LEARN MORE ABOUT THE WILLS FAMILY THROUGH MARALYS' MEMOIRS: A CIRCUS WITHOUT ELEPHANTS AND A CLOWN IN THE TRUNK

Sunday, November 27, 2011

CHAPTER FIVE: A Circus Without Elephants


CHAPTER FIVE

THE MOOT COURT COMPETITION

I’VE NEVER WON AN argument against Rob.

Which is not to say I’ve never gotten my own way, it just means I’ve never bested him verbally. If someone rated us on our oral confrontations, Rob would come off as a powerful William Jennings Bryant . . . whereas I, dogged and emotional and trying not to whine, would get a rating about equal to Marge Simpson. He uses words that cut like a scalpel. I fight back with timeworn clich├ęs that are off the mark and slice no deeper than a hurled marshmallow.

I’m smarter now; I no longer do what I can’t win at, and instead I take Rob on in ways that aren’t so obvious.

But in 1953, when he was in his final year of law school, I hadn’t yet seen him operate in any arena larger than our kitchen; I didn’t know what he was capable of.

I soon found out.

DURING ROB’S Third year, a group of young California lawyers calling themselves the Junior Barristers, created a hypothetical legal case known as Roger Blackgold vs. U.R. Dutybound. This complex, at times humorous, petroleum conservation lawsuit was designed for the California law schools’ moot court competition, meaning eight schools employed the same case.

As I recall the facts, Rob was defending U.R. Dutybound, maintaining staunchly that Blackgold had no right to be slurping oil sidewise by slant drilling under Dutybound’s land. But let’s be honest; the real issue, at first, was whether Rob and his UCLA partner, Daren Johnson, could out-argue two law students from Loyola.

The opposing teams met in Los Angeles—-in a real courtroom before three real judges. Except for a bit of histrionics from Johnson (which even I knew was rarely seen in actual trials), and leaving out the Loyola man who referred to “my worthy opponents,” in sneering overtones, the competition was breathtaking only to the wives.

To our huge delight, Rob and Darren won.

FOR THE NEXT MONTH it was rumored around UCLA that their opponents from the University of Southern California Law School, were “out to get” UCLA in the second round. Somehow Johnson and Wills didn’t take these rumors as seriously as their rivals hoped.

When the teams finally met in court, Johnson spoke first. Throughout his argument he kept raising his palms as though in supplication to heaven, and he also pointed, shrugged, and alternated between looks of pain and surprise, a performance worthy of a review in Variety.

Then came the first S.C. man, who strutted about like a legal peacock and decisively shredded every argument Johnson had made.

When it was Rob’s turn, he ignored what everyone else had done and merely offered an uncluttered line of logic. With his arguments still ringing in my ears, the last S.C. man could have been accusing U.R. Dutybound of soliciting oilfield orgies and I wouldn’t have noticed.

It seemed unreasonable, later, that a simple meal could transform two overbearing lawyers from U.S.C. into a couple of slim, eager boys who were actually likeable.

After dinner the judges spoke of “excellent arguments on both sides.” And they gave the vote to UCLA!

Rob and I didn’t drive home that night--we floated!

Far in the future, sometime after the Bar Exam, Wills and Johnson would argue the last round of the Moot Court Competition against the winners from all the law schools in Northern California. This time the argument would be held at The Bar Convention in Monterey--but it was a distant thing, and too much lay before them to think about it.

ON THE FIFTH OF September, our third little boy, Eric, was born. After viewing him in the nursery, Rob came to my hospital room and said warmly, “We have a pretty good mold, Babe, I wouldn’t change a thing. He looks just like the others, but of course he’s pretty small--only nine pounds, six ounces,” which made me laugh. Our oldest, Bobby, had been eleven-two, and our second boy, Chris, only ten, and we seemed to be losing several ounces of baby with each go-around.

On October 1, three weeks after Eric’s birth, Rob packed a suitcase to go take the bar exam. He had the dazed look of a man who is being led to the gas chamber and no longer cares. He seemed beyond discussing it.

“I’ll be at the Mayflower Hotel, Babe, if you need me,” and he scooped up Bobby for a hug, patted Chris, and left us to go downtown for three days--just as someone turned up the thermostat in central Los Angeles.

On October Second, the temperature in L. A. was ninety-seven, the next day, ninety-eight. In those days air-conditioning wasn’t the norm, and the temperature in the Embassy Auditorium, where the bar exams were held, soared into the mid-nineties. Not only was the room filled with perspiring men (and a few women), but almost everyone had a portable typewriter of the old-fashioned, tap-tapping variety, so that the room was at once both redolent of nervous sweat and noisier than a 40’s newsroom.

For three days I pictured Rob roasting and flunking.

I needn’t have worried.

He came home the third night in a state of euphoria, and far from being exhausted he was buoyed by adrenaline and elated at the brilliance of the questions. When I asked about the heat he said, “Heat? That was the least of our worries. We were typing so fast we didn’t even notice it!”

His mother, Ruth, who happened to be there, said, “Gracious, Rob!” and clacked her tongue sympathetically.

Rob described the Bar exam, full of essay questions that literally crawled with issues, and his perception of the intense heat fading away each day, while the din of typewriters rose to a hellish clatter.

And then he abruptly changed the subject and brought up a topic that neither of us had really thought about in months. “Did I tell you that the Moot Court finals take place the day after tomorrow?”

“No!” cried Ruth, who now, in her older years, could turn tragic on a dime. “You’re NOT going from one terrible ordeal to another!”

“Yep,” said Rob, cheerfully. “That’s exactly what I’m doing, Mother. It’ll be hell, but I’m going.”

Which is why we prepared to leave late the next afternoon to drive to Monterey, a distance of 350 miles . . though Rob’s mother rolled her eyes and seemed ready to weep. “Don’t do it,” she cried. “You’re killing yourself, Rob! That’s what you’re doing--destroying yourself!”

Rob grinned and said he was still operating on excess adrenaline and could probably go on indefinitely.

Since Ruth’s advice to her son during his first grueling year of Law School had been, “Don’t let them do this to you, Rob! You just show them--and quit!” neither of us was inclined to pay much heed to her admonishments.

Now Rob rolled down the window of our old green Nash, The Turtle, and waved goodbye. Ruth stood in the driveway with three-year-old Bobby on one side and eighteen-month-old Chris clinging to her skirt. “Don’t overdo!” she called out one last time. “You hear?”

“I’ll probably collapse from the strain,” he yelled back, making a long face just to torture her. “See you in a couple of days--if I’m not dead.”

Still, I wondered why we were going. That morning Rob had announced matter-of-factly, “You realize, Babe, this moot court thing is pretty much a lost cause. The Respondents were winners in both the Northern and Southern law schools, and since we can’t all argue the same side of the case, someone had to switch sides. Johnson and I lost the toss.”

“Then why are we doing this, Rob?” I probably sounded like his mother.

He just looked at me and grinned. “Because I’m a masochist—-why else?”

The news that day continued to spiral downward. Before noon, Daren Johnson called to tell us officiously that the rules had just been changed and there would now be a single winner from among the four contestants--winner take all. (“All” in this case being five hundred dollars worth of law books.) “I’m getting an early start,” said Daren, laughing evilly. “Bringing along a trailer to haul back the books.”

I looked at Rob. “You offered to kill him, right?”

“We’ll just see what he puts in that trailer.”

With tiny Eric in the backseat (he had to go because I was nursing), Rob and I started off cheerfully. Still high from the Bar exam, he drove while I read him the facts on Roger Blackgold vs. U.R. Dutybound--though before we’d traveled ten miles he had begun abandoning his old friend, Dutybound, in a search for redeeming features in Blackgold. “This is amazing,” he said. “There really ARE two sides to this case!”

Clouds scampered along overhead, and there was the feeling in our little car that we were merely pleasure-jaunting up the coast--until abruptly Rob’s adrenaline gave out.

Then the sun went down, and from the rear seat Eric started howling, so I had to bring him up front for supper.

Rob had not finished studying. Somehow he had to keep gathering facts about the wrong side of the case.

With Eric quiet again, I took over the driving and Rob felt around in the glove compartment for some kind of a light. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing anywhere. Wouldn’t you know?”

When he spoke again his cheery mood had vanished. “No gambler would put money on this contest. When I got up this morning the odds of winning were two out of four. Now they’re one out of four.”

“I know,” I said. “So why are we going?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking about turning back.”

“We could, you know.”

I said it, but I knew he wouldn’t. Not him. Turning back wasn’t his style. This was the man who stuck with a madcap truck driver barreling down the grapevine, and later, three bumbling contractors who wouldn’t have done well building outhouses, and he never spoke of quitting. Instead he would grumble and swear and predict ultimate failure and make me wish I’d stayed home.

“One way or another,” he said, “I’ve got to study.” But the only interior light was a dim bulb UNDER the glove compartment which stayed lit only when the car door was open, as he discovered when he tentatively pushed his door open a crack. The light flickered on, but then the door slammed shut and out went the bulb.

Anyone else would have resigned himself to darkness. Instead, Rob rooted under the front seat and suddenly said, “Ah-ha!” and held up an old Arden milk bottle, replete with ancient smudges of dried milk. “By gum, it’ll stay open now.” He pushed against the door and wedged the glass bottle into the crack, and the ten-watt bulb under the glove-compartment glowed faintly. With the wind hissing through the opening, Rob cork-screwed himself down under the dash, grabbed his sheaf of papers, and slowly gathered a case for his once enemy, now devoted friend, Roger Blackgold.

In such a posture, he rode the rest of the way to Monterey.

It was ten-thirty at night when we arrived--so tired that we paid scant attention when we ran into Daren Johnson at the hotel and he informed us, rather too cheerfully, that we’d missed dinner at the hotel and now all the restaurants were closed. He was still unbelievably upbeat--effervescing like Alka Seltzer. “Well, Rob, are you all ready for tomorrow?” he asked, and I swear he rubbed his hands together like Scrooge contemplating his next nickel.

His wife gave me a thin, sideways smile, indicating she wasn’t ready at all.

Johnson started for the stairs. “See you down there bright and early, Rob. I’ll have my trailer parked out front.” He grinned wickedly and pulled his wife along. “Come on, Carmen.” Laughing, they disappeared.

Rob studied until midnight, and then we turned out the light, planning to get up at seven.

About one a.m. Eric began to howl. And also at two and four, indicating a basic natal distrust common to Wills babies about being forced to sleep in strange places.

Dawn arrived at five-thirty and we might have slept right through it, except that somebody decided right then to attack the street under our window with a jackhammer. In disbelief we listened to the repetitive pounding of metal on concrete. But Eric, who apparently found jackhammers soothing, slept like the baby he was. From under the pillows, where Rob and I had burrowed to escape the noise, it seemed unthinkable that in just a few hours he’d be addressing the entire California State Bar Convention.

It seemed unlikely he’d be able to speak at all.

Lying rigid as broom handles, we harbored separate grim thoughts of dumping water on the man in the street--except that would have meant getting out of bed. Rob said later he’d considered going home right after breakfast, and I thought he sounded serious, while I admitted to fantasies of pounding nails in the tires of Johnson’s trailer.

With all hope of sleep finished, Rob and I lay in bed, stupefied, waiting for something else to happen—-which, around seven, turned out to be the baby chiming in like a chorus with the jackhammer.

Rob wrenched himself to his feet. His face was ashen and his eyes rimmed with dark circles; he looked about fifty. “Oh boy,” he muttered. “I’m sick. I’m nauseated.”

One glance at his fierce expression made it clear there were no wifely words I could risk uttering.

Before I’d finished bathing Eric in the bathroom sink, Rob was telling me I’d better hurry and get downstairs to order breakfast or we wouldn’t have any. I rushed out, leaving Rob shaving and the baby on the bed.

The waitress in the hotel dining room meandered between tables with a relaxed air. But she wasn’t as slow as Rob, who apparently was NEVER going to show up. I kept looking at my watch and looking at his bacon and eggs and looking toward the stairs, while the time got to be thirty, then twenty, then seventeen minutes to eight.

At fifteen minutes to the hour he showed up looking wretched. “The baby’s been screaming the whole time you’ve been gone. I had to call a sitter. The manager sent someone up, and now Eric’s quiet.”

Oh, thank God. “You’d better eat,” I said softly. “You need something.”

“Eat? I can’t POSSIBLY eat! I feel sick.” He glanced at the fried eggs and said, “Ugh!”

Quickly he paid the bill and we were off--off to make Rob’s grand debut before half the lawyers and judges in California, in the final and most impressive round of the Moot Court Competition.

WHEN WE ARRIVED, THE crowd was all seated and the three other contestants and five judges were sitting on an open stage in front of the audience, though luckily they hadn’t begun.

Rob joined the men on stage and I found a seat in the audience. Only a minute later the first participant stood up.

The other two men were from the University of San Francisco, having prevailed over Stanford, Cal Berkeley, Santa Clara, and Hastings. Somehow I expected them to look ferocious, or at least overbearing—-they had, after all, been steady winners. To my surprise they just looked like boys. Daren Johnson seemed as formidable as any; his skills were obvious and he was no longer part of our team.

After awhile my mind wandered from the speeches, and I began thinking about our circumstances and how Rob had had no breakfast--and for that matter, no dinner the night before. And of course no sleep either. Obviously all those judges and lawyers would never know any of this, but physically he could not have been in worse shape.

When it was Rob’s turn, I could hardly bear to watch. He began speaking in a voice of deadly calm, so deliberative that I was shocked. His words seemed to be coming through some kind of modulating screen, and frankly, I’d never heard him talk like that before.

The truth was, I thought he was going to faint, and I began sending him silent messages: Don’t fall down, Rob. Don’t keel over in front of all these people. Just finish. Stay on your feet. It’ll be over in a minute. Keep standing--you can do it.

As I watched, I saw that he seemed unaware of his audience and of the other contestants, or even of himself. Calmly, very slowly, he directed his argument to the judges. To me it was the voice of a quiet, ponderous stranger--a hungry, over-worked, dog-tired, near-fainting stranger.

When he finally came to his conclusion, still speaking in that tone of lethal calm, I realized I hadn’t actually heard a word of his argument. Only two things seemed important: he had finished. And he was still standing.

Now that he hadn’t disgraced himself, we could go home happy. I couldn’t wait to go fetch the baby and get out of there.

After the last speaker returned to his seat, and we’d all stood while the five judges left the stage, I wiped clammy hands across my gabardine skirt and turned to the lady next to me, because I simply had to speak to someone. “Oh God, I’m glad that’s over!”

She smiled sympathetically.

The audience chatted in subdued voices for a few minutes and presently the judges returned. I was paying them only half attention until one of them stepped to the front of the stage and in a matter-of-fact voice made an incredible announcement: “The winner for the best oral argument is Robert Wills!”

I gasped. He’d won it all. An astonished squeal took me by surprise and I clapped my hand over my mouth. It wasn’t possible!

I whispered to myself, “I don’t believe it!” And then I turned to the lady next to me and said, “I don’t believe it!” and she smiled again, but still I kept saying those words over and over in my head. It simply couldn’t have happened. Not to Rob. Not today.

People around me were smiling and clapping.

I stared at him up there on the stage, looking so pleased, shaking hands with all the judges, courteous and gracious and almost matter-of-fact, as though it were someone else’s victory.

Rob was now the Moot Court Champion for the State of California. And no one could take that away.

Presently he came down from the stage and when we left the hall it was as though we were propelled by feet not our own. Voices not our own said Thank you, and Yes, we’re very happy, and I’m glad you liked it. We couldn’t have known that this triumph would exceed even the joy of passing the bar.

Later we were invited to the assembly luncheon as guests of the convention, where we took our baby, and once again ate almost nothing, as people were exclaiming over the infant and over Rob’s performance, and we were smiling, smiling with pleasure. It’s hard to stuff food into the middle of a smile.

By now food no longer seemed necessary.

And then we were heading home again in The Turtle, its sagging rear made worse with some forty volumes of West’s California Digest and other legal tomes. Never, not once, had we pictured ourselves returning this way.

“Well, Rob,” I said, “you outmaneuvered them all--the baby, the jackhammers and Daren Johnson’s trailer.”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “Pretty nice, huh Babe?”

Very nice, I thought, except for one thing: there goes my last hope of ever winning an argument from you!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Circus Without Elephants--Chapter-Four

CHAPTER FOUR

ONE UP ON MR. BLANDINGS

UCLA WASN’T STANFORD—-no school was Stanford except Stanford—-but it was okay, because I was there with Rob. After awhile the school began to soften and feel comfortable and even “fit” like an old pair of jeans. What wasn’t okay was where we lived, especially now that I was newly pregnant and had morning sickness, a horse-and-buggy misnomer that stands for day-long nausea, which only fades as your head hits the pillow and your stomach goes to sleep and drifts out of reach of the churning swells.

Our “home” was not a home, but a dingy apartment in a brown stucco building in downtown Santa Monica, designed not around central air but central odor. The place reeked. As we entered the building after school, a familiar smell hit us, as though the tenants were cooking some abominable mix of Brussels Sprouts and cabbage. I found myself breathing shallowly and longing for open windows. Rob wrinkled his nose and said, “Cabbage again?” and I wondered aloud whether it was the same family boiling new vegetables every day, or different families rotating through the same stinky menu. Never mind. The answer was unimportant; in my queasy state, daily contentment was impossible, living as we were among the fumes of simmering garbage.

Even without its odors, the apartment building was charmless: the halls were dark enough for a mole and the wall paint older than the carvings on a Mayan temple.

One Saturday Rob and I went for a drive, looped up over a small mountain and came down again on a winding road, and voila! we discovered the San Fernando Valley.

THE VALLEY WAS just over the hill from UCLA. It was a honeymooner’s dreamscape abloom with freshly minted tract homes and opportunistic contractors charging around old cow pastures with blueprints under their arms. Dairies had once abounded there. Now everything above the well-fertilized soil was new, and even the sun shone brighter. It all looked so promising.

For not much money, which--with a Cal-Vet loan and help from our parents--was all we had, we could swing a brand new house and escape those malignant cooking odors.

“WE’LL TAKE THAT ONE,” Rob and I chorused as our newly-chosen contractor, handsome Mr. Young of Young, Rosenberg and Spiegel, unfurled a sheet of sketches. We were looking at four renditions of an 850-square-foot house: two bedrooms, a bath, a kitchen, a living-room, and a dining nook. A mansion, really. Every sketch was basically the same house except for subtle differences (huge differences we thought), in windows or doors. But just claiming one of them as ours was like staking out a beachfront in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Rob and I pored over the sketches, examining them minutely as though they contained intricacies worthy of Hearst Castle.

Privately, the two of us slipped each other proud smiles, and then we signed important papers and wrote a big check for all the money we possessed, which was somewhere around two hundred dollars.

The house came with its own rectangle of earth, and that, too, was ours! As laid out on a flat piece of paper, the project seemed ideal. “Perfect, don’t you think, Rob?” and he said, “Of course it’s perfect--couldn’t be better!” I was thinking how this topped our first car, even my first wrist watch, which I still remembered—-the thrill of Mickey Mouse and his white-gloved finger, and how I felt so old wearing that watch at age six.

AS YOUNGISH ADULTS with limited life experience, Rob and I knew not the ways of contractors. We were innocently unaware of how some of them operated, or from what shadowy sources they drew the men who did the actual work--some of which we were about to find out.

Now that we’d signed the papers, the newly poured foundation drew us so irresistibly we couldn’t stay away. Our chateau in the San Fernando Valley soon became Rob’s personal challenge. I was growing a baby, but he was growing a house.

At first the place shaped up quickly, like a ripening plum. Exulting in its progress, Rob drove us out to the Valley every day after school just to look. The framing went up so fast we knew we’d have the home sooner than its due date. Much sooner. Which dovetailed perfectly with all the people who took one look at my generous stomach and asked, “Oh, are you due next month?”

One afternoon Rob walked across the cement, squeezed between a couple of two-by-fours and did a double-take. “Hey, what’s this? There’s supposed to be a door here!”

“You sure, Rob?”

“Sure I’m sure. I’m standing in the kitchen. I’m looking toward the garage. How are we supposed to get from one to the other?”

I eased in beside him. “How could they forget something as big as a . . . door?”

“Can’t imagine. We’ll have to find Mr. Young.”

Full of purpose and youth, we sprinted down the row of half-framed houses and finally located Mr. Young. “You say they left out a door?” he asked pleasantly. “Well, that’s a new one. I’ll have to tell Mr. Rosenberg.”

As it turned out, missing doors were new only to us. Days later the framers misplaced a window in the living room. “It’s three feet off center,” Rob explained patiently to Mr. Young, whom he’d found with some difficulty. “It’s butted right up against the front door.”

“Can’t have that,” said Young. “I’ll see that Mr. Rosenberg gets on it immediately.”

But Rosenberg didn’t get on it—-not until the lathers had covered up the frame. Rob marched up to the blank lathe and with a heavy, felt-tipped pen wrote “WINDOW HERE!” Still not satisfied, he drew the outline of a window in bold, thick strokes. Later, someone was sent to rip out half the living-room wall and re-locate the missing aperture.

Rob is nothing if not a man with audacious penmanship. I began to see his oversized words sprouting like modern-art daisies in all parts of the house.

Oddly, to the builders--to Mr. Young--Rob appeared monkishly calm. Aware of Rob’s prickly impatience at home, how his temper sometimes flared like a sudden summer storm, I marveled that he was staying cool.

As the mistakes multiplied, Rob began to make lists, with letters big enough for the blind, which he handed to Mr. Young. Young accepted the lists agreeably and put them in his pocket, and we could only surmise that Mrs. Young ran the pockets through the washing machine with Rob’s lists still in them.

Farther down the line, things got worse. Rob caught the flooring man hiking toward our bathroom with someone else’s roll of linoleum slung over his shoulder. The cabinet maker banged away in the kitchen framing out the wrong kitchen sink. And later he found the concrete man down on his knees busily forming the wrong patio. Still Rob never spoke of abandoning those contractors, and none of them saw the summer storm.

“This place is like a baby bird,” Rob said, with a hint of affection. “We can’t leave it alone for a minute.”

“What do you suppose Young, Rosenberg and Spiegel did before they became contractors?”

He thought about it. “Nothing important. I can’t picture them anywhere . . . even box boys would know the watermelon doesn’t go on top of the bread.”

OUR PALACE DID NOT arrive on time (any more than our first baby). By the end, its creation had slowed to such a crawl that it was two months late and we weren’t given the keys until four days before Christmas.

Before we unloaded our few treasures at the new house, I ran inside to get a drink—-and found no water coming from the faucets. Then I flipped a switch in the kitchen and discovered we had no electricity. Rob said evenly, “I suppose there’s no heat in the floor furnace, either.”

And there wasn’t.

He looked around the living room and began to laugh. “Smile, Babe,” he said, pulling me close and pointing. “Look over there. We’re on Candid Camera.” I honestly thought he’d seen Allen Funt.

He turned serious. “Tonight there’s going to be a cold snap,” he said, and I asked how he knew.

“Heard it on the car radio. They’re warning the citrus growers to fire up their smudge pots.”

“Oh,” I said. I was thinking about how we had no heat for the cold snap and no hot water. But then I remembered we had no water of any kind, either hot or cold.

I began feeling nostalgic about our apartment. It may have smelled of cabbage, but at least it was warm cabbage. And the place had water, too, of both varieties. I said, “What should we do?”

Rob threw a look at our non-functioning floor furnace and said with a grim smile, “I could always go out and buy a smudge pot.”

That evening, as he held a flashlight and we lowered ourselves to a bare mattress, I said, “Honey, do you realize this is our first night living in our very first house?” My voice hit the bare walls and echoed back, as in a cave.

“What you mean is, it’s our first night camping in our first house. Living is when you can turn on a light and flush a toilet.”

“Well,” I said, always the keeper of the flame of optimism, “at least there aren’t any ants or mosquitoes.”

“I’ll grant you that, Babe.” He laughed ironically and pulled me closer. “It’s too cold for ants and you can’t have mosquitoes without water.”

ROB TOOK OVER. Naturally, we had no phone, either, a service that could only be obtained in the exploding frontiers of the San Fernando Valley by submitting a sob story worthy of Queen for a Day: “My husband is stuck on a ten-story roof. He’s waiting for a call from a ladder co.”

Which meant Rob spent every minute until Christmas down at the corner phone booth, pumping nickels into a slot as he tried to score a few basics, like water.

Each problem came with its own excuse: some idiot who thought he understood tractors had graded the front yard and torn out the water pipe; three idiots who considered themselves contractors had neglected to obtain any of the final inspections; an idiot in a cowboy hat who imagined he was an electrician had failed to bring the bathroom heater up to code. Having floundered in their pretenses, they all walked away.

Using his head and an endless supply of nickels, Rob turned contractor and slowly made things right.

By Friday night, the night before Christmas Eve, peace of a sort had come to Lindley Avenue. The furnace was now working, water came through the pipes, and we were the proud owners of a single strand of electricity . . . albeit from the contractor’s power pole. Our mattress was still on the floor, but the floor was WARM. “Just think,” I murmured to Rob, “tomorrow we can take a bath.”

TOMORROW CAME, BUT not the bath. Christmas eve morning we awoke to the sound of something large, an engine of some sort moving back and forth just outside our bedroom window. And then the doorbell rang. A man from the water company stood there asking if I knew we’d sprung a leak.

“A leak!” I howled, looking past his shoulder. In our front yard, a thin stream of water was shooting ten feet into the air. “That’s not a leak. It’s a geyser!”

“What happened?” he asked accusingly, as if he thought I’d been out there hacking at the pipe in my pajamas.

“No idea,” I said. “We were asleep.”

“I’ll have to shut the water off.”

“I suppose so.” After all, we’d had water for eleven hours, maybe our quota for the year. Too bad so much of it disappeared in the ground.

Rob appeared at the door, watching as the geyser slowly receded. “You should see what else this one-man wrecking crew has done.” He ran off to get his pants.

The wrecking crew was in our backyard. About seventeen years old, pimply and male, the lad was sitting atop a small yellow tractor, now stopped, blandly surveying our yard. Here, I realized, was one of the culprits . . . foolishly hired by Rosenberg to grade our lot. It was evident that Rob had already expressed a few opinions out the bedroom window, but that the youth was a bit simple and didn’t comprehend what all the fuss was about.

I stared at the kid curiously, wondering how his mind worked—-or whether it worked at all--and how he’d managed to find and relentlessly destroy our underground plumbing. Not once, it seemed, but twice.

Rob gestured toward the front of the house. “WHY . . “ he asked with exasperation he couldn’t conceal, “didn’t you stop when all the water broke loose?”

The boy looked at him blankly and said nothing.

“He sets off a geyser bigger than Yellowstone and he doesn’t even notice,” said Rob under his breath. “And why did you bury all this stuff I had piled up next to the house? Did you think we wanted cement bags and lathing mesh planted in our lawn?” So much stupidity, Rob seemed to think, must have a REASON.

He was talking to the wrong person. I wasn’t sure the kid was even listening.

“And that’s not all,” Rob said to me, because I was the only one paying attention. “Look over there--in the corner.”

I looked. There was our power line dangling loose--our precious source of electricity doing a little dance in the corner of the yard.

“Why wasn’t he electrocuted?”

Since the boy had had nothing to say so far, not even a comment as to how he’d managed to plow through 120 volts and live, there seemed no point in pushing him further.

Seeing that Rob and I had lapsed into disgruntled silence, the kid abruptly turned on the engine of his tractor. One could almost see him thinking, Well, if they’re through yapping at me, I guess I’ll finish.

Rob came to life and leaped in front of the tractor. “Oh no!” he said. “No you don’t! You’re not running that machine one more time. You’re staying right here until I find Mr. Young.” And with that he trekked off to the phone booth for the 99th time in four days.

To our surprise and relief, Mr. Young dragged himself away from a holiday party to attend to our problems--but only momentarily. He instructed the KID to find us a plumber, and while he also dredged up another electric wire, he left ROB to install it.

Neither was successful.

The kid wasn’t able to locate a plumber on Christmas Eve, and after an hour’s work Rob discovered the replacement wire was no good.

Also, during the afternoon the garage door blew shut on three of Rob’s fingers, and his yelp was so bloodcurdling I thought he’d been electrocuted and the house had done us in at last.

I raced outside to find Rob hopping around over his smashed fingers, and was so relieved to see him still alive I screamed, “Oh, thank God!” much to his surprise.

Meanwhile, the kid--still plumberless at 4:00 p.m.--brought his father to our front yard, and the two of them knelt in the mud and wrestled with the broken water pipe. I was overjoyed to see them, especially the father.

Ultimately the two made a union of sorts and, lacking pipe joint compound, painted the union with red paint.

For non-plumbers it was quite an achievement, and Rob and I ran to the bathroom to test this latest plumbing job. To our surprise, when Rob turned on the water it came through red. For a moment we just stood there, looking.

And then I started cracking up--I couldn’t help it--and so did Rob, both of us laughing hysterically, because what else could you expect after such a debacle but red water?

I can’t recall exactly how we resolved all this. I do know that Rob found another electrical wire, and this one was good. Also, the water finally came through clear.

Since the banks, unaware of our disasters, had rudely closed early, leaving us penniless over the holidays, the tract salesman kindly lent us ten dollars. That night at 10:30 we found a lonely Christmas tree lot on Ventura Boulevard and bought a huge aromatic spruce for fifty cents and decorated it until three in the morning with popcorn and a few ornaments shipped to us by my mother. Somehow we felt entirely at peace because, after all, this was our first Christmas in our first, our very own home.

THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, Monday morning early, a familiar sound broke into our dreams. A tractor!

In disbelief, we jerked awake to the ominous growl, the approaching and receding across the backyard.

This time we didn’t lie in bed until the kid had run it through the house. Rob shot off the mattress and was outside in seconds, waving his arms like someone trying to flag down a train.

The kid stopped scooping building scraps into our flower beds and turned off the engine. Rob walked up to him and pointed toward the road. “Take that machine away--and don’t ever come back!”

The last we saw of him, our lad was in the empty field across the street having a race ON THE TRACTOR with a friend in a hot rod.

IN SPITE OF YOUNG, ROSENBERG, and Spiegal, Rob made his house come out all right.

After weeks of negotiation and a masterful letter from Rob, we settled the bill. In essence, Rob obtained their agreement that THEY pay for THEIR mistakes.

ULTIMATELY, THE INFLUENCE OF Young, Rosenberg and Spiegal on our lives was profound. Because of what they did for us--or rather, TO US--our next forty-five years were markedly different than they might otherwise have been.

After Rob wrote them his summing-up letter, he gave it to me to read. He was outside lying on his back under the car when I finished the last page. Only his shoes were visible.

I was so excited I couldn’t wait, and rushed up to the car and yelled down at his feet, “This letter is fantastic, Rob! It’s great!”

“Yeah?” I could hardly hear his muffled response.

“I thought you’d blast those guys, I thought you’d pulverize them, but you didn’t. Your letter is calm. It’s rational. It says everything you needed to say. And every sentence is important.”

His answer was garbled.

“Rob!” I cried, waving the letter excitedly as I made my final point to his shoes. “You should be a lawyer!”

Until then, he’d been getting a master’s degree in psychometrics.

That letter changed his life.

And so, thanks to Young, Rosenberg and Spiegal, Rob did what nature and nurture intended him to do all along. He applied to enter the brand new Law School at UCLA.

A FEW MONTHS LATER, IN June, I wore a cap and gown (the gown designated for an oversized male) which barely covered what seemed to be an unusually generous pregnancy. Three weeks after I graduated from UCLA, our son, Bobby, was born. To everyone’s surprise, even the obstetrician’s, he was eleven pounds, two ounces, and might have been cuter if he hadn’t arrived with padded shoulders and what appeared to be nuts squirreled away in his cheeks. He was also the largest baby ever born in that hospital.

Everyone loved the idea but me. The nurses thought he was quite the handsome little fellow, and peppered me with quips. “We caught him sitting up, reading.” “I expect he’ll be walking to the car.”

They never knew that I was mortified, that I imagined, in my young-girl ignorance, I must have eaten too much and created a monument to gluttony.

I couldn’t wait to take him home.

Rob had no such thoughts. He was endlessly proud and took great pains filling out Bobby’s baby book. When he came to a section labeled “Special Problems,” he sat up straighter and wrote in his great, intimidating hand, “This baby HAS no problems!”

We’d had our son a whole week, now, and maternal pride had finally rushed over me like a tsunami on post-partum hormones. I, too, thought Bobby was perfect.

When I found Bobby’s baby book years later, I read Rob’s words with chagrin, shaking my head. Nobody who’s ever been a parent for more than two weeks would taunt the humility gods with a statement like that!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A CIRCUS WITHOUT ELEPHANTS---Ch. 3



CHAPTER THREE

MRS. BRITTELL’S BACK PORCH

ROB’S PARENTS WERE EXACTLY as he’d said: his father, Art, gentlemanly and serious--balanced by Ruth, as vivacious and fluttery as a butterfly. Impossible not to like her.

The next month, Rob and I slid out of Stanford quietly, without fuss or fanfare. It was all too unnoticed, too unheralded.

A prideful, bookwormish student like me doesn’t leave a school like Stanford without a backward glance, so I was obviously not thinking clearly, but what did I know then . . . only nineteen and ripe to get married, following the lead of someone so brainy and fascinating I couldn’t imagine my life moving forward without him.

Our leaving took place by degrees--first Rob, then me.

How was he to know that the summer he chose to take two killer science courses--Qualitative Analysis and Organic Chemistry, both condensed (each a year’s work crammed into one quarter), he’d also meet me? His grades slipped and Stanford put him on probation. “Go down to San Jose State,” they said, “bring up your grades, and come back.”

His pride was seriously stung. “I’ll transfer all right . . . “ he said it with a certain grimness, a subtle set to the jaw that I would later see as one of his trademarks, “but I’m not coming back.”

I was only beginning to recognize the hard metal stratum that lay beneath his mercurial outer self.

A few weeks later we were in separate schools, divided by a length of Bayshore Highway and a forty-minute commute in Rob’s newly acquired but almost prehistoric roadster, a munge-green Lafayette dubbed the Turtle because of its low-slung, stumpy-looking rear end.

“This drive is hell on wheels,” he said after a few weeks, “it’s getting more grinding by the day. And where do I fit in homework? Nowhere, at the moment. Changes must be made. I’ve got to study more and see you less.”

“See me less? But Rob . . . ”

Which explains why, at the start of winter quarter, I left my precious “ivy-league” school to join him at San Jose State.

ROB HAD BEEN RENTING a tiny student room--a converted porch is all it was--from a Mrs. Brittell. To understand why we spent our first married month living on Mrs. Brittell’s back porch, you’d have to know that we’d left ourselves only one week between quarters to apply for a marriage license, a college transfer, an admission to San Jose State, a wedding ring and a Wasserman Test--though not necessarily in that order--and there simply wasn’t time to look for an apartment too.

Nor was there time to put together a decent wedding—-or, for that matter, any wedding at all.

Since we’re both terribly romantic--Rob doesn’t admit to this, but he gets misty-eyed in certain movies--the idea of being married in a judge’s downtown office began to give the pair of us a bleak, sagging feeling. As we waited to meet the judge, I looked around his forbidding office--no carpets, small windows, and a lot of dark wooden furniture that would have added layers of dreariness to an office in Tombstone--and I nudged Rob and whispered, “Honey, we can’t be married here!”

Rob nodded. “It’s not exactly a church.”

“Ask him if we can’t do it tonight--in his living room.”

With proper deference, Rob broached the subject, and the judge looked up and shrugged. His face had no more life than his office. “Doesn’t make any difference to me. You can come over if you want to.” He scribbled on a piece of paper. “Here’s the address. Do you have any witnesses?”

“No.”

“I’ll provide a couple.”

That night we learned a useless lesson—-useless because we’d never need it again: if you want a romantic wedding in a judge’s home, you’d better pick a romantic judge.

We arrived at his home at seven, both of us so slicked up and nervous it was almost like having a REAL wedding after all. We’d been thinking about the prospect all week--WE were getting MARRIED--and it was beginning to feel like a serious, grownup step. Driving over there I even dared hope that the judge’s wife might get into the spirit and provide some small touch, like candles, or a slice of cake . . . a simple gift, perhaps . . . anything to add formality and romance to the occasion. But I didn’t mention this to Rob, because in case she didn’t he might be disappointed.

The judge ushered us into his dining room and pointed to one side of a modest table. Starched and unsmiling, or just naturally bored, he positioned himself on the other side, and his young son, about eleven, came out just then and stood stiffly beside him and the father began to intone the ceremony. I looked around. Where was the wife? Would she appear in time to be a witness? Was this even legal?

No, apparently she wouldn’t appear (and I hope no one ever presses us on the legality), because she obviously had a higher calling in the kitchen. We knew she was busy because we could hear her, as sounds of running water and clacking dishes and other homey noises kept coming and going during our nuptials. Mind you, they didn’t take long. The judge must have found an abbreviated version, skipping such trivials as “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” and proceeding directly to the “I now pronounce you . . . “ which saved him significant amounts of time but left us with skimpy, pared-to-the-bones vows.

But I felt lucky anyway--partly because I was marrying Rob, and partly because he looked so awed and serious he made the ceremony resonate with significance right through the clatter from the kitchen. After a while I forgot everything except the expression in his eyes. When it was over, a look of profound tenderness came over his face, and he pulled me close and kissed me. He seemed to be saying he meant all the vows of marriage, even the ones the judge had skipped.

My heart melted. We hadn’t needed a cake or candles or a present after all. Rob made it an eloquent wedding all by himself.

Now, years later, I’ve almost forgiven the judge’s wife, since it’s possible her husband forgot to mention he’d be marrying two people right after dinner and please cushion the noise from the kitchen.

We went to a hotel that night, and the next day, after I’d finished registering at San Jose State, I asked brightly, “Well, honey. Where are we going to live?”

He looked surprised. “In my room, of course.”

Your room? Are you serious? You mentioned something yesterday but I thought you were kidding.”

“I do have a bed in there.”

“Uh, yeah--I guess you do. But Rob, it’s so . . . tiny. And what about my clothes?”

“We’ll run up to Stanford this afternoon and collect your stuff,” he said, missing the point.

Even Mrs. Brittell seemed taken aback when Rob walked up to her front door asking permission with his arms full of my suitcases. “Well, I suppose you can both stay in that room,” she said, hesitating, “if you think you can manage. But the bed’s pretty small . . . “ She looked dubious. “It’s all right with me, I guess.” It was plain she thought there was no accounting for newlyweds.

With one of his charming smiles, Rob thanked her, and now, having solved our housing problem, he led the way around to the back of the house and up the narrow steps to the enclosed porch. The room was about six by nine. He went in and plunked down all the suitcases, then turned to me. “Well--here we are!” It was the same exuberance, the same blind delight he’d had in Hudson Bowlby’s arthritic Model A.

I followed, and barely able to get into the room with both Rob and the luggage already inside, I smiled and echoed with no enthusiasm at all, “Right. Here we are.”

“Let me get these things out of the way.” Rob attempted to shove the cases under the bed, but the bed was too low and too narrow, and they didn’t come close to fitting. “Guess we’ll have to lay them flat on the floor, then,” he said, and while I perched on the bed he spread the suitcases end to end and they filled the entire open space. From then on, we walked across my imitation alligator bags to get in and out.

It wasn’t so bad having a floor made of inlaid suitcases, but we did miss the presence of a desk. Since the bed was the room’s only raised surface, it eventually served as study table, barber’s chair, dinette, and--when we were tired enough--a bed. But first we had to toss our books over onto the luggage and brush the cookie crumbs onto the books.

To say we “slept” in the bed would be a euphemism. It wasn’t a bed, anyway, it was a cot, and though we spent plenty of hours there, we extracted about as much genuine rest as two large people could expect from a narrow padded plank. It was barely possible for both of us to lie on the cot stacked on edge, like two phonograph records.

At first Rob thought it was wonderful. Cozy. “You’re so soft, Babe,” he murmured from time to time, giving me a little squeeze. “Isn’t it nice to be married?”

“Heavenly,” I said, while circulation slowly backed up in my right leg, which was mashed against the wall. “Though I didn’t think marriage would be quite so crowded. I’d like a little more room to be married in.”

“Room?” he sounded almost hurt. “What do we need more room for? We’re so close this way,” pulling me still closer.

Then we began getting tired. Rob cautioned, “Now look, Babe, don’t try to straighten your legs. I like to sleep with my legs bent, and if we’re going to stay aboard a bed this small we have to be shaped the same.”

“But I don’t like sleeping with bent legs—-not all the time. Let’s straighten them once in awhile.”

We began disagreeing as we slept. Since Rob was in charge of nocturnal maneuvers, when he wanted to turn, we both turned. But occasionally I was in the middle of some nice dream that didn’t require a change, and when he went into one of those authoritative shifts, I resisted. Whereupon he jerked the covers until he was rolled up in them like a sausage and I was left blinking and wide awake. Also cold. I’d grab the covers back, and he’d wake up. If this happened several times in one night, we fought in the daytime, too. In those days I wasn’t used to following orders in my sleep.

This went on for several weeks until one day when Rob was in class and I wasn’t, I sneaked out and rented a brand new apartment. It felt like a bold move, as though I’d emancipated myself and gone off to Washington on a bra-less march, and I was afraid Rob would be angry, but he was delighted. “I’m glad you did that, Babe. Cozy is cozy, but enough is enough.”

We said good-bye to Mrs. Brittell, who, as a parting token of affection, sent us off with her old washing machine.

Soon my mother sent down a truckload of furniture from her ranch in Mt. Shasta, and included were some nice things, like a brown Bigelow rug, plus a few old formal chairs of the not-too-sturdy type which collapsed into splinters under our weightier friends.

Then there was a big black sleigh bed--a veritable monster of a bed--but a thing of beauty, I thought, compared to the cot at Brittell’s. It was so very SUBSTANTIAL.

“You know, it’s not that bad looking,” I said as we were struggling to put it together. “It has a homey look--kind of comfortable and old fashioned.”

“That’s one way to describe it,” Rob said, grimacing as he tried to ram an eight inch bolt into a rail.

“I mean, there’s something special about an antique.”

“Yeah, there is. It’s especially old. He pounded the bolt all the way in while I held the rail in place. “There,” he said at last, straightening up. “That should take care of it.”

“You see?” I said, looking at the two curled ends, quite expansive and very black. “It’s really rather handsome, isn’t it?”

Rob studied the bed dubiously and finally came up with the only compliment he could muster. “I suppose you could say it has some kind of old world charm.”

The bed was listening.

One morning at two a.m. Old World Charm dumped us on the floor. Well, actually, it dumped us on the floor from the waist down. One minute we were sound asleep and the next our legs were bent at the waist and falling precipitously. Crash! The end rail hit the floor and the mattress jarred to a stop.

“What happened? What happened?” I shrieked, wide awake instantly. I thought we’d had an earthquake.

“Damn bed,” Rob growled.

“That was the bed?” The crash of the rail echoed in my ears and I could still feel the sensation of falling.

“Damn rotten, poorly-made bed,” Rob muttered. We were too shocked to move. Our feet were sloped dramatically downhill, and we were gripping the top of the mattress like two people clinging to a wisp of bush on a steep mountainside. Purely instinctive, as even a bird doesn’t want to be thrown out of the nest.

“No-good, flimsy weak bed,” said Rob, at an uncomfortable tilt from which he was still not moving.

“What happened?” I asked for the third time.

“It collapsed. Hell, I don’t know what happened, our bed’s on the floor, that’s all.”

Well, so it was. Eventually, since we had to get back to sleep, we disentangled ourselves from the covers and climbed off the sloping mattress to begin the resurrection. Rob went into the kitchen for a hammer and screwdriver, and I stood by and tried not to seem in any way offensive, lest I be lumped in the same category as the bed.

Rob lifted the foot end saying crossly, “Here!” and I held everything suspended while he pounded and screw-drivered down under. After more cursing and a considerable amount of time, Rob finally had it fixed and we got back in. But now we couldn’t sleep, so we spent the rest of the night giggling, because once the shock had worn off there was something funny about a collapsing bed.

A week later it happened again. Another crash and we were down, every bit as mad as the first time, but even more surprised, because we really thought Rob had made the necessary repairs. This time we didn’t lie around expecting our problem to go away.

He jumped to the floor calling the bed a son-of-a-something a bed could never be the son of, adding that fixing beds ranked extremely low in a list of best things to do at one a.m., and further directing me to “get out of that weak-boned piece of furniture and grab this end!”

Now I was sorry, apologetic, even, that I’d ever had a nice word for the bed. Right then I wished to retract whatever praise I’d uttered for something so mean-spirited . . . and yes, ugly.

Over the months I began to notice the bed was a thick, stubborn lump, so monstrously heavy it wouldn’t budge an inch if Rob tried to move it one way or another, but it moved plenty when it felt like it.

For as long as we lived in that apartment, and for its own temperamental reasons, the black sleigh threw us to the floor periodically, always at strange intervals, and generally just as we’d grown to trust it again. Old World Charm was like a horse with a bad temper--deceptively docile on its better days. But you just couldn’t predict its moods, so you never knew when it was going to turn mean and eject you.

Usually we cursed and dragged ourselves out of the covers, but there came a night when we were just too tired, and instead of getting to his feet, Rob growled, “Oh, the hell with it . . . “ and we slept at a jaunty tilt for the rest of the night.

The next day Rob surveyed the remains of our black sleigh spread across the floor. “Be sure to write your Mother and thank her for this lovely antique!”

The bed wasn’t the only distinctive personality that shared our apartment. There was also Mrs. Brittell’s washing machine, a solid Clydesdale by nature, as doughty and reliable as our bed was unreliable, and in addition, a marvel of Thirties engineering. Neither Rob nor I have ever seen another like it. The machine was approximately the age of our flighty bed, but had a determined spirit and a warm, giving heart--and it did its job with undaunted energy. Shaped like a great iron cradle, it sat on our back porch and rocked violently back and forth, while clothes, soap, and water gathered in frothy tidal waves and heaved from one side to the other.

There were no subtleties about the machine--it neither rinsed, wrung, nor spun, all that was up to us--but it certainly did wash . . . and it could have taught our bed a lesson in fidelity.

The washing machine became our resident comic performer. Since Rob and I had never seen an appliance with such an odd shape and so much vigor, we used to run it just for our amusement, and sometimes we fired it up to entertain friends.

“Come see what’s on our back porch,” we said, “if you want to meet the real character in this apartment.”

But we didn’t take it with us when we finally left San Jose, partly because of its mammoth weight, and partly because neither of us believed its plucky old heart could last much longer.

TOGETHER, ROB AND I FINISHED the school year at San Jose State, where we’d signed up jointly for child psychology and genetics. All I remember about those courses, besides the fact that we were both finally studying and consequently earning stunning grades, is that Rob and I bred a lot of fruit flies, which kept waking prematurely from their anesthetized state and escaping into the classroom, where they bred surreptitiously with other students’ flies and ruined everyone’s experiments.

ROB WAS THE PRIME MOVER behind our transfer to UCLA. “Let’s go back to Stanford,” I said, but his jaw got that look and I knew it was hopeless. Women who aren’t married to flinty husbands say things like, “You should have made him go,” but frankly, I’d just acquired this man and wasn’t ready to push him to an ultimate test.

So we transferred to UCLA, instead of some other large school, for a reason that now seems flimsier than dust. “The surfing’s terrific down in Los Angeles,” Rob exclaimed, and he wore that same bright expression and exuded the same air of breathless excitement that once made me imagine a “beach party” would consist of a significant number of people gathered on the beach.

“Babe,” he exulted, “the sand everywhere is broad and clean. And the water’s warm,” and then he added as an afterthought, “and UCLA’s an excellent school.”

His last statement was true. The rest wasn’t.

Before long I learned that the Santa Monica version of the Pacific Ocean was only slightly warmer than the water that lapped across the shore at Santa Cruz, which, by the temperature registered on my toes and legs, left it pretty frosty as oceans go.

But that never mattered much.

We were soon so busy with all the homework piled on us by UCLA . . . and making new friends . . . and coping with the nausea that accompanied my first pregnancy . . . that we hardly ever saw the beach.

ROB AND I DIDN’T REALIZE it then, but our move South was the first of dozens of paradoxes that followed us through life, accompanying the various choices we made over the years. In fact, if someone asked me, What is one of the inevitable consequences of living? I’d say Irony.