The Silver Screen
Maureen Howard deepens her inquiry into the meeting place of history and family in this stunning and accessible novel. Isabel Murphy renounced silent-film stardom to raise a family in Rhode Island. Now she is dead at 90 and her children are trying to break free of the lives she has dealt them. Joe, a Jesuit priest, has failed at love and the healing of souls. Stodgy Rita has found late happiness with a gangster who has turned stateís evidence. And Gemma, Isabelís honorary child, has grown up to experience a strange celebrity as a photographer. A darkly comic story of guilt, love, and forgiveness, The Silver Screen is luminous in its intelligence and empathy.
The Day of the Dead
The Bathing Beauties have been rehearsing. Now they romp to the twanging beat of the music, which drowns out the grind of the camera. Play ball, dash for the bleachers, pose in the jersey bathing suits that cling to their delicious bodies. The soft cotton maillot caresses their breasts and thighs. So concealing we find it, these seventy, eighty years later. Look again at the seductive wrapping on the package—bold stripes on the hip, molding of crotch, bouncing buns. See them— window dressing, background, chorus—naughty and nice, harmless girls. They stop, turn suddenly in mid-action. The clarinet bleeps to the end of a phrase.
“She’s a beaut!”
“With the curly black hair.”
“Jeez, Mack, there’s five with curly black hair.”
“The one laughing at us,” says the man in the boater, squinting into the sun. “Girl with the cupcakes, that one.”
From a crude stab of his cigar in her direction the girl knows she is that one and crosses her hands on her breasts, a saint in mock supplication. Then a fellow in a floppy cap reaches for the buckle at her waist, tugs her out of the crowd of ten or twelve or thirteen pretty girls. He is wearing a linen jacket, sweat-stained at the armpits. The boss with the boater, cool in gray Palm Beach suit—vest, watch chain and all. These men might be lawyers, bankers, Chamber of Commerce—any town, any bright summer day.
“Step down,” the boater says to the pretty girl with the black curls. “Walk. What’s the hurry? Turn the head. Give me the eye.” She pulls a sultry pout, sashays slowly through the sand. “Peachy.” Then from the fellow sweltering in white linen, “What’s your name?”
In the brittle sunlight, her voice rings out mellow and clear, “I am Isabel Maher.”
She is given instructions. A palm tree and a cabana are set next to the bleachers.
“Take it again, girls.”
Pretty girls romp while the band struts its stuff to their tune. They make a run for the clattering wooden bleachers, pose for the picture while the vixen breaks away, away from the fun, and slowly, lips puckered, makes her way toward the famous clown who has been lolling all this time under a beach umbrella held aloft by a lackey. He is rumpled, waddling—so accomplished a fat fool in his antics, America laughs till it cries.
Chin up, Isabel Maher gives him the eye.
My mother thinks me wise. Let her believe it. Stooped with age, Bel cocks her head like a curious bird to meet my encouraging smile, the professional smile of a priest—hopeful, indulgent. The bold young woman who rents a house down the lane calls her the old lady. Each day I steal out of my boyhood bed, dress at dawn for the morning walk, my sister already fussing in the kitchen. It is Rita’s pleasure to re-create the pancakes and muffins of our childhood while I march smartly down the lane with the prop of my worn leather breviary, as though I might read the morning office, supplications and prayers committed to memory a half-century ago.
“Visiting the old lady?” a wisp of a girl in a scrap of bathing suit asked my first day home, still calling it home. She balanced awkwardly on the rim of a deck chair, greasing her thighs and belly to protect her pale flesh from the first rays of the sun. It promised to be a scorcher, the air heavy, humid.
“Visiting.” I passed quickly on, but not before a strap fell, disclosing the white hemisphere of her breast with its pole of brown nipple. For a moment I wished that I wore the Roman collar, not to disapprove the flaunting of her body, to scold her with a clerical look. She is not permitted in her cheery, childish voice to call my mother the old lady. Yet how true—Bel’s sparse white hair, swollen blue veins, odor of stale rose water—essence of old lady bent to the ground as though to seek out the comforts of the grave. But when would this girl frying in the sun have seen her? My mother is always at home now. If she tends a flower, throws crumbs to the birds, she cannot be spied on behind the tall privet hedge closing our house from the world. A house long guarded by our private ways.
It is my illusion that, set in our roles, my mother and her children will go on as we have forever. My visits to this hillock of New England which looks out to Narragansett Bay are the occasion for stories of the past repeated so often they might be told by the faded wallpaper or deadwood of kitchen table. Was it the hurricane of ’38 or tidal wave of ’54 swept our picket fence into the sea? The Irish setter or blind terrier wrestled the Christmas turkey off its platter? The hard winter of measles or mumps? Adrift in uncertainty, we prattle each day of my visit as though silence is forbidden us. We are sure of one thing. Our stories begin in this house—Bel in labor, clutching the bedpost while my father, who sold insurance against death and disaster, changed a flat tire on the Ford. The past had no preface to the blistering summer day on which, with the help of a neighbor, I was born to Isabel Murphy while her husband stood by with a spanner wrench in his good hand—his left arm, wounded in the Great War, hanging limp at his side.
But I must take the giant step forward. I came round the hedge on this, the third day of my visit, tripped on the crumbling cement path. My sister was at the open door, still and speechless. “What?” I asked. The flesh around Rita’s eyes pale and soft, the defenseless look of the shortsighted without glasses. “What is it?”
The bulk of her blocked my way, though I saw past her to the stairs—to the mirror reflecting the empty hall above and a ray of sun with dust motes churning to no purpose. Finally, she stood aside, my little sister grown bottom-heavy as a giant pear. I knew that I must run upstairs, see myself for a fleeting moment—a gray-headed man with the high forehead that once defined me as brilliant. I must steal down the hall past the tidy room they keep as a shrine for my visits, past my sister’s virginal room with its stuffed panda propped on the bed, souvenir of some festive night in her youth, past the gleaming bathroom scoured clean of our bodily functions, past the hall window that frames our view of the sea, the sun on the water blinding this Summer day, flags rippling on the promenade. My desperate journey to the room where Bel lay, mouth in a slack smile, gaze strangely bright— looking at last upon her Maker.
The body still warm. With faint hope, I turned to Rita, who looked on from the hall, then came to the bed lightly with the tiptoe steps of a heavy woman defying gravity. We found no words for this dreaded occasion. I turned to my sister, knowing she often attended to the dead. With a sweep of her hand Rita drew our mother’s eyelids shut, then presented me with one of the mysteries of our childhood, the black leather box, the death kit of last rites that lived in a cupboard behind the sheets and towels of daily life. I made a stab at my priestly duties, turning down the coverlet to anoint the extremities of the body, the eyes and the mouth with holy oil, mumbling prayers half remembered. My mother lay straight in death, no longer bowed by the weight of years.
As I pulled the window shade, my eyes smarted at the glittering day, an unlikely setting for sorrow. Stunned, our silence heavy, prolonged. “A blessing,” I said at last, “to leave us in her sleep.” Rather too quickly, Rita surveyed our mother’s closet, pulling out a Sunday dress and dainty shoes for the body’s presentation. I had not forgotten that as a physical therapist my sister went from house to hovuse of the infirm and aged, the dying, though I had never seen her at her efficient work.
“She went peacefully,” I said. “Bel left us in the night.”
“Not at all. She called your name, but you were off on your morning stroll.”
“Called my name?”
Rita attempting our mother’s two-noted bleat, her sweet clarion call reining me in when I wandered as a child. When my sister speaks up for herself—it is not often—her eyes blink behind thick glasses, her neck mottles with red splotches. “You didn’t wonder why she wasn’t up and about?”
For years I had not wondered at anything in that house. True, each day, as I headed out on my morning walk, I saw our mother perched on her kitchen stool already awaiting my return, when she presented her withered cheek for my kiss, eager for my every word.
“Now, then,” Rita said, “the arrangements.”
The arrangements were to carry us through the next days. Casket, flowers, mass, burial. Our mother was well over ninety, the date of her birth uncertain. Not a friend left to mourn her, but she was always a woman alone. More than a privet hedge grown beyond clipping set Bel apart from this town. At the wake, two women from the agency who assigned my sister the rounds of her practical mercy were in attendance, and a parade of ghosts from the past—the aged boys and girls we had gone to school with. All now strangers to me. Father, they say as I listen to tales of their children and grandchildren, their divorces and ailments. I can’t bear their deference. They are not curious about my work, the daily grind of a schoolteacher. These shuffling men I’d run bases with, coy housewives I’d kissed in the back seat of my father’s car had their scripted response to my black suit and the legend they will not give up on—that I had left them behind for the higher calling— though we sweated as one beast in the close living room with the television pushed out of the way for the casket.
Bel lay prettified in her white velvet nest. When my father died, she wrote to me. I buried Murph from the house. We do not rent a commercial parlor.
A sturdy woman with sleek black hair, many rings, bracelets, a costume all fringes and gauze, detached herself from the hushed sippers of Rita’s iced tea. “Just think,” she said, “your mother was toddling about before the First World War.” Boldly sipping a glass of whiskey, she held out a hand with scarlet nails, “Gemma Riccardi. You took me to the prom.”
“Gemma!” I was about to say something foolish, tell her she was lovely as ever, when the first noisy crackle preceded the shrieking trajectory of a rocket. Fireworks on the promenade. With our many arrangements, we’d lost track of the day. Night had descended on the Fourth of July.
“What a send-off.” Gemma’s laugh rumbled across the silent room. “Bel would have loved it.”
“The bombs bursting in air,” I sang.
We sang, Gemma and Joe: “O’er the la-aand of the free . . .”
And that is how Father Joseph Murphy, S.J., disgraced himself at his mother’s wake. But let me tell you, we had all turned to the open windows. Bottles of wine and the Irish were brought forth from the sideboard, plastic glasses handed round. Some of the old school chums were already out the door. The lane that runs by our house has always been the best vantage point from which to view the patriotic display, the burst of colors across the heavens in a spectacle of lights. Somehow I was to blame for this pleasure, had given my blessing to the breathless wonder of the mourners. The women from Rita’s agency of good works climbed up on the high hood of their recreational vehicle, but I noticed that my sister was not with us. I ran to the house thinking she kept solitary vigil with the dead.
My mother lay alone in the parlor with abandoned sandwiches and crumpled napkins, at peace in her repose. All the embalmer’s art could not mar the beauty of ivory brow, strong sweep of jaw, defiant tilt of her delicate chin. Gone, gone away, recalling the times when she stood apart, dreamy and distant—even in sunlight—the laundry basket held aloft as if our socks and underwear flattened by the mangle were bounty she presented to her gods; or she might walk from us to touch the bark of a tree, kneel to a powdery anthill, caress a shard of beach glass, a rubbery frond of seaweed. Come back—I wanted to cry in those moments of childish despair—back to me. She never heard. When she turned with a blink of her agate eyes, turned to us—her children, her husband—it seemed she must remember to step through the frame, breathe in our everyday air. Carapace of old lady, where did you go? Mysterious in her coffin as the iridescent shell of a dung beetle in a museum case, scarab of the redemptive afterlife. That’s the embroidery of memory. I am only certain that I stood alone mopping my brow in the dreadful heat, punishing myself with the final distance of her death, when the phone rang.
The phone rang in the kitchen. A great pity I picked up. Rita chatting with a man.
“They’ll soon be gone,” she said.
“Not soon enough.”
Vulgar endearments—pet names, wet kisses.
“Sitting on your bed?” the man asked, and in the husky whisper of seduction began an intimate scan of the washstand, marble-top bureau, the looming wardrobe and collection of girlish trifles which adorn my sister’s room. The stuffed panda not excluded from his prurient tour.
Apocalyptic finale to the fireworks. Burst upon burst of hosannas. It was then Rita told this fellow of the unlikely scene. His guttural laugh. Well, who would believe it?
“And the holy father?”
“He’s out there with the rest.”
“Don’t call me,” he said. “You have the instructions.”
“It’s you shouldn’t call me.”
Ever so softly I lay the receiver in its cradle and returned to the casket, head bowed as if in prayer. Well, I said, here are your precious children—a fraud and a sneak. God knows it’s not your fault. For a moment I wanted to laugh at Rita’s kisses, as we laughed gently at her failed projects— baking, knitting—but the bitter scrape of her words was a harsh note never heard. The mourners, shuffling with shame, turned to the house, looking to say a last word to the bereaved, and there was Rita hustling downstairs, out the front door to receive their final condolences. In the distance a band played a Sousa march, the one we sang when we were kids—Be kind to your web-footed friends. For a duck may be somebody’s mother.
Only Gemma Riccardi poked her head in the door, bracelets jangling, to say in a sodden slur, “Schorry, so schorry.”
My lips were sealed. I said nothing to my sister as we tidied the parlor, nothing of the treachery I’d overheard.
Rita said, “Wasn’t it awful about the fireworks? And you with that Gemma Riccardi?”
Meaning awful of me to make light upon this solemn occasion.
“Bel would have . . .” I did not finish the thought that our mother delighted in theatrical hoopla, and cut back to the days when my sister and I had something on each other, might tattle, or not tattle, in a childish power play. And so we moved about the rooms in silence, discarding the rubbish, Rita devouring the sandwiches, crusts curling in the heat. Speaking of my sister, my mother often said, You must befriend her. Knowing her daughter was destined to be unloved, she had used that cool word. Befriend this simple soul.
We parted with a swift kiss at the bottom of the stairs, and as I turned back it seemed our mother smiled on us with a tweak of her lips, pretend animation, like the trick moves of a flip book. As I settled to the night watch, my thoughts were not of the past with its safe fragments of memory, but of my sister’s betrayal. We had counted on Rita being simple. The verbal dalliance I had spied on clotted in my throat, foreign matter I could neither swallow nor expel. I’d not said a word, thinking that this night was Bel’s show—no calling my sister back to exact a confession. And what might I say, my fury cloaked in pastoral indulgence? That I feared her moving beyond the emotions of a dutiful daughter and the narrow routines of her life. Our mother gone away this time for good, yet I felt that she might speak, Bel’s gentle commands directing us still, that her children must be as she ordained us—priest and spinster. We are that, Bel, your spoiled fruit. Not long into the night watch, a dread came over me. I was to officiate at the Mass of the Dead. Deserting my post, I went up to my room to prep with a tattered missal left on the shelf with my Boy Scout Handbook, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and The Sultan of Swat, a life of George Herman Ruth written when the Babe first slammed sixty. And Ovid. How I loved the cheap edition given to me by my Latin teacher, an old Yankee who drilled us in declensions, who saw in me the one student who might go on with the dead language he was killing off. Delaying my sorrowful duty, I turned through the flaking pages. There they all were, gods and goddesses disporting themselves in stiff translation, tricking each other, exacting revenge. As an earthbound boy, I understood the creation of their world from lumpy matter and discordant atoms to be fantastic, no more than comic-book tales. This room with its white iron bed was a wet dream of innocence. Oh, I’d been such a good son—the mere recall of my mother’s expectations shamed me, that I would please her—training for the higher life. Lightly said, dead serious—the higher life, that phrase of her invention when I was about to leave home for the seminary. I believe she convinced my father somewhere back in time, the time of my baseball triumphs, of spelling-bee victories and grammar school orations, that I was not meant for this world. Or back in kindergarten, when Bel’s hand caressed my head, a gesture of sanctified selection drawing me apart in the playground from the play of ordinary boys, Madonna and Child of the Crosswalk at Pleasant and Elm. Little sister trailing behind. A miracle I was not mocked as Mamma’s boy. Her grace, her authority was my protection. Or I was the miracle, wasn’t that the ticket, Bel? The love child conceived in virtue, nothing off base about it, just to say that, growing up, I was always in training. In your comforting marriage to Tim Murphy, we were a team.
When I was first a young Jesuit portioned out to a parish when the regulars, as we called them, were on vacation, men and women spilled every sinful thought and deed to a green priest concealed in the confessional. How many times, I would ask, did you steal, lie, perjure, sodomize, pleasure yourself and, probing for the old reliable, how often commit adultery? As though I had knowledge of lust, I advised against the occasions for sin. I absolved foolish pranks of children, spiteful thoughts of old women, knowing they could not see my faint smile behind the net screen; still, as clerk of the court, I demanded an accounting. Often, I barely mumbled the formula for forgiveness, the first hint that I was unfit for the job. My job for many years: not listening in the shadow box of the confessional, but solving simple algebraic problems in the humming fluorescent light of a schoolroom.
But in the morning, I must assume my pastoral role. Flipping the gilt-edged pages of my missal, I came upon “Sequence to be said in all Requiem Masses”:
Lo, the world in ashes burning—
Seer and Sybil gave the warning. . . .
Wondering who to blame for such doggerel. Seer and Sybil? Hangover from Greek mythology, embellishment of some prelate schooled as I was in the classics, out of touch with common speech of the faithful departed. My old black book was outdated. I must choose each word to memorialize Isabel Maher Murphy, whose life was—well—remarkable, though uneventful as I knew it. My last pastoral role, sharing the daily life of peasants in Salvador, so if I tripped up on the liturgy of Lesson and Tract, I trusted my mistakes would be taken for grief.
Rita wore the prescribed black as they carried our mother out the front path to the hearse, though I saw that she had set out holiday clothes on her bed, the proverbial riot of color in splashy yellow and red costumes, a pair of enormous checkered pants and the straw hat of a coolie. I hovered at the door of her room while she stuffed diaphanous scarves and silver sandals into a tote bag with the legend Ambrosia—the Heavenly Spring Water.
Rita with the new rough edge to her words, “I’ve paid my dues, Joe.”
True enough. It was then, while the undertaker’s men waited for the grieving family, that she told me of the Portuguese fisherman who was to spirit her off to retirement in everlasting sun, of his children glad to be rid of him, of a bright future by the pool, their cruises and card games so long delayed, all told with a belligerent sniff. They were to be off on their adventure before the flowers wilted on our mother’s grave. A truly practical nurse, my sister had tied up with the husband of a woman who did not survive her efficient care. And Rita knew that I knew, the way we knew each other’s scams when we were children, that every word was a lie, her neck now blotched vermilion.
“The car is waiting.” I escorted her briskly downstairs. In the limousine, my sister’s heaving sobs did not alarm the driver, who turned to us professionally with a box of Kleenex.
“Paid with my life, Joe. You know it.”
“Save it,” I said, believing she cried for herself, not wanting, as we followed slowly behind the hearse, to hear her inappropriate story. If this is my confession, then let me say it was a sin not to hear her out, to award this last day to Bel untainted by our needs, Bel, who paid with her life— whatever that means—in giving herself to us. The comfort of our hired car that came with the arrangements was no comfort at all. I took Rita’s hand in mine, feeling it my duty, and discovered the gold ring on her finger. It looked a gaudy affair. “You will have to wait by the coffin till I’m vested.”
“Getting into your livery, Father Joe?”
We had laughed at that one with Bel. Irreverence fell flat in the cool of the limo. My sister now placed a black veil on her scrambled gray curls, turned to me with the shadowed face of celebrated widows costumed for public mourning.
“Rita!” I spoke her name sharply, my reprimand a mix of pity and anger at her costumed grief. She did not get my meaning.
My little sister is sixty-eight. I am seventy-one—blood pressure controlled by medication, heart off- beat in a rambunctious rhythm of its own. I pee maybe four, five times in the night. My father, the insurance salesman, would not issue a policy on my life. It’s all a risky business—he died on a Sunday afternoon watching the Red Sox wallop the Yankees, therefore died happy, but that was our solace in the midst of bereavement. Their bereavement, Rita’s and my mother’s. I was in a tropical country sweating the booze out of my body each day while the poor, discovering their dignity, learned to tell their stories. At times I taught the children old-style to add and subtract, scratch the alphabet in sun-baked earth, never to pray.
Rita and I knew little of each other, only the tangle of old yarns—Dad shooting squirrels in the attic, Mom winning the Buick in the Holy Name lottery. Hidden behind a scrim of anecdotes, we discounted the present. When I returned to the States and resumed my visits, we played our simple parts. I now believe our mutual deception was cynical. Muffins, pancakes, bloody steaks I loved, the glass of non-alcoholic wine, Rita’s fat-girl laughter at my mildly profane jokes. And my mother, who had been such a stunner driving about town in her big-assed Buick, ready for any diversion, had slowly, slowly retreated to life behind the barricade of our hedge grown thick and tall. Bel awaited my school holidays when I took the train from Grand Central, the bus from Providence, and walked home from town. There were times when I thought to turn back, that in honesty I could not go another block through the neighborhood streets, head into our lane with the houses I once knew so well—the Dunns’ sloping breezeway, the Pinchots’ carport with its artistic display of hub caps, the Mangiones’ cast-cement lions guarding their patch of lawn. But as always, I found my way to the door which my mother left unlatched. There she waited, dressed in her finest, hair pinned back from her face radiant with her belief in me. Lord, as the fella said, help my disbelief.
Why turn back to Rita’s desperate laughter or, for that matter, her sobs in the comfort of the air- conditioned limousine? No turning back to my father, Tim Murphy, watching the Yaz field a line drive for the Red Sox in a near-perfect game. I never knew if he knew the score or passed away at the seventh-inning stretch with the bottle of Bud held firm in his good hand. Both of our parents, departing this life without the pain of departure, as though they had recited the Prayer for a Happy Death, were beckoned at the fateful moment, and simply obeyed. Oh, my mother called out my name, but I was gone more than the quarter mile down the lane, long gone. Joey, Joe Murphy, will not come again to her weathered house by the sea.
Day of the funeral there was no one—that is, no one but Gemma Riccardi in her dress-up and a young woman I could not place who sat in the back of the church, perhaps a stray. I had managed the Mass of the Dead with the help of a young parish priest confused by my bumbling with the sacred apparatus of chalice and paten. I blessed the mahogany coffin for a very old lady, its waterproof lining chosen some months ago by her daughter, who had long awaited this day. I had prepared a few words beyond the liturgy, pieties about Bel as mother and wife, true enough, and truly felt, yet insufficient. Then I spoke to my sister and Gemma, the girl my mother took under her wing when we were children, now a strange woman with coal-black hair, her large body hung with exotic silks and bangles. Just the three of us, I said, to remember Isabel Maher of silent movies which we seldom spoke of. (During the night I’d done my homework, discarded Sybil and Seer for Ecclesiastes, a line to recall that closed book of my mother’s life.) Better a handful of silence than a handful of toil and a striving after the wind. She left the glitter and bright lights, came home, I said in the heavy candle-wax air, to marry Tim Murphy, and so we must feel we were chosen. Bel’s role was to be our star. (Rita’s response to my words hidden by the black veil.) What comes to mind this morning, more than her love and endurance, more than all she witnessed in the length of her years, is Bel’s excursions. (Gemma mopping her eyes.) Just the three of us kids in the Buick. The year, if I remember correctly, was 1943. Excursions, that was her name for the pleasure trips she fashioned to places of note. She drew a circle on the map and marked what grand sights we might see and still get home in time for supper.
Then I recalled our transgression, that we skipped school for the day, named the Arcade in Providence and the Narragansett Pier as our destinations, that we crossed to alien territory in Massachusetts and Connecticut. What did she hope for us? That she might impart her spirit of adventure. Perhaps I’d come upon the excursions to escape the mystery of our parents’ marriage or the hard truth of my mother’s domestic confinement. As I stood over the expensive box that held her body, I figured for the first time that in these outings with three kids, sharing our treats of frankforts and soda pop, Bel was the truant. I did not say it. Better a handful of silence. I let my eulogy lapse into a prescribed prayer. In the heavy atmosphere of the church my vestments clung to my body. Unaccustomed to all but classroom speaking, my heart beat its tattoo. My daily audience is schoolchildren. I go by the book. If I elaborate, make some small story of an algebraic problem, they do not listen to my every word.
“Just the three of us on Bel’s excursions.” I turned to the stranger, a weeping girl. The skinny girl down the lane. I had not recognized her with clothes on. I called her forth to include her in my blessing. Stumbling through In nomine Patris et Filius to the wordless end.
The day of the funeral, I took a gentleman’s kimono out of the closet—ancient gray silk bought in Kyoto, a swank shop for the tourist trade. The saleswoman, into the aesthetics of wrapping my package, remarked upon the kimono’s age, then, with not an ounce of disapproval, “It is forbidden to wear the clothes of the dead. Forbidden to us.” Her politeness perfected—culturally, commercially. She didn’t say the kimono fit my broad back as it would the girth of an honored man. Under the kimono I wore a Tahitian pareo and a tunic of sequins glittering like the iridescent scales of an exotic creature washed up from the sea. I dressed for the dead woman. When I was a girl I worshiped Bel Murphy, fashioned myself to please her. I thought to please her now. When I returned to this place a few weeks back, she delighted in my colorful garments—Indian silks, African batiks—that proved I’d been somewhere.
“Is that Gemma?” she’d ask, as though my costumes concealed me.
“It’s me, Bel.” We settled to our talk as though I’d never been away, though we talked of my travels.
Our simple routine of discovery began when I was twelve. Twelve—breastless, my privates smooth as white marble, those sexless museum maidens of Canova.Hot the morning of her funeral, moist summer air of this Southern New England with its pretense of a temperate climate. The flowered pareo flapped against my ankles, the better to display my feet squeezed into satin slides. The sleeves of my kimono caught at my fish scales. Waiting for Bel to arrive trussed up in her closed casket, I recalled the cool smile of the Japanese saleswoman, her indulgence as I took the exquisite package and crushed it into my knapsack with my work clothes—dirty T-shirts, torn jeans.
No one to see Bel out of this world but her children and a young woman with sun-bleached hair. And yes, the hired pallbearers weary of their task. The revelers at Bel’s house were nosy, had paid their respects. I took up my post dead center in the church I’d known so well, each crudely stenciled emblem of fish, palm, dove and the plaster stations of the cross. Front row, Rita Murphy, round and black as a beetle, scrabbling down on her knees, black purse whacking the pew. The pews sticky in this heat, and I recalled once describing Holy Name as Shellac Gothic, a dinner party in Chelsea where guests confessed to the architectural horrors of childhood—city halls, grammar schools, synagogues. When the service began, I no longer knew when to kneel, when to stand. A robotic young priest assisted Joe who looked grand in purple moiré. His eulogy was an odd affair, made quick work of Isabel Maher of the silents and Bel’s long run as wife and mother. Joe dredged up the excursions. How could I forget playing hooky, tooling down back roads and highways in Bel’s Buick past the golden dome of the state capitol in Hartford, or to the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford? Those giddy day trips, the beginning of all my journeys. Joe switched to the dearly departed, looked to the girl with the sun-streaked hair, called her to join us. He handed us each a rose from the stiff basket which stood by the coffin, a ritual of recent invention, more likely his idea that the three women would stand eye to eye above Bel while he made a quick exit to shed the purple drag. Well, I’d seen him disrobe, seen him buck naked, a strong boy’s body, when we skinny dipped with our classmates, flaunting our innocent flesh in the cold waves weeks before the summer sun warmed our bay.
Three grieving women with the stiff red roses standing over the remains of Isabel Maher. The sun- scorched girl rents down the lane from the Murphys, a troubled young thing, that much I knew from Bel, that she stole round the hedge and sat with an old lady.
“For comfort,” Bel said, “never my strong suit.”
“What troubles her?”
v “Lost love, the old story.”
It was good of that girl to come stand with us smartly turned out in white linen, blue eyes tearing as she placed her rose. Sweet face, bronzed by the sun, forgettable features of young actresses or models who come and go. Crying for lost love, not Bel. Take that thought back—the girl down the lane may have been enchanted as I was by an old lady’s adventures, the theatrical lilt that came into her voice when she was about to tell no one but me of her working days in the movies. Rita another matter entirely, dry-eyed in her beetle black, she would not give up her rose. We waited in silence. My memories of the dead woman at odds with her daughter’s. I stole Bel from her when we were kids, or Bel found a likely prospect in me. Get the hell out of here, she once said to a restless girl, the world awaits. I thought she meant something as grand as moving pictures or never to settle for Tim Murphy and a house on the bay. But what of Rita? Dumpy, middle-aged before we were out of high school. I was surely a thorn in her side, but it was the thorn on the hothouse rose pricked her finger as we stood over Bel. She did not cry out, a twitch of her lips, a last smile perhaps at the indignities long suffered being the improbable daughter of the beautiful Isabel Maher. Perhaps, I tend to select a scene, fit the frame to my story.
Joe came from the sacristy in a shabby seersucker suit, led his sister away. Rita turned, her first words to me since I came back to this place: “Only family going to the cemetery. Family, that’s how she wanted it.”
I stood on the church steps with the wistful girl from down the lane. “He’s still handsome,” she said, “with the gray hair. Mrs. Murphy spoke of him often.”
“I imagine she did.”
“Quite often. How he’d been to the war in Cuba.”
“How he’d been there like a soldier, but he was made for higher things.”
The child looked flustered despite the authority of designer linen and this year’s Italian sandals. “What’s higher,” I said, “is to figure whatever they think about these days in the thin air of theology. Ethics, I suppose, how many monkey genes on the head of a pin. That was Mrs. Murphy’s belief, that Joe would live in the clouds. She never gave up on that one.”
The girl—twenty-five, thirty—girl to me, looked puzzled, then ran to her car, a red Alfa convertible with the hood down. “Need a lift?”
“No thanks.” I wanted to see the last of the woman who schooled me. I wanted a shot of the hearse that would spirit Bel away, its black gleam devouring sunlight. Her little funeral procession idled at the stoplight and drove off to the graveyard, a dismal flatland across the state highway. I walked the few blocks to the two-family house I grew up in, making a show of myself in sequins and ancient silk. When I retreated to this middling-sad town, housewives of Cotrell Street spied me from behind their curtains. The children had their frights and whispers at my fancy dress. Three weeks of exposure and I’m old news, absorbed into the dailiness of the neighborhood with the three-legged cat, the Vietnam vet in the wheelchair, the poet who teaches at the community college, the doll woman who stations her replica of Shirley Temple—dimpled, life-size—in a front window to greet her neighbors each day. We are seen yet unseen, background. A dreary professor of film might read our coming and going as static, atmospheric disturbance.
I thought of Bel, who was always visible. The dark hair piled high, Celtic tilt to her speckled eyes and the slight inward smile of detachment. Not Celtic, a Chekhov beauty, one of his lost ladies living in exile. She was never one of us. Her delight in the ordinary goods in shopwindows—dish towels, a length of flannel, an aluminum cooking pot—the spring to her step in the butcher shop. Mrs. Murphy looking up to a true blue sky above our grammar school was confirmation of the day.
On a Saturday when I was a girl, I’d leave the house early with my allowance, a quarter—you better believe it—that would take me to the matinee, but first to loiter at Brandle’s, a dim old pharmacy, dark wood cabinets, white marble countertops. A bell tinkles over the door as I enter. Mr. Brandle looks up from his chemist’s lair in the back of the store—his face gray as a tombstone, gray as his pharmacist’s jacket and threads of hair. His trembling hands dish out a scoop of white powder into a brass scale with graduated weights. Oh, it is only the Riccardi girl in a faded summer dress. She will hide behind the magazine stand, never buy one, flip through styles and stars, then sit up at the soda fountain and tap her quarter on the counter for service as though she had the wherewithal to order a banana split, a fresh kid with a false maturity, said to be Frank Riccardi’s girl, good for a small cherry Coke. She lingers over the magazines. Today she takes one, saunters to a stool at the counter. Brandle continues his calibrations. He has no one to help him in the store this Saturday. It’s 1942 and they are hiring again at the naval boatyard and at the woolen mill, which has the promise of government contracts. His boy has quit, and Brandle will have to ply the spigots and taps of the soda fountain. Riccardi’s girl is studying every word of the movie magazine, the one with Garbo on the cover. Brandle can pick out the headshot of an unyielding Garbo with his eagle eye trained over many years to see the Hershey Bar slipped into a pocket, the Wrigley’s Spearmint palmed. He has unpacked the newspapers and magazines, set them in place himself, a menial task. The girl swings on her stool in a dither, taps her quarter. Brandle hears but ignores her cry, a high screech of discovery. She is flapping the fan magazine, punishing the pages she will not pay for.
Tinkle of the brass bell announces a woman with a smart straw hat tilted on her head, a dark curl stuck to her ivory forehead. She’s something rare, the forward thrust of her chin acknowledging her beauty: So what? What do you make of it, when I make nothing of it at all? Mrs. Murphy waits at the counter with Brandle’s scant supply of cosmetics and cologne. Frills, he calls them, an invasion of his authorized alchemy, his healing compounds and tonics. The third offense of the morning, yet even old Brandle will take pleasure in waiting on Mrs. Murphy, noting her idle amusement of buying a lipstick this Saturday morning while her gifted son plays baseball, her plump daughter lumbers her way through Dan Quilty’s tap-dancing class. A warm day, he turns on an electric fan, a new device which flutters her skirt.
I believe it was the beginning for me, the magic moment when I looked up from The Silver Screen to discover the mother of the Murphy kids buying a lipstick at Brandle’s. The establishing shot in which she called to me:
She came to the soda fountain, swung up on a stool, drew two lines on the back of her hand—a scarlet, a magenta.
I touched the purplish red.
“Right.” Mrs. Murphy pleased. I’d made the clever choice. And then, “You’re in Joey’s class. You’re Gemma!”
I did not answer, boldly flipped open the movie magazine to display “Sweethearts of Yesteryear.” Where have they gone? The Bessies and Mays, Louise Brooks, Viola Dana, Isabel Maher—pretty girls—then turned to the page with Mrs. Murphy distant and rare as a queen in a silver gown, a gleaming helmet of black hair. A promising heartbreaker lost to the business, Mrs. Murphy with a dark shadow of herself cast on the wall behind. Joe’s mother on a white lounge, pearls falling on the graceful rise of her breast.
“Yes?” Taking the magazine from me, “A publicity shot. That couch was a punishment.”
“Will that be all?” Brandle fussing with the dusting powders and toilet water, glasses down on his nose the better to look in the dim light of his emporium at the curve of Mrs. Murphy’s hips under a cotton wash dress, on any other woman in town matronly.
“And this, I’ll take this.” Bel, as I would learn to call her, tucking The Silver Screen into her purse. My star brought down to earth, poor angry girl, the puzzle twisting my face.
Her question no more than a breath, a whisper, “What is it, Gemma, what do you want to know?”
I couldn’t come up with an answer, which was yet another question, till years later, when I was about to quit college before they dismissed me. Impudent, seeking attention with my questions in the Louis Quinze classroom of a Newport mansion. Dante torments lovers when all he knew of lust, puh-leeze, his crush on a little girl? Wordsworth’s Prelude—prelude to boredom? Why the H-bomb? We’ve got one that works. I was a nettle in the fallow fields of my long-suffering teachers mired in their lesson plans, pressing my glib questions beyond the strict borders of inquiry. Tired of my small notoriety, I packed up to leave Salve Regina and this place called home, but not before I asked Bel Murphy what I wanted to know.
“Why quit when you were—famous?” And, wanting to sound smart, “Ahead of the game?” I expected she would laugh. “What game? Count all of us famous, the girls who came off buses and trains to find work in the movies. You might not be called out of the pack.”
Before I left town, I recalled our recognition scene in Brandle’s. “The silver gown? The pearls?” “Wardrobe. I no longer believed in their costumes. Make-believe scenes they set me to play. I wasn’t much of an actress.
All in how they directed me, vamp down a flight of stairs, kiss the old man who kept me. Snub the famous clown with his music hall tricks. Don’t fuss about it, Gemma.” And then Bel said, I will never forget how deliberately she delivered the line, “It wasn’t my life.”
I was being dismissed. “That’s all for today,” she’d say when I was a kid and helped with her garden. “That’s all,” when we heard the squeal of tires. Then I’d run under the willow tree, slip through a hole in the hedge, turn back to see Rita Murphy lumbering round the house with her bike, overalls split at the knee, her mother coming down from the porch, the languorous descent of a social belle in a romantic comedy, descending to the skirmish of comforting her daughter. Rita searching her mother’s face for something not there, because she had given it all to me. Had it not been for Bel Murphy, I’d have lived in a shabby house, wrong side of town, all my life. I blamed her for sending me into the world with nothing more than a desire to make my name, to prove that she was wrong choosing exile. Her very grandeur, picking her kids up from school, gracing the bleachers at the dusty ball field, buying lipstick at Brandle’s, was absurd, but she carried it off. I knew, even at that age when everything was black and white, the textbook authority of my fledgling Catholic college, the seductions of New York or Boston within grasp of Gemma Riccardi, I knew that she lied, that she was in fact a brilliant actress and that we—the whole town, her neighbors on that narrow lane hovering above the bay, Tim Murphy, the man who came home in time for supper, her children, blessed and blighted—we all believed Isabel Maher welcomed her celluloid grave.
“The world is full of disappearances,” Bel told me.
I knew about disappearance. Gemma Riccardi, at times cited as Riccardi. I liked to think my father was a made man in a lineup with a big brimmed felt hat and long overcoat, well tailored the way Mafiosi dressed like gentlemen, at least in the movies. Not just a man who tired of his wife and child, walked off from family life. Took a powder. I liked that language, imagined he was rubbed out or in the slammer. But he was just a guy who disappeared. I thought I might spot him in a newsreel, one humiliated man in the long breadlines of the Great Depression, stunned men holding out their hands for a crust, a cup of soup. Or living in a tent courtesy of the CCC, some lowly job meted out to him. All let’s pretend on my part, pretense my strong suit. Were my parents married? The neighbors thought not. I heard their disapproval in the twist put on “Mrs. Riccardi.” Little to go on, not even a photo, all mementos destroyed, yet I could call up a tall, dark man with a crooked smile, a tooth set in gold from some time when he’d been flush. Crinkly black hair receding, the shine of his high forehead. The scratch of his two-day beard. Later still, I imagined I’d find him in a brutal story—realismo of Rosselini or De Sica—a long take of an American GI seducing a wistful Sicilian girl. Then I gave him up, gave up the romance with my father.
What did I want to know? Why the boarder in the back bedroom, Mr. Dunphy who kept the books at the mill. We were that bad off with only the rent from upstairs and needed his few dollars paid weekly, folded in a small brown envelope discreetly laid on the telephone table. His shy coming and going to the diner where he took his meals. On Sunday he brought us a pint of Borden’s ice cream, always the Neapolitan brick—chocolate, strawberry, vanilla—a treat for all three of us. Spoon at his pursed lips, blink of his rabbit-pink eyes as he looked from me to my mother. She called him Phil upon these homey occasions. They spoke of the weather and their work, for my mother had been trained as a bookkeeper. Now, defense contracts coming in at the mill, she at last had a job. They spoke with some relish of payments due and their terror of receipts not entered while I let my ice cream puddle, and then one day Dunphy began to eat breakfast at our kitchen table—his toast dipped in egg yolk, his coffee sweetened with condensed milk—and when he had gulped the last, my mother dusted the crumbs from his lapels, smoothed the errant strands of his ginger hair. Next it was dinner and what, my mother asked, did I want to know?
“More greenbacks in the brown envelope?”
But when I saw my mother, always so determinedly drab, with a perm, clear polish on her nails, well, what was I to think of the spring in her step as she walked to Dunphy’s car, slingback pumps, open toes? And off they went to the mill, to their orders and receipts, to their clerkly gossip of a duplicitous foreman, devil of a union boss and the rectitude of the heroic mill owner and his condescending wife, who my mother, subservient as a maid in the movies, addressed as “ma’am” at the Christmas party, a skimpy fête with dime-store presents for the kids. I thought it all a shame, more than a shame when she married Dunphy with a gaggle of redheaded Dunphys never to be seen again. Dunphys come from factory towns, Worcester and Lowell. Dunphys in their stiff Sunday best toasting happiness, a life sentence. I wished hard Frank Riccardi would come in the front door of the house he left heavily mortgaged, then their glasses would slop the pink champagne and those Dunphys with freckles and watery eyes would skedaddle. I would run to the arms of my father, our two long Italian faces on display, the green tint of our skin, almond eyes, downward slope of our Giottoesque noses, though I knew nothing of Giotto, being thirteen, but played the scene over and over, this rescue by my father. Sometimes I cut the Dunphys to his old mother dabbing at her wet lips with a hankie and one reptilian sister with no lashes, just the witless moist blink of her eyes brimming with sentiment at this preposterous union. Can I have been that hurt? That heartless? No wonder I fell head over heels for Bel Murphy.
Forty years later, I thought of my mother’s wedding as an assistant set up the tripod, held a light meter to the face of a Park Avenue matron. A shoot for a shelter magazine, paying the piper for my peppers—the era of my curvaceous chilis, sensuous studies of vegetables, apples I’d shot in homage to Cézanne, all to rival the famed edibles by Weston, Cunningham, O’Keeffe. But the problem at the Park Avenue moment: how to light the perfect beige wife, give depth to the woman in the wing chair, which was really the whole point, wasn’t it, the ancient brocade chair set beside a witty modern table? Daddy Warbucks looking on, both of them sanded smooth. When they turned to each other, old man and young wife, I saw their corporate deal. The itemized accounts of her chill good looks, his cultivated taste in the furnishings of their life, all their books balanced. More than a marriage of convenience, they were courtly with each other, displayed a tidy pleasure in their triumph against the odds. An upscale show, but so like my mother’s regard for Dunphy with his ice cream treat, dusting the crumbs off his shoulders; so like Dunphy holding the car door open for the lady, his compliments for the poached egg, his gratitude for laundered socks and underwear neatly folded. In the artificial light of Park Avenue, I shot four rolls of a woman who had settled herself in an extravagant chair. And I wondered if her husband slept apart from his prize, for while I lived at home Phil Dunphy never left the back bedroom.
It was my mother’s husband gave me the secondhand Brownie, loaded it with film in an attempt to include me in the wedding party. I fiddled with the knobs, but did not want to record that wicked event. When the tiered cake was brought forth, I stole past the wedding guests, ran all the way to Bel’s garden. When I arrived at the Murphys’, she was digging in manure. A Saturday afternoon. Joe at his baseball. I could see Rita at the window of her room, closeted on this sunny day. “Aren’t you the pretty thing?” Bel cried.
I was dressed for the wedding, but would not speak of it. The camera. I had run off with the black box, held it up to take her picture. She threw down her spade, came toward me, put her hand over the lens. “Come, come along, Gemma, we’ll see the end of Joe’s game.”
We drove right by the ball field. The sour smell of cow clung to her apron. “Tell me,” she said, “where are we heading?”
“Cotrell,” I said, the name of my street. The door of our house was thrown open for whatever breeze. We heard a phonograph churning out a fox-trot and in the shadows my mother and her husband were dancing, just the two of them shuffling about the worn carpet. Bel watched till I was swallowed into the heat and half-light of the dying party. I took pictures of the Dunphys smiling and the wreckage of the cake, of my mother in a pale blue suit with a wilting corsage. That night I shut the door to my room, pried open the black box and exposed the film to the glare of the overhead light.Howard dazzles... Raptly adventurous ... her subject is families: the vast distances and binding proximities that afflict their members. (The New York Times Book Review)
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