Part 83: Riley Shepard's Most Dreaded Houseguest & The Encyclopedia of Folk Music
The Santa Ana winds raged through Oxnard, lifting debris from gutters and every corner of the earth; plastic bags, old candy wrappers, soda cans, torn up letters, bits of sand blasting your eyes clean out of your head. Walking home from Ocean View Junior High School, I felt as though any second I’d be blown into oncoming traffic. My long hair whipped into tangles, eyes squinting as I trudged along, books held tight in my skinny arms. When I finally arrived at the house (home? Not sure I can use that word for those places we perched in) my eyes burned. I saw a new car parked in the driveway, blocking Riley’s old beater in.
We’d had many visitors from Los Angeles, but because there wasn’t a place for them to spend the night except for an old couch, most visits were during the day and lasted only a few hours. Often, I’d come home from school and there’d be another old friend. Joe Tanzman, the musician who worked tirelessly on Riley’s encyclopedia of folk music still made the drive. Joe was my favorite, always in a good mood, quick to give a compliment, his graceful, pale arms moving like a band leader as he helped Riley with the musical notes, he had a beautiful singing voice. A woman who I thought all my life was a family friend, (can’t she be a family friend and my father’s secret girlfriend?) came up a few times.
Riley’s show business friend Bud Sherman still drove up to see us. He sometimes brought gifts, once a ceramic girl walking two small dogs which I’ve photographed for your enjoyment. Yes, I've saved it all these years.
I entered softly through the back door leading to the kitchen, sipped water to wash away the gritty feeling from my throat, listening to Riley deep in conversation with someone. I put the glass in the sink, it clinked against the pile of dishes. Riley abruptly stopped talking.
“Hello?” he said.
“It’s just me,” I said.
I walked into the room where Riley sat at his desk in an old swivel chair, a tall man stood nearby. The tall man turned to look at me. My eyes widened when I saw his face–– he looked like Riley, only older.
“This is your uncle William,” Riley said. He swiveled in his chair, gesturing to me. “This is my kid, Stacy.”
William spoke, his voice was like Riley’s, but with a thicker southern accent, or North Carolina accent. The thing is I don’t remember what he said, and I don’t remember what I said after that, those thoughts have been replaced with what I wished I’d said, what I wished I’d asked William all those years ago.
Wow, did you fly here from North Carolina to LAX, rent a car, and drive over an hour north to see my father with no notice? Or had you called first? How did you find us? What were you two talking about? Where have you been my whole life? Do you have kids? Did you know Riley’s other wives, his other children? What was your mother like? Do I remind you of your grandmother, Martha, as Riley says I do? Were your uncles on the Tindal side just as cruel as Riley says they were? Did you go to family weddings, reunions, and funerals and wonder why Riley wasn’t there, or did you know he’d never be back? Or are you all lone wolves, and if so, why do you think that is? What happened between the two of you, between you and Riley? What about your brother Floyd, what about the youngest, Victor? Do you all keep in touch, just not with Riley? And…why is that?
If I had been that kind of kid, one that didn’t stop trying to figure things out, I don’t think I would’ve been Riley’s “Favorite Person” as he often referred to me. Back then, I was a bit spacey, unsure, but most of all I was trusting–– even after the old man called, saying my father was a crook, even after Leslie, my half-sister, showed up out of the blue and I realized our father had totally and completely abandoned his other kids, I still bounced back to trusting.
I grew older and felt more confident, becoming super nosey and almost desperate for information. This frame of mind led me to connect with my siblings, to connect them to one another, to find Riley’s brothers and his living ex-wives and girlfriends, and also, to begin researching the past and writing down what I remember.
William didn’t stay long. Riley offered him coffee, and probably took him to the restaurant he was managing in Port Hueneme. He probably told William he owned the diner and the house we rented.
When Riley’s old music buddies made the drive from Los Angeles, he was animated, full of jokes and stories, pontificating about the music business, waving his arms as he spoke, chain smoking cigars. Not when William came by. Riley seemed caught off guard. When William was there, Riley was subdued, his voice low, he looked small next to William, as if being in the same room with his older brother sucked the wind out of his cells, de-puffing his whole being.
Sometimes people came over to confide in Riley, like he was a guru or something. One visitor, Jorge, a large Mexican man who owned a market in town, confided his sadness while listening to Riley dropping bits of wisdom and understanding. Jorge’s belt could’ve wrapped around my father three times with some left over, he barely fit in the chair where he sat by Riley’s desk. I overheard them talking about how thin and good-looking they’d been as young men–– I tried to imagine it. Riley tried to cheer Jorge. Riley wasn't a big believer in diets. Jorge seemed shocked and depressed about his rapid expansion.
“Thin may be in, but fat’s where it’s at,” Riley said, laughing at his own joke.
Once, two women dropped by for Riley’s autograph. Older ladies with short, dyed and set hairdos, faces all made up––they seemed giddy to meet my father. That was the first time I realized there were people walking around that had seen my father on stage when he was in his prime, when he was an entertainer and somewhat successful. The two ladies even had old albums Riley cut from back in the day. They couldn’t believe their good luck. They were beaming, like people can get when around celebrities.
Another person from our old life came to visit us in Oxnard, a guy I’ll call Creepy Dave, who worked as a gardener for the Los Angeles parks system. He was short, had buggy blue eyes, and greasy, wavy brown hair parted on the side. I’m guessing Creepy Dave was in his early 30s back then, in the 1970s. I have no idea why Jan and Riley were so attached to the guy, but maybe he was also investing in Riley’s projects.
Once, he showed up with a girl he’d picked up, she’d either been hitchhiking or she was sleeping in one of the parks he was working in. He brought a tent with him, telling my parents he was pitching it in our front yard so he could spend the night with the girl. Maybe he didn’t want her to know where he lived. Her name was Sherry. She could’ve been 17 or 26–– that’s how it was when I was a kid, I saw her as a grown-up, ages schmages. Sherry was quiet, or maybe just high? For all I knew, she was underage. Creepy Dave, full of life, did all the talking for the two of them, while Riley cooked all weekend, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Later, on a separate visit, Dave told my parents what he really wanted was a teenage girlfriend, like he’d seen too many Woody Allen movies or something. He kind of looked like Woody Allen, too, except he had those buggy blue eyes and big front teeth. Finally, Jan realized that she’d had a pervert around her child this whole time, but I’m not sure Creepy Dave was completely shut out after that.
Whenever my friend Mandy came to visit, we’d play dress-up and take pictures with my Brownie camera. She took this photo of me (below.) We were playing “Beauty Salon,” whatever that meant to us. Even though my mother tried to dissuade me, I was drawn to being a beautician from a young age. I think it started with the drag shows I saw every weekend back in Hollywood. I wanted to help the performers turn into the glamour queens, turn the world into queens with hair and make-up.
From the looks of this photo, it looks like I hauled out a bunch of random crap from the bathroom and tossed it all on the lawn with a toy and a hand puppet, like a photo-stylist gone mad.
One oppressively hot day, a sweaty, red-faced middle-aged man showed up to talk to Riley. I don’t remember his name, but Riley was probably sizing him up for an investment. I’ll call this man Douchey from now on. Douchey’s eyes were glazed and blood-shot like he’d been drinking (he probably knew we didn’t have a lot to offer at our house, no extra cash for a stocked liquor cabinet. Perhaps he had a drink or two on his way over.) I met him briefly, then returned to the back yard to hang out with my younger friends who were visiting from Hollywood, Mandy and her little sister, Gabriella.
Before Douchey left, he staggered out to the back where we three kids were playing, went straight over to me, grabbed my hand, and said, “I can tell you’re mature for your age because you wear that nail polish.” He gripped my fingers in his sweaty hand, his eyes staring into mine like he was angry about something, breathing heavily. He smelled like a trash bin full of old booze bottles. I yanked my hand out of his, and stepped in with Mandy and Gabriella, who stood, eyes wide and mouths open, not sure what to do. We just stared at him for a moment. Silently, he wobbled out of the yard to the driveway, got in his car, and drove off.
"You need to dress more like a little kid, so he'll leave you alone," Mandy said. She told me to take off the nail polish, especially when Douchey came over. She said it would “keep him off of me.”
Such wisdom. Mandy knew something about molesters; sadly, her mother Jenny always gravitated to fucking pervs. Something about the way I presented myself drew him to me. It was my fault for trying to pretend, for playing dress-up, I reasoned.
The next day when Douchey showed up, we made sure my hair was in messy pigtails. Mandy put dirt all over my face and on my baggy clothes, and we stomped the house until Riley said, “What are you doing?” He didn’t understand our survival theater. “Nothing,” I said, stomping across the wood floor. “We’re just playing.”
It worked, Mandy’s plan. Genius. Or maybe Douchey decided it wasn’t going to go smoothly. Either way, he never cornered me again.
I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs, but my mother promised my father, back when they first ran off together in 1962, that she’d never contact anyone she knew before she met him, not even her own family. Slowly, she began to break the promise, one relative at a time. First in Hollywood, when her sister Ione visited, later a strange reunion with her abusive parents, and in Oxnard she took in her little brother, Steve, who’d been released from a mental institution. When we lived on Aleric Street in an apartment he stayed on the couch. Later, he slept in a tent in our back yard.
When Steve was only thirteen, he’d pulled a knife on his mother in the kitchen. I don’t know what provoked him, but Jan said their mother was annoying and was "probably asking for it," whatever that means. After that, Steve was sent away to an institution after he was misdiagnosed by some quack. Steve was institutionalized for years.
He stayed with us in Oxnard after having his “brains scrambled” (as Jan put it) by shock treatments. Steve had thick dark hair, deep set eyes that stared blankly, ruddy skin, and he barely said a word. He seemed frozen. His face hardly moved even when he flew into a rage, which he did on occasion. “Just leave him alone,” Jan would say when Steve ended shouting about something unclear to me, crouching down on the kitchen floor as if reliving some strange memory, his hands on his head. Steve had an obsessive habit: He collected trash and piled it into our yard until it was a huge hill of crap. Super humiliating. Our place look like a junk yard. He couldn't pass a piece of scrap metal or an old, broken radio without hauling it to the pile.
It seemed that Uncle Steve was merely on the spectrum. He didn't need the treatments or drugs he was given, and if his parents hadn’t sent him to the institution for all those years, signing off on his shock treatments, maybe he would've been able to live a normal life.
It was my mother’s youngest brother, who I’ll call Hank, who was truly out of his mind. He was a blonde, blue-eyed young man with porcelain skin favored by his parents over the other six children, they often commented on his light eyes, hair, and skin. It pleased them to have a blonde, blue-eyed boy. Perhaps, too, they didn’t want to admit that out of their seven children, at least three had serious mental health issues. Uncle Hank, a full-blown schizophrenic with delusional episodes that made Steve look like Beaver Cleaver, wasn’t sent away.
For some reason, Jan invited Hank to visit us in Oxnard, even though she was aware that he was unstable. Perhaps she didn’t realize just how delusional he was.
Uncle Hank’s visit to our house on Pleasant Valley Road changed everything.
On and off, Hank believed he was Saint Francis of Assisi, and other times he believed he was sent by God to burn evil books, or...I should say, books that he believed were evil. Mostly porn, it turns out. Jan referred to her younger brother as a religious fanatic. She said that when he was a kid, someone gave Hank LSD, and the drugs made him mentally ill. I don’t know about that. All I know is that while he was at our house in Oxnard, he did a “bomb scare.” Hank phoned somewhere... I don't know where...and did what my parents referred to as a “bomb scare.” Did he use our phone to do it? Or did he mail a letter? It’s all hazy now. Whatever he did, the FBI arrested Hank, interviewed him, realized he was off his nut, and released him. Thankfully he went back to his mother in the Midwest. I think that was part of the deal.
The “bomb scare” freaked Riley out, mainly because the FBI had figured out where Hank was staying (with us!) Riley always claimed the FBI was after him, because of groups he’d joined in the 1940s and early 50s, the situation blew his mind. We’d been in the house on Pleasant Valley Road too long, more than two years. Even though Riley had a job managing and cooking in a restaurant and things were going okay, too many people knew where he lived. First Leslie, then William, and damn Hank went crazy and got balled up with law enforcement. Not to mention the guy who called Riley a crook and wanted his money back.
After I graduated from Junior High School we began packing things up. Jan wanted to move to Yreka up North, so that was the plan. We had a yard sale–– tried to sell off a bunch of household items, old toys and games, and some other stuff we couldn’t take with us. I'm pretty sure Steve's pile of junk was left there as a parting gift to the landlords.
Here’s the strangest part of all: Before we left town, Riley told me that Uncle Hank had stolen part of the encyclopedia and burned it. Hank was long gone, but the story my father told was something I believed for decades.
“What? What part?” I said, shocked.
“He burned the index to the whole thing. I’ll have to start all over,” Riley said. He truly seemed to be devastated. He was, wasn't he?
Baffled, I could never figure out why Hank would be motivated to burn an index to an unpublished encyclopedia of folk music, but Riley seemed upset, and I believed, like the “bomb scare” it was just another crazy thing Hank did while at our house.
It wasn’t until recently that I found out Hank was obsessed with ridding the world of pornography. There’s an article about Hank in a small-town newspaper in Minnesota someone sent me last year, he’d been picketing a porn shop there for so long it became legend, and someone decided to write about the situation for the local paper. The article uses Hank’s real name, so I won’t post a link here.
Back then, I didn’t know that Hank was obsessed with burning porn books. I just thought he wanted to hurt my father’s career for some reason.
I hated Uncle Hank fiercely after Riley told me that story. I honestly believed that he’d ruined our lives, given us this huge set back by making my father re-do his entire index. I hated Hank until I began to think things through–– years later when I was in my 30s. Where was the fire? Why would Hank burn part of an encyclopedia of folk music, when there were all Riley’s porn books and manuscripts hanging about? Or did Hank scoop up all the porn books and the index got mixed in by mistake? I guess that could’ve happened. But where did Hank burn all those books? There was no fire around our house. It’s just another story my father told me that confused me my entire life.
Riley knew he had disgruntled investors in Oxnard, including the angry old man that called the house, and perhaps blaming Hank for the delayed timeline bought Riley time so we could blow out of town before the investors became suspicious.
We didn’t have enough money to move, but that didn’t stop Riley, so blow out of town we did.