We'd been studying Bedouins in my fifth-grade class, how they carried only what they needed or loved on the backs of ornery camels, and how other, territorial groups kept them hopping. In my experience nannies were far more nomadic. They had time at our house to knit just one argyle sock, complete just one jigsaw puzzle, or paint (by numbers) just one seascape before my mother made them repack their belongings and move on.
I therefore paid little attention when prospective nannies came for interviews, but I can still remember my mother's words after her first encounter with Glendora. "She could play the wisecracking assembly-line worker who never gets the guy," Charmian said. "Because she's too fat to be anything but a supporting character."
"A nanny is a supporting character," I recall my father, Maurice, pointing out. He was between pictures and temporarily finding domestic matters a kick. "But we aren't casting a picture," he reminded her.
"C'est vrai," Charmian agreed, using the death-defying remains of French she'd learned when she'd played, as she put it, second banana in Ivan the Marriageable. "I won't hold the woman's girth against her."
Charmian herself was exquisitely petite. She described herself to casting directors as the cute-as-a-button type. "It's best for actors to be small," she had explained to me, "so they fit gracefully into the frame."
Charmian's fame, however, had been acquired on the radio, and it had left her discontented. "What's the good of having the perfect turned-up nose or saucer eyes or hair the color of sunshine? Who's to know?"
"But everyone knows of you," I tried to console her with a statement I believed to be true.
"And I'm sick of driving an Oldsmobile just because that's who sponsors my show," she complained. "Imagine how jolie I'd look on that little screen behind the wheel of a Cadillac or, better, a Rolls."
My mother had created The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Half-Hour, and her audience soon numbered in the tens of millions. Charmian played an actress who, after appearing in dozens of detective movies, had taken up private investigation as a hobby. "I simply play myself," she liked to say in interviews, "except for the IQ. Our writers -- the dimwits -- gave me a one hundred sixty-five IQ when actually mine is one eighty. Like Einstein. I had lunch, you know, with Einstein before he died. He said he wished he had my beauty."
Once Glendora assumed her duties as nanny, Charmian spelled out more instructions. "You'll make the beds, clean the bathrooms, dust and straighten up daily. At least twice a week you should vacuum the entire second floor."
"So, really, I'm the upstairs maid," Glendora noted.
"Not at all. It's just something to do while Fleur is at school. You'll be chauffeuring her to and fro. But before she steps out of this house, you have to make sure she's bathed, her clothes are ironed, and her hair is clean and combed. If you curl her hair and dab on some rouge, you can get her looking like Shirley Temple."
I had to laugh. I saw myself as a skinny ten-year-old with chlorine-tinted hair and eyes slightly inflamed from the swimming pools I frequented. And with a vast, gray grillwork of braces and rubber bands bridling my mouth, no amount of primping was going to make me into Charmian's china doll.
"Please don't depend on Fleur to accomplish such tasks for herself. She is maddeningly...delinquent," Charmian persisted.
Glendora's left eyebrow journeyed halfway up her forehead; I couldn't be sure if it signaled dismay or disapproval.
"Let's see....Oh yes. Always remember, we treat Fleur as an adult. She may be ten years old, but we don't coddle her. No baby talk. No dolls or childish games. Is that understood?"
"If you don't mind, Mrs. Leigh," Glendora said flatly, "I fly by the seat of my pants."
It was a shame she couldn't actually fly, because wherever Glendora strolled, her footsteps broadcast vibrations across the hardwood floors, through the tiles of our Spanish colonial domicile, and up the faux adobe walls, making the chandeliers jingle. When she reached full stride, the objets d'art and the antique furniture artfully arranged throughout the interior rattled or wavered. This caused Charmian to fret over a particular sixteenth-century statuette.
The Sleekèd Boy, as we called him, had been chiseled out of Italian marble. Almost a foot tall, he stood with knees pressed together and hands on hips. His head was cocked provocatively, as though he knew something no one else could fathom. The Sleekèd Boy was vigorous, stalwart, proud, and, except for a rounded helmet he wore ? la Donatello's David, he didn't have a stitch on. This was the only one of Charmian's treasures I wasn't allowed to touch -- "trop cher," she said. Nevertheless, I'd kissed this naked man and rubbed his smooth and compact backside, as well as fingered his creases, crevices, curves, crannies, cracks, and protrusions numerous times.
His genitals astounded me, and I speculated untiringly about how they worked.
"Glendora's clumping about is bound to topple my little man. I'll have to set him out of harm's way. Quel dommage," Charmian tsked as she pushed him against the back of the shelf and stuck him down with museum gum.
When Glendora was on the move, her spidery, hennaed hair wriggled around her face. She had a face that wasn't stingy with its features. You want eyes, a nose, lips, you want full cheeks, then look at me, it seemed to say. Her wide lips twisted into a different shape with almost every word she spoke, as though she found her own thoughts droll. I listened attentively to her speech, enriched by a midwestern twang, as it boldly rang out and echoed through our cathedral-like living room.
Though she had an extravagant bosom, there was nothing maternal about Glendora, and the white heavy-duty bra, as glimpsed through her nylon uniform, insisted, Don't touch.
My mother found it astonishing and seemed annoyed when a tall, handsome-in-his-uniform Beverly Hills cop fell for my nanny.
"There's no accounting for taste," Glendora explained his attraction to her.
Jeff parked his gleaming black and white motorcycle in our driveway and hung his helmet from the handgrip. His radio turned up loud, he strode to our front door. From my upstairs bedroom window I spied on Jeff and Glendora as they laughed under the portico at the side of our house. I could have watched for hours though all I could really discern was the patch of skin, like an orange slice, glistening though Jeff's dark, curly hair and Glendora's sturdy fingers that squeezed Jeff's neck when he kissed her.
Sometimes our gardener, Constantine, had no choice but to pass the lovers when he carted weeds and debris down from our hillside. He whistled, warbled, and chirped like a loquacious parakeet to alert them of his approach. And from my vantage point I observed Glendora, her face reddened, nod amiably to Constantine. I assumed that all our help held our gardener in as high esteem as I did. "He tickles my funny bone," Glendora had said of Constantine, though Jeff, conversely, ignored him.
"Why do you make birdcalls the minute you see Glendora and Jeff?" I asked Constantine.
"Is bad thing embarrassing police," he explained.
"But why don't you just cough or clear your throat?"
"Because lovers making world go 'round," he said with a wink.
Whenever I passed their way, I came down with a case of the giggles.
"There are only a handful of men in tout le monde who are actually attracted to women...of tonnage," Charmian commented pointedly. "They're neurotic as hell, of course, fixated in infancy or something. But imagine the odds of Glendora finding one of them, here in Beverly Hills. A million to one, oui?"
It occurred to me that this was precisely why previous nannies had always chosen to meet their dates away from our house -- they were dodging Charmian's judgment. "Jeff's very nice to me," I tried to defend him. "Why shouldn't he like Glendora? I like her a whole bunch."
"He's the strong, silent type" and "Still waters run deep" is how Glendora characterized Jeff; it was true he never said much. But several times, at an hour when other children were in bed, Jeff took me gallivanting on his motorcycle. We roamed the fire roads up beyond the old Chaplin estate. Pickfair with its endless, high, white walls hovered over us like a medieval castle, and the Barrymore villa by moonlight could have been designed by Gaudí. These mansions were all but deserted now -- or served no other purpose than to shelter dipsomaniacs, my mother claimed. If she was right -- if they were cobwebbed and dingy -- I found them that much more intriguing.
Then too the desert-scented air shooting through my hair, the throbbing of the motor, the sweep of landscape in my peripheral vision, the smell of Jeff's jacket thrilled me just slightly less than having my arms around Jeff's leather-clad waist and my head against his broad back.
"God is Jeff's copilot," Glendora said reverently.
When Glendora had time, late afternoons before dinner or after dinner when my parents were out, we climbed into the broad-beamed Buick my father provided for the help and declared ourselves "on the prowl." Glendora knew the Beverly Hills police routes as well as anyone on the force, and we followed them as faithfully as pilgrims. We drove with the windows rolled down and the radio turned up. We pretended we were spies, hired guns, or detectives. I treasured those outings because, for their duration, I could pretend I was beautiful and smart; I could pretend I was an actress, a writer, and a private investigator all in one; I could pretend I was Charmian Leigh.
Jeff worked north of Wilshire Boulevard, but we never knew if he would be patrolling the flats or tacking his bike in and out of the irregular canyons. Jeff might be hiding behind a clump of ivy on Pamela Drive, where Pamela and James Mason lived, or wedging his bike between the stucco wall and the garbage cans at Lucille Ball's. Once, we found his motorcycle leaning against an ivy-covered wall on Summit Drive. It took an extended search to discover him crouching in the shadow of a pillar that held up Fred Astaire's house. Another time Jeff concealed himself, bike and all, behind Danny Kaye's eugenia hedge, and on another occasion he parked between the white-streaked, spiny plumes of Jerry Lewis's dinosaur cactus. Each time we ferreted him out, Jeff would ask, "How do you two do it?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Glendora invariably responded. Then they would throw their arms around each other and have a good laugh.
I never knew if Jeff was playing a game or if all the Beverly Hills motorcycle police purposely stationed themselves in celebrity hideouts, but I knew my job was to cajole Jeff into escorting us to Dolores's, a local drive-in that stayed open late, at the end of his shift. If I succeeded, Glendora rewarded me with a hamburger, a cheese-smothered slice of apple pie, and a chocolate shake.
One afternoon Charmian chided Glendora, saying, "You ought to watch your weight." (This embarrassed me terribly. I had been taught by previous nannies never to mention anyone's physical disadvantages.)
"Why should I? I've caught my man," Glendora retorted, gaily waggling her thick finger so that the jot of diamond on her engagement ring caught the light. She was letting Charmian know she wasn't shaken by her remark.
"But will he stay on your line, chérie?" Charmian needled her.
"That's for me to know and you to find out" was Glendora's tactical rejoinder.
"Peut-être," my mother said, placing an emphasis on the pooh sound of it.
"What do you want me to do? Stand on my head and spit nickels?" Glendora joshed. Yet she must have taken Charmian's jeering to heart, because she stopped eating starches and commenced an exercise regime. Every morning, wearing nothing but her sensible white underwear, Glendora positioned herself, feet apart on the speckled linoleum, in the middle of the cubicle that was the nanny's room. She breathed noisily for several minutes. Only after she'd "oxygenated herself" did she begin the difficult task of reducing. This entailed her spreading her arms as wide as they'd go and making torpid little circles. She reminded me of a rooster attempting flight, though her wattles hung down from her arms, and I knew that the feeble motions she made would never get her airborne. Still, with a grimace she persevered; maybe, given a little time, she would have achieved real muscle tone.
One Monday evening, when Charmian felt exceptionally relaxed because it was the day after her weekly broadcast, she magnanimously offered Glendora and our cook her Academy card. "I'm giving you the evening off so you can attend a showing of The Three Faces of Eve," she told them. "I already saw it at the producer's house, and since Mr. Leigh is out of town, I think I'll just relax tonight. Je suis très fatiguée," she yawned.
"It doesn't sound like my kind of picture," Glendora said. "Geraldine Page gives me the willies."
"Then you're in luck. Joanne Woodward is the star of this particular vehicle," Charmian proclaimed.
"Oh, well, maybe Jeff would like to go with us."
"Only two can get in on my card," Charmian said.
"Well then, what about Fleur?" Glendora asked.
For just an instant my mother wore a look that seemed to say, Who's that? It was a look I'd seen before and one I found unsettling.
"As I said," Charmian announced, "only two can go in on my card. Besides, Fleur wouldn't comprehend a story of this nature. It's a cerebral drama, loaded with psychological snafus. What does Fleur know of ids and libidos?"
"What do I?" Glendora asked. "But what I mean is, who'll keep an eye on Fleur?"
"Is it as hard as that?" Charmian inquired.
It wasn't hard at all. Although I did have a habit of dogging my mother's footsteps when she was at home, I'd spent so much time alone, I was used to amusing myself. That night, however, my mother cheerfully suggested we indulge in a few rounds of gin. (Charmian adored games.) "And you can make some cocoa too," she proposed. (Charmian also adored sweets.) "Put it on a tray and we'll drink it upstairs while we play."
Generally speaking, the kitchen was off-limits to me (my parents thought it degrading for girls to learn to cook) unless there was something my mother particularly desired. Naturally, I found the kitchen irresistible. Once there, I followed the directions on the Hershey's cocoa tin, carefully stirring salt, sugar, and cocoa into four tablespoons of water. Then I heated the mixture in a pot and slowly added milk. I took pride in the fact that I could do something Charmian considered worthwhile. Because I was rushing to carry the tray upstairs before skin formed atop the chocolate, I didn't bother to soak or wash the pan or wipe up the trail of cocoa I'd left between the cupboard and the stove. No matter -- no one expected me to clean up after myself.
The silver tray I'd prepared with the porcelain chocolate pot, Haviland cups, dainty teaspoons, and lace-edged napkins bedecked with a single scarlet rose looked as nice as the trays any of our cooks arranged, and I considered it praise from heaven when my mother classified the cocoa "divine."
"Do you really like it?" I asked, trying to snare a second compliment.
"It's the best I ever had," Charmian said with unusual largesse.
My mother played cards intently, and I found her face more interesting than the game. Her eyelids fluttered and her lips hugged a cigarette as she rapidly dealt the cards. Charmian wore this same alert expression when she was studying a script or writing one. Since I personally didn't possess much power of concentration, I admired my mother's single-mindedness even though it meant that for her I'd ceased to exist.
And inasmuch as I was grateful to spend time in my mother's presence, I really didn't care that she won every round. (Years before, Charmian had explained, "The parents who let their offspring win games give them nothing but delusions of grandeur.") Eventually, cold chocolate sludge covered the bottoms of our cups, and the game seemed to hold no more surprises for Charmian. She gathered up the cards and said, "All right, that's enough. I'd forgotten how dull gin can be when no money is involved. Anyway, the cocoa should have made you sleepy, so you better get to bed."
This meant my mother had grown tired of me. I didn't remind her I had no set bedtime, because since February fifth I'd made it a habit not to complain. On that fateful day my best friend Daisy had been whisked off to a boarding school against her vehement protests. The threat of meeting a similar doom had commandeered my every thought for the last four months.
Daisy Belmont was two whole years older than I, but since she was also the daughter of movie people, the two of us had been what Charmian called confidantes. We were flowers growing in the same field, Daisy said. I admired her for being self-assured and taking her celebrity parents in stride. "In a few more years we'll be driving. My parents will give me something stylish, no doubt -- to suit their own images of course. Probably a Karmann Ghia or an MG. A car will spell our freedom from all this hypocrisy. We'll drive up to San Francisco and marry poets as soon as possible," Daisy promised. "Poets don't give a fig about appearances. They only care about heart."
I'd received only one letter from Daisy since she'd been banished from Beverly Hills. She'd said the girls at her Swiss boarding school were as icy and dull as the country itself. She'd said she was hellishly homesick for California, where there was sun, and saw no reason to go on living without it. I'd called Daisy's parents many times since reading her letter, but the caretaker said the Belmonts were out of the country and the house was closed. "Could you just tell me if their daughter is alive?" I asked. She'd been hired by an agency, the woman said, and knew nothing of the property owners.
No, it was essential that Charmian remember our evening together in the best possible light, so I retired graciously. Soon, I was in bed pretending sleep had overtaken me, but actually I'd lodged a flashlight between my chin and shoulder and tucked the bedcovers over my head. I had no reason to hide -- no one was going to discover me reading True Confessions magazine; no one but Charmian was home. And if she found me reading what she called "prurient literature," she would hardly care. I hid under the blankets only because I liked pretending I was a normal American child.
A story about a young, raven-haired ballerina who had "proved her love" to a teacher of flamenco dance captured my attention. Like all the females in True Confessions, this one keenly regretted her "error of the flesh." Why should this magazine be considered trash, I wondered, when each tale of passion ended with a dire consequence? Sex was definitely something I planned to put off until old age.
The ringing of our doorbell was a happy distraction. I slid from the bed, crawled across the floor, and peeked out between the bottom row of slats in the shutters.
Constellations of moths formed and re-formed around the porch light. Jeff stood back from them in the shadows. Charmian had evidently changed her clothes -- I heard her feathered mules clack down the stairs, and when the door finally opened, she was framed in a golden light. She had on a low-cut, gold tulle negligee, and her yellow hair was pushed back behind her ears so that I could see the sly smile she bestowed on my uniformed friend.
I couldn't hear what she said to Jeff, but after several minutes he nodded, turned, and walked away. I knew he would return, however, because Charmian remained poised in the doorway.
I found it odd that my mother cared to spend time with a cop. "Having written about gendarmes for years, I can tell you their conversational skills are, at best, scant," she'd told me. Maybe Charmian planned to ask Jeff about his intentions toward Glendora. Maybe she wanted to know if he'd resigned himself to setting a wedding date.
Like Charmian Leigh on a surveillance case, I lay down flat against the tapestry runner on the creaky balcony that crossed our two-story living room so that when Charmian and Jeff came inside, the architecture of our house rendered me invisible.
"A drink?" my mother suggested.
"Is a beer okay?" Jeff asked, sounding as though he was seeking my mother's approval rather than saying what he wanted. "I just finished work, so it's not as if -- "
"What kind?" Charmian interrupted.
"Oh, anything." He busied himself by pretending to look at the dark oil paintings that lined the walls of our living room. He stopped in front of the étagère.
Charmian set her martini and Jeff's beer on ivorine coasters so as not to mar the Italianate table in front of the couch.
"This little statue is real pretty," Jeff called to my mother from across the room. "Why do you hide it way to the back?"
"C'est un bijou précieux," Charmian said, sitting down. "You have good taste, anyone ever tell you? Although I've never met anyone who didn't like that statuette." The long blue sofa ran perpendicular to the balcony, and Charmian happened to sit where I could easily see her. She smiled at Jeff, cocked her head, and patted the cushion next to her.
Jeff sat on it.
My mother took a cigarette out of the creamy white Meissen basket she kept on the coffee table. She picked up the silver Ronson lighter and snapped it; a celestial glow momentarily lit her face.
Jeff, looking stiff, took a nervous gulp of beer. "Nice beer," he said as though he were talking to a pet.
Silence on the radio is called dead air, and Charmian couldn't abide it even outside the studio; she didn't wait long for Jeff to attempt conversation.
"Do you ever listen to my show?" she asked, sucking the heat from her cigarette and letting it go. "The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Half-Hour? I like to know what my average listener thinks. Do you enjoy it, chéri? You can be honest."
Jeff shrugged; from my vantage point I thought he looked tense. "I'm no critic," he said hesitantly as he wiped away a mustache of foam. "Guess the boob tube's got me hooked."
"But you have heard my show?"
"Once or twice. Glendora thinks it's swell."
"I am its star," my mother said in a morose tone indicating the burden she bore. I watched in fascination as she shifted her eyes back and forth in their sockets as though Jeff's thoughts were printed out and she was reading them. This was a technique actors often used in two-shots when they wanted to upstage the actor who had the lines. "The audience always looks toward the action," Charmian had explained to me. She'd become such a practitioner of this ploy that she even used it off-camera.
"You look like a starlet," Jeff said bashfully.
Charmian cheered up. "But did you know I created the entire concept of the show?" She tilted her head just so and opened her eyes wide like Debbie Reynolds.
"Well..." I thought Jeff was going to say "shucks" like a movie cowboy, but he held back. "I think Glen maybe mentioned it."
"From now on, Jeff, I want you to tune in every week," my mother said, twirling the bowl of her martini glass so that the olive oscillated, "because you've already given me quite a few ideas."
"Mais oui. You see, The Charmian Leigh Mystery Half-Hour is soon to be on television, so I've begun to think in visual terms. Guess what kind of character I'm going to add to the cast?"
"Dunno," he said.
"He'll have a stunning uniform with a stripe down the leg. He'll have tall black boots, a gun, and a very powerful machine between his legs," Charmian said and then winked.
Jeff made a sound I couldn't interpret and raised his eyebrows.
"In order to write this character -- this good-looking, robust motorcycle cop -- I'm going right to the source. And what would you think of my asking the very man my new character is patterned after to play him?"
"You don't mean me?" Jeff asked, sincerely surprised.
"Absolument -- will you accept?"
"Well, um, yeah, I suppose." Even the circle of skin on top of his head blushed, and I wished he hadn't removed his helmet.
This was the first I'd heard of a TV show in the works; in my amazement I inadvertently shifted my weight and caused the balcony to creak. But as deafening as it sounded to me, it didn't break Charmian's momentum. "I think I can talk the network into it," she said. "Especially if I convince them I know you...inside and out. I'd like to be able to say that I've had access to your entire...mind and heart." She gave him her very practiced Jennifer Jones stare. "You would, wouldn't you? Give me access?"
"Um, eh, I think so."
"How do you mean?"
"Come here," she said in the lowest tone in her register as she crooked her pointer finger back and forth and grinned.
Jeff glanced around as though he thought she was speaking to someone else. It was awhile before he moved closer.
Charmian placed her cigarette in the ashtray, her drink on the coaster, and her arms lightly around Jeff's neck. Then she kissed him, or he kissed her; it appeared to be by mutual consent. Within moments she had disarmed my policeman friend completely.
My lips formed words: Wait a minute. What's going on? I wished to scold them, but the image of Daisy pining away in a boarding school dorm hovered over me like a cartoon bubble. If I wanted to remain at home, I would have to champion my mother's activities, no matter how outlandish they were. Besides, a fascinating exhibition had begun to take place: Charmian and Jeff seemed to be in a contest. I thought of those played in Roxbury Park at Fourth of July picnics, but this competition entailed undressing each other while keeping their lips in constant contact. It required much more skill than a two-man gunny sack race, or putting on layers of funny clothes before crawling through barrels. Charmian struggled with Jeff's belt, a button, and a zipper, while Jeff got his fingers caught in my mother's tulle negligee. He pulled his lips away from her long enough to say, "Oh damn."
It wasn't easy but they worked as a team: Charmian managed to slide Jeff's pants down his legs, while he got hold of her lacy French undies and didn't let go. Finally, they were both disrobed from the waist down; they sank onto the sofa and melded into one another. The tableau they created would have elicited a symphony of birdcalls from our gardener, Constantine.
I'd often overheard Charmian on the phone whispering sugary sentences to would-be wooers. And returning home from parties, she frequently awakened me to describe in sensational detail each of the men who'd made passes at her that night. Charmian was one of the most sought-after women in Hollywood; I knew because her publicity said so. But I'd assumed that what she called her affaires des coeurs were realized in words, not action.
As seen from my position high above them, Jeff and Charmian seemed to metamorphose into a beautiful though dangerous insect. It had a blue-black thorax outlined in gold. Neither my mother nor Jeff had pincers, but their "antennae" fluttered and their legs flailed. If only Jeff had left his helmet on, it would have been perfect.
Even the noises they made didn't sound human. I heard growls, gurgles, mewls, snorts, crackles, and yips. They were so busy, so absorbed, I had the leisure to fully observe them. I saw that Jeff's backside was as nicely shaped as our statuette but that his legs were dark, hairy, and a little too thick. By Sleekèd Boy standards they were a disappointment, so I was relieved when he and my mother changed places. Then Charmian's pretty, heart-shaped backside appeared to be waving at me, or just waving indiscriminately, with glee.
As the realization of what was really occurring, the downright ickiness of the act, penetrated my consciousness, I felt disgusted. Naturally, I had seen Charmian commit far more heinous acts on-screen. As a small child, I'd watched her in a circus thriller called Bigger Than Life as she stabbed an aerial acrobat in midair. That same year, in A Note for the Teller, Charmian eased the feet of a policeman into cement shoes before she and her bank-robbing boyfriend tossed him into a lake. (My mother's part was abbreviated since she'd spent the rest of the picture in jail.) On-screen, Charmian had kissed numerous men. If not, she made it clear that kissing them was her utmost desire.
"It's just a movie. It's not real. Your mother is acting," I had been told by nannies when I voiced anger or disgust. And that's what I told myself now. My mother was acting. She did a lot of acting, even in everyday life.
If only I could have shut off my thoughts at the spigot. But the word why flooded into my brain. Why would Charmian bother to pretend she loved Jeff when she said that only men like my father, men like David O. Selznick or Bill Paley, men who could advance her career, truly interested her. Of one thing I was certain: unlike the girls in True Confessions, Charmian would not regret her act.
Finally, I had to admit that the specter of my mother's coupling with a man other than her husband -- my father -- frightened me terribly. Did this mean she was leaving Maurice? And if so, what would happen to me? I would receive a life sentence in a boarding school, wouldn't I? Like Daisy, I'd be looking for a fast way out.
My fear made me squirm and I unwittingly attracted Jeff's attention. In the stupefying moment in which we gawked at each other, I realized I was guilty of a crime. Early in the game I could have pretended I'd heard a burglar and shouted "Help, police!" I could have cried "Fire!" or set one. I could have simply coughed and it would have stopped them. But I was so immersed in the spectacle of Jeff and my mother on parade, I had forgotten all about Glendora.
For the next few days Jeff didn't come around. Glendora and I couldn't find him no matter how many hours we spent circling his routes. "What's the story, morning glory?" Glendora kept asking the air. As she drove, I tried to formulate words that wouldn't hurt. I didn't dare ask if we could drive by Daisy's house, as we did sometimes, just to see if there were any signs of life. No matter, there never were. On the fourth night I was paying no attention to our itinerary until I heard the squeak of the emergency break. "End of the line," Glendora said, rolling her top lip toward her nose. I looked up to see that we were parked behind the Beverly Hills City Hall, where the police and fire departments were housed.
Like many children in the fifties, I had been taught to consider the police as friends. The idea was reinforced when my class paid a visit to headquarters, where kindly officers served milk and Oreos. Before we left, a sergeant had locked us in individual cells. For a few minutes he let us experience the just deserts of criminals. Some girls shrieked, some cried, but I calmly tested the cot in my cell, paced the cubicle, and scrutinized the lidless toilet. The bars of the cell seemed familiar, and I found them oddly comforting. If the officer had said I would have to remain inside them forever, I might not have minded.
Everyone seemed to know Glendora at headquarters, and we walked right through to the garage. Motorcycles roared past, the squeals of their tires echoing. Pungent gasoline fumes befouled the air. Whether they were whizzing in or revving up, all the policemen looked alike in the polluted atmosphere. How Glendora spotted Jeff I had no idea, but she made a beeline toward one of the dark figures who was putting his bike away. Jeff flinched when he saw us. "So where've you been? You hibernating or something?" Glendora assailed him. She had to yell to be heard above the din.
Jeff hung his head low and shouted back, "I didn't suppose you'd want to see me."
"You didn't, huh? Why not?" Glendora asked, looking perplexed.
"You haven't heard?" he shouted, eyeing me with suspicion.
"You thought a little birdie would tell me why you haven't shown your face?"
"Well, yeah, I guess I did. I thought Fleur would have..."
"What's Fleur got to do with the price of eggs?" Glendora drowned out the rest of his sentence as well as the ruckus around us. She was clenching and unclenching her fists. "You better be your own birdie," Glendora told him.
"Yeah, okay, I just thought you knew all about...everything."
"Hell's bells," Glendora said angrily, "I know zilch."
"Oh gee, oh damn, okay, I guess I owe you an explanation." He looked around furtively as though someone else could hear him through the roar. "We can't talk here. Let me go change my clothes."
"While I stand here with egg on my face," Glendora said, but I knew she was suffering from more than embarrassment. "He thought you would have told me...what?" Glendora confronted me as we watched Jeff walk slowly toward the locker room.
I racked my brain but couldn't think of a single appropriate word. Finally, I shrugged.
A few minutes later a very ordinary man emerged from the locker room, and I wondered, Where's Jeff? Only when the man said "Let's go" did I realize he was Jeff.
Without his uniform, Jeff lacked what my mother called "élan." His polo shirt was crumpled and slightly bleach-stained, and his arms weren't quite as muscular as I had expected. He seemed shorter, less ruddy, less manly.
Without his uniform, Jeff was a big disappointment. Could such a plain sort of person know how to soothe the woman he'd spurned?
The three of us walked so silently to the street that our footsteps sounded like drumbeats. When we got to the Buick, Jeff asked gruffly, "Mind if I drive?"
We could see the glow from Dolores's Drive-In a block away. Three tiers of cars encircled the diner, so we had to take a spot in the back, away from the activity on Wilshire Boulevard. Jeff parked behind a gray-green Studebaker, my favorite make of car. None of us said a word until a pretty waitress in a very short, yellow uniform stuck our menus through the window. The name embroidered on her pocket was "Bunny."
"I think we know what we want," Jeff told Bunny.
"I'll have a cheeseburger -- hold the tomato -- and fries and a strawberry shake and a slice of apple pie," Glendora commanded, thus terminating her diet, such as it was.
From the back seat I ordered much the same, but Jeff said, "Just coffee for me." Then he turned on the radio. We sat quietly for minutes seriously pondering the words of "Who Wrote the Book of Love?"
"So, what gives?" Glendora confronted Jeff when the record ended.
Jeff postponed the inevitable. "Let's eat first."
Bunny arrived with our food, but she'd obviously forgotten who ordered what or didn't see me because she put my milkshake, hamburger, and pie on Jeff's tray. This caused much passing of plates and cutlery back and forth; without a tray, I could only hold one dish at a time. Glendora ate very quickly, Jeff becoming increasingly nervous with every one of her bites. Finally, he blurted out, "Look, Glen, gee, I don't know how to say this. The long and the short of it is, I've fallen for somebody else." He turned and looked at me quizzically, to see if I approved.
I tried to turn myself into a statue so they'd forget I was in the car, but I saw Glendora's face redden as though Jeff had slapped her hard on the cheek. I thought she might be choking on her pie; in fact, she set her plate back on the little outside tray and handed her untouched milkshake to Jeff. She had a fork in her hand and it looked like a weapon; but, amazingly, when she spoke, her voice retained its usual vigor. "Who's the lucky lady?" she asked.
Jeff looked very uncomfortable and seemed to be stifling a belch. "You shouldn't take it personally."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"To be honest," he gulped down some coffee, "it's just plain old ambition that's raised its ugly head."
"Do you mind speaking plain old American?" Glendora said huffily.
"The thing is, I've met someone who likes me. She likes me enough to want to put me on TV."
"TV?" Glendora sounded as though she'd never seen one.
"You can't live here, in Hollywood I mean, well, anyway I can't, and not have a bee buzzing in your bonnet that says: Wouldn't it be great if someone spotted you and liked your looks and wanted to put you in pictures?" This was the most I'd ever heard Jeff say.
"It's girls who think stuff like that," Glendora chastised him. "Not men."
"Some men do," he said defensively.
"Who's leading you down this primrose path?" Glendora asked contemptuously.
Jeff set his coffee cup back on the tray, perhaps anticipating that Glendora was going to hit him. "Well...I guess you're going to find out sooner or later. It happens to be...Mrs. Leigh."
"Fleur's mother?" Glendora asked, aghast.
"Charmian," he said buoyantly as though he found it a pleasant sensation to have my mother's name on his tongue.
"Yeah, okay, I got the picture." Glendora's eyebrow, the one I could see, lifted away from her eye into an arch of skepticism. I'd always admired her ability to express it visually. "All right, that's it," she said under her breath, "I've had it." Then she tugged the engagement ring off her fleshy finger and handed it back to Jeff. "There's no use fighting City Hall," she told him.
"I'll get the check," he said.
"Don't bother," Glendora warned him.
"Bunny, Bunny," Jeff summoned as though he were calling for help. He tapped the horn and flashed the headlights several times.
"I think you better just scram," Glendora snapped.
It took Jeff some time before he understood that Glendora meant he should get out of the car.
"I said, scram!" Glendora shouted at him.
Jeff reacted by giving the door a push, but before he could actually extricate himself from behind the wheel, there was a terrible clatter -- he'd knocked all my dishes and his coffee cup off the tray. They smashed noisily on the pavement. People in the cars around us stared at him and then hooted and honked their horns. I had to fight the giggles. Jeff's face turned no-parking red; he was so discombobulated he forgot to close the door. Glendora watched impassively as Jeff retreated through the messy glob of milkshake and pie, over the shards of dishes and glass.
The next morning I awoke to discover Glendora's battered suitcase sitting on top of her bed. Its lid was angled upward. No matter how Glendora leaned on it and redistributed her weight, the latch teeth would not bite. And no wonder -- a mélange of my mother's finery prevented their union. I could see the sleeves of a silver fox coat, the ivory satin hem of a negligee, a collar of mauve silk, and a strand of sapphires curling through the perfumed tangle.
"Those clothes will look funny on you," I told Glendora, hoping she would put them back. I didn't want her to get into trouble with Charmian or the law. She'd suffered enough as it was.
"Climb up and sit on my suitcase so I can snap it shut," she ordered.
I did as I was told.
Glendora threw her entire torso across one side of the suitcase lid. "Bounce a little," she commanded me through gritted teeth as though she were instructing the suitcase how it should act. Counting three, we pounced on her suitcase together. There was a satisfying click.
"Are you leaving?" I asked.
Glendora rolled her eyes at my stupidity.
"What about your uniforms and your day-off clothes? They're still hanging in the closet." I pressed her on this because I still hoped she wanted to stay.
"They're up for grabs," Glendora said, raising an eyebrow and thrusting her lips.
"Please don't go," I begged. Unbidden tears surfaced and I became the whiny, clinging, loathsome child my mother sometimes said I was.
"I have no choice," Glendora said indifferently. Then she yanked her uniforms from their hangers and tossed them into an immense leather satchel.
Glendora had also forgotten an elaborate, manila accordion file, tied with a pink satin ribbon. This was something I coveted because inside it, folded and refolded like road maps from a long trip, were mementos of her life before us. I still remember her flower garden, photographed in black and white, with an empty swing dangling above it. Wicker rockers in a breeze had made blurs on the porch. Glendora also kept a daisy pressed in a gold-edged Bible that was bound in white leather. Her file contained paper doll cutouts from a niece, and a brown blob that was their mutt Moe as drawn by her young brother. A recipe for Scotch butter biscuits, written in her mother's thick, fountain-penned strokes and barely contained between the lines on the card, was stapled to a letter promising to make them as soon as Glendora came home.
I was ten years old and had already noted that all nannies carried an envelope or a shoe box or a cloth pouch akin to Glendora's file. Those envelopes were the hope chests of domestics, and now Glendora had no hope. I was going to miss touching these letters and pictures as much as I would miss Glendora. Despite my longing, I reminded her, "Don't forget your accordion file."
She moaned as she yanked out a dresser drawer, grabbed her file, held it briefly against her chest, and then placed it lovingly inside the satchel. Then she regarded me with large round eyes. "You're a thoughtful child. You can rest assured, you don't take after your mother."
The shutters on the tall, narrow, arched windows had been closed against the morning sun so that horizontal slats of light whittled and reshaped Glendora's ample figure with every step she took. I watched from the balcony as she lugged her suitcase, her satchel, and a large purse down the stairs.
On the landing Glendora set everything down but her satchel. Then she tiptoed across the room. She stopped at this end table or that vitrine and inspected the objets d'art. She hefted and turned over in her hands all the decorative items on the coffee table. I thought this was Glendora's way of saying farewell, but she pulled some uniforms out of her satchel and proceeded to wrap them around a small bronze bust of a milkmaid, a porcelain hunting hound, an enameled Fabergé egg, the Meissen cigarette basket, and the silver Ronson lighter, as though they were kidnapped children and she was stifling their cries.
My audible gasp startled her, and she looked up at me.
"Glendora, that's stealing," I whispered.
"An eye for an eye," Glendora said. "Now, don't be a busybody," she warned as she wrapped and packed several more of Mother's bibelots. She scanned the room with her big eyes and, with a furtive smile, snapped the satchel shut.
I waited until she left the room before I went downstairs. Then I checked to be sure: yes, the Sleekèd Boy still smiled in darkness at the rear of the étagère.
When I entered the kitchen, I found Glendora carefully rolling Charmian's best silver into tea towels. "I don't think you should do that," I warned, picturing Glendora squeezed into one of the Beverly Hills jail cells.
"A tooth for a tooth," she said. Then she gave me a wry smile and hinted, "Right now, I'd walk a mile for a Camel."
Smoking in the kitchen was a no-no, but this was the cook's day off so I brought her a pack from the butler's pantry. "Where are you going to live?" I asked.
Glendora blew an oval of smoke that looked like a visual sigh. "Be it ever so humble..." she gave me a clue.
"I think your home must be very nice," I told her, trying to make going home seem like a prize instead of a retreat. "Your mother will make you Scotch butter biscuits."
Charmian rang for Glendora from the bedroom. "That's my cue," Glendora said. Galvanized, she stubbed out her cigarette in the sink, switched on the percolator, and picked up the phone. "Have a cab here in exactly twenty-five minutes," she instructed Celebrity Taxi Service. "As for you, stick around and watch the chips fly," she advised me.
My mother's good china looked diminutive in Glendora's hands. I trailed behind her listening to the rhythmic tapping of porcelain cup against saucer as she strode through the butler's pantry, the dining room, and the living room. I listened for the last time to the furniture rattle. Again, Glendora didn't glance at the dark, lonely spot where the Sleekèd Boy hid. She went on upstairs, kicking the tiles with her heavy feet, and crossed the balcony noisily to Charmian's room. Once there, she knocked on the door and, without waiting for an answer, let herself in.
My mother had to get up early on Mondays for her standing appointment with her analyst. It wasn't so much that she needed the analysis as that David O. Selznick had the appointment before hers. He was an important connection and this was Charmian's way to connect.
I lingered near the door as Glendora handed my mother a glass of orange juice and a red amphetamine pill. Charmian, angled on one elbow, neck straining to hold up her head, stared at us with soupy eyes and silently swallowed. Any other time of day my mother was beautiful.
Glendora took the empty glass back from Mother and then plumped some pillows behind her. Leaning against them, Mother received her ritual cup of hot coffee and a cigarette lit for her by Glendora. Just because my mother was awake didn't mean she was ready to talk.
While Glendora returned to the kitchen for tray number two, I ventured closer to Charmian's side of the bed, lured there by the remnants of last night's box of chocolates. My mother must have nibbled quite a few before her "sleep" pill had taken effect. Fishing though the candy wrappers, I found several savaged confections. They lay like wounded children with their hearts of cherry syrup and raspberry cream oozing onto their rumpled, brown, crinolated wrappers. Wishing to put them out of their misery, I devoured them.
"Mommy," I said, knowing she didn't like me to call her that, "something's wrong."
My mother's eyes looked at me scornfully for, as they said in radio, a beat. Then they closed.
Glendora appeared with a second, more substantial tray. On it was half a grapefruit with a silver serrated spoon by its side, a four-minute egg upended and indented in an egg cup, a crustless piece of toast already buttered, and another, fresher cup of black coffee. Glendora stood by while her cooking was silently consumed. "Mrs. Leigh," she said softly as my mother dawdled over her egg, "I don't want to rush you, but..."
Although I hated to miss Glendora's explanation, I slipped away from the room and tiptoed downstairs. Those two women had stolen from each other, but I felt I'd suffered a bigger loss. I was losing Jeff and Glendora. Why couldn't I have one little thing I wanted?
I found Glendora's luggage where she had placed it outside the breakfast room door on the flagstone steps. Her bags had heated up in the sun, and I patted her leather satchel affectionately as though it were a dog. Then I unsnapped its leather flap and pulled it open.
Deep down under the shrouded artworks and silver, I found Glendora's manila accordion file. The pink satin ribbon had come untied and it looked slightly crumpled. I extricated the file from out of Glendora's loot, knowing full well that mine was a crime too petty to ever be dramatized on Charmian's show.
With the accordion file tucked under my arm, I hurried to find a place to stash it. On The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Half-Hour my mother was constantly unearthing well-concealed objects -- my hiding place would have to be exceptional. And then I remembered the dog we'd once had. He'd been a purebred Saint Bernard named Cocteau, and although my mother got rid of him because he shed, no one had ever thrown away his enormous sack of Dr. Ross dog food. It still stood on end in the service porch closet. I pulled at the string that held its sides closed and plowed my fingers through the hard, dry pellets of feed until I'd made a deep depression. I squirreled Glendora's accordion file down into the hole, and covered its shape with kibbles. Then I neatly closed the sack. Only when I'd concluded this criminal activity did I feel guilty.
Good riddance to bad rubbish (or its equivalent in French), Charmian would say when she learned of Glendora's departure. It would make no difference to my mother that she had been the cause. I knew it meant risking being sent to boarding school, but I wanted to compensate Glendora for all that she'd lost and, while I was at it -- as Charmian often said of the criminals on her show -- teach my mother a lesson.
The house had already grown larger now that Glendora was leaving. I walked back through the kitchen, through the butler's pantry, and into the dining room, which was two steps higher than the living room. Despite the recent plunder of decorative objects, the living room did not look bare. From where I stood, I could see the Sleekèd Boy beaming his smile from out of his dark corner. I remembered my mother saying he was a priceless chef d'oeuvre, a gift she'd given herself. For quite awhile I admired the Sleekèd Boy's exemplary silhouette. Then I slowly crossed the living room and lifted him off the shelf. I pressed his cool marble skin against my lips.
I retraced my steps, caressing the Sleekèd Boy once again, wanting always to remember his firmness, his density, and the smile that seemed to pervade his entire body. I held him so tight his marble flesh warmed in my hand. When I opened the French doors that led outside, the sun shone down on him and I saw for the first time fine, glistening streaks of gold that ran through his marble flesh.
Rummaging in Glendora's satchel again, I found an extra uniform, which I wrapped slowly and meticulously around the statuette. Then I braced his swathed body between some of the other artifacts and closed Glendora's satchel once and for all.
Just as I entered the kitchen, Glendora did too. She banged down Charmian's tray. "My swan song," she said, then added, "If you weren't jailbait, I'd take you along."
I followed behind Glendora when she carried her baggage out to the cab. She hardly looked at me as she climbed into the back seat, but her big, bent body spoke of dejection. Just before the taxi reached the first curve in the canyon, the window next to Glendora rolled down a crack. Her thick, ringless fingers reached over the edge and wriggled a listless good-bye.
Copyright © 1999 by Diane Leslie