In the fall of 1967, my best friend Steve Collins and I started going to the Ocean Beach Bowl a couple of nights a week to keep score for the men’s bowling leagues. It wasn't exactly a “job”: we volunteered to keep score for any team that would have us, though usually for a team we’d kept score for in the past, knowing the players would tip us and maybe even chip in for a couple bottles of coke. We didn't make more than five or six bucks a week, but it was easy money and enough to pay for school lunches and an occasional fruit pie.
One of the guys whose team I kept score for pretty regularly, a welder named Harvey Stevens, started dating my mom. Seriously. My fat mom. They'd met at one of the bars down on Newport Avenue, The Red Garter or Smiley’s. My thought at the time was that Harvey seemed a nice enough guy. He'd usually been the one who started bugging the other guys on the bowling team to fork out some change to tip me. He was thirty-five, short, with dark hair that looked like he got it cut once a week, and he dressed pretty well. He bowled pretty well, too, with maybe a two-ten to two-twenty average. Later, I’d find out he painted with oils (mostly still life stuff), played the ukulele, was an accomplished chess player, and raised tropical fish. He wasn't a bad-looking man, either. I always wondered what he saw in Mama.
But he saw something. He took Mama out regularly in his beat-up ‘55 Buick, a dark blue bomb with a rusted-out body. I could hear it banging and chugging like an old train engine out in front of our crappy apartment whenever he came over. Saturday nights they’d go to the Chuck Wagon down on Midway Drive for prime rib. Then they’d walk over to Spanky’s Saloon for drinks and to watch Dr. Dean the hypnotist.
Harvey came over to our house a couple times a week for dinner. I could tell whenever Mama was expecting him: there’d be a couple of bottles of Lucky Lager in the refrigerator, and Mama didn't drink beer. Those were the best nights for me to stay home and eat: Mama would actually clean the kitchen and living room (with plenty of help from my youngest sister Karen and me) in his honor, and run the vacuum (which she’d sent me to borrow from the landlady in the front apartment). I hadn't seen Mama work that hard at cleaning since we'd lived with my dad in San Francisco. Suddenly, Mama took extra care with her cooking (though she still boiled the shit out of her vegetables). She’d shower and put on makeup and dress up in something nice: dark slacks and a blouse from her skimpy wardrobe. She’d even be nice (sort of) to be around, though the few minutes just before Harvey was supposed to arrive would get pretty hectic: everything had to be clean and smell good (as much as it could for the crappy furniture we had) and dusted.
Harvey would usually come with something to add to the dinner, sometimes even the main course: a nice round steak or baked lasagna, or maybe a half gallon of ice cream and some Hershey’s chocolate for dessert. Mama would smile at Harvey when he came in, take his bag of goodies into the kitchen and offer him a beer (I noticed he drank only moderately). Then he’d sit at the kitchen table, sipping his beer, and chat with her while she stirred something on the stove or put something in the oven. They laughed together. Once in awhile I’d come into the kitchen and find them holding each other, tight, Mama’s head on Harvey’s shoulder, Mama staring out the back door at nothing at all, and a smile on her face I hadn't seen before. I thought to myself that Harvey must be crazy, or blind, or both—all sorts of rude thoughts, one after another. But I guess I was happy for her, though I could never have said so to her face.
Harvey and Mama decided to get married the next spring, on a Saturday. Harvey wanted to have the ceremony at the Methodist Church down on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. He bought Mama and Karen new dresses and me a new navy-blue suit from Robert Hall, just for the occasion. It was the first suit I’d ever had. He didn't have enough money to buy me new shoes, so when the day of the wedding came, I had to borrow a pair from Steve Collins. Steve wore a size nine, and I wore a size five, so I had to stuff a sock in the toe of each shoe to keep them from falling off my feet. Then we walked from the apartment down to the church, first Mama and Harvey, holding hands, then Karen and Debbie (who'd taken a Greyhound bus home from her school up in Riverside for the ceremony), and me, bringing up the rear, wearing what looked like elf-shoes, with the toes turned up.
After they were married, Harvey packed up everything he owned and moved into our small apartment. He brought his twenty-five gallon aquarium, full of beautiful neon tetras, black mollies, swordtails, and black-and-silver striped angelfish, and set it up next to the living room window that looked out over the alley (you don’t want too much direct sunlight, he told me, or the algae will get out of control). He set up his easel next to the aquarium, and his solid ivory chess set on one of the end tables. He told me that he’d once beat the Alabama state chess champion. I asked him if he’d teach me to play chess, and he smiled and said, “How about tonight?”
Best of all, Harvey brought home his paycheck. Now we had food in the house, and when we ran out of milk or cereal or eggs, we got more of it the same day. He fixed up his Buick so it ran better, and took us out every other week and bought us clothes: a pair of pants and underwear and some wing-tip shoes for me; a new school dress for Karen; a pair of dress shoes for Mama. Harvey even gave me an allowance: five dollars a week, for cleaning out his fish tank and for taking out the trash and rinsing and stacking the dishes after dinner. Mama griped about it, saying she’d never given me an allowance, especially one that big, and he told her, Barbara, a fifteen-year-old kid without a little folding money in his pocket is a tragedy. And besides, he said, five bucks isn't worth what it was just a few years ago. He gave her a look that said the subject was closed, and she didn't bring it up again.
As if that weren’t enough, Harvey made a dream of mine come true: one night after dinner he drove me over to George’s Surf Shop in Pacific Beach and bought me a surfboard: an eight-foot, six-inch Challenger Micro, competition orange with blue pinstripes, and a W.A.V.E. Set removable skeg. It cost him three hundred bucks (which he took out on a loan). We didn't have a surfboard rack, so we tied it to the roof of his Buick and drove home real slow so the board wouldn't fly off. We didn't have a place to put it, either, so I kept it for the night on the rug in the living room (which pissed off Mama). I called Steve Collins the next day to ask if he’d store it for me, and he said sure, I could keep it in their garage as long as he got to use it once in awhile.
The next afternoon when I first took my new board onto the beach and laid it down on the wet sand and started putting wax on it, it was the smallest, newest board there. Other surfers actually came by to look at it and admire it. It was strange and exhilarating: people were looking at me, for once wishing they had what I had. Who cared if I couldn't surf worth a damn just then? At least I had something decent to learn on. It was the single best thing I’d ever been given, hands down, even better than the bicycles my Uncle Jimmy had bought for me.
Harvey started getting on Mama for the way she talked to Karen and me. It seemed like only thing they argued about. But he chewed her out gently, so it didn't hurt her feelings, and always in their bedroom (though the walls were pretty thin in the apartment, and Karen and I could hear just about everything they said or did together). “You know, Barbara,” he’d say to her, “you can attract more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” Other times, he was blunter: “Barb, if you want your kids to respect you, you’re gonna have to treat them with respect.” Most of the time, it was only his voice I heard; and in my mind’s eye I saw Mama, glaring at him and not saying a thing. But as time went on, I thought I saw something changing in Mama. She wasn't as quick to yell or to call us names (stoop, idiot, things like that). And, whenever Harvey was around, she actually said please and thank you.
I never thought I’d get to where I liked coming home from school. But having Harvey there changed everything. With Harvey, I had a father who didn't want to beat me or grab my dick, and who thought enough of me to want to spend time with me, whether to play chess or teach me how to drive or play the ukulele or paint with oils or just talk, to ask me how my day was, and what did I think? And whether he ever said it to me directly or not, I eventually grew to know this: Harvey loved me, the same way he loved my mom and my sisters. It was more than I could say for just about anybody else in my life.
That summer, before my junior year in high school, I had to take a drama course in summer school as a prerequisite for Mr. Todd’s Major Productions class, which I wanted to take in the fall. We were putting on Alice in Wonderland that year. I was looking forward to it. There were lots of new girls who wanted to get into Majors. One of them, a gorgeous sophomore named Leslie Siemers, caught my eye right off the bat.
I couldn't help it, I'd always been a sucker for girls with long, skinny, tanned bodies and bright faces and easy smiles with lots of straight, white teeth—and who also showed even the slightest interest in me. Leslie was long-legged, taller than me, with straight blonde hair cut short into a bob, and she wore lots of that metallic-bluish-white eye shadow that made her eyes stand out like green gemstones.
I got up the courage one day to ask Leslie out to see a movie, and when she said yes, I nearly fell over from the shock. I knew exactly where I wanted to take her: 2001: A Space Odyssey was playing in Mission Valley, and I’d heard it was one of the best movies ever made. I knew she'd be impressed.
I told Harvey about my plans, and he smiled as if he were remembering something from a happier time long ago. “Let me give you a little advice,” he said. He went on to tell me about things like opening and closing doors for a girl, and when it was okay to kiss a girl—whether it should be on the lips or on the cheek, and other stuff I never thought to think of. I told him I wanted to take Leslie to the movie by taxi, she’d be impressed. Harvey nodded, and looked at me. “Well, you know," he said, "I can drive you just as well, and you kids can sit in the back just like in a cab. Save you lots of money and you can take her out for some ice cream afterwards.” I pictured this: it looked really good. I told him I’d take him up on his offer.
That Saturday night, after showering, I put on the suit Harvey had bought me. I slapped Old Spice on my face, then took my wad of cash I’d been saving from my allowance for the past month and went out to the alley where Harvey had said he’d be waiting for me.
When I got outside, I saw Mama sitting in the front seat with Harvey. Right away, something heavy started growing and clawing the inside of my stomach. We hadn't even picked up Leslie yet, and already the date had starting looking like a disaster. “Mama,” I said, standing in the alley outside her open window, “what are you—why are you—I mean, I thought it was just going to be Harvey giving me a ride.” I was trying to ask the question in a way that didn't piss her off.
She looked at me and smiled slightly. “Oh, don’t mind me,” she said, “I know your deal with Harvey. I’m just along for the ride.” She looked at me, the look on my face I couldn't hide. Her smile faded and she rolled her eyes sarcastically. “Oh, for crissake, Bill, I’m not going to ruin your precious goddamn date! You won’t hear a peep out of me.”
“But—?“ I couldn’t tell her that it was just her being there that would ruin things. Her fatness. The trashy way she dressed and a host of crappy behaviors that I somehow saw as a reflection on me. She looked at me with that look, and I knew there was nothing more to be said. I looked past her to Harvey in the driver’s seat, but he just stared out the windshield. Obviously there was nothing he could do either.
I sucked in a deep breath and climbed in the back seat. Harvey started the car and we drove off with a roar. “She lives on Del Mar, just off of Catalina,” I said, and told him the house number. I was trying hard to sound cheerful, grateful for the ride, but there was still an edge to my voice. I couldn't help it. Mama seemed to be ignoring me. I told myself, over and over, this is just the ride: things will be fine once we’re alone.
We pulled up in front of Leslie’s house, a nice-looking white mission-style stucco with red tile roof and red brick trim. I got out just as Mama was lighting a cigarette. I went to the door and rang the bell. Leslie, looking more stunning than ever, answered the door. “Hi!” she said, smiling. An older blonde woman, who could have been Leslie in about thirty years, came to the door behind Leslie and said, “Is this your gentleman caller?” She smiled and squeezed my hand and introduced herself as Leslie’s mom. “You take care of my little girl,” she said to me playfully.
“I will, Mrs. Siemers,” I said. She kissed Leslie’s cheek and waved as we walked to the car, then closed the door and turned on the porch light.
Leslie looked at Mama in the car, and her smile grew strained. But she didn't say anything. I opened her door and she got in, and I introduced her. She smiled at both Harvey and Mama and said, “How do you do?”
The drive to the theater in Mission Valley was about twenty-five minutes from Leslie’s house. Mama puffed on her cigarette and looked out the window (we were going to an early show, so it was still light out). Occasionally she said something to Harvey about this or that house on the hills overlooking Mission Valley or how pretty a sunset we were having. But for the most part, she kept her promise: we didn't hear much from the front seat. Still, having them—having Mama—so close at hand made small talk almost impossible for me. I couldn't stand the idea that she could hear me making time with a girl. Nonetheless, I asked Leslie what she did today; she told me she washed some clothes, played with her dog Jocko, went shopping with her mom over at the Food Basket. I wanted to ask her other questions: what was her favorite color? What did she want to do when she got out of high school? What was her favorite movie? All I could do was sit and steam. I felt my ears getting hot. I just wanted to get to the theater. In fact, I wanted for the whole date to be over. Already I thought I saw a glazed look in Leslie’s eyes, as if she, too, wished she were somewhere else, with someone else. I wanted to tell Harvey to forget this, turn around, take her home, and let’s just forget the whole thing. I was looking at Mama and thinking, never again. If I had to, I’d save up all my allowance and take a cab, like I’d wanted to in the first place.
The moment Leslie and I were out of the car at the theater, I felt as if someone had just quit choking me. Even Leslie seemed to smile more easily, and I was thinking that this might work out okay after all. I was hoping, when Harvey came to pick us up after the movie, he'd have found some way to leave Mama at home.
2001: A Space Odyssey was a lot more popular than I'd expected: Leslie and I managed to get two of the last four available seats, and they were on the far right section of the theater. But the seats were comfortable. Plus, with a huge Cinerama screen, I figured we should still be able to see the movie okay.
We didn't get to talk for long: barely five minutes after we’d sat down, the lights started to dim and the coming attractions started rolling. I noticed the two seats next to me on the aisle were still empty. I was about to suggest to Leslie that we move over a little, but before I could, two people flew down the aisle and plopped themselves into the seats next to us. When I glanced over at them, the light from the screen flashed just long enough for me to see—Harvey.
“Oh, God” slipped out of my mouth. Of course, Mama was with him. Harvey leaned toward me and whispered that he'd had no idea the seats were reserved, or they’d never have come in. “You gotta believe me on this,” he said.
The thing that had been growing in my stomach earlier was back, clawing at my heart. Leslie saw what was happening and sat next to me like a mannequin. She stayed that way through the entire one hundred thirty-nine minutes of the film. At first, I figured I should at least try to enjoy the movie, even if the date was a total bust, but I couldn't seem to get into it, knowing my mother was sitting less than three feet away from me. The whole thing was destroyed. Even the dazzling, famous “light show” that everyone was talking about was ruined: right in the middle of it, I saw Mama from the corner of my eye lean over and ask Harvey, “What’s this about?”
When the movie was finally over, I just wanted to get Leslie home and to go home myself and get in bed and hide. All I could think about was running into Leslie again on Monday. How was I supposed to look her in the face? How would I get another date with anyone, once word got out about this? I wanted to scream. I wanted to break Mama’s neck. I want to run away.
Harvey asked if we’d like to go somewhere for some ice cream, with the same tone of voice a doctor might use while asking if you wanted a tonsillectomy. I knew he was just trying to be polite. Leslie said thanks, maybe some other time, she had to be up early the next day for church, and would he mind just taking her home? I noticed she didn't ask me. In fact, I noticed she didn't say much of anything to me, or look at me. I felt something stinging behind my eyes, something that threatened to come spilling out if I didn't get away from this soon.
As bad luck would have it, Harvey tried to beat a yellow light where Voltaire Street met Catalina Boulevard, and lost. The light turned red just before he sailed into the intersection, and there was a police car sitting right across the street. A few seconds later, a red light came shining through the back window of the beat up Buick. Harvey looked pale. He pulled over and turned off the motor, then got out and walked back to talk to the policeman.
The three of us left in the car—Mama, Leslie, and I—were silent. Mama tapped her fingers on the seat back, and then rummaged noisily through her purse for a cigarette and her lighter. Seconds later she was puffing away like an old coal-burning locomotive. I had to roll down my window to keep from coughing. Leslie’s eyes had even more of that glazed look in them again. I felt suddenly as if I were leaving my body and floating above, watching this sad, funny scene. But I didn't feel much of anything anymore.
Mama turned suddenly in her seat and looked past Leslie and me out the rear window. “Goddamn, fucking cops!” she said. Leslie flinched at the words and turned away. Mama shook her head, rolled her eyes, then turned toward the front again and sucked some more smoke from her cigarette. A couple of minutes later, Harvey got back into the car. He started it up and pulled away from the curb, leaving the still-shining red light behind. “Sorry about that,” he said. I noticed his hands on the steering wheel were shaking.
At least Leslie allowed me to open the car door for her when we got to her house. She walked ahead of me to her front door and was already inside before I made it to the porch. Then she looked out at me with a half smile and told me thanks for everything. She waited until I said, “Sure, no problem,” then closed the door and locked it. A second later, the porch light went out.
No one said anything on the way home. I could tell Harvey felt bad, but I knew there was nothing he could say in front of Mama. Mama didn't seem to be aware of anything. “Leslie seems like a very nice girl,” she said. “And pretty. Kind of quiet, though.” She looked back at me. “Are you thinking of asking her out again?”
A week later, Harvey disappeared. He went to work one day and didn't come home. His boss at the shipyard where Harvey worked told Mama when she called that Harvey had never showed up for work the day before. No one had seen him. Mama was frantic, thinking he’d been murdered or had an accident out in the middle of nowhere and hadn't yet been found. She called the police. A while later a couple of cops came over and took down a missing-persons report. Then they left, telling her as they were leaving they’d put out bulletins, check hospitals, and contact the Highway Patrol. Not to worry, they'd find him.
They didn't find him. But they did find out about him. We heard the truth about Harvey the next morning: a police detective came by the house to tell Mama in person that there’d been an outstanding warrant on Harvey Stevens for several months—for bigamy. Karen looked confused; I told her it meant he had two wives, and she looked more confused. Actually, Harvey had three wives: besides Mama, there was a second one in Oregon (along with two children) and a third in northern California. It was very likely, the detective said, that Harvey had been spooked by the traffic ticket he'd got last week, and, figuring it was just a matter of time before the authorities caught up with him, had decided to skip town. Mama bit the inside of her cheek. Her face had been growing steadily redder with each minute the detective was there. “Does this mean we’re not really married?” she said to him.
The detective looked at the floor at her feet. “I’m sorry,” he said.
I felt like we were all actors in some weird movie. I heard the voices, the lines being delivered, but they didn't yet mean anything. I seemed to be having a hard time getting into my part. Harvey? Already married? Gone? The sun was shining outside, but it was like some sort of shadow had just crossed over our house. Everything was off-color, dingy. I thought to myself that this was what it must feel like to be told that someone you know and love had been found strangled. It was strange. You didn't feel much of anything at first. Confused, maybe.
Mama thanked the detective for coming by. He told her he’d need to send someone by for another report. Then he suggested Mama go talk to her priest or minister. Church people could be a great help in times like this. Mama nodded like she was trying to keep from falling asleep, and closed the door after him. No one said anything. She stood there for a minute, looking at the closed door, not moving. Finally she turned and shuffled to her bedroom and closed the door. A second later, we could hear her crying. It was a weird sound, something I didn't remember hearing before. When I looked at Karen, she had tears in her eyes, too. She got up from where she was sitting on the couch and went to the kitchen and began fidgeting with something in the sink.
Harvey’s aquarium was still gurgling away next to the window. I went over to it and watched the fish swimming around, then took some food and sprinkled it on top of the water. They swarmed to the top, grabbing the floating chunks, and then scurried down deep to the corners to eat where they wouldn't be bothered. Next to the aquarium, on the wood easel, was a painting of a yellow rose Harvey had been working on for Mama, and below that, leaning against the wall, his ukulele which he'd been teaching me to play.
I had to get out of there. I went to the bedroom and put on my bathing suit and a tee-shirt, then headed barefoot over to Steve’s house to get my surfboard. When I got there, both Steve and the board were gone, and that thing growing in my stomach started gnawing at me again. The fucker never asked me if he could use it, just took it whenever it goddamn well pleased him. I jogged the four blocks down to the foot of the street and onto the hot sand and down to the shore, and scanned the water outside the breakers. There must have been a hundred surfers bobbing up and down in the swells, waiting for their next wave. But I could easily make out Steve’s white-blond hair, and the bright orange tip of my surfboard sticking out of the water in front of him. I watched as he turned toward shore and started paddling to catch an okay-sized wave. He wasn't a bad surfer, and he turned it into a pretty decent ride before kicking out into the sizzling foam. I yelled at him then to come in, but he turned and paddled back out, beyond where he could hear me, and waited for another wave. He did this three or four times before he finally wiped out and the board washed into shore. I grabbed it and started paddling out on it myself, and as I passed Steve, who was trying to bodysurf a ride into shore, I yelled at him, why the fuck hadn’t he come in when I'd told him to. He smiled and shrugged and said he hadn't heard me. I knew he was lying. And as I got outside the breakwater and to the smooth glassy waters farther out to wait for a good swell, I thought of just how much I hated liars.
The next day, Mama went down to the shipyard where Harvey worked and convinced the supervisor to give her Harvey’s last paycheck. It wasn't as much as he normally brought home, but it was enough to buy some groceries until Mama could get hold of the welfare people. Then she sold the aquarium, the ukulele, the paint supplies, the chess set, and what few clothes Harvey had left behind. It didn't add up to much.
Mama had me help the people who had bought the aquarium carry it out to their pickup truck parked in the alley. It was heavy, and bulky, and more than once I bumped it into the wall or against the table when I was picking it up. Karen was helping, too, carrying a bag of clear plastic tubes and pumps. But the bottom of the paper bag was wet, and the bottom tore out. One of the pieces, a glass thermometer, fell out of the hole and shattered on the tile floor. Mama raised her hand as if to belt her, and shrieked, “Now look what you’ve done, you idiot!” I saw Karen’s eyes. How she flinched beneath the words, as if Mama had gone ahead and slapped her after all.