When I was ten years old, I believed I lived in the best country, state, city, and neighborhood. I even believed I lived on the best street, if not the best house. All those decades ago, I envisioned my location like today’s Google Earth, peering down from space, zooming in closer and closer until I could see 1212 Vancouver, Burlingame, California, the verdant lawn bordered by begonias, the sour tangerine tree, and a light post with one golden bulb. But inside our Spanish-style bungalow, my good fortune ended.
My parents had married old, surprising friends and relations. My mother at thirty-six was already an “old maid” while my father, ten years her senior, was considered “not the marrying kind.” The post-war pressure to marry and reproduce had precipitated their union. My parents met at a dance, married, and produced a child, all within a year’s time.
When I was ten years old, I believed I lived in the best country, state, city, and neighborhood. I even believed I lived on the best street, if not the best house. All those decades ago, I envisioned my location like today’s Google Earth, peering down from space, zooming in closer and closer until I could see 1212 Vancouver, Burlingame, California, the verdant lawn bordered by begonias, the sour tangerine tree, and a light post with one golden bulb.Then, before their fifth anniversary, my mother developed breast cancer and my father couldn’t accept the disfiguring result of a radical mastectomy. We moved from the gray chill of the San Francisco’s Sunset District to suburban Burlingame sixteen miles south, but the new-found sunshine did nothing to thaw their relations.
My father moved into the den. He ate his meals in restaurants and carried his bundle of shirts to the cleaners. My parents rarely spoke to one another other than to address bills or car repair. Why didn’t they divorce? My mother couldn’t endure the social stigma. She harbored a deep-seated insecurity resulting in a fear of being alone. She believed in a future where they would jumpstart their love like a dead battery. My father simply didn’t want to pay alimony and child support. With the 1960 national divorce rate at 9%, most couples considered a bad marriage preferable to no marriage at all.
My mother distracted herself by focusing on me. She shopped for the foods I loved. Crusty loaves of extra-sourdough bread. Oatmeal cookies and Instant Breakfast. Chocolate pudding in a can. After school, she could be found at the ironing board in the kitchen, pressing the wide collars and loopy bows on my school dresses.
And then she discovered the chaotic discord of our next-door neighbors, Frank and Georgia Brush. Their home resembled a cheerful dwelling from a 1950’s sitcom. Painted a sunny yellow with green shutters, the house should have been a honeymooner’s dream, but corpulent, Frank, and tousled Georgia, were anything but honeymooners. They’d been married for over thirty years.
The first time I became aware of the couple’s discontent was on a summer day when my mother sent me to their side yard to find an avocado. My mother preferred that I take one from the ground although I’m sure the Brushes wouldn’t have noticed if I stripped the tree bare and set up an avocado stand in front of their house. On this day, as I plucked an avocado, a blood-curdling scream poured from their open window.
I dropped the avocado, ran across the driveway, entered our house, and told my mother. In the dining room, she set her ear to the window pane. I did the same. Slam. Bam. High screeching wails. Shouts and curses from both Frank and Georgia.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” I asked.
“What should we do?”
“Call the police?”
“They’ll never speak to us again if we do.”
“We don’t talk to them now.” It was true. Since we’d moved into the house, communication consisted of Georgia’s cheery, “Hi,” and “Bye,” accompanied by a flip of the hand. On occasion, my father exchanged a word or two with Frank. “What if Frank hurts Georgia?” I asked.
“They’re drunks and it isn’t our business, anyway. That’s enough for now,” she said, turning away, as if I’d watched enough television or eaten too many potato chips.
But soon it became my mother’s business to listen in earnest. She spent a portion of her Saturday afternoons with an ear to the glass. On weekdays, Frank left the house in a spiffy dark suit and gleaming dress shoes. He sold men’s clothing at Hastings in the Hillsdale Mall. Georgia took the train to the city to manage a law office.
Their Saturday entertainment became my mother’s. The bangs, screams, oaths, and name-calling seemed to comfort her. Her marriage might be in disarray, but she and my father kept their misery to themselves. These heathens blasted their pain for all the world to hear. My mother took a measure of solace in their drunken cacophony.Their Saturday entertainment became my mother’s. The bangs, screams, oaths, and name-calling seemed to comfort her. Her marriage might be in disarray, but she and my father kept their misery to themselves. These heathens blasted their pain for all the world to hear. My mother took a measure of solace in their drunken cacophony.
One Saturday morning as I cleaned up after our dog in the backyard I heard Frank and Georgia go at it earlier than usual. I decided not to alert my mother, or join her in the dining room. By now I was both bored and disgusted by the Brushes. How could they go to work each weekday like upstanding citizens and then engage in their weekend debauchery?
But then I heard something I’d never heard before. “Debbie, Gertrude! Help me!” Oh my God. Georgia called our names.
I found my mother already in the dining room, ear to the window. “Georgia needs our help,” I said. Frank was finally going to kill Georgia. It was bound to happen if we didn’t intercede.
I didn’t need to put my ear to the window to hear Georgia’s pleas.
Bang, boom, the crash of a heavy object hitting wallboard. A blood curdling shriek. Slam. “We have to call the police!” By now I was sobbing. Why didn’t my mother react? “I’m calling,” I said taking a tentative step towards the telephone in the hall.
“No. They’ll never speak to us again. Georgia will hate our guts when she sobers up. And she doesn’t really want us to call anyway.”
I didn’t believe her. I begged and pleaded until I wore my mother down.
“Alright, already. I’ll call. The police won’t believe a child. But you’re going to see, Georgia doesn’t want our help.”
After the call, we moved into the living room. We opened the front door a crack, just enough to peer out. We waited with cocked ears. Within five minutes a siren screamed up Broadway, louder and louder, until the patrol car turned right on Vancouver and stopped. A uniformed officer emerged from the vehicle and walked up the Brush’s brick pathway to their lacquered, green door. He rang the doorbell. No answer. He knocked. No answer. He jiggled the doorknob. He knocked again.
“Anyone home?” he called out.
The door finally opened to Frank holding a large frying pan down against his thigh. He grinned with what must have been his personable, suit-selling, smile.
“We called too late,” I whispered. “Georgia’s already dead.”
“No, there she is.”
Yes. There was Georgia with her frazzled up-do and reading glasses perched low on her nose standing next to Frank. She also bestowed the brightest of smiles. After a brief exchange, the door closed and the officer turned and walked back to his squad car.
I was dumbfounded. How could this be? How did my mother know Frank wouldn’t kill Georgia and why did Georgia call our names? How did they sober up so quickly when the officer knocked on their door? My mother seemed to know the answers to these questions, but when I asked, she said that I was too young to understand.
As my mother predicted, from that day on, Georgia stopped all hellos and waves and never again called for help.
Two years later, another siren raced up Broadway, turned right on Vancouver, and screeched. This time, it was an ambulance. Scrub-suited personnel pulled a gurney from the back. They knocked on the Brushes’ door, then entered the home. Neighbors emerged from their houses. It was the dinner hour and some still held napkins or picked lettuce from their teeth. The Bakers, the Letts, and even the La Patras from down the block, lined up along the curb as if waiting for a parade.
He did it, I thought. Frank finally killed Georgia. But the EMTs pushed Frank, not Georgia, down the brick path. His sheet-covered gut rose like a small snow-covered hill. Frank wasn’t dead. At least not yet. He grinned at the assemblage, acknowledging the concern with a hearty laugh. A false alarm. Not a heart attack after all. Indigestion! But the next year, the scene repeated itself, and this time Frank emerged with his face covered by a sheet.
Georgia, released from a situation she couldn’t leave on her own, quit her job in the city. A neighbor claimed she had stopped drinking, and “like a new woman” ran the neighborhood election headquarters with great efficiency.
My mother wasn’t as lucky as Georgia. At the end of my childhood, she was the one who exited her marriage on a stretcher.
My father stayed in the house. He ate his meals out and took his bundle of shirts to the cleaners. He carried on as he had before, alone.