A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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. . . AND WHO CAN BLAME THEM? Their mom, my cousin Margie, is fuzzy with gin. When I offer to take the kids to the arcade on the Santa Monica Pier, she almost leaps to her purse and throws me her car keys, her money: “Oh, would you? I really want some time alone. Would you, Julie, really?”
Yes, I would. My car is on the fritz, and I need to scope out a guy from my method-acting class who tends bar at Jimbo’s on the pier. He’s so cute. I want to get something going with this guy. I really do. Margie rubs her eyes, puffy from tears spent. Last night she stuffed fifteen tranquilizers into a hot dog and forced it down her dog Boo Boo’s throat. “I killed Boo Boo.” Her words dribble out. “The vet said I had to, but the kids and I are still upset about it.”
She’s told me this four times — once for each drink — since I came over for Sunday breakfast two hours ago. But Boo Boo, her snarly, mental cockapoo, had often snapped at Anna (who is, I think, the five-year-old), nipped at Dmitri, the six-year-old boy, and backed the big sister, Tanya (or is that one Anna? Jesus, I’ve got to get these girls straight), seven sullen years old, into a corner since they arrived in the United States two months ago. So I doubt Boo Boo is the cause of the Russian children’s depression.
Margie plops back into her stuffed rocker, and I hand her another gin and tonic, knowing this is something else she really wants. Something she’s convinced she’s earned. And maybe she has. It’s been a tough two months, I’ll give her that.
The children sit close together on the couch, lined up like throw pillows. I tell them that we’re going for a ride, and they stare at me as if I’m inviting them to the Bataan Death March, their faces pasty white, their eyes and mouths turned down in what I’ve come to see as genetic disapproval for this place they’ve been sucked into.
Don’t ask me exactly where in Russia the children are from, because Margie’s husband, Peter, isn’t around anymore to give details, and Margie, with the booze, and the dead dog, and Peter gone, isn’t exactly a credible source. And don’t ask me exactly how Margie and Peter happened to adopt three children, because they went to Russia planning to come home with just one — the five-year-old — and stepped off the plane with three instead, the two sisters and their brother. Probably just a snafu; plenty of those in Russia. I mean, the reports of bad stuff happening in Russia are not just the normal U.S.A. jingoism. There’s that, sure, but the Russian people really are screwed. We all are. Wouldn’t it help if we just admitted that?
But back to the Russian children. See, I’m studying acting. I’m taking this Meisner method workshop, and really I think it’s mostly bullshit, or maybe I’m just too young to get it. I’m only twenty-one, by the way, and I’m really pretty, too. I have this thick red hair and huge green eyes and large breasts, and my skin is flawless, even for a twenty-one-year-old. Plus, I like being the center of attention. My friends and relatives in Chicago, where I’m from, always said, “Julie, you could be in the movies,” so when I got sick of waiting tables I decided to try Hollywood. I’m not completely naive. I don’t expect to be the next Julia Roberts. Me? I’d be happy to be featured in a Tums commercial. Anyway, when I got to LA eighteen months ago, Margie and Peter insisted I take the apartment over their garage for free, and I didn’t argue.
But last week, something in my method workshop finally made sense to me. It was when my teacher told us that human behavior changes when it’s observed. She said to remember this when we’re on stage, in character, doing a scene where we’re “alone.” Of course, in the workshop, we’ve got our audience of fellow students breathing ill will at us, but that’s not the point. The point is, when we’re acting alone on stage, we have to remember the character will reveal traits she wouldn’t reveal in company. Truth can’t help but flicker and flow when we’re unobserved, my method teacher said. And I thought, Oh, wow, that is so true. But when it was my turn to go up on stage and be “alone,” I didn’t feel any different than usual. Plus my crush was sitting in the front row watching me, and that made me nervous, so I sort of snort-laughed when I was supposed to be feeling “blue.”
And that’s the thing about the Russian children. You’d expect them to be just the littlest bit happy to be here together in America and not in some Russian orphanage, like I guess they were, or split apart among three different families. You’d expect at least to see them smiling or looking less miserable when they didn’t know you were watching. But if you expected that, you’d be wrong. Those sisters and brother have not displayed one millimeter of anything but stoic misery and gloom. Honestly? When I stop to think about it, the Russian children sort of give me the creeps.
But I’m busy, so I don’t think about it often. I’m always dropping off copies of my head shot somewhere. Plus I work fifteen hours a week at Insomnia. They give the wait staff free espresso, and that helps me give excellent, attentive service, which I firmly believe in. The customer, after all, is my source of income, and a living, breathing person like me. There is no reason to wait tables unless you treat the customer with respect. And I’m busy trying to improve my mind, too. I read the dictionary for twenty minutes every day. I want to sound smart, because in LA, young and beautiful, no college, and wants to be an actress — well, I need ammunition against any idiot who treats me like I’m stupid. I also read the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal every day. Go ahead, ask me about Gaza, weapons inspectors, the IMF, the stock market, the Dodgers. I’ll tell you. So all in all, I really am busy. Thank God. I say thank God because otherwise I’d have to invent some reason to keep my distance from the Russian children. And I’d feel bad if I did that.
Anyway, here’s another problem: Like I said, Peter is gone. It’s been a month now since we’ve seen him. He split almost right after the Russian children arrived. I know, I know. Hard to believe. I can barely believe it myself. Everybody in my family always liked him better than they did Margie, even though she’s the one we’re related to. “He’s a rock,” they said, “a saint.” “What a nice guy,” they said. “Why’d he marry her?” they wondered. So you can imagine how stunned they all were when, one month after he and Margie step off the plane with these children, Peter does a Roman Polanski and fucks a teenage girl and has to leave the country because her parents are trying to have him arrested. And Margie, hearing nothing from any of our relatives, just bolts to the bottle, knowing they don’t expect her to handle any of this well, so at least she won’t disappoint them in that, too.
Now she’s rocking back and forth, back and forth in her padded rocker, holding a pillow to her stomach with one hand, bringing her drink to her mouth with the other, and moaning every now and then, “How did this happen? How did this happen?” And I don’t know if she means Boo Boo, her three Russian children, her outlaw pedophile husband, or her drinking, but I feel sorry for her. God, just one of those things could sink you for a while.
With Margie’s blessing, car keys, and money, I herd the kids out the door using pantomime and a little force. They’ll appreciate this break from their new mother — never mind that it helps me too. But as I’m pulling out of the driveway, Margie comes running out the front door, drink in one hand, sandals in the other, yelling, “Stop, stop! I’ve changed my mind. I want to go to the arcade, too.” And I’m not sure, but I think I hear the littlest sigh from the youngest, Anna (oh, let’s just assume I’ve got that right), the one who would have had to endure all this alone had the adoption plans unfolded instead of unraveled.
MARGIE AND PETER have been good to me. The apartment I live in over the garage of their Hancock Park home is sweet. By the way, when I say “home,” I mean mansion. Eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, and all these extra rooms you’re supposed to live in so you don’t get the main rooms messy, even though a cleaning woman comes every day. There are rooms for listening to music, reading, watching TV, surfing the Internet. Even a room for screwing a fifteen-year-old, as it turns out. That is one versatile room, too, because you can also use it every evening to get slowly and steadily faced. Ask Margie.
I got to know Margie and Peter when we all lived in Chicago, almost ten years ago. I was in junior high; they were in their twenties. At the time, I thought they were so romantic. Peter was a writer, Margie a painter. Every night they’d cook dinner, even if it was just ramen, and they’d light a candle and sit together and eat and drink cheap wine, just the two of them, even on a plain old weekday. Margie told me so. Imagine that. In junior high, I barely could.
They really loved each other. Once — I think it was the third time Margie miscarried — I went to visit her at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, where they kept her for a couple of days because she was such a wreck. Or maybe they just finally agreed to survey her insides, her inhospitable uterus or whatever it was going on down there that made her lose three babies. Anyway, it was December, pitch-dark by five, and as I came east on Superior after school that day, all excited because I had snuck downtown on my own to visit, I looked up at the glass-enclosed, steel-strutted bridge that spanned the street, connecting two parts of the hospital. And wouldn’t you know it, there was Margie, on that hospital bridge, wearing a bathrobe, staring out at nothing.
She didn’t see me. She looked bad. Her shoulders drooped; her hips were slack; her whole posture said that she’d been clobbered, thwarted, squashed, canceled. Again. I murmured, “Please, don’t jump.” Never mind the glass; I was scared she’d find a way. But then Peter walked up behind her and put his arm around her waist and whispered something in her ear. And then he turned her ever so slowly and walked her away from the glassed-in bridge, matching his steps to her sad little shuffle.
It was only fifteen degrees out, but I walked around the block five times — no mittens; I guess I’d left them on the bus — before I went up to Margie’s hospital room that day. I held out the daisies I’d brought for her. They were almost dead from the cold, but they remembered being alive. You could see it in their petals, which were limp with the sudden change from winter freeze to hospital heat, but still bright white, like untouched paper.
After Margie and Peter moved to LA, I didn’t keep in touch. I was just a kid, after all. But a couple of years later, I heard from my mom that Peter had started a software company, and then my little brother told me that Peter had created this new video game called Terminus that every kid had to have. And then my mom said that Margie was doing all these expensive uterine things trying to have a baby. So I knew they were doing OK — financially, I mean. And that’s important. After I moved to LA, I learned that Peter didn’t write anymore, and Margie didn’t paint anymore. But she still drank cheap wine.
© Jennifer Trier
THE RUSSIAN CHILDREN are not a problem in the car. They don’t fidget the way I did when I was little and my mom or dad hauled my ass somewhere I didn’t particularly want to go. Or maybe they’ve already been to the Santa Monica Pier and like it. Who knows with them? They are inscrutable, plus they never talk.
Margie slugs back the rest of her drink and then motions the car over so violently I think she has to puke, but it’s only the Arco station that she’s pointing to.
“Gas,” she says. “Fill ’er up.”
We don’t need gas, but there’s no reasoning with her, so I join the long line of cars waiting to turn west onto Wilshire. As we idle, a homeless guy with a large cardboard sign reading Feed Me? walks up to our car and stares in the window. I look away and see in the rearview mirror that the Russian children are, en masse, leaning toward him, and by the expressions on their faces, I’d swear they wish they could trade places with this battered man, or at least rest in the shadow of his corrugated sign. When the boy catches me looking at them, he and his sisters lean back slowly, faces gone blank, as if they’ve choreographed this move, as if they’ve decided not to display any private feelings in front of Margie or me. After all, they are not in my method class. They don’t have to pretend to be alone in this Lexus SUV.
When I finally pull up next to the gas pump, I take the wad of money Margie waves at me. “Since you’re getting out anyway,” she says, pointing to the a.m./p.m. convenience store, “get me a drink too. OK, Jules?”
And I say I will, because I don’t want to fight with her. Plus, like I said, she’s got it tough right now. I don’t begrudge her these drinks.
I top off the tank and then go inside to buy Margie a wine cooler. I have to buy a whole four-pack, because they won’t sell singles, but I tell the clerk to keep two for himself. As I walk back toward the car, I stop for a second and watch Margie and the Russian children. They are not looking my way. They are doing nothing. Nothing. Just sitting there, looking straight ahead, the windows closed. They could be fish, floating belly up in an aquarium, not even knowing their dead fish siblings and adoptive dead fish mother float right beside them.
WELL, IF THE RUSSIAN CHILDREN did talk, it would be wasted at the arcade. It is so loud. Margie gives each kid — me, too — ten bucks, and we all go together to the change machine for quarters. The little one, what’s-her-name, her ten is pretty wrinkled, so I help her smooth it out and get her quarters, which she puts in the pockets of her sundress, one fistful on each side, like chipmunk cheeks. And then Dmitri and the older girl get their change, and we all go over to the Skee-Ball alleys lined up like coffins along the wall.
Margie is no longer with us, but the bigger surprise would be if she were, so we just start feeding our quarters into the Skee-Ball machines. We hold those worn wooden balls, and one, two, three, four, we roll them, and they skip, skitter, bound, rumble down the lane and then crash and bop into the target holes, and the points start to flash on the scoreboards above the alleys as if we were selling phantom Internet stock to compulsive buyers. Though the overall sound of the arcade is not so good — full of clanging, whining, honking machines — it’s sort of peaceful here in the Skee-Ball section. The Russian children, of course, don’t look happy. They are, in fact, expressionless. But I imagine they like it here. They pluck their tickets quickly, folding and tucking them deep into pockets slowly emptied of coins.
We all run out of quarters at the same time, and though I suspect the Russian children want to go to the prize counter and exchange their tickets for cheap plastic toys, the line there is long, long, long, and I need to get to the real purpose of this trip: to find that bartender guy I’ve been scoping out in class. Plus, I should probably find Margie, too. So great, two birds, one stone, we’ll go to the bar.
It’s only a short walk down the pier to Jimbo’s, where my crush works, but the million pigeons between the arcade and the bar slow us down. I stamp my feet, and then I back away fast, fleeing the whisk of filthy, gritty pigeon wings that surround me, helter-skelter. As I do, I bump into the older girl, who holds her arms out to keep me from pitching over, or maybe it’s to protect her brother and sister, but I’d swear she’s really trying to embrace these squalid pigeons. I’m probably wrong. It’s so hard to tell. Again, face? Expressionless.
When we walk into Jimbo’s, I see my crush behind the bar, at the opposite end from the only customer (it is Sunday morning, after all), who, surprisingly, is not Margie. My crush is just wiping beer mugs and watching TV. He’s got on some dumb cable show: a woman in a bathing suit is bouncing on a trampoline while four guys watch. It’s not like there’s nothing else on. The Lakers and the Kings are on ABC, and the game even matters. What sort of bartender doesn’t watch that? My crush snaps his towel between swipes at the mugs. The customer raps his knuckles on the bar and points to his empty glass, but my crush pretends he doesn’t hear. Instead, he looks up at the TV and laughs because the woman on the trampoline has slipped and fallen flat on her ass.
I walk over to the bar to say hello, but I blank on his name. (He’s just “my crush” in my daydreams.) Instead, phrases scud out of my mouth in no particular order: “Hi. Hey. Class, good class. I’m looking for . . . These kids, shy. . . Just say hi . . . No, no drink, too early.” My words splinter and ricochet, and he looks at me for a snippet of a second as if he can’t place me, or maybe his pupils, contracted to the bright, supine, bikini-clad trampoline woman, need time to dilate to the dim sight of me, fully clothed and standing upright.
But he catches himself, says hello, glad to see me, like he means it. Then he lifts the hinged counter and walks out from behind the bar, draping his towel over his shoulder. As he does this — the draping, the walking, the lifting — he creates the littlest stir in the musty bar air, and something flutters slightly on the floor at the base of the bar. He abruptly squats and pounces and smacks his hand over it. I look down and see he’s pinned a dollar to the floorboards, claiming it for himself, though neither the Russian children nor I made a move in its direction. Tacky of him, no matter what. But for a dollar?
He gets up fast and tries to cover, says a drunk left behind a C-note just two days ago, so you never know what you’ll find. But I sense that even the Russian children see right through him. My crush waves a feeble goodbye as I back out the door with the children in tow. I hear the guy at the end of the bar bang his empty glass and demand a refill. I take one last look behind me, and there’s my crush, staring up at the TV and laughing again. Not a pretty picture.
We find Margie sitting on a bench way down at the edge of the pier, right before it gives way to the ocean. She stares out at the water while a flock of sea gulls swarm at her feet. One bird perches near her shoulder on the back of the bench. Other people on the pier shoo the birds away, but Margie looks like Saint Francis of Assisi. Hard to believe she killed her cockapoo last night. She has no food or drink with her — the wine coolers are long gone — but it’s as if these scavenger birds can tell that Margie’s a careless woman right now, that with her they have some chance.
When she sees us, she stands and tries to gather the Russian children to her. They don’t stop her in any physical way, but they look at those foraging birds, not at Margie, making it clear the embrace is not wanted. Even Margie, three sheets, gets it. She drops her arms to her sides and says, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
ON THE WAY HOME, I avoid Fourth and Fifth and swing out of my way to get to Lincoln, where there are fewer tourists driving slow, scared to death they’ll miss the entrance to the 10, or some such tragedy. So I’m heading east on California when Margie screams, “Stop!”
I do, and the next thing I know we’re in Saint Monica’s Church, and it turns out it’s Easter Sunday. Smell the lilies. Who knew? We’re not religious people. Margie bumbles into a pew near the back, and I follow her. The Russian children sidestep in, the littlest one right next to me.
The priest talks about the day and the glory and how happy everybody is, and I look over at the children, still forlorn, saturnine, dolorous, funereal in expression. Frankly, at this point, I’m sort of dejected myself. My crush is a jerk. My cousin is a drunk. The Russian children are not happy — are, in fact, sad.
Then a covey of women in white robes walk to the front of the altar holding a huge wire cage, Saint Bernard-sized, and even from way back here, I can see it is full of doves. Pretty birds of a soft gray color that could make you forgive any sin they might commit. And then the women lift up the wire hatch of the cage, and a dozen doves fly up, up, up into the apse, where they swoop and circle and glide. It is beautiful, and I think, Wow, Margie did something right. We are lucky to be here. I look over at the Russian children, sure they must feel it too. But no, they are spiritless as ever.
The doves fly deeper into the church, toward us. Near the back, a ceiling fan rotates lazily, but hard enough to smite a dove, which it does. Then it smites another, and another. Oh my God, this is horrible. There goes one more: four soft thwacks as their sweet, plump, gray-feathered bodies hit the blunt blades. They plummet to the marble floor like kamikazes, and I hear the meaty thuds of all the momentum they’ve gained from the fan. The congregation is speechless, breathless, shocked, frozen.
But not the Russian children. The older girl darts out of the pew, and her brother rushes after her. They run to those downed birds, their limbs awakened by this blow. And then, their faces alight with their mission, they kneel by those dead doves, stroking them, murmuring and sighing and soughing in forgiving gray tones of their own.
And as I watch the Russian children, I do something different, too. I try to be them. To be as alone as they are. For just this moment. I don’t care who’s watching. I want to feel their kinship with these dead gray doves. And for just a second, I think I’ve got this method thing. I really do.
But then Margie lunges over me, way late, trying to grab the littlest one, who is off to join her brother and sister. My cousin misses badly and sort of slumps into me, and I know I should do something, whisper in her ear and help her take some little shuffle steps away from the wobbly edge upon which she is perched. But for now, I turn from Margie to the children, and I watch the little one — yes, I’m sure her name is Anna — running up the church aisle, and her dress is hitched up in back, sort of caught in its own sash, and, oh geez, she’s not wearing any underpants. So something’s got to change.