“Dare to wear the foolish clown face.”—Frank Sinatra
“I’m ru-u-end!” Lorna Long wailed like she’d lost everything that meant anything to her. “I hate you!”
Trying not to look at her younger sister’s face, and failing, Nina chews her lip to keep laughter—or shock—at bay. She’s not sure. Lorna’s face, an inflamed knot of flesh and teeth, is streaked with gelatinous purple goo. It runs down from her scalp, which is protuberant with tightly clamped oversize hair rollers. She looks like she’s been assaulted by an enraged squid.
Do something nice—anything—and this is what you get. Nina dodges a round of razor sharp exclamation points heading straight for her. She makes a beeline for the faux Danish Modern chair in the living room leaving her sister at the end of the hall gulping like a suffocating fish. She buries her face in an old issue of Seventeen Magazine. Her mother calls the chair Danish Modern and her father calls it goddamned uncomfortable. It doesn’t have a hassock because that isn’t the style. He doesn’t ever get a hassock and to be at all comfortable when he watches TV he has to tuck his stocking feet up under him in a rather girly manner. When he grumbles in fits and starts like an old car her mother snaps: “It wouldn’t go with the décor.”
Décor is a word her mother, Anna, likes to throw around. And if décor means an avocado palette then they were lousy with it. You can actually tell the age of any bit of furniture, appliance, and accessory in the oddly furnished matchbox living room and the after thought of a kitchen by its particular shade of avocado green. Older objects like the Danish Modern chair had settled for some time under a bile-colored sheen, its arms covered with plastic protectors helpless against her husband’s chain smoking.
When Nina’s father, William, isn’t folded into that chair and chortling over some harmless impressionists on the Ed Sullivan show like Rich Little and Frank Gorshin, or raging at the foul-mouth comedy of upstarts like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, then he sits at the dinette set wedged under an economy-size window in the kitchen. In summer, clad in boxer shorts and a cheap white undershirt yellowed at the neck, he grumbled when the back of his legs stuck to the padded Naugahyde vinyl-covered chair seat. No longer able to get his beloved New York Daily News he makes do with the right-leaning Hartford Courant. He spreads the newspaper before him on a Formica tabletop searching for the galling news item that will require a practiced back grab to retrieve a can of Rheingold beer in the fridge behind him. A few of those beauties had been necessary after that poetry-spouting Cassius Clay whupped Sonny Liston. “Goddamn it, he took a hit,” he’d grunted. And he’d blamed it on the ‘goddamn mafia’. When ‘that goddamn Communist’ Dr. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, well, that injustice was also remedied with a six-pack. Tonight he’s had to don a tired mohair sweater and balding corduroys to ward off a post-Thanksgiving cold snap in Hartford, Connecticut. The oven is turned to ‘high’ but only for the heat it generates and not for anything Nina will laughingly call dinner. Above it a fake wooden rack stamped to look like knotty pine holds a row of unopened spices, bottles that have the abandoned look of the useless. Her mother never endeavors to cook anything that requires more than opening a box or plunging a plastic bag into boiling water.
“Daddy!” Lorna shrieks. Nina peeks from the top of her magazine and catches her father’s eye. “Lorna, get in here,” he shouts. What’s the…?” He can’t finish his question because the sight of his youngest daughter makes him wince with laughter. His eldest has that in common with him. Nina and her father can laugh at the drop of just about anything. Lorna stomps off, leaving him at the table, his cigarette, half-forgotten at the sight of her, is still poised between his gnawed thumb and index finger. “Jesus H. Christ,” he mutters and flicks a dropped ash from a vinyl oval place mat ringed with daisies.
“Enough is enough.” From the back bedroom, the one Nina shares with her sister, their mother’s harsh reprimand is followed by: “It’s just the dye from the hair rollers.” Lorna whines, “It was Nina’s idea,” and she is rewarded with: “That will teach you.” Lorna whimpers something about her ‘perm’ and then yelps, “Ow. You’re hurting me.” Faucets squeal. “Get in here now. Watch. Don’t stain the sink.” Rushing water muffles the quarrel between mother and daughter.
Nina hates Hartford. She hates Connecticut. High school friendships now demolished; friendships she’d counted on for three years to help her through romantic crushes, breakups, marriage, babies, or maybe deciding to hell with all that and striking out on her own. Her entire world had shattered with a terse announcement: Her father’s business had failed. They were relocating, moving to a new city. Carping that you had to actually be successful at something before you could fail at it, her mother only added confusion to Nina’s anguish.
The brief détente between her and her sister lasted virtually the length of the train journey from Penn Station in Manhattan to Union Station in Hartford. Nina’s dogged last-minute resolve was to find adventure in the move, pretend she is a character in a novel by Willa Cather or Jack Kerouac. Romantic notions were quickly dispelled on their arrival. The cavernous waiting room reeked of stationary bums snoring wetly and splayed across long wooden benches. The downtown area that greeted them was little more than a string of bars and SROs servicing the more fortunate transients.
She would be the newcomer in the senior year class at Hartford Public High School.
They had arrived at the beginning of June. Nina had wasted no time getting a summer job at a Sage-Allen department store on Main Street. Coming from the High School of Art & Design seemed to impress them less than the fact that she was handy with a thinner can and she was hired as an assistant in the art department. The frizzy-haired head illustrator signaled her needs by shaking a wrist loaded with bangle bracelets only slightly larger than the hoops in her ears. Nina ran on cue for coffee, kept the drawing pencils sharpened and flew to the art store for supplies. Rubber cement fumes did not faze her. They’ve kept her on part time since the start of classes.
Coming from a multiracial environment, Hartford High was an eye-opener for Nina who was not prepared for the segregated feel of the student body. Black students are bussed in. The white kids voluntarily deck out in madras and chino and are way more conservative than her father, if that is possible. For the first time in her life her peers eye her with suspicion. A few in her art class—aspiring artists both black and white—tease her about her New York accent, goading her into repeating certain words. She happily complies, dropping the g’s and exaggerating mutha and fahtha and Noo Yawk. Nina hopes it is good-natured teasing.
Her closest friend is the forty-something American Indian guy who works as a stock boy in the department store. His name is Matoskah and everyone but Nina and his mother, who is blind, calls him Matt. He is sure Nina has untapped spiritual power. They talk about art and literature. He introduces her to the art collection in the Wadsworth Atheneum, an enchanting stone castle at the other end of Main Street. Nina is told she has a job in the department store, if she wants, after she graduates. Not a chance in hell, she reckons. She is heading straight back to New York.
“Because of these two there’s no time to cook,” Anna huffs. “Whatever you want,” her husband grumbles. “Chinese, okay? she asks but doesn’t really ask. “Yeah, chow mein. Go ahead, get the chicken.” Anna stares at her husband until he looks up from his newspaper, unfolds his wallet, and hands her the money. He yells an afterthought: “Get extra noodles. They never give you enough of the goddamn things.” Anna lifts the receiver from the wall phone but before she dials she trains a hard look on Nina. “Feet off the chair. We’re not animals.”
Nina hates her mother’s pretensions. They had come from a housing project on the lower east side of Manhattan and landed in an even more nondescript dump here on Laurel Street. Stately Victorian houses, their slightly careworn grandeur undiminished from neglect, are set back from the street on uneven lawns, rising over a street marred further by two identical bunkers squatting side by side like unwelcome poorer relations. The new two-story dwellings are devoid of ornamentation and though Nina’s family was the first to tenant their apartment, the place already has the air of defeat. In six months the uninspired flesh-colored synthetic carpeting throughout the stingy rooms still gives off a slightly toxic smell when a vacuum is run over it. Nina had been thrilled, at first, to be in such close proximity to the charmingly unaffected cottage of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the much more opulent mansion on Farmington Avenue where Mark Twain had lived. But the grander dwellings underscore her meaner abode.
If Nina thought nobody would ever find them in a place like Hartford, she was proved wrong. A few weeks before when they had been expecting Chinese food, two army guys had appeared at their door in uniforms different to the ones she recognized on the boys back home who’d enlisted. These men wore armbands, metal helmets—and more ominously—holstered guns. They were looking for Robert Alphonsus Kelly. Nina called her father. It took her a moment to realize they were talking about her Uncle Bobby. She never knew his middle name and no one ever called him Robert.
William had yelled for his wife. “Anna, it’s about your goddamned brother.”
Anna had spoken quietly with the officers. No, she had not seen her brother in quite some time. Certainly not since they left New York. Oh, they have already been to see her mother in Astoria? Any other relatives, they’d inquired. Well, a sister in Buffalo, she offered, but she is not sure of an address because she’s moved a lot. Apologizing, she said she doesn’t think she can be any more help. And promising to alert them if her brother makes contact she said good night.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Anna had sighed, under her breath. Over sweating cartons of spare ribs and slithery mounds of chop suey Nina had assumed her parents would trade familiar barbs. Her father had only managed, “I’ll just say I told you so,” before her mother cautioned, “Don’t start.” The usual litany went unsung that night: that his family was a ludicrous bunch of highfaluting holier-than-thou born again liars and hypocrites; that hers were drunks and thieves who dumped their own children. Nina had taken the opportunity of a rare ceasefire to ask about her uncle’s middle name, Alphonsus. “Not now,” her mother had responded, less sharply than usual.
Tonight, after an unusually quiet Chinese meal, perhaps tempered by Lorna’s sulk under a terry cloth turban, they quickly head for after dinner posts. Anna retires to the bathroom for a soak to calm her nerves. The slam of the back bedroom door reminds everyone that Lorna is still pissed off. Nina returns to her magazine and settles onto the sofa, relinquishing the chair to her father. The smell of Chinese food never entirely disappears.
Nina and her sister are the result of an unfortunate post-war coupling. Her dad’s family is a bunch of Bible thumping hypocrites. Nina’s two boy cousins, brothers suffering their homosexuality in a kind of open secret—one of whom she adores—can attest to that. Her maternal grandmother did give up two of her children. Bobby and his younger sister Lorrie Jean were dropped into the custodial arms of the state when they were little kids. Her mother, Anna, is the oldest and so was kept at home to earn a living. Nina remembers her mother taking them on interminably long journeys requiring multiple transfers from subways to busses to visit the ‘goddamn orphanage’, as her father called the place, which was somewhere in the Bronx. Lorrie Jean always looked clean and neatly dressed at the Catholic Protectory. The girls made their own uniforms. Rows of little beds lined a great room. The boys were housed separately and Nina does not recall having ever seen Bobby during those years, probably because of some trouble he’d been in. He was a street-wise scrapper with a wide, bad boy grin, a pug Irish nose, and hair as rebellious as he was. When they last saw him in Nana’s kitchen, which always smelled of boiled cabbage and her second husband Harold, he looked like a changed man dressed by the army, his head cleanly shaved.
Nina thumbs idly through her magazine, keeping half an eye on My Favorite Martian. Her father is absorbed with Uncle Martin’s hysteria over the disappearance of his spaceship. Nina wishes she could play her Bob Dylan album. She doesn’t have her own record player and the stereo in the living room is off limits when her father is home. Only once did she dip into her summer earnings and that was to purchase that album to replace the first copy. Her father had taken a hate on the frizzy-haired folksinger, calling him that mumbling moron. Adding insult to injury, she’d had to endure her father’s exaggerated nasal whine for weeks in an outlandish imitation of the singer. Back in New York the Beatles were causing mayhem among her old school friends, especially the girls. She preferred Bob Dylan’s protest, and songs about poor girls sung by Otis Redding. Her regard for the Beatles went up a few notches when her father first became aware of them and announced that they looked like goddamn idiots.
The face on the cover of Seventeen Magazine reflects Nina’s own shoulder length hair, bangs brushing her eyelashes. The model is wearing a white silk dress with forest green velvet lapels. It’s something Nina’s ex-boyfriend would have liked, especially the bosom-cleaving ridiculous pink rose. His controlling reach stretched all the way to Hartford and Nina had finally had enough. He was an Irish Catholic private school boy. His family—his mother—looked down on girls from the projects, thought they were fast. And Nina was fast. Recently she’d dumped a construction worker she met at the soda fountain in the drugstore on Asylum she’d stop into for a cherry coke after work. He was slightly older than boys she knew. You could tell right off that he made his living with his strength. Shirtless, his tight chest beamed like a streetlight between his darkly tanned neck and forearms. The musky scent of Jade East lingered on her fingertips and clothes long after they had kissed good night.
He had been showing off downtown Hartford’s claim to fame, as he put it. The glass building called ‘The Boat’ was the abstract element in the insurance capital’s stolidly conservative canvas but Nina was hardly bowled over. At the joyless shopping mall on Constitution Plaza they'd run into a classmate from her art class. The moment she'd seen the hard body stiffen, his hand left limp at his side and ignoring her classmate’s proffered handshake, Nina’s discomfort had grown like a plague of red algae across her wet brow and she’d scuttled like a plover from the tidal shift in her classmate’s pained expression. She’d momentarily contemplated trying to change the guy’s mind about black people, convince him racism was an ugly thing. But halfway through the groping session that had followed behind the fountain in Pope Park, after making sure he was paying attention, she rose abruptly and left him to his limp injustice.
Tossing the magazine aside, Nina concentrates on the television screen. Candy, the newlywed next door, has been passing her subscription along to Nina. The woman’s perkiness belies the fact that she is at least ten years past seventeen. But with that favor came unwanted advice like proper bra fit and personal hygiene, which creeped Nina out. Please God, Nina prays, make sure the times they really are a-changin’.
When the doorbell chimes Nina and her father jump in unison. William yells for his wife to get the door and then sensing the late hour, grudgingly rises from his chair.
He peers through the peephole. “What the…?”
Thinking it can only be Candy Nina hesitates quickly before deciding the chatty neighbor is a better bet than the purple-haired gorgon in the back bedroom. Her mother is already at the door in the faded pink quilted robe that comes to her knees. Her father shakes his head as he makes his way back to the kitchen table. The look on his face causes Nina to investigate. She recognizes Uncle Bobby’s urban twang before she can peer from behind her mother. “Sissy,” he laughs nervously, “Long time, no see. Can you give your little brother a hug?” When he leans into the doorway Lorna sees a fully made up man in a clown suit stained with what looks like coffee. White greasepaint cakes over his face like a drought-ridden playa. A red bulb has begun to separate from his nose. More greasepaint—blue—forms an uneven ring around his mouth, like a bruise. He is wearing army boots and when he is fully into the room, Nina can see the bedraggled costume split at the back, revealing army fatigues.
“I’ve got to hide, er, hang. Hey Nina! How’s my favorite niece?”
Lorna has quietly joined them at the door. Her hair is still undercover, the towel pulled even more tightly. Lorna stands mute and keenly watchful.
Bobby effortlessly skirts his sister’s interrogation. He only halts a fantastical narrative when Anna interrupts to tell him the military police had been by a few weeks before. Yes, of course they were looking for him.
“So, Sissy. I’m kinda in a jam here, ya see?”
Anna’s fingers explore the pockets in her robe, searching for the crumpled tissue she will tear to bits. He indicates the sofa. She tells him it’s not a sleeper. He fakes a nonchalant trip onto the sofa and runs his hand along the bottom. He looks up at Anna expectantly with just the slightest evidence of a challenge. “It’s an old sofa, the springs are gone,” she says evenly. “I don’t mind, Sissy, you know me I can sleep anywhere.” “No,” she insists. His eyes scan the room as if he can see the smell of Chinese food. Anna tells her brother to go into the kitchen. She can heat leftovers but then he will have to go. “Thanks, Sissy,” he says clearly not yet defeated. And then hoping for an ally he quips to his brother-in-law, “She still ain’t no genius in the kitchen, eh?”
Nina has caught her father’s eye. If she can’t distract herself she will be helpless with laughter. “Mom, Uncle Bobby can have my bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa for a while. You know until he can—?”
“Out of the question,” her mother barks. They all look at Lorna, expecting an added rebuke as she would be the one to have to share her room with this grown up uncle, this fugitive. “Whadya say Peanut?” Uncle Bobby clips her chin gently. Lorna stares, still silent. “That’s not really appropriate,” Anna says less harshly. “What will the neighbors think?”
Finally unable to contain themselves Nina and her father release a barrage of pent up guffaws that echo around the kitchen like chestnuts exploding from an ill advised roast in the oven, laughing so hard that tears rim their eyes to overflow. Bobby laughs along, hesitantly at first, until Anna joins in, helpless as Lorna watches. She pouts. She narrows her gaze and puts both hands to her terrycloth turban.
Laughter quickens like a circus ring overrun with midget clowns when Lorna tugs the towel from her head. She fingers her crimped locks, now faintly purple at the tips. “Mommy, you gotta let him stay.” Anna starts to protest but Lorna turns a hard stare on Nina. “She can sleep out here.” Without looking at her mother she says, “He’s your little brother.” Clutching her uncle’s hand she leads him from the room.
UNCLE BOBBY is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©October 2009.