“We lived under this same roof but your mom was raised by wolves. We always knew that door from opposite sides.” Aunt Rosie performed a dual role regarding my mom, as both chief celebrant and royal accuser. Thanksgivings came more frequently every year, so it seemed, and it was with particular relish that my aunt served the prom night story. It was a tradition she made new each November, her eyes flashing, her voice rising and falling along a musical scale only she knew. Even her hands and arms played their parts, their instincts honed by well-orchestrated stage directions.
Aunt Rosie, Dr. Rosaline DeNatale in her professional life, was just fourteen months older than Mama and one class ahead in school. As kids they were jerked up and down the valley, following my grandfather’s endless and fruitless climb-up-the-ladder-of-success schemes until they finally settled in this very house on Mama’s fifteenth birthday, May 6, 1963, which coincided with the 32nd birthday of Willie Mays. Mama loved baseball, batted and threw left-handed, played it in schoolyards and streets in all those thirsty towns: pick-up games, work-ups, five-hundred and fly-up, so sharing her birthday with the Say Hey Kid was icing on the cake. In fact, when she took up knitting, in a forced term of inactivity that fortuitously eased my arrival in 1964, she emblazoned a blue baby blanket with the Tallulah Bankhead line:
There have been only two geniuses in the world:
Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.
One can do worse than to be tucked in nightly with Will, Willie and Tallulah. Adding to that, my own birthday is April 23rd, making Shakespeare exactly 400 years older than me. So I have some catching up to do. And yes, that is why I am a Juliet, and I’ve been forever grateful that I’m neither Ophelia nor Cordelia. Or Tallulah.
My mother came and went. She was the distant older cousin who dropped in without warning, hugged me and praised me and stared at me, and just as quickly disappeared again, often as I slept. I saw her once or twice a year, no more, but she always sent something in April. Or May. When I turned eight it was a needle-point splayed with red roses and what turned out to be lyrics written by John Phillips, but sung over and over by the Grateful Dead:
And I’m as honest as a Denver man can be
My grandmother tacked it over my bed, cooed over the lettering, kissed my cheek and told me for the millionth time “your mother loves you.” She added: “She is so artistic.” And finally: “Maybe she’s in Denver.”
But Denver, if that’s where she had been, was a long time ago, and I was almost two decades beyond that 8th birthday. Aunt Rosie had paused in her telling, respecting the ceremonial slicing of the gingerbread and the pumpkin pie, but once the whipped cream had made the rounds, she returned to her theme.
“Your mother claimed to be above such bourgeois trifles as the Junior Prom. It was my very first formal dance, and I was going with my chemistry lab partner’s boyfriend’s cousin’s best friend, if you can follow that. It wasn’t anything I did, or he did, for that matter, because Eleanor and her boyfriend arranged it all. And Ronnie, my shining prince, I hoped, was already a freshman in college. We’d only actually met once in the flesh and never gone on a date, but when he called I jumped out of my socks, and when I found out why he was calling, you’ll excuse me for saying I almost peed in my pedal-pushers. Remember, we were new in town.
“It was the end of May, supposedly the hottest May in Stockton’s infernal history. We didn’t have air conditioning and the fans we did have were flat-out pooped, the poor things. We were supposed to meet Eleanor and her boyfriend for dinner at Valentino’s, on the river, and then go on to the dance. Valentino’s must have closed twenty years ago. The prom was at a hotel downtown that’s long gone, too.” Here she paused, gazing across the years, blinking in wonderment at the passage of time. Here, always, she caught herself, took a breath, and continued.
“I was upstairs with Grandma ripping out most of my hair trying to keep it in place. It was suffocating and I was sweating like a barnyard animal. I’d like to tell you I was glowing, but I was pouring the real stuff. Then I heard it. I heard a rumble, like sound effects from a Saturday afternoon movie, and I looked out the dormer window and saw it, his black Corvette. A 1962 Chevrolet Corvette. I’d been told about that car but this was the first time I’d seen it with my own eyes.
“My heart still thumps when I see one of those beauties. Mother — your grandmother — went down first, mostly to make sure Grandpa didn’t scare him away, and also to stall for me so I could get my breath back. I know Grandpa was always a pussycat for you, but he had a bark in his day. I was the bride in the tower who’s not supposed to see the groom before the wedding, but I refused to back away from that window. He sauntered up the walk like he was in a magazine, tall and broad-shouldered with his mess of black hair slicked just so, scrubbed and proud in his baby blue tuxedo, and the car behind him was right off one of those billboards. I was going to ride in that car! I perched upstairs on my little chair and inhaled like a yogi. I wasn’t sure where your mother was, I thought maybe she’d gone to the park, but it turned out she was sitting on the porch steps as Ronnie arrived. And you know she was the dark one even then, always with the golden tan, while I was stuck with long sleeve shirts and floppy hats if I ever dared venture into the sun. She was wearing the shortest and tightest cut-offs imaginable, and one of Daddy’s raggedy old shirts, missing a button or two on top, and tied in a knot above her navel. No shoes. No make-up. And, no doubt, no brassiere. If anyone could glow in 94 degree heat, she was the one.
“Ronnie took forever to get past her. I was dying. I died and died and died. My tinny alarm clock kept ticking and I kept dying. Daddy paced the hardwood floor: living room to kitchen, kitchen to living room. At the foot of the stairs my mother steamed and glared at the door, praying, as I was, for the deliverance of the doorbell. Five minutes, maybe more, I don’t know. Did you ever see those photos of Sue Lyon, the girl who played Lolita in that movie? No, that was way before your time, but when I think about your mother that day, that’s what I think about. Or Raquel Welch in anything.
“Finally, my mother yanked the door open and hauled him in. I can only imagine the look she gave your mother before she slammed the door shut between them. The echo exploded up the stairs and I couldn’t wait another second. I rushed down as gracefully as I could in my ridiculous high heels, hanging onto the rail with both hands. Years later, when I first heard someone say ‘looking like a deer caught in the headlights,’ I knew exactly what they meant. Even in the photograph Daddy took, Ronnie’s an alien on the wrong planet. Without a map. With a broken space ship. He was transfixed by whatever he’d experienced on the porch. He was sweating so much I probably seemed cool as a cucumber next to him, and I promise you, I was anything but that. He shifted from foot to foot, kept his eyes to the floor, couldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t even look at me. I’m sure he didn’t want to look at me, in my silly frou-frou prom dress that I’d slaved over for ten sweltering nights. After your mother arching her back and God knows what else outside, I’m sure he thought there was nothing worth spit on this side of the door. And that’s where we were, right in this room. Your mother could throw like a boy, but her body was all-girl. Woman.
“He squeezed his wilting bouquet like a life-rope, but he finally released it, and I traded him a corsage. He was so pale my mother ordered him to sit while she ran for the pitcher of water. He barely exhaled, still wasn’t speaking, didn’t even say ‘thank you,’ just gulped a twelve ounce glass of weak lemon water. I desperately wanted to leave except I knew he’d start drooling when he saw her again. Still, the front porch was the only way to his car, and the car was the only way to the prom, so what was I to do? Daddy reminded him to drive carefully, and that prompted him to reach into his pocket for his keys, I guess to assure everyone, without a word, since he was incapable of that, that he knew what he was doing, that he was reliable, but he came up empty. He gaped at his open right hand as if it were a traitor. He tried all his pockets. Nothing but a vinyl wallet. He started looking around as if he could spot the keys on the newspaper-strewn table by my father’s chair, or on the mantel of the fireplace that mocked us each torrid day. Nothing. ‘Must be in the car,’ he muttered, his first sound, and out we rushed to an empty porch, for which I passionately praised God, until Ronnie screamed: ‘She took my ‘Vette!’”
California cops, and I am one, refer to car theft as a “ten-eight-five-one.” All the judges, the lawyers, and the perps call it the same thing. For Mama, her 10851 was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the criminal codes of California, Arizona, and Nevada. For Aunt Rosie, it was the first of 10,000 nights with Ronald DeNatale.