It was over 80 degrees in our Hollywood bungalow when my mother opened the door to our O’Keefe and Merritt oven, turned on the gas, and stuck in her head. If she’d had a car, she could’ve driven down Sunset through the cooling hills, and walked into the ocean. Maybe then, she would’ve changed her mind. I was four.
I don’t think much about my mother anymore, almost never dream about her, but when I do, she’s sitting in a scratchy red chair, its high-low pattern swirling into roses. I’m on her bony lap, my fingers tracing the maze along the chair’s upholstered arm. Her hands hang empty over the sides. Sometimes I feel a sigh riffle my hair.
The dream comes again tonight, jolting me awake, sucking me down. It’s all there, the sky darkening outside the bungalow, the prickle of the red chair against my arm, the smell of sugar and Maxwell House coffee on my mother’s breath. Then bits and pieces of yesterday crowd in. The stranger in her black linen suit, the slammed door, the scrawled note, the gray floorboards of the porch turning to muck. Can’t run. Can’t breathe. Dry kernels blow through my lips.
I wake up sweating, legs tangled in sheets, eyes gritty, my tongue darting around my empty mouth. I feel vacuum-packed, my senses jammed together like frozen succotash, the slightly stale air of the Tiki Palms seeping into my brain. I rattle my head and the nightmare morphs into wall, drape, broken mini-blinds.
Reporters know about my mother’s suicide. Even back in 1954, camera guys and reporters were at the bungalow before the cop cars cooled down. It was a television first, like Kathy Fiscus falling in a well a couple of years before. A media phenomenon on a par with the quiz show scandals. Juicier because my mother was the Palm Springs “Bikini Girl”. So yesterday’s stranger had to be a reporter from “Access Hollywood” or some docudrama like “Sex Kitten Suicide” and so I told her to get her scandal-hawking ass off my porch.
The gasoline receipt is a loose wrinkled ball on my nightstand. Even in the dim morning light, I can see her vague handwritten message leaching through. Maybe I should call this stranger. Ask her what she really wants.
Forget it. She’s a fake, a hack. And if she isn’t, the past is past. I roll over. Give the paper my back.
But what if —
DON’T. Focus on today. Chapter five, the grocery store, those convoluted student essays. Maybe a shower. Get back to normal. My new normal now that I’ve left my husband to write a book.
Yesterday unreels itself against my eyelids.
Phoenix barks in the side yard. Me in sloppy sweats, slamming the front door of the house where I’m supposed to live, but don’t, loaded down with clothes, still damp because I’ve grabbed them from the washer, suddenly interested in escape, not dry socks. And then… then… the slip of paper. Floating from the door jamb onto the porch. Settling, thin and persistent, at my feet.
I shiver. Goose bumps pop along my arms as I watch the moment unfold, even now, warm in my bed.
If only I’d used the washing machine here at the Tiki Palms instead of going home to my Whirlpool, the woman wouldn’t have found me. Wouldn’t have lured me back into the past with a few hastily written words. But she did.
After she took off in her Volvo, I went upstairs to the closet in my old bedroom, set the step-ladder against my abandoned clothing, and climbed. From high on a shelf, I grabbed a plastic container full of memorabilia, but it was heavier than I thought, jerking itself out of my hands, hitting the floor on its corner, breaking apart.
I clambered down and started throwing things back into the box, stories I’d written as a child, report cards, a couple of yellowed newspaper articles, and my mother’s thick crystal bracelet. Then I spied the photograph tumbled against my ratty tennis shoes. I reached for the stained rectangle of board, a washed-out “Lorenzo of Hollywood” stamped on the back.
I don’t want to think about my mother and certainly not that stranger in her impeccable black linen suit.
I need to get up.
I need caffeine.
I yank myself out of bed, my teeth throbbing from last night’s pancakes, heavy on the maple syrup. I’ll purge today, drink plenty of liquids. No coffee, just tea. Green tea. Broth. And lots of water. I won’t go out. I’ll write. Do what I moved here to do.
The bathroom mirror reveals two crescent-shaped cuts along my hairline. I thought I’d stopped digging into skin at night. I grab my tooth brush, unscrew the Crest, but can’t resist the mirror. A brown-eyed, plainer version of my mother stares back. I have her shapely nose, her long smooth jaw, her strawberry blond hair. But I don’t have her aqua-blue swimming pool eyes, and I don’t have her freckles.
In the living room, I snatch the lid from the plastic box I brought from home last night and pull out the photograph. Movie starlet Virginia Gifford and little girl Abbie sit in the red chair. My profile tilts toward my mother’s freckled face. But she’s looking away, into the distance, a startled, expectant angle to her head as if she’s waiting for someone. Someone other than me.
I have to call her.
On the edge of my bed, I smooth the gas receipt, grab the phone quick before I change my mind. The ring is muffled, breaking, reluctant. My hand sweats, my eyes riveted on what the woman has scrawled just below her telephone number:
Your mother is my mother.
What will I say to her?
I don’t believe it. How can I? No way.
Or something like, your freckles don’t mean a damn thing.
“Stranger on the Porch” is adapted from Gay Degani‘s longer work-in-progress called What Came Before.