Part 78: Pleasant Valley Road
Like a child soldier, I was loyal to Riley beyond all reason. He was, in my little developing mind, a man with a plan. Those that hindered him were objects of my hostility, such as postal workers, landlords, his ever-changing employers, people who refused to acknowledge that he penned the famous song “Blue Christmas,” and at times, even my own mother, Jan. She’d lose her temper, and he seemed to be wounded by her behavior. He’d say things like “well, if you don’t want me around anymore, maybe I should just leave.” I’d panic inside. What would happen if I were left alone with Jan, with her mood swings and restrictions on sugar and candy?
As mentioned in previous blogs, sometimes Riley told me that he’d dropped out of school in the third grade, other times it was the fifth grade, I never figured out which it was. “Did you do your homework?” wasn’t a question in our house. Riley said school bells were setting me up to work in a factory, and anyway, I was set to be a famous actress, not a factory worker, and staying home from school meant I could watch movies and hear all about show people. When I struggled with classwork, Riley assured me not to worry, saying, “I dropped out of school. You can teach yourself at the library.” Because I viewed Riley as a person who knew everything, I didn’t question this line of thinking until much later. We did visit the library often, but that didn’t help me with math.
Jan also embraced this philosophy, and when she saw my report card with mostly B’s, told me how straight A students were rule followers. “People in power like those ‘straight A’ people the best because they never think outside the box, never question anything, do exactly what they’re told,” she said.
My parents were still extremely protective of my creativity, they railed against teachers they felt were crushing my soul. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Juarez, was exactly the kind of person that set my parents off. One day, she gave us an assignment to write a story, which excited me to no end. I had something in my head, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. When I turned in my pile of pages the next day, Mrs. Juarez took points off my homework for turning in too many pages. I got called to her desk for a talk.
“I only asked for one page, not ten pages,” she said. Mrs. Juarez frowned at me for a moment, as I stood, stunned at my bad break. She smoothed her long, dark ponytail over one shoulder and said, “you didn’t follow directions. Go sit down.”
I didn’t remember her saying anything about page limits, only to tell a story. I was upset, and after school, went crying to my parents.
Outraged, Jan called to the school to complain, and set up a meeting. Mrs. Juarez had no idea what she’d stepped into. Jan believed these small minded teachers were out to destroy my prolific, creative soul, and she had to put a stop to it. Later, I found out Jan was so angry she cried in the meeting, which included a few others and the school principal.
The next school day, Mrs. Juarez sat perched on the end of a desk near me, talking to her teacher’s aide in a loud, clear voice. “Stacy’s mother is way too emotional,” she said, exchanging a smirk with the aide. We locked eyes, me and Mrs. Juarez. She knew I’d heard her. I looked away, fiddling with my pencil. “She heard you,” The aide whispered. I felt ashamed, but wasn’t sure why. After that I became convinced that this teacher hated me. The rest of the school year I was tense, and felt nothing would go well.
Back to Cypress Road, where The United States Post Office finally ruined us. They didn’t deliver Riley's checks, and I hated them more than ever. On top of all that, Riley informed us that his porn writing business partner took all the money they'd made and fled to England. "He took all my work, and the cash. It's all gone." The world was full of wretched thieves, ripping off my dad. According to Riley, it was this business partner that had ruined our future. If it weren't for him, we'd be living large. Now I had another enemy, the porn-partner who took Riley's books and money, fleeing to England like a greedy coward.
“Where are we moving?” Jan asked him. Riley said he didn’t know. There was no man with a plan.
Around this time, at Ocean View Junior High School, I made friends with a new girl, Tamala. She had super shiny, dark hair, kept in two long, tight braids. She parted her hair right down the middle, the part a perfectly straight line, like a special tool was invented just to section it off into halves. Her father was white, and her mother was Native American.
Tamala didn’t have money for school clothes, either. She never made fun of me for wearing the same pants to school like the other kids did. Unlike another girl who decided my family worshipped the devil because we didn’t believe in god, Tamala didn’t mind that we didn’t go to church, her family didn’t, either. She didn’t care that we had a Ouija Board and Tarot Cards. Tamala knew those were just games to pass the time, not items the Devil brought to earth to freak out Christian kids.
Tamala lived only a few blocks from us on a busy road called “Pleasant Valley Road” which makes it sound quaint, but it was a main road running through town, more like a highway than a road. I’ve noticed that sometimes the less desirable a place is, the fancier the name.
Tamala’s mother had what seemed like millions of tiny, colorful beads in boxes and bags which she made into necklaces and headbands.
A few days after the latest post office fiasco, when Dad’s rent check was nowhere to be found, and the porn-partner ripped off all the money, I hung out at Tamala’s house. I told her we had to move in a hurry.
She said, “Us, too.”
“I’ll ask my dad, but I think maybe in a week,” she said. They moved around a lot, just like we did.
I ran home and told Riley that my friend and her family were moving out of their house near us, so maybe we could move in after they left.
“Can you take me there?” He seemed excited and wanted to meet the family right away.
Riley and I walked over to the house on Pleasant Valley Road, and I stood with Tamala in the overgrown front yard while our father’s talked. They were laughing like they were old friends in on a joke. I heard my father say, “Well I won’t say anything. I’ll say I’ve never met you, but I’d sure appreciate getting the landlords number.”
“Our dads really get along,” Tamala said.
“I wish you weren’t going away. We could all hang out,” I recognized it, too–– our fathers had a chemistry between them, like some of the stray alley dogs that ran in packs around our neighborhood.
So they moved out. And we moved in. It all happened fast. Stuff was left behind by Tamala’s parents, including some of her mother’s colorful beads, they got stuck in the grooves of the wood floor. They also left behind a lot of junk and garbage, and a small plastic pool in the front yard filled with brown water. That was the year I learned about mosquito larvae.
Despite the rough shape of our “new” house, Riley was so proud of me. He couldn’t stop talking about how I’d saved the day and found us a house to live in. When he was in a good mood, his joy radiated through me, and it was as if the whole world was filled with hope and promise for a bright new future. Jan said we wouldn’t have had a place to go to if I hadn’t made the connection.
“Stacy found us this house,” Riley told people whenever our recent move came up.
At the new rental, we cleaned up all the garbage and saved all the beads, but some stayed stuck in the floor. “It looks cool,” Jan said. The house was modest, but had a big back yard, and a back house with a cement floor. Jan dug a garden in the back, bought some chicks and built a chicken coop.
I never saw Tamala again. I didn’t even know where they went.
At school, I became self-conscious and aware of my situation in a new way. I learned I was too skinny, my knees were too big, my teeth stuck out, I was too pale, my clothes were old and didn’t fit right, and were stained. Some kids starting calling me “toothpicks.” The following year, one of my teachers, noticing I often spaced out, gave me the nickname “Space-Cadet” or sometimes he called me “Spacey Stacy.”
I felt best when I was at home, where Riley and I fell into our routine of watching old movies.
Riley and I loved “The Thin Man Series” about a wealthy woman, Nora, and her husband, Nick, a former private detective. They solved crimes together, like missing persons cases, embezzlement, and murder. I wanted to grow up to be like her. I could be rich and solve crimes.
Riley knew all the inside show biz scoop. When we watched “Viva Las Vegas” Riley talked about the affair between Ann Margaret and Elvis. He told me something tragic happened to Ann Margaret during a live show. "She fell twenty-two feet from a platform on stage during a show, landing on her face. She had to have plastic surgery,” he said.
A beautiful actress had her faced crushed, and she had to have it remade with plastic. The worst.
There was always a story of pain, perseverance, and surviving, but also about affairs, divorces, and scandals. Riley brought home biographies of famous people from the library, and I tore through them. Back then I didn’t realize that the books were probably written by publicists. I read about how Bette Davis wasn’t popular in school when she was a kid, the other girls were mean to her. When she cried to her mother about it, Bette’s mom said, “It’s the best fruit the birds pick at.” I loved that part of the book, because that meant someday I could rise up, just like Bette.
At Ocean View Junior High, I made a new friend. Her name was Nancy Ruiz, she was from the Philippines. I went to her house one day after school, and her mother wasn’t home, only her dad.
“Where’s your mom?” I asked Nancy.
“She threw us out.”
“Your mom threw you out?” I said, my eyes wide.
“Dad says she didn’t want me and my little brother, so she threw us away.”
I’d never heard of such a thing. Threw them out? Like trash? Nancy turned away from me and I thought she was going to start to cry. I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Where did she go?” I knew I should drop it, but I was shocked. Who’d throw their kids away?
“Back to the Philippines. We don’t talk about it,” Nancy went to the kitchen and put two pop tarts in the toaster. I wasn’t allowed to have those, but that’s why I loved going to other kid’s houses, no one knew about Jan’s rules, and I wasn’t about to say anything.
Nancy had to cook for herself and her little brother. I felt so bad for them. How could a parent leave their own children? This question began to spread out in my mind out like an oil slick. I began to think about my own father and his other kids. Who was taking care of them? Were they sad? Did they have a new father, or what?
Riley picked me up at Nancy’s house. “I made lentil soup and cornbread for dinner. How do you like that?” he said.
I blurted out, “Who takes care of them?”
“Who?” Riley said. He looked at me quizzically, then back to the road.
“Your other kids. My brothers and sisters.”
“The mothers do. What made you think of that?”
I shrugged. His answer gave me some relief. Something about a mother leaving seemed so much worse to me. Riley was the one who provided (when he had a job) so the loss of a father seemed pretty bad, too.
“But what if they need help?” I said.
“Listen, I left them royalties for the songs I wrote. I told you before, they get the royalties. It’s all taken care of.”
He was quick to calm any worries or suspicions. By the time we got home, I’d put the whole thing of my mind.
At dinner, the three of us ate soup and cornbread slathered with butter. “Columbo” was on, one of our favorite shows. We ate our dinner in front of the TV, then the banana cream pie Riley made. We watched Peter Falk bumble around, almost cluelessly, his bad eye squinting, like he didn’t know what he was doing. But by the end, the mystery was always solved.