By Linda Boroff
“You’ll never guess who called me this afternoon,” I can recall my mother saying. It was dinnertime, and she was at the stove spooning something lumpy from a frying pan into Tupperware. We — my father, my brother Lester, Bradley Willis and I — were at the opposite end of the kitchen around a pink and gray Formica dinette.
“Who?” asked Bradley Willis, mouth full of steak.
“Why Helen Leam,” said my mother, looking at my father. “You remember Helen from Rebekah Lodge.”
“Jeez,” said my father, setting down his fork and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sure. Helen and Wally Leam.”
“They split up, you know,” said my mother, “two years ago. Helen’s still living out by Forty-First, but Wally’s moved to Hollister.”
“Well for God’s sake,” said my father.
My mother put down her spoon in the pan and turned to face us, a hand at her throat. “It seems Helen’s had a bit of a tragedy. Her apartment was broken into and burglarized night before last.”
“They catch the guy who did it?” asked Bradley Willis.
“No,” said my mother, and snapped the Tupperware shut. Then she opened it again and took one last teensy bite. “Helen was off at the movies by herself and when she got home the door had been jimmied and all her silver was gone and her mother’s brooch and some watches. Some other things too, she said, looking at my father significantly.
“Nothing, Bradley. Personal things. Anyway, Al, I’ve invited her to come and stay with us for a few days. She says she’s taking Valium like M&Ms and hearing noises.” There was a pause.
“Oh, hell,” said my father.
“Well, Al, it was the least I could do.”
“No, Mona. It was the most. I mean she hasn’t picked up the phone in two years. Why you?”
“But I didn’t pick up the phone either.”
“Okay, okay.” My father threw his napkin across his plate and stood up.
“I wonder if the guy crapped on the floor,” whispered Bradley to Lester. “I heard cat burglars always leave a calling card. The real pros, I mean.”
“Bradley,” I said, “I don’t wish you to feel yourself unwelcome in our home…”
“Just don’t feel yourself in our home,” said Lester. Guffaws.
“…but kindly clean up your language and/or leave.”
“Get off Bradley’s ass, willya Brenduhhh?” said Lester in the long-suffering whine he reserved for me. “You in love with him or something?”
“No,” I lied. “I am not in love with your odious friend.” Hoots.
And so, the next evening at dinnertime the doorbell rang, and it was Helen Leam, with a suitcase in one hand and a bouquet in the other. When she saw my mother, she burst into tears. She was a small woman in her late thirties with protuberant hazel eyes and pale hair already silvering at the temples. The hair was swept back into a twist of penitential severity; not a tendril escaped to charm the rigid center part. The back of her neck was naked of wisps. The bones of her face—good, even bones, I noted—stood out so vividly from this harsh frame that it was difficult to look at her; she was too exposed, too unprotected. I glimpsed a short upper lip and dark hollows beneath her suffering eyes before lowering my own. She set down her suitcase and turned to Lester and me, hands clasped to her bosom.
“So these are the children,” she said, and sobbed anew.
“Oh God,” said my father under his breath, “she’s nuts. Hello, Helen,” he said aloud. “Uh, how have you been?”
We set her up quarters in the basement, in a chilly makeshift bedroom paneled in knotty pine and redolent of concrete. Her clothes hung in a cedar closet that also contained my father’s old Air Force uniforms. Moments before her arrival, Lester had removed a collection of tattered pornography from under the bed.
“I hope this is okay,” said my mother, beefy in red Bermuda shorts, her head porcupined with pin curls. “And here’s an old TV. It’s ugly, but it works.”
“Thank you,” wept Helen, hand to head. “You’re too good.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” said my mother and hugged her.
And then we left and trooped back upstairs to compare notes. My father, listening from behind the newspaper, snorted with derision at intervals. We were all waiting impatiently for Helen to reappear and validate or contradict our speculations, but she did not emerge at all during that evening, nor during any other evening. She huddled downstairs like a troglodyte for three weeks, and more than once we heard her crying through the grate.
Many years have gone by since the Helen Leam episode, and oddly, as if through an ever-focusing lens, I see this time in sharper detail with each passing year. Recollected conversations assume new significance. Gestures and expressions return to jolt me as I start the car or wash my hair. Heads turn, eyes meet, bodies glide toward one another, then away, with surreal clarity.
I was fourteen at the time and nearly six feet tall, gaunt with social anxiety, ravaged by the assaults of ferocious hormones. Like a volcano, I burned, churned and erupted. I was failing math. I couldn’t dance. My nose, forsaking its childish unobtrusiveness, loomed bony and stippled with blackheads. I cut my own hair, surveyed the catastrophic results and, incomprehensibly, cut even more. I came to live in the deepest circle of adolescence, loathing myself with a perverse, demonic energy.
My brother Lester, in contrast, seemed as serene and correct as a wolf within nature’s ineluctable definition. He combed his hair with a towel and proudly slung his massive jockstraps all over the bathroom, while I timidly hung my cupless bra on my doorknob, where it dangled sadly, like the skeleton of a small bird.
Lester and my father communicated with one another in a cryptic language of yelps, guffaws and curses. They punched one another playfully on the deltoids and feinted for wrestling holds. Helen Leam, a troubling enigma to me and my mother, was a standing joke to them. “That screwball down below,” they called her.
Every morning at seven, Helen would dress and leave for her job as secretary to the overseer of a mushroom cannery. She would return at six, parking her old Chevy far from our driveway, apologizing herself in the front door, through the kitchen and down the stairs. Only after our shrill, bickering dinner was over would she emerge to fix herself a tray of soup and toast and descend again, china clattering thinly.
“Poor gal,” my mother would pronounce after each nightly exit. “This has been too much for her.” And I understood. After all, a whole gamut of legal indignities lay before her. Her self-confidence, laboriously established after a divorce from what my mother labeled “a barrel full of pickled tightwad” had been dealt a mighty blow.
“Can I ask you a question?” said Bradley Willis to me after Helen had been with us for weeks. “How do you guys put up with her down there? Don’t get mad.”
“Why would I get mad? I don’t care what you think. And if we can put up with you, we can certainly put up with her.”
“I mean, what is she doing here?”
“Well she’s scared. Wouldn’t you be?”
“No. It seems to me,” narrowing his eyes and concentrating on a point beyond me, “the last place that burglar is likely to hit again is her place. I mean he cleaned her out, supposedly. So why doesn’t she go home? She’s going to have to sometime.”
“Maybe she’s lonely.”
“Then why does she skulk around down there like some troglodyte instead of…”
“Never mind. I have to think about this some more.” And he ambled off, lips pursed in a silent whistle, receding absently into his future.
Gazing hopelessly after him, I see his cornsilk hair just touching the collar of his shirt; his hands are in his pockets, elbows turned sharply out. I see the heels of his sneakers and the backs of his ears.
His I.Q. was “astronomical” my mother had informed me when he first started coming around. He had learned to read spontaneously at age three and later skipped a grade. But now at sixteen, Bradley Willis, had become a daydreamer, a cutup, and his grades were poor, his ingenuity wasted on forging attendance excuses or concocting exotic diseases to sicken of during homeroom.
I cannot say precisely when I first realized I was in love with Bradley Willis. I do remember that early in the year, the sound of his voice began to both irk and attract me, and I began to provoke him clumsily, burning with the helpless realization of knowing myself an ass.
I plucked my eyebrows completely out, stuffed my bra and painted my eyes. I would appear one day in flounces and lace, the next in funereal black. I affected a British accent. Come bedtime, I would turn on my music and the umber boredom of my room would vanish, to be replaced by the dazzling scenario of the Eternal Triumphal Prom. And I became That New Girl and Bradley was my boyfriend. His arms held me tight. His ring thumped my bosom as we glided, eyes locked, among admiring dancers standing stock still. Hour after hour in the dark, I partied with Bradley Willis at the prom of my soul.
My obsession with MTV was a running family joke, and thus I am still puzzled at my father’s failure to remember that on Fridays at four, while my mother was certain to be at Red Cross Auxiliary and Lester at his basketball practice, I was equally certain to be at home, glued to the television.
Which is where I was when I first heard the voices coming through the grate above Helen Leam’s bedroom. At first, I paid no attention. Then I turned down the sound and crouched by the grate on my hands and knees, pressing my ear against the cold metal grid, breathing old burnt dust and seeing the pile of the carpet close and huge.
“All right, Helen,” my father was saying, and I thought I heard fear behind the reasoned testiness. “We’ve been all through that before now, haven’t we? I am asking you just how long you’re going to keep this up.”
“That’s what I’ve been asking you for the last three years, Al. Three years.”
“Oh no. I want a rational explanation, delivered in a reasonable manner. What in the hell do you mean by moving in here, camping here on some thin pretext…”
“I couldn’t help it. I had to be near you, even like this. I couldn’t stand it any more. I trusted you and you broke your promise. You said you would tell her. You’ve said it a million times and, every time I believed you. I want you to keep your word.”
“You blackmail me like this and you’ll end up with nothing.” There was a sob.
“So what do I have now?”
“Oh Jesus,” said my father. “How’d I get myself into this fucking mess? Helen, this isn’t worthy of us, of our love.”
“I don’t care anymore. I’m desperate. I lie here at night and think about our clothes in that closet. Our clothes can be together. Why can’t we?”
“I don’t believe you’re doing this to me. It’s like something out of a bad movie.”
“Do you think I wanted to? I was losing my mind. My God, after I called the police I actually thought about just driving my car over a cliff. I thought, if they find out they’ll put me away in the nuthouse for sure.” There was a pause.
“Wait a minute. If they find out what?”
“Well that I did it myself.”
“Did what yourself?”
“All of it. What’s the matter? Couldn’t you guess?”
“You mean to tell me you burglarized your own house? You stole your own panties and bras?”
“Yes,” in a little girl lisp.
“You wrote those filthy words on the mirror? And the watches and silver? You did all that yourself? There wasn’t any man?”
“No.” A giggle. “Don’t look at me like that. I told you I couldn’t go on.”
“This is insane, Helen.” A scuffle. “Get up. Stop that. Stop acting like a nut, will you?” There began a shrill crying, almost an ululation, and then I heard my father cursing first Helen then himself in the sibilant expletives of despair. At last, he began to murmur words of comfort. The crying became muffled.
“Take your hair down,” my father commanded in a hoarse voice. “Shake it down.” There was another brief scuffle, then the sound of tearing cloth and a deep sob, this time from my father. “Oh God, I love you so much. How you enslave me.”
“Oh Al, Al, all I have is yours.”
Choking with horror and laughter, I stumbled to my feet, joints stiff from kneeling. I put my hand over my mouth and pinched my nose shut. The blood beat red behind my eyes. Like a hostage escaping, I made for the front door, taking huge steps on legs rubbery and numb.
It’s no big deal, I told myself over and over. It happens all the time. Shaking, I let myself out and headed down the street as fast as I could walk. My laughter had turned to dry sobs that racked my chest like coughs.
Down the block, I could make out Helen’s old Chevy, and I toyed with the idea of busting all her windows or putting sugar in her gas tank. But that would not make my father love her less, nor would it undo their affair. With a deep sigh, I crept slowly back toward my house to sit glumly on the curb in front until it grew dark, my feet in the gutter.
The next day, Helen Leam packed up, left our house and went home. She and my mother said goodbye at breakfast very affectionately, and Helen thanked us all and said she had been so frightened, but now she was herself again and ready to forge onward.
Life was tragic sometimes, replied my mother, but these things passed, and Helen said yes they did, with the help of God and good friends. I kept my eyes on my bowl of Kix, and Lester whined where the hell was Bradley to give him a ride to school because his generator was arcing and he bet Bradley had forgotten. My teeth suddenly started to chatter, and I left the table.
I don’t know to this day if my mother ever found out the truth about Helen Leam, and I don’t know what became of my father’s affair with her. Days passed, then weeks and months, and no divorce ever materialized, no storm ever broke. The lie that was our family continued smooth and self-contained: Newspapers were read, food was consumed, holidays observed, necessities purchased.
I came to exist in a permanent state of disbelief, cringing before a blow that never fell. My apprehension bore down so on me that sometimes I could scarcely breathe. I slept poorly and began to smoke, surly and furtive. At the sound of Bradley Willis’s voice, I would flee to my bedroom and light up, holing out until he was gone.
In April, my hands broke out in eczema, and I watched MTV all month wearing polyethylene mittens full of white goo. All hope left me.
In June, Lester and Bradley Willis graduated, and Lester went off to USC in a new Camaro with four on the floor. Bradley made two listless starts at City College, then dropped out and eventually joined the Army.
“He just shot it all to shit his own self,” Lester pronounced. “But maybe the Army’ll do him some good.” And that was the last I heard of Bradley Willis until my mother mentioned years later that he had been killed.
“Do you remember that friend of Lester’s with the blond hair?” She said. “The kind of oddball who could never find himself?”
“Bradley,” I said, staring at the green and steel walls of my college dorm room.
“Well he was killed in Iraq,” said my mother. “Isn’t that a pity? Lester read it in the paper. They had lost touch, you know.”
“I know,” I said. Then I hung up the phone.
But there is another, better end to the Helen Leam episode, and sometimes I go back in my mind to that afternoon I found out about my father.
Once again, I am stumbling from the front door, alone and in despair. But this time Bradley is there, and I fall into his arms. He understands at once what has happened and doesn’t need to ask me, and I don’t need to tell. It will be all right, he says. He is there for me because he loves me.
I cry onto his shoulder until I am empty of tears, light and purged and free. Then, happier than we have ever been, we get into his car and drive up the coast to Half Moon Bay. We park on a cliff overlooking the beach and watch the sunset, talking in murmurs, saying everything in our hearts. At last, when it is dark, he takes me in his arms and we make love. I see him above me, his face lit by moonlight. I can feel his body trembling and hear the ocean below us.
And then, because I have never done this before, and because I can’t think of anything else to say at such a moment, “Oh Bradley,” I whisper, “all I have is yours.”
Copyright Boroff 2021