They lived across the street, in a house that seemed perpetually dark, haunted by the blue light of an oversized black and white TV, and the sharp, constant beat of footsteps on the uncarpeted wooden stairs. There were nine of them altogether; the kids – Bobby Jr., Billy, Bonnie, Brucie, Beth Ann, Barbara and Belinda Jane; with Bobby being a sneering out-of-work high school drop-out and Belinda Jane still in diapers at the age of four-and-a-half. The parents were in their late thirties; he a good-natured Mason who taught athletics at Connecticut Valley Hospital For The Mentally Insane, she gaunt and saggy as a half-full sack of flour, with vacant blue eyes and bad teeth, an apron and varicose veins. Their names were Bob and Beverly.
My brother, sisters and I had to stay at their house after school, while our mother worked. It was a rather unusual set-up for a small town in those times. Not that many women were divorced with kids back then in the mid Sixties. My sisters were happy as long as they had first crack at the dirty Barbie dolls with trunks full of clothing that Beverly had knit, and they remained quiet and docile as long as she let them lick the leftover spoons and bowls of cake batter and icing. My brother was hardly there, but I thought, even at my tender age, that I’d somehow ventured into a strange and wonderfully foreign paradise of true Americana. Even at nine I could tell that there was a large gap in our families’ frames of reference. While my house had The New Yorker and Vogue on the antique coffee table, Beverly’s house had a dog-eared copy of TV Guide laying on top of the doily that covered the couch arm, and love comics neatly stacked in the bathroom, next to the doll with the velveteen skirt whose purpose was to disguise a spare roll of toilet paper.
While my house had a constant parade of guests, including Black Panthers, noted feminist leaders, “flamboyant” theater chums of my mother’s, tweedy professors and whiny, sarcastic modern dance majors from NYU wearing dangly silver earrings, Beverly’s house seemed infinitely more interesting. It was there that I learn from Bonnie how to shoplift small items like lipstick and nail polish, and how to bite my nails nonchalantly and feign disinterest when boys came around. It was there that Coca-Cola was served along with Kraft Macaroni ‘N' Cheeze as a diet staple.
Bob Sr. would hose down the backyard during the winters, to turn it into a mini ice rink. They also had an attic full of toys and dolls, and Brucie’s silver sparkle Sears Roebuck drum kit. There were interesting items everywhere you looked; the house was so full of clutter. There were boxes full of sequins and glitter that Beverly used for making seasonal decorations or signs for PTA bake sales, drawers full of Green Stamps, tools and coupons, and plaques depicting glow-in-the-dark crucifixes and Praying Hands on the walls. None of this stuff was ever in my house. They always had things on hand that my mother deemed “a waste of money.”
Beverly used Cut-Rite wax paper instead of foil to wrap the bologna or Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches the kids always took for lunch. In addition to all that, the entire family talked great. They said “bureau” instead of “dresser”, we called it an “ice-box,” but they called it a “fridge,” and when my father had lived with us, we called him Papa – but Bob Sr. was Dad… it sounded so much more casual and modern. They also said things that shocked me. I was used to hearing a lot of swear words, but they said things like “youse” instead of “you guys” and made racial slurs without even thinking twice, as though it was a normal thing to do. They also all used the ungrammatical “ain’t” which my fourth-grade teacher said wasn’t even a real word.
Bob Sr. was a Mason, and he took me into the Masonic Temple once. It was awesome, with its heavy, brocade-edged burgundy velvet curtains, stained glass windows, polished wood podiums and worn, Oriental carpets. I was Beth Ann’s guest at a Rainbow Girls’ dinner. Over chicken croquettes she whispered that her father knew all the secrets of the lodge, and that if any Mason ever told them to a non-Mason, well, then, out he’d go, just like that. She looked at me meaningfully, fork poised at lip level, and I got the message.
I guess it was when I was in the seventh grade that our families started drifting apart. By then, of course, my siblings and I were old enough to take care of us, and didn’t need to be monitored after school. Beth Ann and I went our separate ways when she began deliberately flunking out in school, because it wasn’t yet fashionable for girls to be smart. Besides, at that time, she had tits and I didn’t, and if you really want to know, it made a big difference. Not only that, her “bureau” was full of stupid, straight-girl clothes. I was getting into the hippie mode and she told me she thought that was “queer.”
They remained across the street, and remained in their house still, after my family moved across town. Occasionally, I would go by on my teal metal flake Schwinn and see Barbara playing in the yard with her kittens, or see Brucie, now tall and masculine, bounding up the wooden stoop, slamming the screen door and yelling, “Maaaaaaaa! What’s to eat?”
Bonnie’s best friend Laura got “in trouble” and then, when Bonnie eloped soon after at a rather early age, tongues wagged. Bobby went to jail for a time, I believe it may have been Grand Theft Auto. As soon as Belinda Jane was in school, Beverly got dentures and dyed her hair black.
Finally, my family moved to California, far, far away from that tiny town with its Dairy Queen and two movie palaces on Main Street. The auto junkyard that had been across the street from my house and directly next door to Beth Ann’s was dismantled and turned into a big ice rink, and various sections of the city underwent “urban renewal,” which meant that they build more shopping centers full of Caldor’s, Hardee’s, McDonald’s and Stop ‘N’ shops.
Once in a while, a certain smell will bring me back there, maybe Velveeta Cheeze being grilled and burning, wet wool socks or damp dog, and suddenly I am reminded of their house with it’s constant pandemonium. Their house, so different than my own, with it’s background of game-show chaos, braided rag throw-rugs, wax fruit displayed on the dining room table in cut-glass bowls that were won at a carnival. Their house, with all the galoshes sitting on the heat register, the pastel bathrooms with the chipped enamel starfish on the walls. One example of sloppy speech can take me back to that place, where, if we were good, Beverly would let us play with her empty Avon bottles, and if were bad, she’d cuff us on the side of the head muttering,
Sometimes, I wonder why I like a certain piece in a junk store – why the hell would I covet an amber colored faux blown -glass ashtray in the shape of a swan? And then I remember the dirty lace curtains, the Masonic plaques and the bunk beds in Beth Ann and Bonnie’s room piled high with hand-crocheted Afghans. Once in a while, my sisters and I will recall something about those times and fall down hysterical with laughter about white trash and rednecks.
But every so often, out of nowhere, I get an intense and shameful craving for a Ritz Cracker smeared with Peter Pan Creamy peanut butter. Nothing else will do.
My memoir, Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage And On The Road is available on Amazon and here: