Just Like Charlton Heston

A note from me, the author. This is another story from ‘So Long Polyester’. The first one I posted was ‘Love, Like Stew’.

The works contained in this collection are longer, this one is 3K words, darker than those in ‘At Love’s Altar’ and based mostly in Florida. They combine observations and insights from the time I lived there. I may not publish all of them here but, this is one of my favorites so I wanted to share it.

Some were written when I was really trying (gritted teeth, blood, sweat and tears trying) to ‘get somewhere’ with my work which was crazy and way too demanding. I started to realize that writing to develop as a person and artist was more important than ‘being published in a big way’.  I’ve met many artists and writers whose sole purpose in life seems to be mega-success. Nothing wrong with that but I didn’t like the look and besides, those shoes don’t fit me. I stopped trying so hard.  And writing became much more enjoyable.

 Hope you enjoy and that all is well in your corner of the world.

________________________________________________________________________________

You arrive home from your ‘Movie Magic’ discussion group to find Gaylord’s leather recliner in front of the television empty. The television is on without sound. There are DVD cases scattered across the floor. The place smells sickly sweet and you wonder if he’s been opening your perfumes again, the only other thing besides movies that you collect.

You go into the kitchen. Nothing has been touched since you left; the counters are wiped clean, a blue coffee mug sits empty in the stainless steel sink.

You call out, “Gaylord?”

There is no answer so you begin a search of the condominium. You walk through the four clean, tidy, light-filled rooms with pale wood and bare floors, except for the authentic Oriental rug in the living room. This is Florida living at its best and your home now, thanks to the remainder of the ample inheritance left by your parents; may they rest in peace.

You look in closets and under the bed; he would never fit but who knows. You check the shower stall and behind the couch. You go to the screened-in porch but apart from some ‘crazy ants’ shifting crumbs across a glass-topped table, there are no signs of life.

You consider the possibility that he has taken out the trash, and then remember that those moments are gone. He never goes out; not to the pool, the mailbox downstairs or even onto the breezeway to get the newspaper.

Unless the building’s fire alarm went off because Mrs. Nulty was frying hand towels again and in the panic and confusion he left, took a wrong turn at the garbage room, fell down the chute and is presently lying prostrate in the dumpster on the first-floor.

“No,” you say. “If he can’t fit under the bed, he’d never fit down the chute.”

You check the time. Four p.m. If he isn’t back for News at Six, you’re going to call the police.

You follow the smell to the master bedroom. You look at the bottles cluttering the surface of the dresser and find the problem, an uncapped bottle of Channel No. 5 from 1965. You are annoyed but recap it and gaze into the mirror.

You examine the creases branching out like winter trees from around your pale blue eyes. Skin dry as autumn leaves. Seasons etching time across your face. You reach for the jar of moisturizer.

Could it be that Gaylord has stumbled out the front door because he was hallucinating? It could happen. He has always been prone to imagining weird things.

Maybe he saw Barbara Streisand walking by the window again. Or Sigourney. So statuesque. Such nice underwear in the movie Alien.

Yes, you think. It could happen. It does happen and did, at least in your family. You begin applying the cream to your face, blotting gently the way the woman from the Beauty Salon demonstrated. You remember as a child how your Uncle Marv with the stony face and big teeth told you about his friend, Jo-Jo, who thought you had very nice underwear too. You were embarrassed and confused, especially when your parents told you that Jo-Jo was Uncle Marv’s imaginary friend and then laughed because they thought it was funny. But, Marv never laughed when he told you what Jo-Jo had to say. You stop blotting and start rubbing the cream in, slowly. No. Your uncle seemed to take the whole thing quite seriously. You clear your throat and try to smile.

“Anyway. Anyway,” you say sweeping away the thought with your hand.

“It isn’t outside the realm of possibility.”

In fact, you remember, yes, that’s right Mrs. Plotnic’s husband Wilfred, they live three doors down the hall, has a vivid imagination too. Just last week he got you into a tight corner near the elevators and with narrowed eyes, whispered to you, as if spilling matters of national security.

“Mamie, now you mustn’t tell Mrs. Plotnic this, but I saw her again.”

“Who Wilfred? Who did you see again?” you asked.

His eyes widened, his face lit up like a Fourth of July sky; possibly, he felt he now had a co-conspirator, an ally in his war of spousal secrets.

“Why, Baby Jane, of course! She was dancing across the parking lot in that frilly white dress of hers.”

“Well,” you replied, while backing into the safety of the elevator, pressing the number to your floor, “how nice. How really very nice for her. And you”.

You watched as the explosion that a moment before had been Wilfred’s face fizzled, and the elevator doors moved silently towards each other until the face became a landscape of vanishing features. A sliver of pale flesh, then gone.

Here one minute – gone the next, you think, and wipe your hands on a tissue. Maybe Gaylord is downstairs at the barber shop.

In the mirror, you look at your own hair. Remember when you first saw John Waters’ Hairspray and how it changed your entire perception of hair-dos? But that was back in 1988 and now, the dyed-blonde beehive seems to be traveling in the wrong direction. The bangs droop into your eyes which, you hadn’t noticed before, look like they’re carrying overnight bags.

“Face like a roadmap out of town,” you sigh, shaking your head and raking the hair back into place.

“Anyway, he certainly hasn’t gone out to visit friends. This I know. Gaylord never had friends. I had the friends and none of them ever met him. He’s not much of a people person. He hates conversation.”

You wish that wasn’t true. You wish he would at least talk to you. You are childless. Without family. Apart from Helen downstairs and your group, there is no one.

You rustle though drawers and reassemble yourself by changing into pink velour sweatpants, a matching sweatshirt. You open a bottle of Nina Ricci and dab each side of your neck, the inside of your wrists. You stick your feet into a pair of cream and blue spotted slippers and then fall onto the bed. You’ll wait. Maybe nap. Anything to pass the time.

You lie there thinking, of all the happy years turning into mundane years, descending into tense then painfully obscure years.

Yes. You think life used to be better. Gaylord had that job didn’t he? Selling cable TV packages. Then technology changed, satellite TV was all the rage, and instead of embracing this new frontier, he took early retirement.

But before that happened, the two of you used to go out. To dinner. A film. You went almost everywhere together. You were a very exterior couple.

And then, over time, Gaylord became a very interior person. An Oreo-eating, channel-hopping mushroom.

As difficult as this transition was, this morphing of husband into fungus did prove your theory that, unlike going to the movies, television was addictive. Like potato chips or stamp collecting or those weeds people smoke. Someone once called it a Technicolor Epidemic, contagious as the common cold, or that last song you hear on the radio etching repetitive grooves in your mind.

You remember a dream. In it, Gaylord made a prediction.

“You may not be aware of this Mamie, but in the future the television manufacturers will invent some rather extraordinary things. Marvelous and astounding things. Climate-controlled soundproof rooms with walls like giant plasma screens. Revolving recliners playing classical or ambient music or, muzak if one prefers.”

To which you replied, “Somewhat like the place Edward G. Robinson went to die in Soylent Green?”

He didn’t reply and you woke with the strangest feeling.

As you prop a pillow behind your head, you remember that Charlton Heston was also in Soylent Green. You never liked Charlton. Such big teeth. You always thought he would be untrustworthy. Maybe even cruel.

“This is not happy thinking,” you say covering your eyes with your hands.

You need to think happy; Helen always says that, so you concentrate hard and suddenly Bo Derek is running up the beach in slow motion, braids snaking like Medusa. That little man (what’s his name?) is watching her and soon there will be a lovely piece of classical music and tumbling around in a big bed.

Remember how you and Gaylord met all those years ago? Nothing quite that dramatic and certainly without the tumbling.

It happened one summer in Darley’s luxurious department store. Darley’s, with its marble floors and glittering chandelier interior, is gone now; a horrible fluorescent-lit mall stands in its place. But you can still see that day clear as glass.

It was a Tuesday. You had just returned from a weekend in New York City celebrating your thirtieth birthday. That was in 1972. What a wonderful year for film. You saw Images by Robert Altman for the first time there and it made such an impression on you. That poor confused woman. How sad.

Besides the movie, you visited a museum exhibition called ‘Egypt in an Hour’. The man at the desk handed you the official exhibition guide and explained that it was, “for busy people wanting to inject a little culture into their day”.

“How thoughtful,” you said as if the idea was his. Then you wandered into a room full of stone carvings and paintings of sideways people with sideways eyes, who, the information in the guide said, were bringing gifts to the dead people in the coffins or sarcophaguses. And food. They put food inside the tombs so the dead could have a little nosh in the after-life. The guide didn’t use the word nosh, but you knew that’s what it was. Anyway, you didn’t like the idea. Such a waste. Like you’d have an appetite.

But you did love the turquoise jewellery, very much. You could have done without seeing the pieces of fabric that looked like shredded wheat and the rotting footwear.  And the names. What craziness. Akhenaton and Tutankhamen and Amenhotepp. Whoever heard such names? Like dishes you would order from a menu.

You did ‘Egypt in an Hour’ in roughly forty-five minutes and left feeling a bit like you cheated.

On that life-changing Tuesday in Darly’s, you were on the first-floor sniffing perfume. There was one in particular, oddly herbal and gassy, maybe a little disgusting. Still. It was a familiar smell. You couldn’t tear your nose away from the bottle. It was as if, through its disgusting-ness, you were attempting to discover its beauty. Then finally, recognition. The museums’ mummy room. As you stood there you sensed the saleswoman behind the counter staring down at you.

You looked up. Her name tag read Martha.

Martha with the sun-sweet prune tan. The dark-domed hairstyle. The kind of snaggle-toothed face worn by children on Halloween, glared with this crinkled paper look and asked, “Would Mademoiselle like to make a purchase?”

“Mademoiselle is browsing,” you replied, thinking she looked so thin. And that skin. Bargain-basement leather. She reminded you a little of a cadaver.

Eyes pinned to you like a corsage, she stood tapping a handful of long acrylic talons on the glass counter-top. You weren’t sure what to do. Feeling pressured, you feigned interest in the bottles and boxes stacked behind her. But Martha wasn’t buying it. She cleared her throat; a loose rumbling sound came with it, which you took as a threat.

Still holding the bottle, you tried to sound casual. “How much?”

She cocked her head. “That,” she said with her tight Nefertiti mouth, “is a Cleo D’Nile par-fum. It retails for $335 an ounce.”

My Asp it does is what you really wanted to say. My Asp and Ms. D’Nile, shame on you. You may have bottled the stink, but did you have to steal the name too? Marketing. How obvious. And right now, poor Cleopatra, that poor dead Queen of the Nile, is probably turning in her sarcophagus. Turning and turning and wishing the after-life noshes were more interesting.

“Well Martha,” you did say, releasing the poisoned bottle. The bottle of venom. “If you want to smell like $335 worth of stale embalming fluid, you wear it.”

Up on the third-floor Gaylord had just completed a non-confrontational purchase of a portable television set.

He was leaving through the Primrose Boulevard exit as you were storming out, swearing to never again return to Darly’s perfume department. You knocked him off-balance, he fumbled with the box. After apologizing, you looked into his eyes, the warmest shade of brown you’d ever seen. You immediately felt safe. There was something so unlike anyone you had ever known in Gaylord, something that seemed secure. Solid.

You hear the phone ringing but ignore it. You lie there, flaccid as a fish, mesmerized by the ceiling fan as it slices the air above you. The pull-chain dangles like a wiggling brass worm. A little Gaylord snapshot floats inside your head. Then quickly it changes, becomes Uncle Marv. That thick hair, that smile; oh God, you think, not a smile at all, a Charlton Heston grimace. Pained and wide. He is talking to you through that stretched smile and those big teeth and you smell beer and he is warning you not to tell your parents.

You sit up quickly and look at your watch. It’s getting late and there’s still no sign of Gaylord.

You pace back and forth, look at your nails. The sapphire-blue polish you got on sale at Marshall’s has chipped. You should have paid full price, purchased a better brand you think, as you try to blot out the image of Marv.

You conjure the comforting image of Gaylord. You secure that image in your mind. See his nearly-black head of hair. His face smooth as butter. His hopeful brown eyes. Those eyes that spend so much time practically stuck to the damn television screen. You recall complaining to friends.

“I worry he’ll go blind.”

To which they would respond, “Mamie. That’s a threat parents make up to scare their children”.

You have tried speaking to him.

“You know, sitting so close to the TV can have a very bad effect on the eyes. And as they say, the eyes are the windows to the soul. Do you want to break those very important windows Gaylord?”

He never responded. But, it didn’t matter to you because he was still there. Still your husband.

 

The phone is ringing again. You stare at it then grab the receiver, sit on the edge of the bed. These slippers make your feet look like over-sized blueberry muffins.

You hold the receiver away from your ear and chew your nails.

You hear a faint voice on the other end, but it’s not Gaylord, so you hang up. The remaining polish chips off into your mouth.

You try to console yourself.  Gaylord will walk through the door any minute now with some silly excuse or explanation. Any minute now.

You think of those well-meaning friends throughout the years, making offers.

Ethel. “Mamie let us come by. Talk to him.”

“There’s no need.”

Joyce. “He needs professional help.”

“And since when are you a professional?”

Ethel and Joyce. “But how much can one person take!”

“He’s my husband.”

News time has come and gone and still no Gaylord, so you rush into the living room.  On the chair-side table you notice the daily pill caddy you bought him years ago. It seems a little too full.

You sit heavily into the chair, reach for the phone, but pick up the remote control instead. You watch as shapes flicker across the TV screen. A game show is beginning. You have always loved beginnings. The stillness and anticipation. A moment in which anything can happen.

You can’t remember ever feeling this tired. You try to keep your eyes on the screen but they close.

You are standing at the edge of the high-dive, toes curled, arms stretched forward like arrows, at the pool of the apartment building you lived in as a child. Everyone is waiting; your parents, your Grandmother, your cousin and her mother, Uncle Marv who had insisted on helping you up the ladder, holding onto your waist, telling you not to worry, it would be easier for you to dive in just your underwear. You believed him. You wanted to impress everyone. You were focused on the dive. Ready to push up and fly out and down towards the clear, bleachy water. Everyone watching. A perfect swan-dive. A bold jack-knife. Everyone applauding. A stunning back-flip.

But you chickened out. As you climbed back down the ladder, Marv looked up at you, his mouth twisted into that horrible grin. You were breathing heavily, your stomach aching, gripping the ladder’s sleek metal handrails. Seeing your young face in the silver reflection. Marv watching as you stepped down. Each step closer.

Your eyes snap open. You look down at the floor. At your feet is a DVD. A small-budget independent film that never really went anywhere but still, it is your all-time favorite. You get up and turn off the game show, place the DVD into the player. Suddenly, your heart lifts. You’ve seen this film so many times, you can’t remember how many, but you know every line. Every camera angle. Every gesture.

You pick up the phone and dial 31.

A woman answers.

“Care desk,” she says.

You watch the screen.

A woman wanders inside a museum.

Then the scene changes and the same woman sniffs perfume in a department store.

“Oh, Helen. You’re there,” you say, a chime in your voice. A girl’s voice.

A man and woman hold hands across the table in a cafe.

“Are you alright Mamie? After what you said in group, I was worried. You seemed so confused. I’ve been trying to call you. I was about to send someone up to check on you.”

Now the man watches television. A little withdrawn but still you can tell, so kind. So patient and understanding with the warmest brown eyes you have ever seen.

“Helen. Can you come up? Can you come up now?”


‘Just Like Charlton Heston’ by Deborah McMenamy published in ‘So Long Polyester’, Labello Press (c) 2013

All Rights Reserved

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Loving your introduction Deaborah! And the story of course!! This is a fascinating story and one close to my heart. My oma (grandma) many years ago lost her sense of real. She was ok about it, no frustration which was fortunate for her and us.
    You have written the story so well. Lovely writing, compassionate and insights to what can happen.

    1. Thanks Anki…I’ve only dealt with the opposite of your Oma. That was very fortunate for your family, and for her. To experience this with grace or at least without the horrible things that can happen saves everyone in many ways. It was a tough story to write so I appreciate your kind input. You’re a great communicator; thank you for sharing this.
      Take care.
      D

Leave a Reply

Close Menu