Part 68: Riley's Brother Victor, The Brown Derby, Riley's Bonanza Girlfriend.
Riley made reservations at The Brown Derby, a restaurant where he hung out in the bar with famous people like Gene Autry, and where cartoon likenesses of Lucille Ball and other celebrities were framed on the walls. The headwaiter there was expected to know who everyone in the music business was, and relied on my father to tell him who just walked in the door— seating could be decided depending on status. Riley spent a lot of time there, buying people drinks. People who could afford their own drinks.
We strolled, hand in hand, me in the middle. Mom’s long, dark hair flowed down her back, dark make-up accentuating her large brown eyes, her going out dress flowing in the evening breeze. A car slowed. “Hey, it’s Morticia,” a man yelled from the open window. We waved at him, laughing.
“Shit, would you look at this,” Dad said, as we approached a crowd of chanting, whirling people.
“As usual. Fucking crazy,” Mom said, squeezing my hand tighter.
A swarm of Hare Krishnas blocked the entire sidewalk. We had to cut right through them to get to the diner. Fabric from a twirling robe hit me right in the face, a musky smell burned the back of my throat. I looked up at one guy hopping around, his head shaved except for a tiny pony tail right on top, beads of sweat rolling down his scalp and face.
At the restaurant, we sat in a big booth, relieved to cool off. “Order whatever you want,” Dad said. I learned how to say filet mignon that day. “She orders the most expensive steak, and then eats a little hole in the middle,” he said to the waiter, as if we ordered steaks all the time. Jan and Riley had cocktails, and complained about our landlords, while I slurped down my Shirley Temple, saving the bright red maraschino cherries for last. If Halo and Criswell had been struggling artists, perhaps they might’ve been spared the back biting. Artists could be eccentric and were forgiven. But those two weren’t just struggling to create art or personas, they were landlords. The worst. Jan used the words “nuts” and “crazy” to describe Halo’s behavior.
Everyone else was crazy.
Later, I wondered how my father could offer to coach someone who clearly had no future as a songwriter. How could he spend so much time with someone he didn’t believe in, or didn’t seem to like? Riley believed in the power of new beginnings, and recreating an entirely new life, as he and so many others had. Like the story of Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain, Riley would lift Halo up from where she’d been grazing like a cow, strands of grass still hanging from her lips, and he’d transform her, pushing her into the spotlight. A star would be born. Billboard magazine would write an article about Halo’s discovery, “Riley Shepard discovers next songwriting powerhouse in a field by a Catholic school…mowing the lawn.”
Jan and Riley never toned down any of their gossip for my benefit. I knew about suicides before my brain could even understand death, because my father told me he saw a man jump from a building in New York City during The Great Depression. The body hit the sidewalk near him. Another time he told me that his first wife walked into a bar, went into the bathroom, locked herself inside, and shot herself. When I asked him why, he said he didn’t know, but he was quick to add that it had nothing to do with him.
As an adult, I became obsessed with digging around Riley’s past, and found two newspaper articles about his wife’s suicide from 1940. Described as a “21-year-old brunette” by both journalists, they traced her steps the night of her death in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her name was Alma Anderson Shepard. A cab driver took Alma around that fateful afternoon, making several stops, including a church where she stayed for thirty minutes. After that, a pawn shop. Next, the cabby dropped her off at a tavern called the Globe. Once inside, Alma went to the women’s room, locked the door, and shot herself through the heart with a .25 caliber automatic pistol.
On the walk back home from our fancy lunch, we were strolling along looking in store windows when someone came up from behind us and tapped him on the shoulder. Riley dropped my hand and turned around. A man stood before us, tan and elegant, the woman on his arm sported a fancy updo and a full skirt. She looked like a movie star.
“Hello Richard,” the elegant man said. I’d never heard anyone call my father by that name, and I was confused.
There was an awkward pause. The sun was so bright, I had to squint up to see why my father wasn’t answering. His face froze for a moment, he looked right at the man, then to the woman, like he’d experienced a shock.
The elegant man went on, sarcastically. “Hello? It’s Vic.” He rolled his eyes, adding, “Don’t you recognize me?”
The woman laughed, shaking her head.
Riley collected himself and they embraced. “Honey, this is your uncle, Victor. Vic, this is Jan, and my little girl, Stacy.”
Victor introduced the woman, his dancing partner— they were in town all week for a ballroom dancing competition, and had come all the way from Washington D.C.
We stood in the sun talking for a short while, but the brothers exchanged no information, and Riley didn’t invite them to our place, even though it was only a few blocks away. I had so many questions. Could we see them dance? When would we see them again? Did Victor know where my other uncles were? Did they have kids? But before I knew it, the conversation was over and we were on our way back to the apartment.
I followed my parents, deep in thought about meeting my uncle, while Riley began chatting about how back in New York, he got the Andrew Sisters manager to hire Victor to play piano for their rehearsals, and how young Vic could’ve gone to Juilliard.
“You remind me of Victor,” he said to me. “You have his long fingers. We should get you piano lessons.” He talked about his little brother as if he were already a long lost ancestor, or a ghost, not a man we’d just chatted with moments before. “Heck, we should get you dance lessons, too,” he added.
But I never got dance lessons. As a consolation prize, Jan bought me a pair of pink tights, and suggested I dance around our living room free form, which I did, my spindly arms and legs flying, my feet sliding all over the wood floors like a deranged Isadora Duncan.
My favorite free entertainment was our black and white television set, right in the middle of the living room. Riley loved old movies the most, even if he’d seen them before. When we saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starring Danny Kaye, I didn’t get it. Walter Mitty daydreamed, so what? I also placed my thoughts elsewhere most of the time. No one said I shouldn’t have these fantasy thoughts at home, and the public schools in Los Angeles were so crowded, I learned to keep my face neutral like Chauncey Gardener in “Being There.” Only one of my teachers, Mr. Holt, nicknamed me “Spacey Stacy” and later shortened it to “Space Cadet,” but he was funny and warm when he said it, and it didn’t shame me into tuning in.
I sat with my father for hours watching shows and movies, while Riley talked about which performers started out in Vaudeville, or on Broadway, who they married, and how they died. When a western movie came on, Riley told me he’d been cast as an extra in old cowboy films. I kept looking for him, and sometimes I still do, like some western version of “Where’s Waldo?”
One day, Riley told me that his friend had a big pool and he’d teach me to swim. “She’s an actress. She had a speaking role on Bonanza.” He had me at swimming pool. “Bonanza” wasn’t my favorite show, but I liked the horses. I tried to imagine which love interest she was in the revolving door of pretty actresses that appeared on the show, never to be seen or mentioned again.
I got ready for our big day. I pictured her and how the day would go, and I imagined the Bonanza actress would teach me synchronized swimming, as if all actresses knew how to do everything I’d ever seen on TV.
Mom said, “Don’t let her get sunburned.”
A cab pulled up and honked.
“Do you have a few dollars?” Riley said, his hand out.
Reaching into her purse, Jan pulled out a few crumpled bills, and gave it to him without saying anything. I saw her roll her eyes when he turned around.
The cab dropped us off at the apartment building. The pool was in the courtyard, surrounded by a fence. I wanted to get in and feel the cool water on my body.
We knocked on the door and waited.
When the door swung open, the Bonanza actress stood there. I took her in. She wasn’t what I had in my mind. Teased, straw-colored blonde hair, tanned legs poking out of a short skirt, a full face of make-up. I thought she’d be in a swimsuit. She looked down at me, jutted out her lower lip in a dramatic pout, and said that children weren’t allowed in the pool after all, and she was so, so sorry.
I felt a lump forming in my throat. Even though I didn’t know how to swim, I wanted to splash around. I thought we were all going to get in the pool, and pretend to be in a Busby Berkeley film. I looked at Riley, frowning up at him.
“But you said…” I trailed off, my voice trembling.
“Well, I’m sorry, kid.” Dad turned to Bonanza and said, “Let’s go inside.”
The three of us went inside her apartment. Her front door was so close to the pool, I could smell the chlorine from her living room.
“You can sit right here and I’ll bring you a treat,” she said.
I dutifully plopped down on one of the matching arm chairs. Bonanza whooshed through polished wood swinging doors to her kitchen. Riley followed her. A few minutes later, only she came back, pushing the wooden doors open backwards with her butt, her skinny arms carrying a big plate of cut watermelon. “Look what I have,” she said, turning to me. When she bent down to put the plate on the coffee table, I noticed she had two distinct hair colors, the yellow part of her hair started abruptly from an intense black line at the root. She wore a low cut blouse, her chest covered with freckles and gold jewelry. She grabbed an ashtray full of cigarette butts, the ends rimmed with her coral lipstick.
She cocked her head, smiled, and said, “There you go!” She disappeared behind the swinging doors. I heard a door close.
I ate the watermelon. I ate a lot.
It seemed like an eternity, but finally Bonanza came back, looked at the plate piled up with rinds and said, “Oh boy! I hope you didn’t eat the seeds, ’cause they’ll grow in your belly and you’ll swell up full of watermelons.” She tapped the end of my nose with her finger, her long, polished nail grazed my skin. Touching the end of my nose with my sticky fingers, I tried to understand what she was telling me.
But I had eaten the seeds. No one ever told me not to eat the seeds. This information threw me into a panic. I was going to die, and why didn’t anyone warn me? Before I ate them? I stayed quiet, my imagination taking a dark turn about the seeds and how long it would take for them to burst through my body.
Finally, Riley came out of the swinging doors, and we left. Sitting in the back of the cab, I could feel my stomach sloshing, the seeds expanding, ready to blow me apart like a science fiction movie.
When we arrived home, I ran to my mother, telling her I felt sick.
“Did you eat something?” She asked.
“Dad’s friend gave me watermelon. She said because I swallowed seeds they would grow inside me.”
“Dad’s friend? Who?” Jan turned to look at him. She paused like she was taking him in, assessing, her eyes narrowed like a cat about to hiss. He began to say something, but she cut him off. “Where? I thought you said you were taking her to a pool.”
Mom said something about me being sensitive, and he shouldn’t let people tell me bullshit things like that. The bickering blossomed into a full-blown argument. They didn’t seem to be talking about watermelon seeds anymore. As I listened, I tried to figure out what was going on. One thing was clear, Riley was in trouble. A strange sensation that I was the cause flooded over me, but I wasn’t sure how, why, or what I’d said.
The mood swings in our world were unmedicated, unless you counted caffeine, sugar, cigars, and the massive amounts of second hand smoke. Riley wasn’t scary when his mood turned dark, but Jan was another story. She’d get lathered up into a blind fury.
That day with the watermelon, Jan accused him of lying. Riley kept saying, “I never said that.” He looked scared.
Just when I was thinking, But he did say that…my stomach lurched. All at once, before I could even try to cover my mouth, everything inside came spewing out like a red shower, black seeds flying across the wood floor to all four corners of the room.
We were all silent for a moment, stunned by the sheer quantity of liquid that sprayed out of my body. I stared at the floor, feeling relieved. Not just to get rid of the seeds, but also that I spared my father a brutal, verbal ass kicking that seemed to come from nowhere. A spell was broken, and Jan’s hands flew up to cover her face for a moment, she wasn’t mad anymore.
“Oh, wow,” Jan said.
“I’ll get this,” Riley said, gesturing to the red chunks on the floor. I felt sorry for the mess, but I knew I wasn’t the one in trouble. Jan said I should try to eat something. We went to the kitchen, she made me cinnamon toast, and I ate slowly while we sat facing each other at the square table, like old friends.
Jan kept her voice low. “Riley lies,” she said, black mascara tears rolling silently down from her eyes. I stayed quiet, looking at her, my legs kicking like a metronome under us. Her hair was tangled and rough looking, her eyes watery and puffy. I focused on her face, noticing she’d picked at her pimples, which I often watched her do with her long, curved nails. The blemishes were now bright red, her light skin flushed with grief. I could hear Riley cleaning the floor, wringing out the mop, back and forth from the bathroom to my seedy disaster.
“Riley only likes babies, you’re old enough to know that now.” Sometimes when Jan spoke, she looked off to the side, her head shaking back and forth, as if she was talking to a ghost in the corner, one hard to focus on.
“Soon, you’ll be old enough to ask questions, and he’s not going to like it.”
I tried to understand what I was being told. Now that I’m not a baby, Riley won’t love me?
After that, like many of the bitter arguments they had, it was as if nothing had happened. They were back to normal, even joking and laughing.