By Dinah Lenney
“So, Dad, I send you all these clippings and you don’t say a word.”
I was giving him a tour of Hancock Park. He’d come to stay with us for a few days maybe six miles to the east, where we still live in the hills just west of Dodger Stadium. Back then, before the gentrification of Echo Park, there was seldom a Saturday night when we didn’t fall asleep to salsa and Mariachi rhythms and a symphony of howling dogs. There were roosters in the valley below, and some anonymous guy kept goats and pigs behind a hedge of bamboo in a vacant lot opposite Magic Gas on Echo Park Avenue. The billboards advertising pediatric dentistry and Coca Cola were all in Spanish and there was a Burrito King on every corner. Our neighbor to the north was Elizabeth – benign but surly – and her white hair floated and waved in the breeze like cobwebs. She reminded us often how she tolerated our trash cans, all three of them placed to one side of our driveway, on the edge of her property. Roger, who still lives next door on the other side, was – still is – a ward of the state. A clothesline stretched across his front door. From the street you could see newspapers piled high against his windows and the blue light of the television, day in day out. From the deck off our kitchen, we could watch his satellite dish in the corner of his overgrown backyard, buzzing and shifting like something alive.
My father had wondered aloud if we were safe here, and I demurred, only vaguely ashamed, because I saw his query as a kind of opportunity. Would he like to see a different neighborhood? Yes, he would. So there we were, driving past enormous houses built within a few feet of their half-acre lots, so close together the residents could peer over each others’ driveways and into each others’ state-of-the-art bathrooms every time they brushed their teeth. Brick Tudors with turrets and tiled haciendas with interior courtyards; perfect houses with perfect lawns and shiny four-wheel-drive vehicles in tasteful colors, eggplant or sage, mauve or slate blue, parked in those driveways as wide and winding as little rivers. I took him through the neighborhood as though I was an insider and as if my good taste alone deserved a down payment.
When I was little, my father promised to buy me a pony. When I learned to drive, he said he would get me a car. I’d long since forgiven him for not coming through; still, I felt he owed me. Here and now was my moment: Maybe he’d make it all up to me and buy me a house!
“I like that one,” he said, pointing out the window to a square of pink stucco just visible beyond a tall vine-covered wrought iron fence. “I like that gate. Makes it private, secure, you can’t see a thing on the other side.”
It was hideous, an ostentatious prison on a busy corner and I stuck out my tongue and told him so. My father and I had never been able to impress each other in matters of taste; he had no appreciation for my good manners, and I had always marveled at just how tacky he could be. The difference between us was that I cared – I continued to try to impress him – while he, easy in his skin, remained oblivious to my gymnastics. This time I was standing on my head about my column in a local parenting magazine; I’d been sending him the pieces as they were published and I wanted him to tell me how clever they were.
“I’m telling you, Dinah,” he said, looking back at it as we rounded the corner, “that’s a good house.”
“What about my clippings, Dad?” I asked again.
“What clippings?” he spat out the window, and when I reminded him about the envelope I’d mailed just a few weeks before, he shrugged, pulled on the end of his nose and told me the piece was not his “kind of thing.”
How to stop myself from keeping score? He’d never heard me play “Clair de Lune;” he’d never asked to see a single report card; he’d missed the high school production of “Auntie Mame.” I’m the singer on that jazz tape he misplaced before he got around to listening; I’m the daughter from the first marriage, accepted to his alma mater straight out of public school, tapped freshman year to swim long distance for the varsity team, and he never once came to a meet.
What I wanted was for him to admit I was exceptional, before mediocrity – in the guise of motherhood and bit parts on television – completely took over my life. So I continued to press, which I knew, on some level, was futile, not to mention pathetic.
“The writing is fine,” he conceded at last. “The writing is intelligent, but it’s not my kind of thing, that’s all.”
He took up every inch of space on the passenger side, legs splayed wide, one arm flung across the back of the seat, the other elbow leaning on the open window, his feet, size 12, resting on either bank of the well beneath him.
“It’s not your kind of thing,” I repeated, sneering at myself in the rear view mirror but my bitterness went unacknowledged. The real estate, it turned out, was too compelling.
“There’s another good house,” he said, pointing to a spanking new Georgian with lots of pillars and a huge crystal chandelier, visible from the street. “But it’s not secure, that one, doesn’t have a gate.”
“Dad, whose kind of thing do you think it is, huh?”
Why couldn’t I stop?
“Gee, I don’t know,” he knit his brow, pretending to try to figure it out.
I told him my grandfather, his father, thought the columns, each of them under 700 words, were “very chatty.” He agreed this was apt.
“Dad, did you even read them?” I asked. “Did you?”
A confrontation, I must have supposed, would be better than nothing. How to rattle him, how to get a response, how to make him know me, and, come to think of it, who the hell was this guy sitting beside me in the passenger seat? My father looked at me hard, eyebrows drawn together, and then back out the window. He inhaled, held his breath just a moment, then exhaled through his nose.
“I think,” he said, slow and measured, concentrating on his fingernails, “I think you should stay in the house you’re in. It works for you.”
Okay then. He wasn’t going to bite. No pony, no Pinto – Ford or otherwise – and no partial down payment on a house in the offing after either.
“I need a guest bedroom,” I moaned, “I need more space.”
“What do you need a guest bedroom for? You don’t want guests. What do you need guests for?”
Present company excepted, presumably, since that time two or three visits back, when he’d called from the Downtown Hilton before 7:00 a.m. to say he’d like to have breakfast at our house, I should pick him up now. When I got there, he was waiting in the lobby with his bags and his golf clubs, having checked out because he’d decided it’d be more convenient for everybody if he stayed with us. During subsequent visits, he’d been happier than I could have imagined in my son’s single bed, which faces the driveway and gets very little natural light. And the truth was, I was flattered, pleased that he was comfortable enough with us to stay for a few days, to let me cook for him, make his bed, wash his clothes. I was appalled at his helplessness but eager to wait on him, this stranger, who left the bedclothes in a heap, smeared the shaving cream across the counter, missed the bowl when he peed. This was my opportunity to prove myself a good and capable daughter.
But could it be he believed he wasn’t company? I tried not to frown, explaining that guests or no, we were squished in our house. A playroom would be nice, a flat yard for the kids, a wide street with a sidewalk for an evening stroll or a chance meeting with neighbors who also had children.
“Flat is better,” he agreed, “I’m not crazy about those hills.”
Stupid, stupid me. I’d opened up a whole other subject. He was reminding me now that he’d never have advised us to buy in Echo Park. Location, location, he chided, like a realtor and then he added, back on task, “But for God’s sake, stay where you are, you don’t need to invest any more money in Los Angeles. This flat part is fine, but it could all burn down in some riot next week.”
He massaged his golf arm.
“I’ll tell you what, Dinah,” he blurted into the silence, “I couldn’t do it, that’s for sure. I could never do that kind of thing. Never.”
He’d taken a writing course his freshman year at Yale, did I know? I was incredulous. He’d wanted to write?
“Write!” he sneered. “ Are you kidding? I heard it was easy. An easy credit. I didn’t know I had to turn in something every class.”
“That’s right, that’s it. Daily Themes. They said it was a, a whaddayacallit — ”
He nodded with emphasis and I was inordinately proud that I’d filled in the right word.
“Yup. I signed up for this gut and then I couldn’t do it. I was stuck.”
He explained that my grandfather did the work for him, mailed him the themes at the beginning of each week. My brilliant grandfather, a criminal attorney, an artist, a musician, a hero, as far as I was concerned, and this new information was unnerving. I was, after all, the straight arrow kid, ever righteous, a veritable moral compass, if only they knew what a good egg I was. If only they cared. Why did I expect my father to respond to anything I’d achieved? And on the other hand, why didn’t he regard me as something of a miracle? And why, oh why, wouldn’t he tell me so?
We were below Olympic Boulevard now and the lots were smaller, burnt out lawns, tangled sunflowers, bougainvillea climbing over chicken wire, a pick-up with no front wheels in one driveway and scrawny trees coming up from the pavement.
I took a breath. “Well, they must have been beautiful, huh? Grandpa’s themes?”
My father shrugged. He remarked, as we passed a horde of kids running through a revolving sprinkler in a driveway, that this was a terrible neighborhood. How could anyone live here is what he wanted to know.
I asked him if he got an A in Daily Themes.
“Nah, I got a B. The bastard knew something was up. He knew I couldn’t be doing the work.” My father quit massaging his arm and chewed a cuticle on the side of his thumb.
I was still shaking my head over my grandfather’s having bailed him out and I wondered out loud why he did it. The light turned green and somebody honked behind me.
“He knew I couldn’t do it, Dinah. That’s all.”
Gee. No scruples. No honor. No cheerleading, no slap on the wrist, no nothing. Just get it done however you can.
I was winding my way north again, up a street shaded under long rows of gnarled California Oaks.
“I’ll tell you something else, but if you ever tell another soul, I’ll deny it,” he warned with a squint in my direction.
He confided then, that he’d taken my half brother’s final exams to ensure Neil’s graduating with his college class. I was stunned. Wasn’t that illegal? How could he do such a thing? How’d he get away with it?
My father said he knew Neil couldn’t pass. It was easy enough; he showed up with a couple of number 2 pencils, that was all. He warned me again to keep the information to myself.
I pretended amusement, but I was writhing inside. The man was willing to lie and cheat, he was willing to be lied and cheated for. So what was a little approval, I wondered – a compliment or two, and some money for a down payment – between father and daughter. In the grand scheme of things, I hadn’t asked for much. I’d followed the rules. I was a credit to this guy. I was the best thing about him, wasn’t I?
“Hey, now, this one is very attractive,” he said, pointing out the window, “but you can’t afford to live here, can you?” He was staring out at what looked like a mini-Parthenon on the opposite corner. “You’ve been telling me what’s wrong with your house since you moved in, but it seems fine to me.”
“Okay, okay. It’s fine. We’re fine, we are.”
“I’m hungry,” said my father. “It must be time for lunch.”
“Listen, Dad,” I said, gripping the wheel hard with both hands, “I know you think I’m a fool.”
He stared at me, quizzical, wounded even. He hated heart-to-heart stuff, always had.
“Remember?” I asked. “When I left the job at the restaurant to do stock at the Weathervane? You said,” I dropped my voice an octave, “‘You’re a fool, whatsamatterwithyou, you’re a fool.’”
He’d been sitting in an overstuffed armchair ten years before, perfectly cheerful, with a drink in one hand, when I, quaking in my shoes, turned down his offer of full time employment at the restaurant for a summer of non-union stock. I’d cried as I told him and he’d laughed at me, actually guffawed, disgusted with my tears.
“You probably think I should just go out and get some civilian job, sell insurance, work in a bank, just get on with it, right?” Couldn’t help myself, couldn’t keep from baiting him, could have done with a roll of duct tape at that point, no question.
“Hey, Dinah, don’t ask, you’ve never listened to me, you’ve never done anything I told you to do your whole life.”
Now wasn’t this what I wanted all the time? Not approval, no, I wanted a strong reprimand: I wasn’t a good girl after all, I couldn’t afford to live in a nice neighborhood, my acting career stuttered at best, I wrote dumb pieces for a dumb magazine and I had never listened to my father. Here came the tears, the easy tears, and they were humiliating. At a stop sign, I blinked hard behind my sunglasses.
My father started to chuckle.
I swallowed and asked him what was so funny.
“Did you hear what I said? You’ve never listened to me… Christ, my father said the same thing to me,” he gasped, “The very same thing.”
“He did? Really? When? When did he say it?”
“Last week,” my father was wiping his eyes. “He said it last week.”
“And look how well you’ve turned out since, right?” I was appropriately grateful, relieved to be in on the joke.
“I guess so,” he nodded, serious now, looking me straight in the eye.
His face was my own, a near-mirror reflection, but who was he really, and what was he thinking, what did he see in me with those almond-shaped eyes? We were the same and we were absolute strangers, my father and I, and he liked it that way. It was acceptable; it was the best he could offer. Could it be he believed we were close?
“You know, Dad,” I offered, “One of these days I might write a book.”
He regarded me soberly.
“Uh oh,” he said.
And then his face cracked wide in a smile, broad across the cheeks, both eyes crinkling in my direction. Because he didn’t care? Because he didn’t think I had it in me? Either way, I couldn’t help but laugh back, grateful to know he appreciated the implications whether he believed me or not. We chuckled in collusion, connected for an instant by some strange conspiracy of genealogy and temperament.
The neighborhood tour was complete. We’d come full circle at the corner of Rossmore and Beverly. I put on my blinker and eased into the right lane, pointing us back to Echo Park. My father’s attention was focused once more out the window, where the Spanish stucco manse the color of Pepto Bismal loomed beyond a tall tangle of ivy and iron.
“Hey look, there it is!” he said, pointing in delight. “I’m telling you, Dinah, that’s a good house. Secure, private. Can’t see anything behind that gate.”