Graduation Day **
A small hard egg and bacon sandwich. Weak metallic coffee. California Girl’s first Philly breakfast in thirteen years dissolved stubbornly like a lump in her throat. On her CD Bob Marley’s lively-up joy— couldn’t she rock so, rock so?— couldn’t disconnect her mom’s voice spinning, spinning across the continental divide. (Why don’t you come with us on our honeymoon? We’re going to Disneyland! Thousands of families there! Everybody gets divorced and gets married again!) Marley wailed and California Girl stirred it up, stirred it up— Mom meant well— she did so, she did so. (Where do you put the kids after the march down the aisle? I know you’re not a kid! I know I didn’t march down the aisle! You want me to call talk radio for an answer?) Sure, Mom meant well— most of the time. But, Disneyland— Lively?
Exodus! California Girl dumped her styrofoam tray— Exodus!— weaved her way along, moving with the people, the people, the loud congested underground of syrupy doughnuts and inflammable hair accessories and guaranteed-to-malfunction electronics— out the mall at Eighth and Market— Exodus! Against the wall, the people, the people swirling by, she checked her clunky Swatch. Time to find a phone and make a call. (Why don’t you let Katz give you a cell phone? He’s trying to relate. I know you’re almost legal. I didn’t say you had to call him Daddy.) Yeah, she wished she had taken the cell. But she knew where she was going! Too stuck up? She knew where she came from! Some kind of bribe? She knew how to walk to creation!
On the south side of Market was a gigantic hole in the ground. Some huge building collapsed and died? In the swirl— Exodus!— California Girl crossed over to the other side, found a working phone in a white wedding cake building— something used to be here— now a bank camouflaged by discount shops all along the ground floor lobby. Quarter in the slot— used to be— area code— A masculine voice, Philly accent like a stun gun, shot from the other end of the bad connection. Pretending nonchalance, California Girl identified herself: Number One Daughter.
“Yeah, the one and only. I graduated last year. Nothing new. Just doing the footloose. Back to Berkeley in six weeks. Where’s Mt. Airy?” Her father proposed meeting under the organ at Wanamaker’s, then lunch at his favorite diner. Yeah, cool.
Mom’s great! Got a new husband. He’s her manager and he’s Jewish. It figures, but he’s O.K. After the honeymoon they’re going to Alaska. Yeah! The big igloo! They’ll do the country & western circuit. Yeah! That’s her thing now. Katz says a black woman singing country is the last frontier!
California Girl had rehearsed these answers like a standup comic during the long Greyhound bus ride from Los Angeles, but her father never asked these questions that first day. Not during lunch nor the car talk tour nor nighttime baseball on TV with Pizza Hut. Was this forever and ever?
In the South Street diner California Girl sneaked glances at her father. What a vet! Clean-shaven, a total khaki skin with small black eyes. His chinless profile reminded her of the teddy bears he sent every year with the one hundred dollar birthday check— even last month on her nineteenth. Stiff stuffed ones masquerading as Bear Brummel and Shakesbear. Always signed Daddy in black ball point. Thank the goddess, he wasn’t at all like Katz. Those dumb skimpy leather pants and corny ten-gallon hat! Whatever.
California Girl didn’t look a thing like her father. Did he think that was her first mistake? Too chatty with thin silver rings on each jittery piano finger. Did she play keyboard like her mom? Naw. She was into roller blades. Moving with the people! Had she been older, a little more feminine in a conventional sort of way— mini-skirt, corkscrew curls, false nails, she might have been mistaken for his midlife crisis, not an absentee daughter. Her father was so relieved she didn’t look like that. A regular at this popular lunchtime diner, he made sure nobody chewed too long on that possibility:
“My daughter. All the way from L.A. She goes to college.”
The plump pink waitress gushed. California Girl suppressed a giggle. Yeah, he looked like somebody’s father, not the cuddly type. She’d grown up with Mom’s version of the sitcom. (Why didn’t he contest the divorce? Why didn’t he say I left? Why didn’t he sue for custody?) Sometimes she felt stolen. A faded photo of Daddy’s little girl. Calling him Daddy felt dumb— All together now— “When doves cry-y-y-y-y-y!”
The diner had an old-style music box at each table; somebody old put on Steve Winwood... Reaching for the catsup, California Girl automatically started her silent, rhythmic bobble-head... Thinking thinking, deep down in her heart... Then, aware, she switched to babble.
“The Greyhound’s great! Cheap. Students. Friendly. Helpful. Especially the old people. They were all retired and just traveling around —”
“Not all retirees are old,” her father blustered and Winwood pleaded for a higher love and the girl corrected herself.
“Senior citizens, I mean.”
“You’ve got to get yourself a car,” her father pronounced, then bit off a hunk of cheese steak sandwich. Chewing, he seemed in pain... For a second California Girl felt ashamed, then puzzled, then defensive.
“I’ve got tuition even at a state school.”
“You should’ve asked me.”
Winwood crooned about wasted time... Her father’s accusation silenced her. Thank the goddess, she never stooped. Never argued with the top of a man’s head. His bald spot. It was dawning on her. He was too old for Mom from the start!
California Girl shrugged, picked up a chunky French fry. For a moment it dangled, sopping with fluorescent cheddar cheese, from two expert fingers, the thumb encircled by a silver band with a Native American design of some sort.
Her father thought he recognized something. Not her dreadlocks. Her hands? Sure. His mind traveled down a highway thirteen years in the dust. He taught Sylvia how to drive stick. The joke’s on him. She didn’t know a thing before he met her. Except that little church organ. Been living her whole life here and never been to the Uptown. Never been to the Relays. Never even been to the zoo! What ‘s wrong with the zoo! What’s wrong—
“What’s the matter? The cheese steak?”
The girl’s voice pushed her father off course, back into the crowded diner. The clatter of heavy dishes and thin utensils, the dense aroma of fried onions and beef, the thick layers of gregarious lunchtime chatter. All around him several dozen pasty faces were taking on the sweaty glow of late spring. Two dark-skinned brothers, their yellow hardhats slung on hooks above, hunched over their hoagies and French fries at a corner table. Had the father been able to see his face in the mirror behind him, he might have tried not to frown. He wasn’t angry with the girl.
“Mom can’t eat dairy and beef, either.”
“Sylvia still keeping those funny rules about food?”
Funny food! California Girl almost shivered. That’s what everybody called her lunches. All those different schools. Then she laughed and fingered the three silver ladybugs on her left ear. She was so-o-o-o-o-o over all that.
“Yeah. But I’m not obeying!” The girl pointed to her massive grinder of shredded beef, fried peppers and tomatoes. She was so-o-o-o-o-o over all that.
In the diner somebody dropped another quarter, reprised Winwood, somebody trying to fill up the gap, the continental divide... California Girl couldn’t tell him about school. About funny food, about talking funny for years until she picked up the local beat. Quesadillas on Monday, Moo Goo Gai Pan on Tuesday. It was like jet lag! Too everywhere and nowhere. Nobody really lives multicultural! But, hey, she finally found a groove, a pack. And being her mom’s child, she knew how to entertain. Like her mom, she knew how to shake up a crowd.
“Have you ever eaten macrobiotic?” Her father hadn’t said a word for the longest time, and she almost laughed watching his head snap to attention.
“Micro what?” For several minutes he had been hearing a muffled drum somewhere, not the girl’s chatter, not music. He wasn’t aware that his daughter hadn’t said much. An entertainer like Sylvia! Winwood’s backup, soul sisters, refugees from the choir, sang on and on like an ambulance...
“YWCA on Walnut Street? That closed ages ago.” Frowning, her father adjusted the rearview mirror. Then he realized what his daughter meant. Of course, she was staying with him! Miss Betty wouldn’t mind. Plenty to see! Liberty Bell. Betsy Ross. All that historical stuff.
“Who’s Miss Betty?” The question was simple and natural enough. But her father was feeling his age; curiosity in a young voice often sounded accusatory.
“You’ll meet her later. Let’s go where we used to live.”
He swung the car west. His heart drummed like something in a movie. Maybe it was the TV. He often discovered the sound after he’d been in the house for hours, reading the news, unaware of the shadows thickening in the corners of the soft cozy living room. When he sensed the shadows, he’d turn on the brass floor lamp, its light under the pale fabric shade blessing him like a halo. But then he might notice his heart like a dripping faucet. He’d be struck by the finality of where he was. Then he’d shake himself awake, pull on a jacket, grab his cap, and drive through Fairmount Park or the high streets of Manayunk. He couldn’t always escape...
(You proposed! Adored my chocolate June Allyson! I could’ve been the one and only Fifth Dimension! You made me the Fifth Evangelist without the mile-high wigs! You made me a skinny Etta James! I was Leslie Uggams without a stage-door mama! Who said nobody buys a black string bean singing fat mama blues?! Me! Me! Who said I couldn’t cut a record if it was made out of sponge cake? You! You! How many times did you say “Dionne Warwick, that’s my girl!” I’d give a month’s tips to’ve seen your face when you came home to a house full of furniture! No wife! No kid! No air-conditioned van! Did you kick yourself for teaching me how to drive?!)
Why did she come back? The father crossed Schuylkill Bridge, passed landmark Thirtieth Street Station, then continued west into University City. What could he say? In the mid-afternoon sun Drexel gleamed like blocks of aluminum foil and orange wax crayons. Then a mere turn left on Market brought them into an older brick and granite civilization. What could he do? California Girl was turning her head from side to side like a windshield wiper... Music on her mind... Mellow chanting the high life again... Tree-lined cobblestone walks. Ivy-covered dormitories. Penn. Her father sounded like freshman orientation. She could hear without listening... Chanting the high life again... Spruce Street. Locust Street. Pine. Aunt Sukie. Aunt Virginia. Aunt Flo. Cedar. Larchwood.
“You guys had riots here, right?" The words plopped out her mouth and her father stiffened as if confronting a land mine.
“Nothing like Watts,” he quipped. Then more emphatically, “I’d never bring Sylvia near something like that.” Then as if making the last payment on a long overdue bill, “You were born in that famous hospital we just passed.”
Then he was quiet again, turning into a narrow one-way street and slowing down. No parking spaces. He stopped in front of a pair of twin houses. At one time both were like the twin on the left: a sober two-story brick with authentic granite facade and graceful white wooden pillars for the open porch. Now the porch on the right had been enclosed with flamingo pink aluminum siding. Standing on the front lawn two plastic flamingo birds seemed ready to melt. The small front lawn wasn’t grass anymore but cement covered with a lime green carpet. Lime green on the front steps and every window frame. Like a Candyland game board!
Hey, you got Disneyland, too! California Girl was ready to blurt, but just in time she caught her father’s steely silence. It was useless to ask, Which house was ours?
Her father swung the car north toward Mt. Airy and talked a little. After the divorce he lived in a room for ten years. Alone... his time... rolling into nowhere... Miss Betty came from way back. A high school sweetheart? No. But she had some of his same friends... and finer things... She liked to cook, play pinochle, watch baseball on the TV. She worked a three-day weekend in a nursing home, so California Girl wouldn’t meet her until Monday morning. Her first husband was dead... we’re all rolling into nowhere... She had one daughter and one grandson. Finer things.
Like an insurance investigator searching for evidence of fraud, California Girl spent the rest of the afternoon sniffing around Miss Betty’s house:
Miss Betty. An old-fashioned name. Grandmotherish. Old-fashioned furniture. Lots of knickknacks. A landscape painting. A shadow box mirror. Thank the goddess, no plastic slipcovers. Wall-to-wall carpets. Dining room looks like it’s never been used. Fake butterflies. Lots of dishes. Lots of pots and pans. Freezer, stuffed. Who lives here— a small tribe? Whatever.
Preoccupied with a Phillies game on TV, her father never noticed California Girl’s surreptitious hunt through the front bedroom drawers. Long summer nightgowns. Mostly cotton with dainty flowers. Size 18!! Nylon slips, lacy, white, pastels. No black. Size 40D!! Under wire!! Dozens of cologne and perfume bottles. Lipstick. Powder— Beige silk. She must be very light-skinned. So what, she’s fat!— Maybe California Girl was just like her mother. Never sa-a-a-atisfi-i-i-ied!
By the time her father went out for pizza and cigarettes— he had to drive to the mall because the corner store closed at 6 P.M.— California Girl was totally wise... Her father was a senior citizen and needed a neat woman to cook a decent meal and clean his shirts. Traditional. With a serenity prayer framed and hung in the bathroom. Any African American man over fifty with no record or addictions— except cigarettes— was a hero. California Girl didn’t need multicultural classes to know that! Mom chose to leave. She even bragged about it! Just got into the van and zoomed off! That couldn’t be changed... Maybe she was just like her father... She knew how the song goes.. “When do-o-o-oves cry-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y—
“Daddy? Is that you?”
The voice came out of a dream. California Girl froze. Sprawled on the guest room bed, absorbed in her private unique all-time Top 40 mix, she hadn’t heard the front door open. Were those clicking footsteps in the kitchen below?
It was a woman’s voice. The girl snapped off the light, tiptoed to the door, then crept to the top of the stairs. Who could it be? Why’d she leave all the lights on downstairs?
Footsteps clicked into the dining room. The shadow box mirror revealed a light-skinned female, thirty-something, slim, not bad-looking.
Miss Betty? But she said Daddy? She couldn’t mean that. She’s too old. Daddy? She’s too old!
The woman stood at the bottom of the stairs for a moment, then began to inch her way back to the half-open front door.
The girl slowly descended the stairs.
Frowning, the woman looked up.
Then she smiled.
“Of course. You must be the daughter. I thought you were a thief.” She approached the stairs. “Daddy called me about you early this morning. He’s told me so much about you. I’m so relieved.” She paused, then laughed easily as she extended her hand like an heiress, “For a minute, I thought you were a thief.”
* * The author recommends that this story be read with a soundtrack in the brain: Bob Marley, Steve Winwood, and Prince.
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