Wednesday, February 25, 2015

One Cold Valentine's Day (continued)

 With a trembling hand, Frank flicked ashes into the stand ashtray next to his chair. He caught my eye and pointed a finger at me. It made my skin crawl and I hurried into my bedroom. Frank gave me the willies. At 13 I was self-conscious and vulnerable. He would often make some remark about me wearing lipstick or a bra - he'd make his remarks jokingly but his cruel intent pierced through the alcohol haze. I wished he'd go back home. 

He continued to talk and I could hear him through the  bedroom door.

"All hell broke loose over there this morning," he said. "Last night I came home late from the legion hall. Winnie shook me awake about ten; she was mad as hell: mad at me for staying out late; mad at me for sleeping in; mad at me because she's always mad at me." His mouth twisted into a kind of rictus. He finished the drink in one long swallow. 

"No teeth," he mumbled. "What?" asked my father. "NO TEETH!" Frank raised his voice. "I reached for my zoobs on the nightstand and they weren't there."

All the men in our neighborhood called their false teeth zoobs. False teeth were inevitable for that generation because they received little dental care during the depression. Rarely did anyone reach the age of fifty without having a full extraction. Some called their teeth pearlies or Wallies or Wally Dogs; a couple of the older men referred to them as clickers, snappers or clackers. Around our neighborhood, they were zoobs. I could hear the ice cubes clinking again as my mother brought Frank a refill. He took a sip and continued.

"Winnie, I asked, Where's my zoobs? She told me she didn't know. I got up and looked around. All morning I searched for the damn things -  under the bed, in the garage, in the kitchen. I was looking in drawers and behind furniture. At noon, I was still toothless. Winnie walked into the kitchen, threw me another dirty look and took the Ritz crackers out to have a snack. She put her hand in the box, screamed bloody murder and dropped it on the floor. 'Jesus H. Christ, there's something in there,' she said and backed away. 

I picked up the box and emptied it out. My zoobs clattered as they hit the counter. Damned if it wasn't my teeth she'd felt, for God's sake. Well, I was relieved to find them, but not Winnie. It was more fuel for her fire and on and on she went, like I'd robbed a bank.  

By this time, my head was pounding like a jackhammer; my guts were churning, and I needed a drink. I went into the bathroom and put in the teeth. I reached under the sink to get the bottle stashed there. I didn't hear her creep in behind me; she pounced on that bottle like a cat on a mouse.

Shit. Was she pleased John. I could have sent her ten dozen roses today for Valentine's, and it wouldn't have put a bigger smile on her face. She caught me red handed. The right color for the day."     
"So she was smiling," said my father, surprised. 

"Yes, smiling," repeated Frank. "The old witch couldn't wait to get on the phone and tell Olive about my teeth and the sink bottle. They were laughing together on the phone when I left. The two of them love to see me suffer."

Brooding in my bedroom I wrote Frank the meanest Valentine's note I could think of:

Roses are red
and violets are blue,
Olive despises you
Winnie does too.

But then I thought of this one...

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Zoobs in the crackers?
How stupid are you?

I couldn't give Frank the Valentines because my parents would kill me but I reveled in the satisfaction of seeing the words on paper and after reading them a couple of times,  I ripped them up.

There was silence from the living room. I knew Frank's glass was probably empty again but there was a two drink limit at our house; if we didn't curb the booze, Frank would stay all day and night and drink us dry. 

Dad stayed seated and watched Frank wobble to the door where he turned to the hall closet. He reached behind the pile of coats; Dad saw the flash of the bottle just before Frank got it under his sweater. We all knew the bottle was there. Mom found it a few months before and confronted my Dad. "You're getting as bad as Frank," she said accusingly. Dad was able to convince her that he wasn't guilty; that our house was being used by Frank for over-flow hiding places. I wondered how many bottles he had hidden around the neighborhood.

I saw the irascible Frank occasionally over the years on trips home to visit my mother. After my Dad died, the 3:00 visits stopped. His liver must have been chrome plated because he outlived Winnie by a few years. His brain didn't fare as well and although he was a bit addled, he remained in the little house alone without burning it down. If I did see him, it was by accident - he might be outside raking his yard or at his garage coming or going. I'd ask,"Got your zoobs Frank?" He'd smile and make sure I could see his teeth. I'd smile back and ask "How's Olive?" The question was a thinly veiled dagger and I know it made him squirm inside. I've never understood why I couldn't stop asking him about her. Some kind of revenge I guess.  

The last time I returned to the neighborhood was after my mother died. My sister and I cleaned out the house and got it ready to sell. It was a nostalgic time for us. We put on our mother's hats and jewelry; took each other's pictures playing dress-up; laughed and cried about times past in our neighborhood. As we worked our way through closets and cupboards I half-expected to find one of Frank's hidden bottles but nothing turned up. 

We never went back, but I looked up the old street on Google Earth not long ago. Our house no longer sports the flamingo-adorned aluminum screen door; the hedges between houses are gone along with the big pine trees in Mr. Laurent's yard next door. Five doors down from ours I could see the McInerny's tiny house, almost unchanged but someone had painted the front stairs a vivid Valentine's red. 

The sight of those red stairs inexplicably softened my feelings towards Frank. My heart finally thawed out after years of February sunshine in California. I have a feeling that Frank may be somewhere warmer too.



  1. I love, love, love your writing. I really think you should get serious about it. Get published- and not just self published- but big time published!
    I wonder where the word "zoobs" came from? That killed me! Also the two poems.
    More, more!!!
    At first I thought it was just fiction- in the previous posting- but now I see the real "you" in this part. So, how much is real? Or should I care?

  2. I ditto Barbara's comment. Love the story. Love your writing. Also think you should get published. Maybe start with a book of short stories. Writing a novel probably seems daunting. I just read the biography of John Cheever (his daughter wrote it) and it's interesting that he became known most for his short stories. The same could happen to you.