers slightly parted. From the car wash tunnel behind her, lights started to flash, as they always did when a customer wanted his car waxed. Then the letters lit up: “Hot Carnauba Wax is being applied here.” The whine of the dryers drowned out the traffic noise from Santa Monica Boulevard. My father used his silver lighter to fire up his cigarette. He bowed his head to the flame and made sure the cigarette tip was red before returning his gaze to the woman.
My father took a puff. The smoke lingered above him, his expression unchanged, nonchalant like hers, and like hers, burning with potential. At most she tilted her head. I never realized how nonchalance could seduce. I thought about trying it out on Jo Anne but neither of us smoked.
One of the workers signaled my father; they had completed toweling off his car. He nodded and we got in.
“Did you notice that lady?” I asked, master of the obvious.
“What do you think?” Dad said a little too quickly. For a moment I wondered if but for me, he would have met her and spent a pleasant afternoon. Now I had separated him from two women.
In June I arrived at USC for the debate program and checked into Trojan Hall, a three-story dormitory near the edge of the campus. Its reception area was ordinary, with flyers taped to a bulletin board along with a set of house rules. No girls in the room. No alcohol in the room. The usual. A heavyset woman behind the counter handed me a key and a card that gave the names of my roommate and dorm counselor.
Despite the smog the ensuing days were bright for us thirty or so rising juniors. The faculty walked us through the upcoming year’s debate topic. (Resolved: That Social Security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.) They drilled us in dramatic interpretation (“Read the poem. Don’t play to the ceiling. Just read the poem.”) and impromptu speaking (“The only way to learn impromptu is to speak impromptu.”).
Toward the end of our first week, Ruth walked up to me. She had tender eyes and a crack-the- whip debate style. “There’s the guy with the good-looking legs,” she said as she ran a hand through her straight, brown hair. Her voice was steady and pleasant. (Of course it was; we all belonged to speech teams.) She brimmed with life, a California teenager in the summer of ’63 who knew, without being told, that the future lay open, boundless and glorious.
Unsure what to say, I smiled back, managed an innocuous answer, and regretted that I had yet to have an occasion to wear Bermuda shorts around Jo Anne. Then Ruth and I probably slipped into a conversation about debate technique.
That night my mother called. An invitation from a Beverly High classmate had arrived. Two Fridays from now, July 12, 1963. Dinner on the lawn, with a live band. Emboldened by Ruth’s flattery, I slipped down to the pay phone on our floor to call Jo Anne. Halfway through her number I almost hung up but kept going because someone had warned me that the phone never returned our dimes.
She wasn’t home. I asked her mother to leave a message about the party. She sounded friendly, which made me feel hopeful, but moments after I hung up, I flogged myself for not telling her that she knew my mother from the PTA. It was an opportunity missed, for she might have told Jo Anne that my mother was “nice. I want you to get to know him. Say yes and go to the party.”
The faculty organized a picnic for us in a shady section of the campus. It was hot, even for July. Twelve miles west my Beverly High friends probably were playing Marco Polo in one of their swimming pools.
The griddles hissed with frying hamburgers. A tin of potato salad appeared on the table, next to the coleslaw. My roommate scooped up a handful of potato chips.
Ben waddled over to us. “Okay, I wrote it,” he said. A parody of “Surf City.” The night before several of us in the dorm had been listening to Jan and Dean’s song.
He moved under a tree to get out of the sun. “Here we go,” Ben said, and then he sang, louder than he needed to.
Ruth walked up. She wore light, long pants and a thin shift that exposed nothing.
“Wow,” she said for the third time, or perhaps the fifth. “There’s the guy with the good-looking legs.”
I guess I should have felt grateful that her gaze didn’t migrate up to my not-so-good-looking stomach or higher still to my not-so-good-looking acne.
Ben kept going. “Oh, I’m goin’ to Surf City, gonna dress real tough. Oh, I’m goin’ to Surf City, gonna act real rough…”
It never dawned on me to ask Ruth to the party. I had yet to hear from Jo Anne, and foolish optimist that I was, I remained sure I’d given her enough notice so that nothing would conflict with her schedule. She’d say yes. It didn’t matter that part of me knew I’d have more fun with Ruth. I remained faithful to Jo Anne.
Ben belted out the line he’d worked up to. “Twelve boys for every boooaarrrd.”
My roommate whooped a salute to him. Our little group of speakers didn’t miss the beach. We—future champs from the Southland’s best schools: Arcadia, Mark Keppel, Grossmont, Saint Monica’s, and of course Beverly—had chosen to spend the summer where we were, twelve miles inland, south of downtown Los Angeles, where the July sun baked. Surf City. What crap. I reached for a hot dog and smeared it with mustard and relish.
That evening our dorm counselor knocked on the door. I found him hard to take. He had pronounced eyebrows and a shaved head, and he kept warning us to obey the rules. With a touch of suspicion in his voice, he said that “some girl” was on the hall phone.
It had to be Jo Anne. My roommate gave me the kind of look sixteen-year-olds assumed when a guy was poised to “get a little action.” I walked to the black pay phone on the wall, hoping she would say we had a date.
It was Miriam.
“Tony. Can you help me get my Gerry back?”
“Help me get Gerry back. I love him. You know that.”
Miriam said it again. I stammered repeatedly that I didn’t know what to say, much less do, until she finally let me go.
She called again the following night. “I love your father,” she said, “and I know he loves me.” Unable to make her stop, I clung to the receiver and faced the gray cinderblock wall. She kept beseeching me for answers and her voice was rising.
A fellow debater walked by, and while he may not have understood her babble, Miriam was yelling loudly enough that he had to know a hysterical woman was on the line. “That’s a helluva girlfriend,” he said later.
“She’s not a girlfriend,” I said.
“Sure. Who’s next? Ruth?” It was ironic that my prestige in the dorm was soaring, because everyone thought I was a heartbreaker. But I didn’t want to talk about it.
Jo Anne never called back. But Miriam did, the third night. She was in full sobbing mode the moment I picked up the receiver.
“Miriam, I don’t know what to—”
“My Gerry loves me. You have to get him back.”
Screaming now. “My Gerry means everything. My Gerry. He’s my life.”
And then she said it.
“I got a bottle of pills over here that would kill a horse, and I’m going to take them if I can’t have my Gerry back.”
I don’t recall what I said in reply. I was too stunned. Whatever it was, I was stalling for time.
Miriam said, “My life’s not worth living. I won’t go on. I can’t.”
I’m sure I responded with every useless trite phrase I could muster in order to keep her alive.
When we hung up, I said nothing to my roommate and didn’t call my mother. I couldn’t think clearly enough to do anything.
Her next call came on Friday afternoon, July 12, moments after I returned to the dorm from class. I wondered if Miriam had contacted USC and learned that they were letting us out early for the weekend. As she screamed and sobbed and talked again of suicide, the idea hatched.
I told her I had to catch the bus home for the weekend, and I asked if we could talk later.
“Really, Tony? You really really promise?”
I said I’d call in an hour and a half.
I took the bus west on Olympic Boulevard to its stop near my street. The house was empty; I was lucky that Stan and my mother were away. I could work alone. But first I called Jo Anne.
My right hand inched its way toward the phone, there to hover and, slowly, descend to the receiver, grip it, lift it to my ear, hold it, and—finally—start dialing. The first two strokes on the rotary came easily, the 2 and the 7, CRestview, the prefix of all my classmates’ phone numbers. I didn’t have to look up the remaining digits. My one earlier call had been enough to memorize her integers, chisel them into a fold in my brain next to the Pythagorean theorem or, possibly, a French verb. With each number the nk-nk of the rotary dial returning to rest unnerved me, 2-2-4-8, and finally 9, which meant I’d hear the largest number of clicks before the phone started to ring, an extra half-second within which to draw a breath and rehearse an opening line.
“Hello?” She answered on the first ring.
“Is Jo Anne Gardner there?” (What an idiot. I actually said her last name.)
“This is she.” Correct grammar. No hint that she knew who it was.
“This is Tony Mohr.”
No delay in the comeback. “Hi.” That sliver of a word conveyed the image of her face with its adorable mouth, large eyes, dark and set far apart, straight, black hair worn short with bangs that didn’t quite reach her thin eyebrows, a larger-than-normal nose that somehow added to her beauty.
My house was still, the only sound an air-conditioning unit in one of my bedroom windows.
I asked how she was.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Silence again.
“There’s a party. Would you like to go with me?”
Before I realized that I had yet to say the date, she said she was busy, something to do with her parents, an anniversary, or was it her grandparents’ anniversary? It didn’t matter; she was busy and in a terrific hurry.
She pretended never to have received my message. “I’m sorry,” she said. Even in its clipped no-time- for-you mode, she sounded irresistible. “I hope you enjoy your party,” she added.
“I have to go now.”
There was no time to mourn. I’d promised to call Miriam. The party was starting in an hour. I had to keep moving. And I had a plan.
I sat on the floor between the two beds, phone at my side, receiver in one hand, microphone in the other, so I could bring the two instruments as close together as possible. In front of me was my Recordio reel-to-reel tape recorder, a Christmas gift from Mom and Stan, spools threaded and at the ready. I hoped Miriam wouldn’t hear me press the record button.
“Now, Miriam,” I said, “I’d like you to tell me everything about you and Dad.”
I wonder if she noticed my tone shift; I could. A trace of the debater had come in, about to question someone about whether “socialized medicine” was truly necessary.
“You know Gerry wants me so much. He never left me.”
Odd. My father had told me that he and Mai had stopped fighting, and Mai had turned friendlier, more cheery around me.
She described the party where she’d met Dad—the home of some actor they both knew. She narrated the first meeting over coffee, then the furtive first date that had lasted and lasted, leaving them sated, yet famished for more.
“I just don’t understand,” Miriam said through her tears, “how your father could turn offhis love so fast.”
The question popped out immediately. “Did he ever turn it on?”
Yes, she answered. Yes at least four times. She described how his face lit up each time they met. How tenderly he held her hand. I guess as a concession to my age, she didn’t tell me how he purred in bed—my grandmother’s bed among them?—smoking cigarettes after they had made love, her naked body cozy against his.
Months earlier, when Dad and I used to have lunch alone and he had guided me into one of his many lessons about women, talks I relished because I felt so lost among them and yearned to learn craft from the grand master, he had rhapsodized about mutual orgasms, “that moment when you and your lover fly to the moon.” I imagined him and Miriam on that journey, something I couldn’t envision with my father and Mai.
The spools rotated slowly. The red light on the recording head flickered.
“Tony. Please. You’ve got to help me.”
I told the truth. I had no advice for her.
“I love your father. You have to speak with him for me. You like me, Tony. Don’t you?”
“Sure,” I said quickly, and then—because I wanted it on tape—“I hope you’re not serious about killing yourself.”
“I am, Tony. I’ll take those pills, I swear I will.”
The tape was running out. The party would begin soon. Somehow I managed to free myself from this conversation. Dazed, upset, guilty about what I had done, I took a shower. I thought of erasing the tape but needed it as a weapon to stop Miriam from calling me.
I staggered through the party like a zombie. The steak tasted like sawdust, the petit fours like library paste. The band’s music became a mash of notes. The spotlights didn’t turn the lawn blue or bring up its green; they washed away all color, leaving bright swaths of nothing before my eyes. Ruth was lucky I hadn’t asked her to go. She would have passed the evening alone. I didn’t realize then that Miriam had done me a favor: I had no emotional room left to lament Jo Anne. Suddenly Jo Anne’s nose seemed too big, her lips too thin, and I remembered a comment by someone who had danced with her once: she smelled.
I circled the swimming pool and wandered toward the outer fringe of the lawn, a glass of gooey red punch in my hand. I looked at the backyard wall, which was covered with flowers, and imagined Miriam’s ponderous breasts lying on that restaurant table like two beached whales. I thought of my father’s face buried between them, be it in the morning when he needed a shave or during the afternoon, fresh from the unemployment line, check in hand but still in need of relief.
When my father and Mai arrived Saturday morning to collect me for the rest of the weekend, I broke the rules: instead of running out to the street with my overnight bag in tow, I invited them into the house.
They looked surprised. It would be the first time either had stepped foot inside where Mom and Stan lived. They hesitated.
“I want you to hear something.”
Mai trailed into the foyer behind my father. She looked to the right to catch a glimpse of the living room with its off-white furniture, tastefully upholstered, the baby grand piano at the far wall, the Welsh cupboard at the near wall, and an antique game table next to the bay window. I led them left, up the circular staircase, then down the hall, past the guest room and into my bedroom. The door to Mom and Stan’s bedroom was closed.
My recorder still lay on the floor. “Listen to this,” I said. The brown tape hissed across the heads until they heard me: “Now, Miriam, I want you to…”
Miriam’s voice emerged from the built-in speaker.
“He always tells me he loves me, that he would be happy with me…”
Mai’s hands whipped to her mouth. She gasped and her body drifted, slowly, to the floor. She uttered something in Swedish.
My father stood by, impassive.
“I know he wants to marry me. He says that every night…”
Mai suppressed a sob. Dad barely moved as he listened.
The tape reached the point where I’d asked, “Did he ever turn it on?”
“What a good question,” my father said.
“That’s so brilliant of you,” Mai said.
I didn’t expect their admiration. Part of me had feared what would happen if they heard the tape—would Mai take a swing at me? Would my father order me to turn it off? But I had to shock him into action. Quite simply, I couldn’t take Miriam’s phone calls anymore. They frightened me. Making a tape would make her stop. I guess I was quite capable of showing my father what was troubling me, but I remained incapable of verbalizing it.
After the tape ran out, my father picked up my telephone. Of course he knew the number by heart. “God damn it, Miriam, I’m warning you. Stop calling my boy.” He sounded savage, thoroughly devoid of sympathy.
Miriam hollered something, too fast to understand, followed by hysterical sobs.
“Let me tell you something, Miriam. Tony made a tape of your call last night. I have it and I promise you I’ll use it if I have to. Now leave him alone.”
“I said don’t call him anymore. Is that clear?”
A volley of words piling on top of each other.
“Is that clear?”
A meek sound from the receiver; then Dad hung up hard. Mai clapped her hands, just once, as I exhaled.
I didn’t feel satisfied or smug or victorious. Part of me regretted taping Miriam. Part of me wondered if what I had done was legal. (Not in California, I’d learn in law school.) The rest of me felt exhausted.
My father took the tape, which concerned me. I would have duplicated it had I the equipment to do so. He never returned it and I never asked for it back. I don’t remember what wedid for the rest of the day, only that the mood was low key and surprisingly gentle. I got the feeling that Mai had forgiven him. They even held hands.
Sunday night, when I returned to Trojan Hall, the pay phone remained silent, a silence that continued until, by Wednesday, one of my dorm mates asked, “I assume it’s over?”
“It’s over,” I said, the easy answer.
Whoever asked me the question said, “I’m sorry.”
Mom and Stan never learned of the tape or that Mai had been in our house. The name Miriam disappeared from my vocabulary. She dropped from my mind like a stone into a dark sea, down to wherever Jo Anne was. Dad and I never talked about her again.
Forty years later I emerged from my health club with a woman who was tan, with full lips and a striking figure. I’d watched Jan work out, then tried to talk with her, and even after it became clear we would spend no nights together (she might had I possessed my father’s phenotype), we had dinners, usually at a restaurant in a shopping center that some developer had managed to sneak into the mountain range that split Los Angeles down the middle. It was the kind of place that served pasta and chicken paillard and where the smiles of the waiters widened with the fame of the patrons.
Halfway through her salad, Jan asked, “Was your father an actor?”
The question drew a casual yes out of me.
“What’s his name?”
I told her.
“My aunt knew him.”
I’d missed the resemblance to Miriam in coloring, figure, lips, eyes, and even voice. True, the hair differed. Jan’s was brown and straight, with more sheen. She was also thinner. But the overlap had been enough to notice her among the machines and weights, my subconscious at work.
Our conversation sped like a Beethoven symphony when the music races away from the rhythm, breaking the rules. Beethoven the master knew how to do this. Maybe my father did too, another maestro who knew how to break from the boring beat and run free across the clefs. But my father got caught.
I prepared myself to apologize as soon as I saw Miriam again, as I figured I must, but like my father, Miriam was dead. She’d died two months earlier.
By meal’s end Jan and I had our in-joke: we were cousins, relatives from the marriage that never was. Aunt Miriam, Uncle Gerry. Having uncovered this secret intersection of our lives, we felt giddy.
And I felt guilty again. At fault for depriving my father of the pleasure he’d needed with his marriage and career staggering. Had I been old enough to understand, I wonder if I would have helped Miriam oust Mai. When, on July 12, 1963, I’d made my tape recording, who knew that my father had only five years left before his heart attack? My father died without a will, which meant that, under California law at that time, the wife received everything; his child, nothing. All Mai let me keep was a book I’d given my father on his final birthday (Dancing Bear: An Inside Look at California Politics by Gladwin Hill). Also his Army good conduct medal.
A few days later Miriam’s son, George, called from his home in Orange County. In a calm, soft-spoken voice, he said, “We have a few things that I’ve always wanted to give back to the family, but I didn’t know who to get in touch with.”
We met after dinner one night in the empty parking lot of a bank in Santa Monica.
He was taller than I. From what I could see in the dark, his face appeared narrower than Miriam’s; his lips and body thinner. His hair was dark, like his sister’s.
I thanked George for taking the time to meet me.
He said he was glad to do so. Then, after a pause, “I always liked your father.”
I said nothing about his mother other than I was sorry about her passing. I didn’t know what he knew. I asked about Nancy. He said she was married.
Either he was sensitive enough not to ask me questions, or he was in a hurry. He had a business meeting in the morning. And the night air had turned damp and chilly.
“Let me show you what I have,” he said.
The legacy of the relationship consisted first of a manila envelope, its metal clasp sharp. Inside were photographs of my father at what looked like cocktail parties and dinners with people I didn’t recognize, either then or at home later, under brighter light. As usual he held a cigarette while the others held drinks. Also as usual, his clothing was elegant. Mixed among the pictures were small clippings from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, the usual type of announcements. He got a role on Perry Mason. He got a role on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I ran a hand along the slick pages.
Then George reached into the backseat of his SUV and removed a cover from a large, flat object—a portrait.
My father’s head rested in his hand. His face looked worn, a man beaten down, out of dreams, but still pensive.
I didn’t notice the gray streaks through his hair until I returned home, nor did I see the artist’s writing, unobtrusive in the lower left corner.
The portrait is dated 1967.