When you’re five years old, every day begins the same. I remember staying in bed those cool August mornings, the only one awake, floating with my eyes closed as the birds rummaged through the next door palm tree. Then I would fall back to sleep until I heard my father in the bathroom, softly whistling the Ovaltine commercial as he sharpened his razor on the leather strop.
Some days were different, though: like the morning of an Ev and Myrt day, when I would begin to tingle as soon as I opened my eyes. I’d shut them back very tight and let myself fly to all the special places Ev and Myrt had ever taken me. The best—all the way across the Bay Bridge and out past the Golden Gate—was Sutro Baths, where the player pianos sat next to the stuffed bears, and you could smell winter and summer at the same time. The huge white building on the cliffs across from Seal Rocks was a fantastic Victorian gingerbread palace that stretched out toward the ocean. Inside, levels tumbled on levels, everything open under a roof held up with faraway wooden girders, creamy scaffolding that seemed to float in the air. From the entranceway you looked down, four stories, to the ice rink as big as a city block, and beyond, over the partitions, into the four swimming pools: hot and cold water, fresh and salt in different combinations. Upstairs the walls of the museum rooms were covered with old photographs that showed the Earthquake and Fire, and then after: people in old fashioned clothes stood sadly in front of broken buildings, hazy in smoke; in the next picture other people smiled in front of new buildings, fresh with paint.
I remember I circled slowly around the grizzly bear, then flew across the wooden floors, around the Chinese torture ring, past the model roller coaster made from toothpicks, finally coming to rest at the collection of player pianos backed by mechanical drums, whistles, and xylophones.
I can still feel the cold round shape of every nickel after nickel Ev and Myrt gave me one at a time, and I remember putting them one by one by one into the instruments until all the player pianos were going at the same time. I remember being very still and feeling the up beat, two-four bass-note-chord treble-tune-notes music bounce through me and whirl across the walls and down to the ice and the swimming pools.
And I remember it was after the last echo that Ev gave me a penny for the fortune telling machine, an automatic grandma with white hair wrapped in a faded red scarf. Her blue marble eyes looked old and young at the same time. She had passed her wax hand over the four dusty aces, and my fortune card had dropped into the slot: “You will grow to brightness under a cloudy star.” I had held the card tight the whole way back to Alameda, especially when we drove back across the Bay Bridge: I had stared out the window every minute, concentrating on which shore would be closest to swim to when the bridge collapsed. The card was the first part of my secret treasure.
The second part of my treasure was something I knew. On the second day of January 1946, right after Christmas, I had my tonsils out. I spent the rest of that long, gloomy winter mostly in bed, chewing Aspergum and listening to the radio, especially the late afternoon serials—Tom Mix, Captain Midnight, Sky King, and, best of all, Superman. He was sponsored by Kellogg’s Pep. What I learned there, and held as close as any real treasure, was that when I got well, if I ate enough Kellogg’s Pep, I would be able to fly, really true, like Superman. Then I wouldn’t have to worry when the bridge collapsed.
Back in bed now, under the twittering of the birds, I heard my father in the bathroom. I got last year’s fortune card from my treasure box under the bed, put it in the pocket of my bathrobe, and went in. The hot water had steamed up the mirror, and I watched my father rub a clear spot on the glass, then peer at his chin. He rattled the shaving brush around the inside of the soap mug, then brushed the lather onto his face.
“Hi,” I said, taking a seat on the lid of the toilet.
“Hi,” he said, looking at me in the mirror.
“What’s a cloudy star?” I asked. It had taken me almost a whole year to get the question ready.
He thought for a minute while he pulled his face with one hand and used the long straight-edged razor to scrape a path straight down his cheek.
“Probably a nova,” he said. “A star that explodes.”
I thought about ducking under my bed when my star exploded. My father’s pink face emerged, one scratchy swatch at a time.
“Why don’t we have a regular white toilet seat like everybody else?” I asked.
Scrape, scrape. The razor glinted in the light.
“Because,” he finally said, “wood is warmer on your bottom. And”—he scraped his chin—“because Grandpa made it.”
I thought about Grandpa’s dead hands, crossed in the casket, and shifted on the seat.
“So the seat is unique,” said my father, looking directly down at me.
“I remember,” I said quickly. “Unique-one-of-a-kind.”
He ran the razor back and forth under the hot water.
Grandpa’s hands had looked like the automatic grandma’s, pale and waxy. His lips had been purple, like the rhubarb that grew all by itself in the far corner of our backyard.
“Can rhubarb be afraid?” I asked.
My father stopped shaving and looked at me in the mirror for a long moment.
“No,” he said finally, giving his head a slight shake. “Now scoot. Your mother’s got your breakfast ready.”
I put my card back in my treasure box and went into the kitchen. Mama was there, but the stove was quiet.
“What’s for breakfast?” I asked.
“Here,” she said, handing me a box of cereal. “You eat this Pep, whatever, you made me buy for the box top.”
“It’s so I can fly like Superman,” I said.
“Well, whatever,” she said.
“How come I can’t have french toast?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, looking right through me, but then right at me. “Because you’ll be eating a big lunch with Uncle Ev and Aunt Myrt out at the Cliff House, and getting into all sorts of I don’t know what at Sutro Baths, and probably eating again at the Ice Follies. Why they have to turn San Francisco upside down for you every summer I don’t know. So you just have some of this cereal, whatever, and make yourself regular toast.”
I poured my Pep into the bowl very slowly so as not to make any more noise.
Two minutes later Mama said, “Don’t gulp your cereal.” She reached over and slapped the damp dishrag on the two drops of milk that lay on the oilcloth. The rag came up and I watched the faint waterdrop lines form a path from my bowl to the edge of the table. “And you eat that toast,” she continued over my shoulder. “Think of the starving Armenians.”
I took a slow bite and wondered again who the Armenians were and why they were starving. Everyone I knew in Alameda always had plenty to eat. I chewed my toast and thought briefly about how the old Japanese man and his wife had never come back to their corner grocery store after “W. W. Two” as my father called it. Now the store was called Swenson’s, and the fat blond owner and his wife didn’t need sticks to get the coffee from the high shelf. But I didn’t think they were Armenians either. Still, I ate my toast cautiously around the butter, saving the best for last, as I would have if I’d been starving.
My father—vest now buttoned over tie, jacket hung on the back of his chair—was eagerly biting into his own daily toast, unbuttered and almost burnt. He seemed more than ready for the rest of his day at San Francisco Memorial and Trust Savings and Loan. He snapped open the green sports section of his Chronicle and began to peruse the account of last night’s Oakland Oaks game against the hated San Francisco Seals.
Mama reached over my shoulder to line up my cereal bowl with my toast plate, then moved back to the kitchen window without letting her hand drift over my head. I was surprised. She stood in her bathrobe and apron, looking out at the fog and stirring her sugar into her coffee without letting the spoon touch the sides of the cup. I wondered why she was being so quiet and moving so much. Usually Mama just sat and rattled things in the morning—spoon against cup, knife against butter dish—while my father burrowed deeper into his paper.
I heard Mama open her drawer. She was getting her solitaire deck out at a weekday breakfast. My father raised an eyebrow over his glasses as she sat down at the table and began to lay her cards by her coffee cup.
“Why are you playing solitaire during my Thursday breakfast?” he asked.
“It’s Franklin’s vacation. Things are different,” she answered, putting a red three on a black five before she caught herself and moved it onto the discard.
“Yeah,” I said, pouring more milk onto the last of my Pep. “Today’s the Ice Follies.”
“Don’t say ‘yeah,’” said my father.
Mama gave me a kick under the table.
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Mama.
“But—” I said.
“Don’t you dare,” said Mama, slapping down a card.
This was not turning into a good day. I shut my mouth to chew and wished I had different parents.
“What’s this Ice Follies business?” my father asked.
I studied my cereal, working carefully to keep all the flakes away from the edge of the bowl at the same time. I knew I might suddenly have no Ice Follies and no Sutro Baths and be weeding the fuchsias in the damp side yard. The silence grew until Mama spoke.
“You remember,” she said, turning a card a little too easily. “Franklin’s having his day with Ev and Myrt. Just like I used to when I was little. They’re taking him over to the Ice Follies and going behind the ice.” She gave her quick little laugh, and I held my breath and watched. Mama was laying out another hand. From the way she looked and the way she turned the cards, I was sure something was about to happen. My father rose from the table and pulled out his gold pocket watch.
“Time to evict the widows and orphans,” he said, chuckling as he did every day.
For once Mama managed a little laugh, too. I was sure she was about to make her move. She stood up and gave my father a kiss on the cheek, helped him with his jacket and watched him leave the kitchen, briefcase in hand. When the screen door slammed, she quickly crossed into the hall.
“Don’t forget to pick up the crumb cake from Blum’s,” she called through the screen door. She seemed surprised when my father stopped and turned at the same time, almost tripping back up the stairs.
“What crumb cake?” he asked.
Mama began shooing flies off the screen by flicking her dishcloth.
“You remember,” she said, opening the screen door a little. “The one for tonight’s dinner. Look how droopy those hydrangeas are. You’d think the fog would give them better moisture. You’ll have to give them a good soak.”
“Remember what?” my father said. “Why do I have to get a crumb cake from Blum’s?”
Mama shooed the last fly and fastened the screen door closed with the metal hook. “Because they make the best,” she said simply, turning back to the kitchen.
“Helen!” he said in an abrupt voice that made Mama stop.
“Well, there’s company of course,” she said over her shoulder. “I told you all about it.”
I wondered. I could tell Mama was trying to make this conversation come out right, just as if it were a solitaire. She kept edging away from the screen door, trying to improve her chances.
“You’ll be late for work, Roy,” she said.
“I’ll get the next bus,” he said. He had come up the stairs and was walking across the porch. Once at the screen, his fingers began to pull at the handle. Mama looked nervously at the catch.
“Who’s coming to dinner, Helen?” he said, squinting through the screen at Mama, who was now moving toward the kitchen, dusting the dining room chairs with her dishrag as she went. I watched her come around the corner and stand at the stove, facing the screen door through the kitchen wall. Her fingers were clutching at her apron.
“Don’t bother about the cake, Roy. I’ll make some Ranger cookies,” Mama said loudly through the wall. My stomach sank. Ranger cookies, my father’s favorite, were full of tough oatmeal and stringy coconut.
My father rattled the screen, and Mama, even though she was out of my father’s line of vision, closed her eyes tight. Finally, after another rattle, she said, “It’s just Ev and Myrt. Well, they’re taking Franklin for a wonderful day in the City, in back of the Ice Follies and all to meet their friends, those clowns, Snick and Snack…”
“Frick and Frack,” I whispered, eager to save Mama from further embarrassment.
“Oh, you be quiet,” snapped Mama. I edged away so I could see through the dining room to my father at the door.
“Frick and Frack, dear,” she said. “I couldn’t very well just send my own aunt and uncle back to Oakland, could I?” The apron fluttered with each word she spoke.
My father unaccountably stopped rattling the screen. Perhaps it was my forlorn appearance, hunched up against the wall. Perhaps he had a vision of Mama, eyes squinched closed; or maybe, somewhere inside, he had a secret smile for Ev and Myrt; or, more likely, he just didn’t want to be late for work. I watched as he straightened his shoulders and took a breath. “Well,” he said, “what is it this time?”
Mama brightened visibly. I guess she thought things were coming our right after all. “I don’t think it’s anything at all, Roy,” she said, bustling out to unlatch the screen. She crossed the porch to smooth my father down by brushing imaginary toast crumbs off his jacket. He backed away from her strokes and smoothed his own lapels. “Just so long as it’s not money,” he said.
Mama almost said something, but stopped before my father looked up. He started toward the steps, then stopped and turned back, looking directly at Mama.
“And you just make sure they keep off all that old-timey show business stuff,” he said, then turned and started down the steps. “All that flapdoodle makes me nuts.”
Ev and Myrt had been Bolo and Yolanda, Fast Dance and Patter. They had pictures showing their names on cards in front of every Orpheum as far east as Salt Lake City.
“Terrible town,” Ev would say, polishing his glasses on one of his red silk handkerchiefs.
“Terrible,” Myrt would echo, folding her white gloved hands in her lap and leaning forward with a terrific smile. “They’d sit on their hands like they were trying to hatch them.”
“A dozen handy eggs,” Ev would say.
“Pawk pawk pawk.” Myrt would stick her hands in her armpits, move her head forward, flap her elbows: a big blue chicken in our red leather chair. Myrt always wore blue suits—powder, navy, teal, aqua—with silver buttons that flashed when she moved her arms. “Pawk Pawk.” Then Ev and Myrt would look at each other with their blue eyes, and laugh.
“They’re too old to laugh so much,” my father said one Thanksgiving. “Why don’t they calm down?”
There they would come—Thanksgiving, Christmas, or a special day like today—up the steps, their white hair shining in the sun, both in hats, Myrt’s with a veil. They’d smile at me as I raced out onto our front porch and into a double hug. “Buddy-maroo,” they would say, “skid-a-maree skid-ooo,” Ev’s voice high and Myrt’s very high, pressing close so I could smell the mixture of Old Spice and Evening in Paris. “Buddy-maroo!”
Ev and Myrt had been places and done things. They had been to Chicago (“Too cold.” “And windy.” “But they loved us there.” “Ate us up with silver spoons.” “Woulda gone back, but Myrt here likes the coast.” “I like it warm.” “And besides, there was that movie deal.”).
They had actually almost been in the movies. (“But you wouldn’t have liked that, Ev.” “Yer right. No spuds.” “Spuds?” I asked from my footstool perch. “The audience. The live potatoes. Know what I mean?” “Oh, sure,” I said, nodding. “We needed the electricity, the applause,” Myrt said, looking over at Ev and patting his knee. “So if they’d asked, we wouldn’t have gone.” “Right. But the war was fun.” “Yep, the war was pretty good.” “USO, voh-doh-dee-oh-doh.” “Remember those Serene Sisters?” “You know, Buddy, if they had dumped the ugly one—she couldn’t sing for sneezes—those three others coulda made it really big.”)
“You help me clear away this mess,” Mama said, snapping her card drawer shut, “then get out of your pajamas and into your short pants and hush I don’t care if they itch that’s what you’re wearing today and brush your teeth and hair in that order after all I’ve been through already this morning I couldn’t stand it if you were late. And then come and help me turn the meat grinder for the wienie loaf.” Another of my father’s favorites.
Alameda’s morning fog had finally burned away. I sat dejected on the steps, thinking about Ranger cookies, sure that Ev and Myrt had forgotten me and were already smiling at the stuffed bear.
But then their shiny, black 1932 Nash—square and upright—made a sharp turn at the corner. I jumped up and down on the steps and waved. The car chugged down the street, slowing and aiming for our house. It pulled up to our curb and Uncle Ev ah-ooh-gah-ed the horn, snapped on the brakes, turned off the ignition, and opened his door. For her part, Aunt Myrt just sat still on the passenger’s side, smiling behind the veil of her light blue straw hat, waiting for her cue. Ev raced around the front of the car, looked up at me, tipped his hat, and with a single motion of his arm and hand, reached back to open the door for Myrt. I waited.
Ev stood by the door, took a deep breath, and raised his white eyebrows in my direction. “You go home and get your panties,” he sang in the morning air, right there in front of 1112 Pacific Avenue. I giggled about the panties and checked to see if Mrs. Kendall next door was out shaking her dustrag.
“I’ll go home and get my scanties,” sang Myrt. She tossed the words right at me and at the same time grabbed Ev’s hand and swiveled smartly, knees together. She was wearing her turquoise blue suit with especially bright silver buttons. On the beat of the song, her open-toed shoes touched the grass at the curb, and she stood up.
“And away we’ll go,” they sang together. Slam went the door. “Oh-h-h,” they harmonized as they quick-stepped—left-right-left—off the grass and onto the sidewalk. For a moment, they both stood straight and quiet in the midmorning silence of the neighborhood. Their bodies—elbows in, arms out, hands dangling—seemed lighter than air. I held my breath, sure they would rise from the sidewalk and float over the grass. But down they stayed, Aunt Myrt’s open-toed white shoes moving in time with Uncle Ev’s white bucks, her gloved hands and his flashing rings moving quickly, matching each other’s moves step for step.
“Off we’re gonna shuffle—(kick, step, step, kick, kick)—shuffle off to Buff-ah-lo—(step, step, step)—oh-oh-oh.”
Now they were right in front of me, playing to their late morning audience of one as if I were the whole Orpheum theatre. I smiled as I felt Ev’s hat settle over my ears.
“Hitch right on,” said Aunt Myrt. “You’re the caboose, remember?” I put my hands up to her waist and tried to remember which foot went first. Shuffle shuffle step step; move move move. Down the sidewalk, around and back.
“Sell the finish, kiddo,” said Myrt over her shoulder. I took off the hat and waved it at the hydrangeas, smiling as hard as I could. “Bah-doo-be-doo-wah,” sang Ev and Myrt in harmony. The dew on the grass glistened in the sun and I smiled up at the vacant steps.
“Oh,” said Myrt, turning around to me, “we could have used you in Seattle before the war.” She bent down and kissed my cheek. “They love kids in Seattle.” She looked over at Ev and he smiled back. Then she took out a tiny white handkerchief with lace at the edges, spit on the corner, and attacked the lipstick she had left on my cheek. Ev reached over for his hat.
“What’s this?” he said, reaching behind my ear. I hoped it was money. Money always grew behind my ear for Uncle Ev. “Boy, are your ears shiny,” he said, handing me a bright new quarter.
“Well, if that doesn’t beat all,” said Myrt. She took the quarter from my hand and held it up in the morning sun. “Now open your hand, and let’s see what happens. Just like Butch n’ Jimmie.” She pressed my fingers firmly around the coin.
She let go, and I opened my hand to find the quarter changed into a fifty-cent piece. “Wow,” I said. “Thanks.” I thought for a moment. “Who’s Butch n’ Jimmie?” I asked.
Myrt’s eyebrows moved slowly up into her pale, wrinkled forehead, and her red mouth made a perfect circle. I watched Ev move back a slight half step to let her have center stage. “You don’t know Butch n’ Jimmie?” she asked with mock solemnity. I shook my head. She took a step back and got down on one knee. “Well, here they are,” she said, opening her arms wide. “Come on, Buddy-maroo: Butch your arms around me and Jimmie a kiss.”
I raced over, gave her a big squeeze, and planted a kiss on the red rouge of her parchment cheek. Her body felt like steel paper, thin but tough, and her cheek felt smooth and cool. I liked the flower smell of her, but I felt sad, too, because I could feel all her bones underneath the light covering of her skin. Then Uncle Ev hoisted me up on his scrawny shoulders and we went up the steps and into the house.
“Oh, Ev, mind your back,” said Mama as we came into the kitchen.
“Strong as an ox,” said Myrt. “Those Fuller Brush cases of Ev’s are heavy.”
“Just in the morning, ‘til I sell my quota,” said Ev. “Then they’re light as donut holes.”
“Now put him down, Ev, so he can kiss his Mama good-bye,” said Myrt, “and we’ll bootle our tootles right outta our noodles.” I laughed. Myrt turned to Mama and pulled a little bottle out of her purse. “Here’s that lotion you wanted, Helen,” she said. “And don’t you go looking at me, Everett Frankfort. Georgine’s got no complaints. I’m the best beauty operator in that shop.”
“Don’t forget tonight,” said Mama.
“Oh, good,” said Myrt. Then she looked right at me. “Come on, you old slowpoke. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Since I knew Ev and Myrt would buy me candy at the Ice Follies, I used my whole fifty cents at Sutro Baths. I made the toothpick roller-coaster go twice, and the second player piano, the one with whistles and drums and a mermaid wagging her tail in time to the music, played Deep Purple in ragtime.
When the music came on, Ev and Myrt looked at each other and then, with the piano keys moving by themselves, and the drums going rat-a-tat, and the paper piano roll sliding, and the bellows squeaking, and the whistle tooting off the beat, Bolo and Yolanda glided smoothly, silently over the polished floor, moving effortlessly among the stuffed bears and the fortune-telling machines, Bolo in white and Yolanda in blue. I watched my Ev and Myrt sway and dip so deep that Myrt’s straw hat brushed the floor. And as they moved I watched their faces reflected, fragmented, in the glass cases and the earthquake pictures. They one-stepped, locked in each other’s rhythm, always making sure their faces were in position for the follow spot. They held each other lightly, in the grip of steps so familiar their bodies moved without thought, but only halfway, sketching the dance so as not to disturb the museum.
At the Ice Follies we sat in the front row and I got sprayed with ice when Frick and Frack were chasing each other and stopped right by our seats. But when we went back to meet them they just looked like two tired old men. After they shook my hand and patted my head, they talked with Ev and Myrt about how long the tour was and how tired they were and how close Ev and Myrt were to buying the farm. I found Frack’s tall silk hat and played with the rubber chicken I found inside.
This is an except from ‘Barzini To The Rescue’. The complete story and others are available in Robert Moulthrop’s short story collection “To Tell You The Truth,” available from Amazon.