Edendale: Chapter 2
Vero Beach, 1945 –courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
By Phyl M. Noir
Vero Beach, Corralitas & Venice
After the wedding ceremony, Dr. Bissell snapped a photograph of Sid in his dress uniform. Justina wore a suit with cloth-covered buttons and held Sid’s arm. The suit was a light brown, which Mrs. Bissell called “mousse,” and Justina understood her to have said, “mouse.” Mrs. Bissell wore a Prussian blue suit with a straight skirt and fitted jacket, a hat that looked like a soup bowl with turkey feathers coming from its inverted bottom, and the hideous fur boa that ended in terrible little animal heads with glass eyes. The women wore white cotton socks and saddle shoes because the War Defense Board had commandeered first silk and then nylon, so they did not wear dress shoes and stockings.
They all drove down to Vero on the Dixie Highway in a borrowed Navy car. Royal Poinciana flowered bright orange on the mainland side of the road and towering palms incised their exotic shapes in the brilliant light. The family passed miles of citrus groves, and then they came to a small town with a gas station, a post office, and a small grocery store. They passed through more orange and grapefruit trees and passed a pineapple plantation and they came to Sebastian. Scarlet bougainvillea and red hibiscus flowers grew on bushes ten feet high, and Elephant Ear leaves were the size of real elephants’ ears and they were the same green as emerald ink.
Dr. Bissell took a photograph of the front of the house Sid had rented. A pyramid of grapefruit rested on the concrete steps. Sid wore a leather flight jacket and in it he placed two grapefruit so it looked as if he had breasts. He wore his mother’s fur boa around his neck. Justina pretended to reach for Sid’s grapefruit breasts to steal a feel of them.
On the day of Justina and Sid’s wedding, the United States Air Force firebombed Kobe in Japan and killed 80,000 people. Bursts of light flashed everywhere in the darkness, bombs fell to earth in whistling bouquets of jagged flame.
Sid and Justina Anna moved to a house on the Indian River in a small commercial fishing village. The house was concrete and stucco with a flat roof; it looked like a heavy shoebox resting on one of its narrow ends. The other houses in Sebastian were fishermen’s houses near the water and farmers’ houses inland.
Across Route One — the narrow road which started in New York and ended in Miami — stood an ice plant that stored the fish then so numerous fishermen heard a roaring sound when schools of them passed close to shore.
The Indian River was not a true river; it had been a lagoon separating a thin land barrier to the Atlantic from the mainland until Americans breached the barrier with dynamite and created a highway of brackish water. When the tide went out, it left algae on the banks. The US Corps of Army Engineers dredged the river and created dredge spoil islands. Snakebirds stood on the branches of conifers that covered the islands, and they lifted their wings to dry them.
No one knew the Asian war was almost over. The Japanese wanted to negotiate conditional surrender, but the President of the United States preferred an unconditional one. In July 1945, the American government would detonate the first nuclear device. On August 6, 1945, its military would drop Little Boy on Hiroshima and on August 9, 1945, Fat Man was to fall on Nagasaki. One hundred and twenty thousand people, mostly civilians, would die immediately.
America had been at war for over three years. Its economy was by then a war economy; its government was a war government. Sid and Justina believed the war was going to continue for a long time.
Even innocuous articles in the newspapers contained misinformation. Military propaganda and government deception shaped public consciousness. The Vero News focused on dinner parties held in the area and some of those parties had only two guests.
The Vero News did not report that a pilot had died in the Indian River, trapped in the cockpit of his plane when the tide came in or that other pilots had taken off their shoes and had waded out to the plane and watched him die: they had had no tools to get him out. The newspaper did not report the handful of crashes into houses in Vero. America had not been prepared for war. Its government had convinced the country that the war was other peoples’ war until December 7, 1941. The planes were clumsy and too large; the airplanes that were in good condition went to Europe and to the Asian front.
The Germans probably knew about the crashes, and they certainly knew the location of the air base. A U-boat torpedoed the lighthouse south of Vero, and it then entered the Indian River at high tide and beached during low tide. The submariners escaped and walked to shore, where they were arrested. The police searched the Germans and found in their pockets ticket stubs to a movie showing at the Vero Cinema for Barbara Stanwyck’s movie called “Ball of Fire,” in which she played Sugarpuss O’Shea and danced to the drum boogie-woogie.
Experience was calmer, more rural, more related to schools, churches and temples than it was to be during later wars. The government’s large and small lies made experience seem even simpler, purer, than it was.
On most mornings, Sid put on his Navy pants and shirt, his leather jacket, and the leather helmet that buckled under his chin. He climbed into the J. Gosport at the Sebastian landing field and flew the eleven miles to the Naval Air Base at Vero. Before the war, the base had been a Delta Airlines landing field set in orange groves.
Sid had not seen action in the seven years he served his country; he was a flight instructor and the Navy needed him to teach new pilots. The Navy transferred Californian pilots to Florida, and the Army Air Force transferred Floridians to California. His cousin Stanford had flown from Texas to California. Stanford’s plane crashed in the Sierra Mountains, but no one would find the plane until 1995.
Beginning almost as soon as Dr. and Mrs. Bissell arrived back in Los Angeles after the wedding, Sid wrote to them about his disturbing dreams. He didn’t tell his wife about them: Justina saw portents in the shapes of rocks and in the shadow cast by a door left partly open. He wrote the letters when she was out for walks down to the fish store on the river.
He wrote in his last letter that he opened a book in his dream, a large book made up with heavy pages and sealed at its spine with glue. He read the first page of the book and heard the writer’s voice reading out loud to him.
The man wrote that he drove over the mountain road from Clearlake to Williams. It was early spring, rainy, the oaks beginning to bud, the bracken turning rose as it does weeks before it greens. Beneath the gray skeletons of the trees were islands of darker green. Because the road cut through a hill, its left side descended into a steep ravine. The other side ascended to the hilltop. Rainwater rested in small lagoons in the dirt road. The sky was the thicker sky of California: layers of blue.
An automobile came up the wrong side of the road towards him. The man writing the story did not know whether to drive into the wrong lane himself to avoid a collision or to continue in his lane — the other driver must have dozed and could wake suddenly and correct his driving. The writer imagined the impact of the cars and their fall into the deep valley.
The man in Sid’s dream saw the other man’s face ““ a Japanese face — through the windshield and he was suddenly more present than he had ever been before. The stones in the hillside appeared to him to be living a slow geologic life. The currant-dark shadows in the arms of the bare trees became mysterious and more real than the trees themselves.
To his left the man who spoke in the dream saw a room open in the landscape
painted on his car windows: a room filled with heavy light, light like the water in mountain lakes where you see fish swimming beneath your boat and green weeds waving slowly in the water’s currents, and then a boulder appears apparently close enough to touch but it is actually ten or fifteen feet below the surface of the lake. At the end of this room he saw windows opening to brilliant magnesium light. Behind the room he saw the trees, the shadows, the dun grasses and the sentient stones.
The heavy light contained intelligence like human intelligence only exponentially greater and pure. It contained no anger or fear or yearning. It contained no sentiment at all. The man in the dream knew, he wrote and said aloud in Sid’s dream, that if he entered the room he would be different. He would become kind in every action towards everyone. He would live with the fresh taste of life in his mouth every moment. The room welcomed him. The room told the man it welcomed all of us. The room must be, he wrote, the Messiah but he had thought the Messiah would pity us, had thought He would hold us in his arms to comfort us, but the room contained no solace.
The driver of the approaching car in the dream turned into his own lane in time.
On March 25, 1945, Sid deposited the letter describing the dream in the mailbox on the side of the Dixie Highway and lifted the mailbox flag. His driver picked him up and they stopped in Vero where Sid ordered white flowers to be delivered to the shoebox house, and then they went to the landing field.
Justina came home from the fish store and opened the door to the house. She saw white mums, white roses, gardenias and calla lilies. She put down the newspaper wrapped fish on the counter in the kitchen. She opened the faucet and filled a glass of water and drank the water slowly.
She went to their bedroom and kneeled by the side of the bed like a little girl and prayed. “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” She had a young voice like a child’s voice and that was to be her voice even when she was very old.
Corralitas, in Los Angeles
The Pacific Electric Interurban streetcar ran from downtown through the long valley below the Corralitas hill in Los Angeles, and on the other side of Allesandro Street were the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists’ grove and cabins that were built in 1912 for the promotion of Spiritualism, then a popular movement that included camp meetings and lectures by prominent mediums. The movement in Los Angeles focused on psychic phenomena and support for women’s right to vote, which right was not recognized until 1920.
Tall hills that grew native oaks ringed the Semi-Tropic Spirtualists’ tract, and lines of dark green cypress trees like the trees in old-fashioned cemeteries were used as windbreaks, and pine trees. Anise grew there and cultivars like blue-violet flowered plumbago and roses. Small lot farmers planted orchards behind their cabins and sunflowers sometimes grew six feet high, their yellow faces fat with seeds.
The night before the family received the news about Sid, Franklin Bissell went down the hill to his sister Barbara’s car, which was parked in the soft dirt under a eucalyptus tree, and he pulled out the rope and old tire she had with her in case people were stuck somewhere in mud and then he came back and tied the rope to trees at the end of Echo Park Avenue, at the place where the road petered out into shacks built in pockets of hill that encircled a canyon, and he tied the tire to the rope.
He stood there until evening listening for the approaches of the Pacific Electric, sending it on its way with his thoughts, thinking what the hell was going to happen now. The sun went down. A gibbous moon rose.
From time to time, he stood on one side, grabbed hold and swung over the canyon, describing a semicircle in the air.
The next day, Franklin stood in the sunlight and looked down into the Semi-Tropical Spiritualists’ canyon, which was partly comprised of Euclidian areas of fruit trees in bloom. He thought the colors in the landscape were too bold and fragrant. He thought the blue sky was two; the new green leaves were seven; the white blossoms had no number as if they were made of panes of glass; the bright yellow mustard plant growing under the trees was three.
In an open laundry shed a little downhill of where he stood, his sister Barbara ran a hose into a white metal tub that stood on legs. She shut off water to the hose at a faucet. Then she turned on an electric switch, and the tub gyrated automatically.
Barbara pulled laundry through ringers in a rack on top of the tub and the batwings under her bare upper arms jiggled when she turned the crank. She carried the laundry in a woven wicker basket over to the clothesline. She was wearing a Mexican skirt she had made with ruffles from green and red ribbons and a white blouse with a poinsettia embroidered on it that Sid had purchased for her when he lived in Mexico.
She turned and saw Franklin and put down her basket and waved at him with both arms.
He waved back with both of his arms.
Barbara cupped her hands and yelled up to him, “Frank! There’s a Western Union fellow on his way here!”
Franklin Bissell looked into the canyon and saw a plume of blond road dust shook free by a motorcycle riding along the road down below Barbara’s washing shack. Franklin’s eyes were hound dog sad.
Rose Avenue and Oceanfront in Venice
Rose and her youngest son Max sat on red Naugahyde benches and faced each other across the table at the coffee shop with plate glass windows that faced Oceanfront on Ozone, which was near Rose’s apartment building on Rose Avenue and Oceanfront.
She wore a white linen blouse with a cameo pinned at the neck and a wool cardigan and a maroon pencil skirt.
Maxie wore gabardine trousers and a white long sleeved shirt. The top of an open pack of Chesterfield cigarettes emerged from the top of his shirt pocket, and he smelled like tobacco and brandy.
Rose’s hair had faded from the fiery red of her youth to a paler red, and it was dry hair that stuck up madly as if it had gotten into a fight. Her skin was soft and pale, she had thick dark eyebrows, and her cheeks were pink without rouge. In the bright light that came through the big windows facing the Pacific Ocean, her eyes were green. Her eyes changed color and sometimes looked yellow like a tiger’s eyes. She was tall for a woman of that time.
Maxie was a yellow haired man with blond eyelashes and eyebrows. At twenty, he had a receding hairline. He had his mother’s and his brother Sammie’s aquiline nose, the shape of their eyes and their high cheekbones but he wasn’t handsome, as they were.
The waiter put two chocolate malted milks in chrome mixing cylinders and two glasses on the table. “Mazel tov, Your Samuleh got married.” He said.
Rose and Maxie unconsciously turned their heads in the direction of That Woman. That Woman, sometimes referred to as The Commie, sat alone at the counter.
That Woman felt them looking at her and nodded in their direction and continued to stir cream into her cup of coffee with a metal spoon that clicked against the inside of the ceramic cup. If she heard, she wasn’t letting on.
Rose thought about Sammie’s marrying a gentile. Justina was a real looker. Sammie wasn’t smart so it was good he married a stupid woman. There is always tsores when a stupid man marries a smart woman.
Maxie taught Justina’s baby the English alphabet, and he read nursery rhymes to her. Four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie, is that something to teach a baby? Smart babies learn everything and then they piss on the floor but babies are all good, she thought. They make everything all right.
Rose sighed dramatically. Sometimes, sighing explained everything. Sometimes it didn’t.
“I worry, Maxie.”
“Don’t worry, Mama.”
Rose shook her head. “I worry. They won’t have money.”
“They have money. Sammie wouldn’t marry a woman without money.”
“She has money?”
“She has money.”
Sammie had not invited That Woman to the wedding. He hadn’t spoken two words to her since Jake died and maybe three words before that and maybe ten words to Jake after he divorced Rose and married That Woman.
“So many years, ” Rose said. “One year after the other. My Mama ran along the harbor on the Black Sea, her skirts flying, when Jake came for me and took me on the ship to America. She was thirty-three years old, and I was fifteen. I saw Mama running and waving her white handkerchief over her head until we got so far out in the water I couldn’t see her.”
“You never saw her again,” Maxie said, as he always cunningly said at that point in the Black Sea story to get himself in Rose’s good graces and maybe get a little money from her to cover his bar bill but he was genuinely moved when he thought about his grandmother running and running until she couldn’t see her young daughter’s ship anymore.
“No. Jake promised he’d take me back home but, with one thing and another, we didn’t go.”
“We lived in The Flats.” Maxie prompted.
“It was good for a long time. ” She did not need to say that it was good until Jake met That Woman.
“The river was like a real river, except for the meat packing business. That spoiled the river. We had picnics on the river under the trees. We went to temple, and Sammie, he used to sing. He memorized all the words in Hebrew and when he sang, we were in heaven. He could have been a cantor, our Sammie.”
With her eyes, she dared Maxie to say something disparaging about his brother.
“The government tore down all the houses. They was good houses except for the plumbing. They was a big oak, and they pulled it up and I saw its roots. That oak was like us. They pulled us up.” Rose said.
A man and a woman and a baby in her mother’s arms came into the coffee shop. They saw That Woman and walked to the counter and held the baby out to her to take into her own arms and the man told her, “Mindy looks just like you.”
“Your aunt Annie’s still in the Heights,” Rose said after awhile. “She hasn’t left yet. Your cousin Sara just had a baby, Ralphie.” She had told Max four times about the baby Ralphie in the past month.
“Sara is a pain in the tuckas.” Maxie said out of habit as if he were the Greek chorus to Rose’s drama but he was really thinking about the complex genealogies of characters in Russian novels.
“Sara wouldn’t leave Irving alone until he married her. Fresh bread, she left at his door, baked with her own hands. ” Rose said. “She took him to a furniture store and showed him a big bed and said they should buy it.
“Irving was always hungry. His mother was the Gwan lady, and she couldn’t cook. She starved her children. They was always in my kitchen. I went to the market and bought fresh fish, and those children showed up like they was cats. I boiled those little hard chickens with the yellow feet for broth and put in carrots, celery and potatoes and parsley, a little salt and pepper, a dish of pickles on the side, and suddenly there was little Irving holding a big spoon sitting at our table back in The Flats.
“He ate Sara’s bread with both hands like a starving man. The big bed in the furniture store gave him ideas, if you know what I mean.
“So he married her, and she wouldn’t leave him alone, and he had to get up at three in the morning to organize the newspaper deliveries for the Times. Nothing was good enough for her. She loved shoes. He had to buy her shoes. She dressed like a Hollywood movie star. They had to have a television set. Who has a television set, I ask you? She was a real American ““ buy, buy, buy, nothing saved for a rainy day. They had the first baby, Richard, and then the baby Ralphie. It was all peaches and cream for her.
“So Irving did the only thing he could do. He died.”
Rose thought about the green forest behind her house when she was a girl, and about all the people who died, aunts and uncles and one of her sisters in childbirth, and the long voyage on the boat to New York, the tenements on the lower east side of Manhattan, and the days on the train until they reached Los Angeles in 1900. It seemed to her that too many things had happened, that a person shouldn’t live so long as she had, but she didn’t want to die, so things were going to keep happening until she did.