DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN
by Tony Van Witsen
I awoke and even before I remembered where I was, I knew it wasn’t Michigan. The light was different: soft and cottony. The house shook slightly from traffic on the freeway and the air smelled of lemons. Sitting up, I saw a range of jagged hills outside the window. Then I remembered: it was just my luck that when my mother skipped out on her happy home for Hollywood, part of her plan was to take me along and make an actor of me. Another part was to trade Michigan and my Communist-obsessed father for California and a chance to breathe the same air as movie stars.
As a plan, it was no more or less logical than our block back home. To
our left, Skip and Betsy Ambler maintained the biggest collection of science
fiction I’d ever seen. On Halloween
they greeted candy seekers by dressing in silver spacesuits with plexiglass
Somewhere they had found hard candies shaped like cherry red or lime green rocket ships with tail fins. When my brother Ted reached into the bowl for another, Betsy gave his hand a sharp little slap. “Only one per star fleet, Ranger.”
To our right lived our dentist, Dr. Frederick Payne, whose name made him the butt of endless jokes. Dr. Payne was the only person we knew who’d supported Adlai Stevenson for President, giving him and my father something to argue about during cleanings. I knew Dr. Payne took unfair advantage by arguing when he had my father’s mouth clamped open and couldn’t talk back.
Three houses down lived Hap McGuire, a photographer for the Shackley Gazette which seemed like the best job in the world to me. Not to Hap, though. “It’s nothing, Phil. You go to a Cub Scout fundraiser, wrestle the little brats into a single line behind their craft stand. Fire off two shots. Drive to a ground breaking. Wait for the guys in suits to stick their shovels in. Fire off two more shots.” It sounded routine enough, but then came Hap’s moment to shine when Harry Truman’s presidential train stopped here on his way to Kansas City. “Damnedest thing happened, Phil,” he told me. “I had a copy of the Chicago Trib with that headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Couldn’t resist: I yelled, ‘Hey Mr. President, how about holding this up for us?’ He grinned as I shoved it into his hand. I said, ‘Move it to the left, it’s blocking your face.’ There was three, four of us on the platform; we all fired our flashguns. He started to lower the paper. I said, ‘One more?’ He said, ‘You boys should form the Just One More Club,’ but he raised the paper again. I screwed in another bulb, pulled the slide on the plate holder. Fired the flash.”
“And the rest is history?” I said.
“Hell no,” he snorted. “Truman
is history. Newspaper photographers are nobodies.”
I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this could have happened anywhere within shouting distance of Truman but for our purposes make it West Shackley Grove Michigan, summer of 1954. There was my mother who worked as a ticket taker at the Grove Theatre downtown, my father who balanced a solid business doing doctors’ and dentists’ tax returns with a hobby of fighting world Communism and my older brother Ted who won awards and ran around town with girls, listened to modern jazz and collected prints of paintings I couldn’t understand. A two- bit prankster and cutup, I brought up the rear of this parade.
When I said summer I really meant Fourth of July. Evening. We all sat in chairs on our front lawn waiting for the sky to darken so the fireworks could begin. Pop had a home movie camera in his lap. My parents had already talked about the heat, how their respective families were holding up, and if it would rain Friday. They could do this for hours. She mentioned her sister who went and married a farmer on the U.P, never had kids and seemed perfectly satisfied to live with pigs and chickens. Then he brought up his cousin who was so good with people and became a real estate agent. “Was that Peg?” my mother said. “Didn’t she also run for City Council?”
“You’re thinking of Trudy,” my father said. “She wanted to run but those Republicans wouldn’t give her a crust of bread to gnaw on. Peg was the real estate tycoon.” I began to wonder why they didn’t write it all down somewhere and save themselves the trouble, when he shifted tone. “Philip, Ted. I want you to listen to this.” He took a sip of his scotch then began another of his warnings that Commies were everywhere. “I happen to know that the KGB— that’s their spying agency, the KGB—has a training center in Siberia with an exact copy of an American town. Homes, schools, city hall, everything. Now what do you think of that?”
”Sounds batty to me,” Ted said. I responded by walking to the porch where
I’d left my firecrackers, lighting a string, and tossing it over the rail into
my mother’s hydrangeas,
wondering what clever thing would make me seem as competent and popular as Ted. My mother had only to say, Ted, what’s wrong with the folding closet door in the master bedroom? Up he leapt, ran to the basement and returned, hands full of tools. After ten minutes, he emerged and calmly pronounced, It’s fixed. And it was. Or she said, “Ted, how about whipping up an angel food cake? We’d all love some angel food cake right now.” Off he sprinted to the kitchen. We heard utensils clink, eggshells cracking, the mixer. An hour later he emerged with the warm cake on a platter and a cake knife. We all knew Ted was headed for some eastern college which was merely the first step on a pathway to whatever success he chose. Girls of all shapes and sizes were pleased and proud to be seen in his company. Somehow his interest in abstract art, Dave Brubeck and foreign films made them feel like women of the world, though he never dated them. I spotted him in the center of a crowd walking down the school corridor, arms around each others’ waists. Ted was singing something fractured and deliberately off key as the girls, giggling, tried to keep up.
These stories filtered back to my parents, perhaps exaggerated, perhaps not. One evening, when they’d been discussing family relations again, the door to Ted’s room opened, flooding the room with the sounds of a saxophone.
“What the hell is that?” my father said. “Don’t ask me,” my mother said.
“What is that stuff anyway?” my father repeated as Ted appeared in the living room. “Bebop,” Ted said.
“I mean who’s playing.” “John Coltrane.”
“Is he a Negro?”
“Why do you ask?”
“No reason. I have nothing against Negroes, nothing at all. Some of them are extremely talented. Is Mr. Coltrane a Communist?”
“He’s a modalist.”
“Well–we just have to watch out for subversive influences, that’s all.” Ted and my father gazed at each other as my mother began flicking through a movie magazine, then Ted headed to the kitchen, emerging a moment later biting into an apple. The sounds of Coltrane’s sax grew muffled as he returned to his room and closed the door.
Until my dad brought up Communists I’d been reading Earl K McMaster’s Fourth Orb From The Sun. This was a tale of daily life on Mars or Tessort, as they called it. Tessort had red deserts and sand cliffs, jewel-like cities and rivers of flowing purple glass. It looked nothing like this place. My mother, who could watch the main feature at the Grove as often as she liked, had been talking about Joan Crawford’s fierce, eager smile when she begged David Brian to take up a life of crime in The Damned Don’t Cry. She’d recently spent a week in to Los Angeles with her friend Hazel, who worked at a talent agency in Beverly Hills, returning full of stories about stucco houses with red tiled roofs and oranges you could pick off the trees yourself. Her problem with Communists was that they weren’t movie stars.
“Philip is such a showoff,” my mother said. “But he wastes it all on pranks.”
“I know what you’re wondering,” my father said as though the previous hadn’t happened. “Why can’t we tell the commies by their accents or their dress or their habits.”
“I’m sure you’ll inform us,” my mother said. “Well sir, that’s a measure of how clever they are.”
“See those moths buzzing around the streetlights?” Ted said. “They’re from the FBI.” “That’s enough, Ted,” my father said. “It happens to be a fact that Russian spies spend
months practicing to be
“Do tell,” my mother said.
“They read our newspapers. Learn about our sports. Wouldn’t be surprised if they listen to transcriptions of Your Hit Parade. They could be living right on this block and you’d never know it.”
“Hah! J. Edgar Hoover!” Ted grinned as a swallow flew down the street. “Or is it Stalin
disguised as J. Edgar? Typical Commie trick.”
“We are all responsible for fighting this threat to our way of life,” my father said. “You boys might want to write this down.”
Already suspended from school twice, I had recently been threatened with expulsion when my best friends Rick and Ronnie fingered me as the ringleader in some vague shenanigans, though I had nothing to do with it. Rather than expel me, they suspended me a third time, reasoning that even if I didn’t do it I very well could have, which was the same thing. I sat out the idleness on our porch, reading The Man Who Sold The Moon while Ted brought my homework so I wouldn’t fall behind.
Maybe it was the fits of purposeless boredom that defined my whole existence, but something in my father’s warnings stuck to me. If he said Commies read Readers Digest Condensed Books, why shouldn’t it be so? If we had to protect American life from spies, why not help? On Saturday I watched Jerry Peters, across the street, working up a tremendous sweat as he pushed a hand mower across his front lawn. He didn’t look remotely like a spy, so of course he had to be one. He noticed me staring and waved a friendly hand. Perhaps the KGB had taught him to sweat like an American including the damp circles under his arms.
I couldn’t find any Martians with x-ray vision that exposed Communists so
I telephoned old man Peters. “I know who you are,” I growled. “I know what
you’re up to.” He recognized my voice instantly and threatened to call the
police on me. Reform school was threatened along
with stern-faced judges, child psychologists. Summer in California suddenly made all kinds of sense; my mother called in a favor from Hazel to find me something. And so here I was in this concrete block room off Sunset Boulevard that housed the Hand Laundry Theater Collective, which would make an actor of me or die trying.
It was some kind of place alright; more like a garage or a former drycleaners than an acting school. Picture a symphony orchestra tuning up: energy without direction. Two people were discussing apartment rents in Sawtelle. A piano which everyone ignored. Also a table laid with newspapers, gum, aspirin bottles, a sack of jellybeans, water tumblers, cigarettes, a cap pistol. Props, I guess. All presided over by an exploding cigar of a director, which is what J.D. Wagner seemed like with his shock of black hair and sweatshirt. My mother stood next to me, dolled up like it was church bingo night.
“What have we here?” were Wagner’s first words.
“He was in Our Town,” my mother said. “In Michigan.”
“I asked Philip, not his mother,” J.D. said. “Now why don’t you sit in one of those chairs and just watch for now?”
J.D. turned and began talking about actors and directors with an extraordinarily beautiful young woman named Rudd Markson. “I don’t know. I think so,” she said, speaking the words with a theatrical intensity that left me oblivious to anyone else. It was scary how beautiful she was: not just her bone structure but her movements, how her body fell naturally into an elegant sprawl the moment she straddled a chair. The way her voice, even her features seemed like a window to her most private self.
The talk stopped. Rudd sat very still, considering something, perhaps. I
felt I’d been sleepwalking through life till that moment. Why hadn’t anyone
told me what real movie stars looked like?
This wasn’t what my mother wanted to know as she sat at Hazel’s living room table that evening with a bourbon and water. “Did you actually get to act today?” were her first words.
“I did the lead in Our Town,” I knew this was what she wanted so I gave it to her. “Just like in Michigan. No scenery.”
“Really. I also played Lady Macbeth. As an experiment.” “You played—”
“Henry Higgins too.”
“Philip, will you be serious a moment? You are very annoying.”
Recently a prankster, now an actor—how serious was that? Mostly I’d spent the afternoon just sitting and listening. “J.D. says we should aim for the primal trauma,” I said.
“It sounds like a con to me,” my mother said. This was exactly what I would have expected from my father. “Well it doesn’t matter. My boy is going to be an actor any way it has to happen, aren’t you, Philip?”
“What did you do today?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s the most awful thing. They’ve got me turning out scripts on the mimeograph. I can’t work those things. Ink gets everywhere.”
“Clint Walker came into the office today,” came Hazel’s voice. “He’s so tall! Six-five at
“Did you talk to him?” my mother said. “Of course I talked to him.”
“That so? I would have thought he’d be too stuck-up to talk to real people.”
“And that’s where you’d be wrong. He’s like regular folks, only a whole
lot better looking.”
“Well now. It just goes to show.”
Hazel’s job typing up contracts seemed like the stupidest work in the world. “Maybe I’ll play Captain Queeg tomorrow,” I said. My mother reached out and touched my hand but her face said, This is your chance to make something of yourself. And if you don’t, I’ll blame you for it.
“What happened with the mimeo?” I asked.
“Another mimeo lady took pity on me and told me just to bind pages together with those little brass fasteners. So that’s my job.” Rather than answering I went to my room, tore a sheet out of an old notebook and wrote REVENGE OF THE REPTILE PEOPLE across the top.
The rehearsal studio was no more inviting the next day when J.D. handed me a sheaf of pages such as my mother might have fastened together. “Philip, go up there and work with Rudd.” Feeling like less an actor than a block of wood, I shuffled into the open space in the center of the room to play a ten-year-old, with Rudd my adoring mother. Paying no attention to my embarrassment, Rudd began to caress my face and smother my cheek with little kisses. When I froze, certain I’d muffed it, J.D. leaned toward me. “Do it again,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “But this time when she’s completely engaged with you, pinch her butt.”
I read my lines, always aware of J.D’s gaze, but when the moment came I froze again, clutching Rudd till she jumped up, fell over the prop coffee table and bumped to the floor.
“Philip,” said J.D’s voice. “What did I tell you to do?” When I saw his grin I realized it was he who’d pinched Rudd’s behind for me.
“Damn! Is this the Dempsey-Firpo fight?” Rudd said. “I could have broken something.” “The scene was flat before,” J.D. said. “Now it roars. Take two aspirin and do it again.”
When I finally put down the script and plopped into a chair at the edge
of the room I spied another company member looking at me as if he knew me. “Answer
me something,” he
said. “Does this burg remind you of Mars?” I agreed—something about those foothills against the sky at dusk.
“I have a past,” Chuck said, as though I’d asked. “Froze my kiester off in Korea in ’51 and ’52. Now I’m here where it’s warm, writing science fiction. Do you think J.D. is the biggest phony since General MacArthur?” I had no idea what he was about, shambling around like a bear in his beret, hornrims and bushy black beard. At lunchtime Chuck took me to the Galaxy bookstore two blocks away (“FOUR FLOORS OF SCIENCE FICTION”) where we heard Jack Allenby read a chapter from his bestseller Invaders From Planet Vesta. English, in his forties, he had a glow on his cheeks as he read in his clipped speech to a crowd full of young men in sport jackets, buzz cuts and glittery tie clips.
Afterwards, one of them asked, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Allenby, what’s the secret of your incredible productivity?”
“Glad you asked,” he nodded. “My agent says you have to have a book every 18 to 24 months to stay in the game. Bit of a strain, that. But I have a system. My secretary arrives at my home in Pasadena at 8:30. We have a cup of coffee, then we go into my study at 9 o’clock sharp. I dictate all morning; she takes it down in shorthand. We both have a cigarette at 10:30, then back to work till noon. After lunch she types up what I’ve dictated while I revise what she typed the day before. We turn out a chapter every two weeks.” He paused to chuckle. “I’m amazed she can read all my scribbles in the margins when I’m done revising. Then she retypes it all and we’re halfway there. Or as we English say, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’”
“Did you think
that guy was as big a fraud as I did?” Chuck said afterward. “Do you think
everyone’s a fraud?”
“Right-ho!” He fell into an impeccable British accent. “I’d like to thank my attractive and creamy complexioned secretary, Miss Fiona Balderdash, for making sense of my scrawls and pothooks. Yes, quite. Dear indispensable Fiona practically writes those books for me.”
“Why are you in J.D’s class?” I asked.
“If I want to make it in the science fiction market I’d better know everything about how stories are created. I guess that’s it. But I don’t really know. Maybe I’ll fire that cap pistol tomorrow for fun.” I pictured J.D. enthusing about what it did to the scene.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was mother, decked out in pearl necklace and earrings. “I thought I’d find you here. Have you made any friends in that class?”
“This is Chuck,” I said. “We’re learning to write best-sellers.”
“We’re at the stage where the Vestans advance on the U.N. with their demands,” Chuck
“You know what I especially love about that story?” my mother said. “Where the aliens build a replica of an American town on Vesta so they can practice being Earthlings.”
“I don’t remember that part,” Chuck said. I could tell he was entertained.
“The houses are filled with transcriptions of Your Hit Parade,” I said. I knew my mother read nothing but romance novels. What would happen if I handed her a newspaper headlined VESTA DEFEATS EARTH?
“Vestans are more earthlike than we humans,” my mother said. “That’s how you can spot them.” It wasn’t the lying that shocked me, it was the casual insolence toward my father’s beliefs, his ideals.
“You’d fit right in on Mars,” Chuck said. “Are you an actress?”
“I’m in charge of story development for Cosmo Pictures. I read hundreds
of novels and scripts to decide what we’ll produce next.”
“Why did you feed him that B. S?” I said as we drove back to Hazel’s place.
“I think he has important connections in the movie business,” she said. “It’s imperative to meet him at his own level.” She couldn’t get Chuck out of her mind. There was something humiliating about it.
“Your father called today,” my mother said. “Hap was hospitalized after a bank robbery downtown. Police shot the perpetrator as he left the building. Hap photographed the guy bleeding to death on the street. It made the front page. Hap needed a day to recover from the shock. Can you believe it?”
“Is that all?”
“Your pop’s helping Skip Ambler build a rocket launcher in his backyard.”
I looked into the darkness for Martians scurrying through the underbrush with their chrysoberyl eyes. Chuck was right. California was nothing like flat, platted Michigan.
One afternoon when I stole away from class to visit the Galaxy again I saw my mother leafing through a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. She slammed it shut when she saw me.
“When did you get interested in science fiction?” I said.
“Chuck thinks I should produce science fiction epics exclusively,” she said.
I could hear my father saying, “Son, you can’t solve your problems by pretending.” There was more pretending going on here than in acting class but it only drove me deeper into my mother’s delusions. “Good idea,” I said. “that might get you a promotion.”
Next day J.D. told me to play a troubled kid with Chuck a high school principal. Sitting across from me, Chuck glowered so realistically that I knew why J.D. said we should live the part through emotional memory.
Until J.D. stopped us. “Why did
you hesitate before disciplining the boy?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Chuck said. “It just felt right.”
“Don’t. Just keep going as if was the most natural thing in the world.” “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” “What’s the reason, that’s all.”
“If you’re wondering about character motivation—”
“I mean I’ve been here four months and I don’t know what I’ve really learned yet.” “Right,” J.D. said. “Well it doesn’t happen quickly. You have to have faith.”
“No pep talks, please. No psychological stuff. Why can’t we just act?” “Easy, now,” J.D. said. “You haven’t been drinking, have you?”
“What if I have?” He seemed on the verge of causing grievous harm to someone, possibly himself.
“Look,” J.D. said. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” Chuck’s shirt-tail was coming untucked as he shuffled toward the door.
When I got to Hazel’s after a long bus ride, I found Chuck seated in the living room across from my mother, both of them holding glasses of beer. A wedge of Chuck’s pink belly showed. The tabletop looked like a saloon at closing time.
“Guess who dropped by?” my mother said with a grin. “Chuck’s been entertaining us with tales of your director and his—how shall I put it? Antics.”
“He’s nothing compared to some magazine editors I know,” Chuck said. “Pretentious,” my mother said. “He probably doesn’t even believe in scenery.” “How was your day at the studio?” Chuck asked my mother.
“I signed Clint
Walker to a three-picture deal,” she said. “You what?” Hazel said.
“It’s still a secret. You won’t read it in the papers.”
“Your mother’s an amazing woman,” Chuck said to me. “But that J.D. He doesn’t know a scene from a Studebaker.”
“Call me when dinner’s ready,” I said, heading to my room. Over the next few evenings, in Hazel’s living room, I heard them discuss plans for a movie of Chuck’s work in progress, Pods. Developing the script, budgeting. Who would they get to star? My mom wanted Technicolor; Chuck leaned toward black and white. I realized there were some things I’d never understand about self-deception.
Those wooden folding chairs with their slatted seats remained perpetually arranged in a circle or semicircle while different cast members tried out their scenes under J. D’s demanding gaze. Alone one steamy afternoon, the others gone, I nibbled on jellybeans. The bus to Van Nuys wasn’t due for 45 minutes. I could picture Dr. Payne, back in Michigan at that very moment, telling a patient to open wide.
“Hey! I want to talk to you.” It was Rudd, coming up on me from behind. “Why?”
“No reason. I just think we should talk as one actor to another without J.D. around. I mean you can’t play scenes with someone and not notice things.”
“Because I think you could be a fine little actor if you’d loosen up, Philip.” “My real name is Clint,” I said.
I mean,” she continued “is you have to stop resisting your own self, know what
I mean? I’m an intuitive actor but it took time to figure that out. I didn’t
know you could make choices about how to play a scene. I thought my kind of
acting was all there was. Give me some of those, will you?”
“What choices?” I poured jellybeans into her cupped hands.
“Why do I look in this direction? Why do I sit down at that moment? Why do I sit at all? That’s some peoples’ way. It’s J.D’s way. It’s Brando’s way. Not mine. For example, the couch scene.”
“Chuck says J.D. is the biggest fake he’s ever seen.”
“Never mind Chuck; it’s just you and me right now. Do you know you tighten up every time I touch you? Don’t be afraid to do something easy and intuitive with your body; the audience has a sixth sense about that.”
“Think the Tigers have a chance to win the pennant this year?”
“Let me give you my thoughts,” Rudd said. “I think mom is hungry for a little love. But it doesn’t make her lovable, it makes her overbearing. Her son intuits that.”
There I was, discussing character motivation with this looker. “I can’t go on being a cutup all my life. I have to do something real,” It was B.S. but I meant it too.
“Or you could try being more of a cutup rather than less. Great acting means doing what you’re already good at only more so.”
“Can I?” I pictured myself onstage tossing firecrackers into the audience whose cheering grew with each blast. This one is for the first suspension. BANG! This is for the second. BOOM!! That’s for Dr. Payne’s daughter Doris with her shining blonde hair who didn’t return my notes in class. Until my pop jumped up from the audience, grabbed me by the collar and told me to stop making a scene. He would have pulled me offstage entirely but in my imagination, Rudd intervened and persuaded him to give me just a moment more with the crowd.
“I hate everything about my life right now.” That slid out. “My brother can do everything. I can’t do anything. My mom wants me to be an actor—”
“Oh she does, does she?”
“—while Communists are taking over the country. What’s wrong with me anyhow?” “Come on,” Rudd said. “I’ll drive you home.”
Fading daylight made the flat floor of the
valley look like another world as Rudd’s car reached Mulholland Drive. That
stuff about my family made sense when I said it, less so now. “So tell me,
Philip,” Rudd said as the car began to descend. “What are you most afraid
“Have you ever noticed how much this place resembles Mars?” “I asked you a question.”
“Or would you say it looks more like Venus?”
“Quit your kite-flying and answer me. Pretend I’m not an actress. Pretend I’m a carhop.” Below us tiny pinpoints of light moved along the boulevards like alien transport modules. I was afraid my mother would never return us to West Shackley Grove; equally afraid she would.
“What are you most afraid of, Rudd?”
“Getting too comfortable. Winding up in a movie contract where I do just what they tell me and I make a lot of money.”
“I don’t believe you. Why do you want to live like an ordinary person? You aren’t one.” “If I looked like a character actor I could do what I want. Live in a little apartment
someplace, maybe a beach house. Do interesting roles. Does that surprise you?”
Her words made me feel so commonplace. “Thank you for the ride,” I said as the car pulled into my street.
“And goodnight,” she said as I opened the car door. “You don’t like acting, do you?” “No.” I wondered how she could have figured it out.
“For what it’s worth, I’d respect you more if you just did what you
damn well wanted.”
All the lights were off when I entered. Sinking onto the couch, I jumped right up again because I’d sat on one of my mother’s romance novels. For weeks I’d done what was expected of me but learned precious little about acting. “Do something character-defining,” J.D told us. I longed to notice a single flaw in some spy’s impeccable façade, tip off the feds, then watch with quiet pride as two blue-suited G-men led the Commie to a waiting car with two more agents lugging the mower as evidence.
Gradually, I perceived the voices of my mother and Chuck from her bedroom. Their talk was quiet and true, like two people who spoke so honestly they didn’t need to shout. I must have dozed off because after a while I made out my mother standing nearby.
“Philip?” she said. “Yes.”
“We’re going home next week.” “Why?”
“If you must know, Ted’s gone.” “Gone? From where?”
“Michigan. Your father called long distance. Ted found a job in New York. We don’t know how. At a fashion house.”
“Just left?” I said.
“Can you believe it? Threw away a college education. Your father was on the phone for half an hour; you know how he goes on so. ‘Never figured him for a dress designer, that’s for sure. I mean he was so popular with the ladies. Who’da thunk it?’” She mimicked his astonished tone so perfectly it was like he was in the room. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother, Philip. If I’d been home, Ted would never have run off like that.”
“So that’s the reason we’re leaving?”
“It’s other things too. Everybody hates me. Your father. Ted. The mimeo people. I’d like to kill myself right now. What do I have to live for?”
“Ma!” I didn’t believe her dramatics. “Does this have anything to do with Chuck?” I said. “Now you listen to me, young man. You are never to mention Chuck when we’re back
“What do you see in that creep? He should have stuck to acting and not walked out on
“When I said never, I meant never,” she repeated. “Can you do that for me? Can you?
I didn’t answer, just thought about my obligations to my family, to J.D. and a girl who looked like a movie star but didn’t behave like one. Eventually my mother returned to the bedroom and closed the door. Next day when J.D. told me to play a scene as though I knew a secret, I didn’t have to invent one.
My mom stared vacantly ahead as pop pulled the car into our driveway. “Welcome home,” he said. “Skip’s rocket blew up on the launcher yesterday. Nearly set his house on fire. Does that beat all?” The place looked like a movie set cleverly fashioned to mimic our house only they’d gotten the proportions wrong, or the scale. The new school year was just days away.
The first thing my mother did after putting down her suitcase was start opening and closing kitchen cabinets.
“What’s for dinner?” pop called from the living room.
“How should I know?” she said. “I just arrived. Get your own dinner; then you can have anything you want.”
“What are you
doing in the kitchen?” “I thought maybe Ted left something.”
“I can make French toast,” pop said. “Do you expect us to be grateful?”
I soon found people didn’t want to hear about what I called “my Hollywood escapade.” They were more intrigued by Ted’s job as an assistant to a dress designer in New York. My mother spoke of returning to California to see Hazel but didn’t follow through. Pop must have realized something because at Christmas he closed the tax office and took her on a month-long tour of Europe.
Like my mother I started opening cupboard doors and slamming them shut again. I felt Ted would leave a trace of his presence in the halls of Shackley High, some flicker of a remembered good time on the faces of the girls he knew, as though he’d shown them a higher version of themselves only to have it slip away after he was gone. Vanished, like the last slice of angel food cake. This was something godless Communists would never understand which was why we had to stop them from taking over the country.
“I think I’d like to write to Ted,” I said. “Do you have the address?” “What?” my mother said from the next room.
“Nothing. I’ll get it from pop.” I slammed another cabinet door and walked out of the kitchen.
Tony Van Witsen is a five-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fourteen years, specializing in short stories. In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004. His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including The Missing Slate (featured as a story of the week), Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review.