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  • 41. 1966

    By Janice Shapiro

    Our friends at Soft Skull Press have been kind enough to share this fine new story from Janice Shapiro’s multifaceted new collection Bummer, which publishes this week. Shapiro has a faithful ear for the patterns of teenage thought—and, even more impressive, a real feel for that discomfiting moment
    when our perception
    finally outruns our dreams.

    It was the summer of the dead nurses and that sniper in Texas and we were not allowed to walk on my grandparents’ lawn because of the frogs. I was nine years old, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, a place not unlike my grandparents’ yard, homelands for populations that had for various reasons exploded. In the Valley’s case, it was with millions of children, the famous baby boom generation; and in my grandparents’ yard, billions of tiny amphibians, refugees of that concrete eyesore known as the Los Angeles River.

    Our neighborhood in North Hollywood was flat and heavy with trees. In the summer the air got dry and hot and dirty, and everywhere—in the leaves, on the driveways, and in our hair—was the faint smell of chlorine from all of our neighbors’ pools. We didn’t have a pool. It was one of those things my sister Evelyn and I would occasionally beg our father for, but he always said the same thing: “We don’t need a pool. We have the Houstons.”

    The Houstons were our next-door neighbors and extremely generous with their swimming pool. We could use it whenever we wanted. Still, it wasn’t the same as having our own. We knew this. Our parents knew this. The difference was we cared, my sister and I. Our parents didn’t. But then one night that summer, the summer of 1966, when our father seemed to be in a particularly bad mood, quieter and less connected than usual, we asked if we could please, please, please put a swimming pool in our backyard and he stunned us by saying, “We’ll see.”

    My mother shot him a look across the dinner table. My father saw it. Evelyn and I saw it. It was a look that clearly asked, “What is the meaning of this?”

    We held our breath, waiting to see if our father was going to take back his words, but he went back to eating his short rib and staring out the window at our empty driveway. Our father had said, “We’ll see,” and “We’ll see” was how it stood.

    Evelyn and I were joyous. We skipped around the house. We threw our arms around each other like conquering heroes. We kicked our legs out and sang the can-can. Our father had said, “We’ll see.”

    “That doesn’t mean yes,” our teenage babysitter, Bobbi, told us. She was taking care of us on a Saturday night and had her hair up in curlers, but her lips glowed beneath a sheen of frosted pink lipstick and her eyes were surrounded by expertly painted black lines that continued out toward her temples in a Liz-as-Cleopatra look. Bobbi had brought over her denim-covered notebook because she was supposed to do homework after Evelyn and I went to sleep. She was going to summer school because she had failed English, math, and Spanish in the tenth grade, and Bobbi was depressed about going to summer school. She was depressed to be taking care of us on a Saturday night, instead of being out on a date. She was depressed because her parents hated her, something Evelyn and I knew because Bobbi lived next door, in the house on the other side than the Houstons, and if we crouched down beside the window in our parents’ bedroom we could listen to her fights with her parents.

    “You hate me!” Bobbi would scream and then we never heard either of her parents say one word to dispute this.

    Bobbi was pretty, if a little overweight. When her brown hair wasn’t in curlers, she teased it high and was really good at putting on makeup so that she looked grown-up but not grown-up like our mother, but grown-up like a lady in a car commercial, one that drives a totally impractical convertible too fast around dangerous canyon curves. When she babysat for us, Bobbi spent a lot of time talking to different boys on the phone and Evelyn and I would sit close, silently listening as her voice got sweet and girlish, her laugh easy and fleeting. Basically, Bobbi held us in contempt. We were not what she wanted to do, ever, but she was a teenager. She was pretty. We loved her. Evelyn and I. We loved Bobbi with a purity I don’t think we loved anyone else with.

    “You got a D on your Spanish test,” I said, nosily flipping through the pages of her notebook, worried because I knew Bobbi’s bad grades were the basis of a lot of terrible fights and I hated it when Bobbi’s parents yelled at her.

    She grabbed the notebook away from me. “You know, when I was your age I got straight As, too.” Bobbi told me this not like a warning, but a fact, a premonition of things that were to come that I would not believe would come at the time and then I would be wrong.

    Time in the summer moved in that bloated way forward. Occasionally, our mother took us to Muscle Beach for the day or to visit our grandparents who lived near Griffith Park in an area called Atwater just off of the Golden State Freeway. But for the most part we stayed in the Valley, surrounded by the low mountains that seemed to hold us captive along with the dirty air and the heat.

    That summer Evelyn had her passion and I had mine. At age ten and a half, my sister became an obsessive Dodgers fan. She memorized the lineup, knew all the players’ batting averages, the team’s exact daily standing in the National League. She was a thin, dark girl and had such a wondrous smile even a mouthful of braces could not dull its charm. To the outside world, she was sweet and shy, but I knew her true personality to be spiteful, manipulative, and mean. What my sister was beyond all else was a killjoy. If anyone (especially me) was having a good time, she was masterful at finding ways to destroy it, but that summer, making me miserable wasn’t really her top priority. Instead she preferred to lie on her bed and listen to the Dodgers game on our transistor radio, cheering and moaning, strange solitary sounds that should have been lost in a crowd, but weren’t.

    My passion was also a lonely one. No one I knew was as obsessed with the murders as me. I read and reread every article in the LA Times, first about the poor nurses killed in Chicago and then a couple of weeks later about the gunman in the tower at the University of Texas. I sat at my parents’ desk and studied the photos in LIFE magazine of the sniper’s attack in Austin, memorizing the exact position the coed affected beside the fountain in order to dodge the sniper’s bullets, and laid under a tree in our front yard, imagining what it would’ve been like to be the lone surviving nurse balanced on the ledge of the second-story window, calling out at dawn, “Help me! Help me! Help me! Everybody is dead! I’m the only one alive on the sampan!”

    My mother looked terrible in bathing suits. Her legs, horribly knock-kneed, were all lumpy and riddled with varicose veins. She was small-breasted, and the points of her padded bathing suit sagged slightly, and despite the suffocating, girdlelike material that struggled to hold her in, give the appearance of tautness, the illusion of control, her abdomen protruded stubbornly. My mother, at age thirty-three, would plan another diet, vow to eat more Knudsen cottage cheese, forsake sugar for saccharin, tune in to Jack LaLanne more religiously, and then, knowing she looked terrible, would throw on a short shift and bravely escort me and my sister out the back door, down the driveway, onto the street where anyone could see her, and then quickly up the Houstons’ driveway, where we would pass through the gate hung with the sign, WE DON’T SWIM IN YOUR TOILET, PLEASE DON’T PEE IN OUR POOL.

    My mother didn’t know how to swim. What she would do was kind of glide from the shallow to deep end, keeping her head so high the bottom of her bubble ’do never touched water. Evelyn and I took lessons. We knew how to swim, at least better than our mother, but that summer I too swam mostly with my head above the water. I did this because I was secretly on watch, scanning the rooftops of the homes around us, looking for snipers, afraid to go under, afraid that once I gave up the vigil, once I let go of my fears and allowed myself to enjoy the cool, calm quiet below the pool’s surface, I was risking becoming yet another direct hit.

    My father started to bring home brochures from pool companies, and after dinner Evelyn and I would crowd around his chair and look at the beautiful color pictures of sparkling swimming pools, admiring the different shapes, rectangular, oblong, and the ever-popular kidney. The one I wanted had a kind of free form shape with fake sparkly lavalike rocks and a waterfall. We both wanted a diving board. We both wanted a slide. My father wouldn’t let us touch the brochures. He held them just out of our reach and then carefully refolded them before putting them away in a special pocket in his briefcase.

    “Do you think we’re really going to get a swimming pool?” Evelyn and I would ask our mother during the day when our dad was at work and she was ours, something that she wasn’t quite when my father was around.

    “I don’t know,” she’d answer, and shrug her shoulders and then keep them around her ears for a really long time to emphasize her uncertainty. I don’t know was not the answer we wanted, so we kept asking, at least once a day, trying to get a little hope from our mother, something she has never given out with much liberty.

    Because of her bad grades, Bobbi was being kept on a short leash that summer and she was forced to hang around her house a lot. When her mother was out she sat on her back porch and smoked cigarettes and Evelyn and I would go over and sit with her, happily breathing in the sour smoke that she exhaled with admirable expertise for a fifteen-year-old girl.

    “You’re not getting a swimming pool,” she said sullenly after we had finished telling her all about the pictures in the brochures, describing the intricate curves in our favorite slide and drawing with a stick in the dirt the leading shape of the swimming pool of the moment.

    “But Dad said we are,” we told her, stretching the truth a little.

    Bobbi shook her head and looked over to the fence that separated her yard from the Smalls’. The Smalls had a teenage son, Freddy, who spent a lot of time lying underneath his car. Freddy was one of the boys Bobbi talked to on the phone when she babysat for us. We asked her once if she loved him and she laughed and called him a geek, but still, her voice got sweet when she talked to him, just like when she talked to every other boy.

    “Your father is messing with your heads,” she told us, and took the last drag on her cigarette, exhaling a thick plume of smoke into our waiting faces.

    We didn’t like to contradict Bobbi. We knew she didn’t like us and we didn’t want to do or say anything that would make her dislike us more. So we watched silently as she stamped out her cigarette with the heel of her flip-flop, picked up the butt, and tossed it over the fence and into the Smalls’ backyard.

    “Hey, Bobbi,” I said, trying to stall her for just a few more seconds before she disappeared inside her house.

    “What?” She looked at me, impatiently.

    “Um,” I said, trying to think up something interesting to say, something that might even endear me to her a little bit.

    “Are they saying Hang on, stupid in that song or Hang on, Snoopy?”

    Bobbi sighed and without a word, walked inside, shaking her head at what truly pathetic creatures Evelyn and I were. The back door slammed shut, leaving us sitting on the Edelsteins’ back steps for a few minutes before we realized what a weird place it was for us to be and that Bobbi’s mother could drive up at any second and then we would have to say hello to her, something we hated to do because, basically, all grown-ups scared us to death.

    What I found somewhat heartening was the fact that the one surviving nurse escaped being murdered by hiding under the bed. That had always been my plan when the murderer came to our house to kill our family and I was pleased to learn it was proven to be a successful one. But I knew it was all a matter of timing. I had to get under the bed before the murderer saw me and so I had to hear him when he first entered our house. I had to always be listening for his heavy murderer footsteps walking around the kitchen, through the service porch, past the furnace, and toward my sister’s and my bedroom. Needless to say, I did not sleep very well.

    “Why would someone do it?” I asked my mother, and she shook her head and answered, “There are crazy people out there.”

    This answer gave me no comfort. Crazy was a wild card. Crazy was random. Crazy was bad luck. The poor couple looking at engagement rings in the jeweler’s window when they were struck down by the sniper’s fire in Austin: bad luck. The three nurses who returned home from their dates while the murderer was still in their house: bad luck. Bad luck—it could happen to anyone. It could happen to me. And there was no escaping that.

    After dinner, my father got out the tape measure and Evelyn and I followed him outside to the backyard where we all walked around, trying to figure out the best place for the swimming pool. Evelyn and I worked the tape measure and my father jotted down figures on a pad of paper, but mostly he just silently stared off into space.

    At thirty-five, our father was not bad looking. He had a head of nice thick, dark hair. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and had an appealing overbite. When I was a little younger I thought he was the handsomest man in the world, and I remember one day when my mother brought us to visit him at work and he came out to the vast marble hall to greet us I was surprised other people were not swooning at the sight of him. But gradually I think I attained a more realistic assessment of my father’s looks. I understood that he was not bad looking. That was what my father was.

    That and moody. The mood he most often was in was distant. He talked to our mother, but rarely to us. I cannot remember my father ever asking me about my day at school. I cannot remember my father reading me a single book. I cannot remember my father ever starting a bath. What he did when he came home from work was keep to himself unless he was called upon by our mother to be the disciplinarian and then he took on that role with a frightening amount of zeal.

    “When are we going to get the swimming pool?” Evelyn and I asked him every night, hoping to hear, Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the day your dreams all come true, my sweet, lovely, adorable little daughters! But my dad never said that. When asked when we were going to get the pool, he always shook his head and was quiet for a while before finally saying, “I don’t know.”

    My mother did not join us outside in the backyard. She did the dishes and then called us in, one by one, for our baths. While we were bathing, she ironed and typed business letters for my dad. She knew the pool was never going to happen. She knew we could never afford one, that we were just barely holding onto our middle-class existence as it was. She would not join my father in giving us false hope for something that we wanted so much but that we would never have. And yet she never stopped him either.

    I see now that my father did this with not the kindest of intents. At best, his feelings about my sister and me were conflicted. He took very little pleasure in being a parent. Mostly, I think, he resented us. He resented us for being girls. He resented us for taking my mother’s attention away from him. He resented having to be the breadwinner, going to a job he didn’t like, managing the grand old Subway Terminal Building in downtown LA, which was owned by his rich cousin, Wally. If and when a murderer came to our house, I somehow knew my father could not be counted upon to protect us, that my sole shot at survival was to give the appearance of never having existed at all.

    Bobbi was not doing well in summer school. She was given even more restrictions, basically put under house arrest. She was miserable and could not hide it. She stopped smoking cigarettes and just sat on the back steps and cried.

    Our mothers spoke in hushed voices through the hedges that separated our front lawns. There was talk of a private girls’ school, of refusing to allow Bobbi to get her learner’s permit, of sending her to live with her grandparents in Kentucky.

    “The problem is she’s boy-crazy,” Mrs. Edelstein would say to my mother, who listened with true sympathy and dread of things to come.

    “What do you want?” we’d ask Bobbi, sitting beside her as she wept, secretly admiring the perfect job she had done polishing both her fingers and toes. “Do you want to go to the all-girls school? Do you want to go live with your grandma?”

    “What do I want?” she’d say, wiping her nose on her tan, bare arm, black eyeliner tears streaking down her full pretty cheeks. “I want to never have been born.”

    And so, the night came when all talk of swimming pools ended. My father came home from work, and we asked if we were going to go that night to the Anthony Pool Showroom on Ventura Boulevard, a field trip that had been greatly anticipated for weeks, but our father shook his head and said, “We don’t need a pool. We have the Houstons.”

    Stunned, we asked if we would ever have a swimming pool, and he shook his head again and said, “Probably not.”

    Then he disappeared inside his room, closed the door behind him, and changed out of his work clothes into something more comfortable.

    Evelyn and I were, of course, devastated. We cried. We couldn’t eat. We begged our father to reconsider, but there was no penetrating the firmness of his resolve. Eventually, my mother lost all patience with us and screamed, “Just knock it off, girls! It isn’t the end of the world.”

    And I remember my father being unusually calm that night. He seemed to savor his Schlitz in a way he rarely did. He ate with gusto. He listened to our cries of misery with a half smile on his lips and twinkle in his eyes, clearly enjoying every second of our disappointment, not so secretly pleased to have broken both of his daughters’ hearts so easily.

    It was a terrible night. Claiming it was my turn to control the transistor radio, I wouldn’t let Evelyn listen to the Dodgers game, and to taunt her I turned up KHJ as loud as I could and sang along even louder. Clutching the radio tightly, I refused to release it even when my sister screamed right into my face with mounting desperation, “Let me have it! Let me have it! Let me have it!”

    But I wouldn’t. Finally she tried to grab the radio out of my hands and I kicked her away. Then she punched me and I punched her back. Then she grabbed my arm and stuck her nails so deep inside my flesh I started to bleed. I screamed and our mother came running.

    The transistor radio was taken away and we were exiled to our bedroom where for the rest of the night, Evelyn and I laid on our beds on opposite sides of the room and told each other how much we hated the other and how ugly she was, and how much we hated the other and how ugly she was, until our mother finally told us once again to knock it off and just go to sleep.

    What my grandfather would do when we were getting ready to leave his house after a visit was go outside and catch us some frogs. It was a simple business, almost as easy as bending down and picking up stones, there were so many of them in the grass surrounding their house. Once he trapped a few in the palm of his hand, he’d drop them into an empty Best Foods mayonnaise jar. Then, using a screwdriver, he’d punch air holes in the lid, pour in some water and a few rocks and some torn pieces of lettuce as food. The frogs were tiny, about the size of marbles, mere babies, but they moved fast inside the jar, swimming like our mother with their heads up out of the water, around and around, bumping into each other and the sides of the glass.

    When we got home our mother would not let us bring the frogs inside. We had to leave them on a shelf in the garage. Then we would maybe look at the frogs the next day, but usually we forgot all about them. The little baby frogs would just never enter our minds. And we would keep forgetting for days and days and days and when we finally remembered, the frogs would, of course, be dead. There they would be, inside the mayonnaise jar, the water completely evaporated, their bodies frozen in hideous positions, legs and arms grotesquely outstretched, their tiny frog eyes open, searching to the very end for an escape that had never existed.

    Three days after the killings, the police caught the nurses’ murderer, and Richard Speck’s ugly but somehow goofy face was everywhere. I saw his picture but could not look at it for very long. It was a murderer’s face. It was what a man who killed nurses who were good, who helped you when you were sick, who knew how to give comfort and solace, looked like. But even if I never looked at Richard Speck’s photo for very long, I can still picture his face perfectly, and later, after Bobbi had run away, I would think of her, somewhere on the other side of the hills that surrounded us, where in my mind, men with thin, pockmarked faces and dopey grins prowled the earth, their beady eyes ever looking for certain girls of fast cars, who laughed in the wind, their hair blowing into impossible knots behind them as they moved as far away and as fast as they could from the places they had once called home.


    © 2010 by Janice Shapiro. From the collection Bummer, from Soft Skull Press. Used by permission.

    Visit Janice here . . .

    Read more about Bummer here . . .

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