Part 69: The Separation
Below is a single page from Riley's journal with only two things written on it. The scribbled circle and arrows are mine, trying to remember where his office was, and if this was the first office he had (ending in eviction) or the second office, probably also not ending well. Randomly, Riley writes details about the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald on this page.
When I was a little girl, I had a powerful dream that my father came home, only it wasn't him, it was someone pretending to be him. In the dream, I knew that something was terribly wrong, I was afraid. I woke upset. When I told Jan about the bad dream, she listened intently.
She later repeated my dream to Jenny, her best friend, asking me to fill in details. They gave each other knowing looks.
"Isn't that wild?" Jan said.
"Kids know things," Jenny said.
The two women discussed the dream and the subconscious mind as if I wasn't there. I'm not sure if I would've remembered the dream (nightmare?) all these years if Jan and Jenny hadn't had such a strong reaction to it. How much did Jan know about Riley by then?
The advance money from the publishers smoothed over rough edges and allowed us to splurge; new shoes, tickets to the Hollywood Bowl to see Leonard Bernstein conduct “Peter and The Wolf” (and the album), records Jan wanted; The Beatles, The Mamas & The Papas, Peter, Paul and Mary. My parents gave me a real Madam Alexander Doll from The Hollywood’s Largest Toy Store.
We all walked down to see a replay of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Griffith Observatory, my little brain swimming, struggling to understand what was going on. I picked up on the creepy vibe from the computer voice that kept saying, “Dave…”
Despite the cash infusion, something was brewing on Selma Street, a tension building between Jan and Riley, and as I recall, Jan and almost everyone else in our building, although she was still friends with Ann Nobel, Lester Philcox, and their daughter, Jenny. No more laughter, making jokes, and making up.
Riley moved into an apartment on his own, a sublet as I recall. They weren't married, so no divorce.
His place still in Hollywood, but not that close. We stayed on Selma Street. Jan wanted to be free of him, she was sick of running out of food all the time, the constant confusion, the turmoil.
I have a hazy memory of spending time at my father’s new apartment; light or white wall to wall carpets, swanky furniture, (it was furnished) and super clean. At our Selma Street place the dishes piled up, Jan’s migraine’s increased, and she became short tempered and overwhelmed by the smallest task. The old bicycle, the one with the duct taped baby seat on the back, carried us through the city, because we still didn’t have a car, and Riley’s pals weren’t around to drive us everywhere.
One sunny day while riding down an alley, Jan ran over an ownerless, yapping dog. My head snapped back to the yelping stray pooch behind us, the creature’s skinny black body limping away, we somehow managed not to fall over. I thought she’d killed it. I wanted her to stop. “It’s fine, stop worrying,” she said, peddling onwards.
Later, weaving alongside traffic, we were pulled over by a cop. Too young to be humiliated, (that would come later and often) I watched as cars slowed to look at us. Jan flustered, looking away as she defended herself in a high-pitched voice, while he kept interrupting her, “Ma’am, this isn’t safe.” He pointed at me and the MacGyvered baby seat (which I was much too big for) and threatened to write her a ticket. He finally let us go with a warning. Pedaling away from him, her sturdy legs pumping angrily, she muttered something I didn’t get, me swaying back and forth behind her, the wind blowing my bowl-cut hair.
When Riley was panicked, the room seemed to spin like a cyclone, and it was impossible not to get tangled up in the terror. We lived in his world, he didn't live in ours. Jan always seemed perplexed; I’d stay quiet until whatever storm passed, but there was no calming him.
Several months after my father moved out, he’d had a shock, or so it seemed. Riley burst through the door with his friend Bud Sherman as if they were running for their lives, carrying boxes filled to the brim with the manuscripts, notes, and research for the encyclopedia. They whispered about something, hovering by the door, then Bud, looking exhausted and pale, drove off. Riley was sweating, his shirt soaked. He frantically unpacked the boxes, piling his manuscript in what was their bedroom together, telling Jan to hide the encyclopedia under the bed.
“Don’t tell anyone where it is. If they come around here asking for it, just say you don’t know anything,” he said.
“Why? What’s going on?” Jan said. “They…who?”
“It doesn’t matter. I just need to know who I can count on around here. If someone asks, all you say is you haven’t seen it, got that?” He paced the room as he spoke, his eyes wild, explaining that he couldn’t give the encyclopedia to the publishers because they were going to ruin it, ruin everything.
The publishers wanted to change the encyclopedia, to edit Riley’s work way down. It was simply too vast and expensive to produce, it turned out. He said he’d never give them the manuscript, and the advance money was all gone. He’d spent it, and there was no savings, so he couldn’t give that back, either.
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone anything about this,” he said, shoving the last pile out of sight. "If someone comes around here, you say you don't have it."
"I heard you the first time," she said.
Jan kept his work under the bed, and promised not to tell anyone where it was.
Riley stayed in his swanky sublet for another six months, separated from his encyclopedia.
Bud and Paul arrived with bags of groceries. Tang, Hostess ding dongs, frozen TV dinners, and all kinds of sugary cereals—whatever Jan hoped to steer me clear of were now our staples. During these low points, Riley never said we were poor, he always used the word “broke” which meant that the situation was only temporary. Big plans were on the horizon, and he was busy hatching them.
Jan was considering getting back together with Riley. She told Jenny it was too hard to be a single parent. Riley began to spend more time at the Selma Street apartment. My parents were careful, almost polite to each other.
The three of us went for a walk in Griffith Park on one of our days together. As we walked deeper into the park, the sunset cooling the air, we passed a person…a woman on a bench. She looked as though she’d been sleeping outside for weeks, or maybe under the streets, under a manhole or something, she was covered in gunk. Mud and wet soaked her stringy hair and discolored her skin, it was hard to see what she even looked like.
“Wait a minute,” Riley said, holding out his arm so we’d stop. He approached the woman, asked if she was hungry, if she had a place to go. Did she answer him? I don’t think so. Riley insisted that we bring her home and let her sleep on our couch, and he’d stay over, too.
How we got from Griffith Park to our place is a blur.
The homeless woman stayed for two nights on the living room sofa. Jan and Riley stayed in their room. That first night I snuck out of my bed to get a better look at her. She was staring at the ceiling, and didn’t acknowledge me, one of our blankets covered her body. She wandered off early the second morning, and we never saw her again.
After she left, we all got scabies. Jan had to buy a special lotion from Rexall. In the bathroom, she rubbed the thick cream all over my skin, her hands shaking. She was enraged. While the paste coated our skin, killing the parasites, she told me how stupid it was to bring the woman into our place, and how lucky we were not to have lice on top of everything else.
Riley defended himself, saying how his Methodist grandmother taught him to help the poor. When we first settled in Hollywood, my father invited a random musician he’d met in San Francisco to live with us for a while. Was his name Dwight? Jan said he just stayed in his room and smoked. A ballerina from Australia stayed with us for three nights, she showed me some stretches and encouraged me to stay limber. Others came and went, but none as strange as the mute, infested homeless woman. I wonder if Riley’s time being homeless in Los Angeles compelled him to give food and shelter to strangers, even though at times we didn’t have security ourselves, even if it wasn’t such a great idea.
Riley went to his office the following week, and couldn’t get in the door, the landlords had locked him out— all his stuff was inside, his typewriters and books, and a few of Jan’s paintings. Rent was overdue, and he didn’t have enough money left to get back in. I guess there weren’t enough cheesecake trays in the world to pay Riley’s bills. Nothing was ever recovered, all lost forever, but luckily his encyclopedia remained under the bed. Maybe the rest of the stuff is in some storage unit somewhere, waiting for me, just like my father’s journal, packed away all these years.
I used to believe that was how life went, trying and failing, a series of misunderstandings—things coming and going at random—lost checks, sucky landlords, and bad luck.
One of my last memories on Selma and Cassil was a huge argument that broke out between Riley and Criswell. Jan put the final touches on a landscape while I hung out on the floor with colored pencils and a sketch pad. Riley and Criswell were upstairs. They bellowed loudly, the walls seemed to shake.
“Why are they yelling?” I said.
“Criswell is just a bigot, and Halo…she’s out of her mind. We’re getting out of here. It’s not worth it.”
A door slammed.
My parents always told me that the falling out with Criswell was a political discussion that spiraled out of control, but the intensity of the anger made me wonder about that. It seems more likely that it had to do with money.
The packing was fast and furious, and we didn’t take everything with us. Riley carefully packed up his encyclopedia, folk music books, and other research material from under the bed, but our clothes and other items got shoved into pillowcases, plus crates swiped from the grocery store.
Back then, I didn’t grasp the concept that we wouldn’t be coming back. Something I realized much later; the apartment on the corner of Selma and Cassil was the longest we would ever live in one place as a family.