Introduction

Do you realize that every time you read a book without pictures you become a production designer, casting director, and costume designer? Hell, you can be a director if you want to. Whether you know it or not, when you read a book without pictures, your brain fills in the blank spots. You can see the people, how they are dressed, which way they are moving, and what it looks like around them. Neat, huh?... (read more: click \'Introduction\' on menu above)

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

…Out on the Edge of Nowhere

Posted by admin On August - 14 - 2009

It’s night. A dark, hot, dusty, and lonely night. Out on the edge of Lagos, Nigeria, you might as well be on the edge of nowhere.

You’ve been drinking Cognac in a dive called the Bamboo Cabin, and it’s time to get out of there. The natives are getting as restless as you are. You’re waiting. It seems you’re always waiting. But the cognac has started to kick in, and it’s good to be alone. The shortcut back to the flat is dark, no moon, no ambient light. The trail through the bush is dusty, and the shapes of the trees are close and menacing. Ahead, a fire in a steel drum as blazing, and two figures moving around it cause shadows to dig into shadows.

The smoke brings with it the smell of meat being hopelessly burned. You stop at the fire even though the heat adds to the oppressiveness. The men by the fire seem friendly, chattering away in Yoruba and laughing. If they notice your whiteness, they don’t show it. A brief negotiation, and for one nira, dinner is served. Burnt meat, onion, tomato, and bread wrapped in a newspaper you can’t read, and you burrow back into the darkness.

Back at the flat you peel off the wet shirt and kick off the hiking boots, causing a small dust cloud. The flat: one room, linoleum floor, four bare and dirty mattresses in a row. One window with a screen over it. The screen is not there to keep out flies and mosquitoes, that’s impossible. Instead, it keeps out foot-long lizards. Fifteen or twenty are hanging there, eyeing the rolled up newspaper. Or is it you?

One candle on the floor standing on the remains of other candles and other nights makes the room bounce in its flicker. A warm bottle of Star Beer, Nigeria’s finest, sits among a half-dozen empties. In your camera bag is an opener, and you find it by feel.

You open the beer, spread out the newspaper you can’t read on the floor, check out the lizards one more time, sit on the edge of the mattress, and begin to chew the meat.

For a fleeting moment there is the lonely realization that no one in the world knows where you are. You push the thought away and you eat.

FADE TO BLACK…

Daisy

Posted by admin On July - 28 - 2009

On July fifteenth, 1934 she turned seventeen. She was four months pregnant and in love. On a warm March evening earlier that year, I was conceived in the rumble seat of a 1932 model-A Ford.

         In a parking lot.

         Of a nightclub.

         In Pennsylvania.

    I never knew the story of why they, both underage, were in a nightclub in Pennsylvania. Unless, of course, they were simply availing themselves of the parking lot. You know, the sort of place where no one would notice them during the… conceiving activity. Needless to say, there was a hasty wedding planned and executed, because that’s what you did then. 

The following December, I entered the world. Healthy, fat, and happy, I came into being with a smile on my face.

    Daisy- that is what I came to call my mother-welcomed me with as much enthusiasm as a seventeen year old could muster. She loved me dearly, but all her dreams went south with the birds. And, perhaps the saddest thing of all was that she didn’t ever tell anyone exactly what those dreams were. They were, you know, in… here.

    With that old “Midwestern pluck”, Daisy put her dreams away and went about being a punching bag for my father. My father- they called him “Mutt”- was a smart, popular, and artistic guy who it was said didn’t belong in that little town on the Ohio River. He should GO somewhere, BE someone. He didn’t, and, instead became a drunk and went nowhere.

    My first memory was standing in my crib, looking through the bars, and crying as I looked down the narrow stairs to the kitchen where Mutt was drunk and having a wonderful time pounding on Daisy. We lived on Center Alley in a converted garage. The living room and bedroom were where the cars were intended, and because it was on a hill, the kitchen and bathroom were down stairs. I remember my frustration at seeing Daisy cry.  The rest of the evening was, for me, a series of movie cuts: Daisy, carrying me in a warm bundle down Center Alley to the taxi stand… Warm taxi ride up Bradshaw Avenue… Warm meeting with Gram….

My calculations put that night to be in March. I still don’t know why it seems so warm in my memory. Perhaps I was just being reborn. My “life” started that night at Gram’s. I like to think that that is what I was grinning about during my first birth.

Mutt? Well he just sort of went away, as everyone predicted he would. Twenty some years later, he ended it all sitting in the back seat of a closed car in a garage with a hose running from the exhaust through the window. Maybe my birth and his death are the reasons for my ambivalence with cars.

Gram’s house was at 1042 Bradshaw Avenue, and it became my permanent place of residence. Daisy threw me happily into a ready-made family. In order of age, there was my uncle Dick, Daisy, uncle Bob, uncle George, aunt Katheryn, and, finally, aunt Mary Lee. Mary Lee was only four years older than I and aunt Katheryn was only eight years older, so all the aunts and uncles, and Daisy became my brothers and sisters. I was the baby and the star of the show as far as I was concerned.

With my ailing grandfather and Gram and six kids- Dick had married and moved out- Bradshaw Avenue became a noisy, singing boogie-woogieing house. We were stuffed into three bedrooms and shared one bathroom, somehow. World War II had gathered up Bob and George. Daisy worked at People’s Drugstore. Katheryn, Mary Lee and I went to McKinley School around the corner until it was time for high school. World War II never returned Bob, but we got George back, and hung a gold star in the window. Granpa didn’t last long after Bob was killed in Holland.

When I was about nine or ten, some days Daisy would lay out my “good clothes” in the morning before she went to work. I would dutifully put them on and go downtown to People’s Drugstore and meet Daisy for lunch. We would walk over to Jay’s Grill and sit in the dark wooden booths. I would light her cigarettes for her, order my own lunch and pay the check when we left. Daisy was always so proud of me for allowing her to show me off, and “acting like a gentleman”.

Residential propinquity played a large part in our lives from about my fifth grade on. Next-door from 1042 Bradshaw Avenue lived a family who also had a son in the war. He was  a lieutenant in the Navy. He came home on leave wearing his Naval officer’s “whites”, and Daisy took a nosedive. He- his name was Marvin- had just graduated from some navy school, and he was best friends with Dennis Day, from the Jack Benny radio program. Dennis Day, for cryin’ out loud, he was a big star. That, and the fact that Marvin made little All-American as a tackle on his college’s football team before enlisting, rang a million celestial bells in Daisy’s heart. She could be the wife of a star, or, at least, a somebody.

So Daisy completed the nosedive with a marriage license. She never got to meet Dennis Day, and their marriage began its own nosedive that lasted for twenty-five years. Marvin, you see, just couldn’t develop an adequate amount of get-up-and-go to become someone who would fit into Daisy’s dreams. The most Marvin could aspire to be was assistant city engineer in that little town on the Ohio River. He rose to the rank of lieutenant commander in the Navy during the war. When war’s end came, he mustered out without giving a second thought to becoming a career officer. Instead, he came home to nothing except a young wife and- oh, boy-  a stepson. Marvin and I were not your “magazine cover” father and son, much to Daisy’s dismay. He was a big, physical guy, and I was, well, five feet, four inches. I always felt like he treated me like a trained monkey. Maybe some of it was my fault, maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Maybe I was too young to realize he was miserable for booting his life away, and not able to send ladies into nosedives anymore without his navy “whites”. I often wonder what Marvin would have been like had he stayed in the navy.

In my senior year in high school, they presented me with a half-sister, Marvann.  Later, that same year, I left town, and never really went home again. Oh, I came home to visit Daisy, and, in time, to celebrate all my diminishing relatives high points. Births, deaths, class and family reunions always found my smiling face. I just didn’t want to be there in that little town when there was a world out there waiting for me to enter it.

However, Daisy couldn’t leave that little town. Whenever she left town, she got sick. Marvin got a job in Houston, Texas after the war, and we all moved down there. It couldn’t last. After a few weeks, Daisy got us back in the car, and we came home. I would bring her “on location” with me, and in a short time she would get sick and go home. I have always believed that she was comfortable only where she was known and recognized. She wanted fame, but was afraid to leave town to grab it

Marvin died an unspectacular death at about the same time the divorce papers were signed. Daisy’s dreams still had not been realized. Before they were separated, however, they bought a small house on a quiet street, and Daisy then had it all alone. She felt that to be the happiest time of her life.

Oh, sure, she took a short spin with the mayor. Knowing he was a drunk, Daisy married him anyway. Go figure. I guess she could, at least, feel like the first lady of that little town on the Ohio River. I don’t remember exactly how long that union lasted, but it wasn’t long, and he died not long after that. I think they buried him in a Four Roses bottle.

Daisy was not what anyone would describe as a quiet and refined type. She could swear and drink with the best of them. One of her best lines was, “I married three drunks, and buried every one of the sons a bitches.” Sadly, she never stopped working until her heart beat her to it. She worked every day of her life, and I’m sure hated every minute of it. Dreams die hard.

 Residential Propinquity was still going strong back then. I married the pretty blonde girl who’s father owned the grocery store across the street from McKinley School. That was fifty-three years ago, and I’m still thanking Linda for the towering five-cent ice cream cones.

Our daughter, Stephanie, bought Daisy’s house. She bought it while  Daisy was in it so Daisy wouldn’t have to fuss around with all that. Stephanie had spent many summers in that little house, and didn’t want to see it leave the family the way 1042 Bradshaw Avenue  eventually did. Mary Lee was the last one at Bradshaw. She sold it when she couldn’t maintain it anymore.

 While Daisy was involved with all that marrying tomfoolery being played out on the Ohio River, I was enjoying forty years as a production designer in the motion picture industry. I have written a book about my experiences in the “movies”, and with that came a modicum of celebrity. More like a modicum of a modicum. Production designers are not high up on the celebrity scale of Hollywood. Our job is a good and important one; we’re responsible for the “look” of a picture, and our credit is “up front” with the big guys.. The book? Well, the book is a view of Hollywood from the perspective of someone-not-so-famous, and isn’t required reading on the celebrity circuit. There is not a bookstore in that town on the river, much to Daisy’s regret.

Daisy, however, had other ideas. Coming from a small town, and breaking into “show business”, as I had done, was just what she needed in order to take a different position on the imaginary social scale of the town. Daisy took on the role with true gusto. Everything I did in Hollywood she duly reported to the local newspaper. “Local Man Designs Hit Movie”, “Local Man Honored.” The newspaper always included, “…son of….” in the article, and I’m sure that was under threat of bodily harm. Hell, the whole thing was embarrassing, but, by then, I had pretty much figured out her dream. How could I deny her  getting a little stardust on herself? I have always loved what I do, but I just never “celebrated” it. It made her happy to feel like someone else for a change.

Daisy’s strut got a little more pronounced. She still wore high heals and sorta’ short skirts. She had great legs, and knew it. She dressed a little “hipper” than the town was used to, and she was a  quicker with her quips. When I went to visit, she always managed to get me “downtown” where we would walk a few blocks and she could “show off”. Jay’s Grill had long since shut its doors. I was never comfortable, but I could not deny her the fun. Hell, I started to celebrate it.

One afternoon, we were walking down Fifth Street.  Suddenly she grabbed my arm and pushed me across the street making that “Oo, oo” sound you make when you want to share something. An old man with a cane was walking along, and Daisy’s voice stopped him in his tracks. They exchanged greetings, then Daisy turned to me and  said, “This is the gentleman who drove the taxi to Bradshaw Avenue the night we left Mutt.”

All I could say was, “Thanks for the ride.”

Daisy has been gone for about five years. I like to think that I made her dreams come just a little true. Boy, she could strut her stuff!

She was proud of her “little boy”, and her little boy was proud of her…. I guess I just understood her.

At Daisy’s funeral, during her eulogy, I said that she was probably pissed-off because the flags in town were not at half-mast.

Before she died, she made arrangements with the funeral home, her hair dresser,  and my sister about what she would wear as she lay in state. She chose a lively colored blue dress and was holding a livelier multi-colored purse.  When I came into the funeral parlor with my sister, and approached the casket I asked why she had a purse.

My sister rolled her eyes and said, “It matches her friggen shoes.” 

Written by Peter Wooley
August 7, 2009