Excerpt from the novel-in-progress Tell Her She’s Lovely. This excerpt is set in 1974 in the mythical town Muscat twenty minutes east of San Bernardino.
Chapter 2: Cabaret
Mama sings in an off key vibrato to the voiceless muzak on her car radio, “I want some red roses for a blue lady.”
“Can’t we at least listen to the actual sappy song?” I reach to change the station, and she slaps my hand. “Ow, that stings!”
“Leave it alone. This music relaxes me.”
It’s Halloween night, a school night. We’re pulling away from Baker’s Drive Thru, my favorite place to eat. Mama got me a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake as a guilt gift. Whenever she feels bad about letting me down, which is a lot lately, Mama buys me something. I call it a guilt gift. Tonight she feels bad about dumping me off at Minerva’s in South M so I won’t be home alone. Mama is going to an adult costume party at her divorced girlfriend’s house in San Bernardino. Nat-the-Brat is already at her best friend Kathy’s kid party, and then she’ll spend the night at Grandma’s.
Mama is dressed like Liza Minnelli in the movie Cabaret. Under her camel wool coat, she’s wearing a satin black halter-top that shows way too much skin and satin black shorts. She never would allow me to dress so sexy, and I wouldn’t if I could: embarrassing. At least she wore pantyhose instead of stockings and garters. Just like Minnelli, she put on false eyelashes and thick black eyeliner and pasted a Dippity-Do curl beside each ear. Mama tucked her hair under the bowler hat she found at Goodwill to look like she has a bob. She’s much prettier than Liza Minnelli and will probably have the best costume at the party, but I keep those thoughts to myself. I don’t want to encourage her to keep dressing like this.
“Will there be other ladies as old as you at the party?” I chomp into my burger, letting ketchup and thousand island sauce drip down my chin. She hates when I eat like this.
“Old? I’m only 33.” Without taking her eyes off the road, Mama shoots her right hand into the food bag between us, pulls out a napkin, and jams it into my hand. “Most of the women going to the party are my age. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Good, otherwise people might think you’re a chaperone.” I want to make her feel bad. I’m the teen. I should be going to a costume party, not my mother.
“Don’t start, Rachel.”
I rip another chunk from the burger with my molars.
“You’re going to make a mess, girl.” Mama’s grip tightens on the steering wheel and her lips purse. A cheesy instrumental version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” comes on the radio. I change the station to KCAL. This time Mama doesn’t stop me. Of all the Rolling Stones’ songs, downer “Angie” is on. KCAL played it all the time when my father first left. I sang it so much I know the sad lyrics by heart: “With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats, you can’t say we’re satisfied.” I turn the dial back to the muzak station.
“There’s a cute telephone table on clearance at Sears. I can get an extra 10% off with my employee discount.”
“Telephone table? For what?”
“I’m putting a phone with your own number in your bedroom. You and Natalie can have privacy when you talk to your friends.” She watches my face, expecting me to get excited.
“I’d rather have a mother who acts like a mother.” I’m too mad to tell her that I really want her to spend Halloween at home with me.
Mama lets out a deep sigh. “Let’s not fight. You’re going to have fun with your friends.” She picks up my shake and takes a sip. “I thought you’d be happy to get a break from me.”
“Break? Even when you’re home you’re not there. You’re always too busy drinking, cooking, cleaning, scolding me and Nat, and doing whatever you do when you lock yourself in your bedroom.”
“You know I’ve had a hard time since your father left. And you have everything you need: a roof over your head, a bed, food, and don’t forget the cute clothes I buy you.”
“Everything except a mother.”
She stops the car at the stop sign on Eucalyptus and Rialto Avenues and stays quiet. A mother crosses in the crosswalk in front of us, holding her little kid’s hand. The kid is dressed in a cat costume, skipping with joy. I wonder if Mama thinks about the fun we used to have when she and my father took Nat and me trick or treating. The mother and kid step onto the corner and Mama presses on the gas and looks at me with a big, fake smile. “Watch, you’ll have so much fun you’ll wish I went out every night.”
“Can I have three dollars for a pizza?” I’m tired of her rejecting me and am going to milk her for as many guilt gifts as I can get.
“Sure. And I’ll give you extra money for sodas.”
“I’m having fun already.” I stuff a handful of fries in my mouth, smearing ketchup on my hand. The corner of her mouth twitches, but she keeps her eyes on the road and gently nudges another napkin into my hand.
Minerva and Chris are sitting on a bench beneath the porch light in front of Minerva’s house. They both stand up when we pull into the driveway. Minerva is buttoned up in her navy blue pea coat. She has on the purple beret she knitted, and her wild black hair look like plant roots growing out of it. Chris is the opposite. No matter that it’s cloudy and cold and that she’s skinny as a taquito, she’s always hot. She claims it’s her “Mississippi Queen” blood; she’s always finding a way to compare herself to that song. Her royal blue velvet blazer is open, showing her tank top underneath. Thank God it’s not the one that says “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” Mama would say something stupid, like she should cover up.
Chris and Minerva leave the big orange bowl full of candy for trick or treaters on the bench and run to Mama’s side of the car to meet her. She rolls down her window and they introduce themselves to each other. I grab my backpack and duffle bag from the back seat and rush around the car so I can pull them away from Mama. It’s bad enough I have a single mother who goes to parties, but mine has to wear a slutty costume, too.
“Bye,” I say, now standing between Minerva and Chris.
“I’m sorry I didn’t think to get you two a burger when we went to Baker’s,” Mama says.
“Thank you, but I have plenty of food,” Minerva says.
“Well you girls better get inside before you catch a cold.”
“Mama, they’re not little kids.”
“Nice meeting you,” Chris says.
“Yes, nice to meet you,” Minerva says. “Have a good time at your party.” They each take one of my bags and head for the side of the garage.
“Later.” I step backwards before she can kiss me goodbye.
“Rachel, come here.” Mama curls her pointer finger.
“Okay.” I trudge back to the car and lean in the window. I aim for her cheek, but she smacks me on the lips. I hope Chris and Minerva didn’t see. “I told you I’m too old for the lips.”
“What? I can’t hear you.” Mama rolls up the window and pulls away.
“Your mama sure is pretty. And cool. You never told us she drives a Duster.” Chris says when I join them on the walkway beside the garage.
“It’s hard to be excited about the car since my father stuck her with the payments.”
“Well, your mother is beautiful,” Minerva says.
“She looks better when she’s not dressed like a hooker,” I say.
Chris gasps. “Don’t talk like that about your mama.”
“You should appreciate her,” Minerva says.
“Can we please change the subject?” If I wasn’t so ashamed, I would tell them about Mama’s drinking and night clubbing so they’d understand why she pisses me off.
Minerva opens the door on the side of the garage.
“She has the coolest chick pad,” Chris smiles like we’re entering Disneyland.
“We’re not chicks; we’re young women.” Minerva scolds. “What am I going to do with you?”
This is the first time Chris and I are visiting Minerva’s house and the first time the three of us are spending the night together. Minerva and I haven’t been to Chris’s house yet, either. We’ve only been to my house to eat lunch on school days.
Last May, for her fourteenth birthday, Minerva’s father and brothers turned the garage into a bedroom and added a bathroom with a shower.
“This is twice the size of my bedroom,” I say, a little jealous. “Do your brothers ever walk in on you?”
“I have house door locks on the entrances from the kitchen and the outside,” Minerva says with a proud smile.
“It’s like you have your own apartment,” Chris says.
“I know.” Minerva takes in a deep, satisfied breath.
I wish I had a big room of my own with a lock to keep out Nat-the-Brat. But everything in my room would be new and modern, like a picture I saw in the Sears Catalog.
Minerva’s furniture is old, bulky, and scratched. A wooden desk from the forties or fifties takes up one corner of the room. A gooseneck lamp sits on top of her desk, along with her typewriter and neat stacks schoolbooks and English and math papers. A tall, wide bookcase that matches the desk, filled with books, stands against the wall behind the desk.
We have one skinny bookcase at home, with a set of encyclopedias my parents bought from a salesman who came to our door, a heavy dictionary, a Catholic Bible we never read, and Mama’s Reader’s Digest condensed novels. I could finish one of those novels in a day. It isn’t a whole bookcase, either. There’s a cupboard at the bottom where Mama stores holiday decorations. Grandma doesn’t even have a bookcase. She keeps her Catholic Bible, the only book she owns, on her bed stand.
I scan the titles on Minerva’s shelves. There are books about history, art, science, Mexico, South America, books with poems, and pamphlets. I pull out a pamphlet with an orange cover.
“Cool, Cesar Chavez’s face on a cluster of grapes.” I’m excited to show Minerva that I recognize him. She’s taught me and Chris a lot about him and the United Farm Workers Union in the past two months. I put back the pamphlet and pull out a book about Mexico written in Spanish. I understand only a few words.
“Have you read all of these? It’s like a library. Where did you get so many books?” I ask Minerva who’s stepped beside me.
“It will take me years to read all of them, but I’ve read about thirty percent. Most are my father’s or were my mother’s, some from when they went to Valley.”
“Do you know how to read in Spanish?”
“Yeah, do you?”
Chicana Minerva will be disappointed in me, but I tell her the truth anyway. I know only a little Spanish, like how to count up to twenty, ask for the bathroom, order basic foods at a restaurant, like beans and chicken, and give basic greetings, like good morning and good to meet you. When we were little, Grandma told my parents not to teach me and Nat Spanish so we wouldn’t get put in a Spanish only school where they teach girls to be housekeepers. The biggest drag is I feel left out when people speak Spanish around me, like I’m not Mexican enough.
“That happened to a lot of kids our age. It’s because of segregation.” Minerva sighs. “The trouble our gente is put through.”
“Yeah, segregation. I didn’t know there was a word for it.” I’m relieved Minerva doesn’t think I’m stupid or worst, “a sell-out Hispanic” as she calls Mexican Americans who want to be white. I want to be smart like her. “Can I borrow one of your books sometime?”
“I would love it. None of my friends from junior high were interested. You can borrow any of them except these.” She runs her fingertips over the edges of the poetry pamphlets. “They’re one of a kind. My father won’t let them leave the house.”
“Poetry is too hard anyway. I’d rather start with something fun and easy.”
“Not this poetry. You’ll like it. I’ll read it to you some time.”
I leave Minerva at her bookshelves and check out the rest of her bedroom. It looks like a Chicano nerd-hippie lives here. A Janis Joplin poster is tacked on the door to the house. Orange and white paper fliers with large black print and cool, artistic drawings of Aztec pyramids and cars announcing Chicano and Raza dances, parties, and outdoor band happenings are taped on the walls on both sides of the front window. Spider plants spill from her homemade macramé hangars dangling from the ceiling. Bunk beds are stacked in a corner on the other side of the room from the desk. An India style mustard-yellow tapestry with a maroon swirly pattern covers each bed.
“Ga-roovy.” Chris dives backward into the royal purple beanbag across from the bunk beds. “This is where I’m sleeping.” She unbuckles her sandals and drops them on the floor.
Minerva puts a record on the small stereo unit sitting on top of an orange crate next to the bunk beds. A song I haven’t heard in a while plays—Mexican music, like a slow cha-cha, but rock music too, with an organ, cowbell, and rock guitar.
“They’re taking too long to sing,” Chris complains.
“There’s no singing,” Minerva says. “This is a Latin Jazz song, El Chicano’s version of ‘Viva Tirado’ by Gerald Wilson.”
“You know all the cool music scoop.” I cha-cha over to a dainty antique wooden table to check out the things on top.
Arranged on a yellowing white doily are a Pee Chee sized black and white picture in a lacy gold frame, an unlit votive candle in a cobalt blue glass holder, like the ones at church, on one side of the frame, a gold crucifix on the other, and a sugar skull and glazed donut, both grayed with dust, on a clear glass saucer. The picture had been taken at a studio, like the one in White Front where Mama had me and Nat take pictures when we were little. A girl about 17, wearing a floral pattern dress with a swirly skirt and a skinny belt wrapped tight around her tiny waist, stands sideways with one arm on her hip. Her eyes are smiling, and she’s looking directly into the camera.
“That’s my mom.” Minerva lifts the frame and holds it close to my face.
“She’s pretty. She could be your twin sister,” I say.
“Thanks.” Minerva kisses the photo and sets it back down.
Chris points at the plate. “The skull is creepy, and that donut needs to be thrown out.”
“Shut-up,” I say. “It’s about her mother. Have some heart.”
“Chris,” Minerva speaks in her slow, patient teacher-voice. “It’s like the Dia de Los Muertos altars in Mexico I told you about, remember? Donuts were my mom’s favorite snack.”
“Yeah, I remember. Dia de Los Muertos means Day of the Dead. The day after Halloween, y’all call back your dead loved ones with their favorite food and other goodies.” Chris says it like a Kindergartner who has memorized a story.
“Not exactly but close enough.”
Chris turns her nose toward the ceiling. “Will you please put the skull away while I’m here? It scares me.”
Minerva opens the little drawer beneath the tabletop and carefully places the candy skull inside and closes it. “There. Happy?”
“Yes mam,” Chris says in a thick drawl. “Time to smoke pot. There’s too much tension in this chick, I mean, young woman’s pad.”
“If you were a slut, what’s the first thing you’d notice?” Chris giggles, holding Alice Cooper’s Love it to Death album cover over Minerva’s and my faces. We have the house to ourselves. Minerva’s brothers are at a party, and her father is spending the night at his girlfriend’s. We’re in the living room, lying on our backs beside each other on the brown and orange shag carpet that looks and feels like calico cat fur. The kids stopped ringing the doorbell for candy about an hour ago. Since then, Minerva has taught us how to roll a joint and smoke it down to the roach.
Minerva says most people don’t get high the first time they try pot, but Chris and I are buzzing like the fluorescent overhead lights at school. We’ve been examining Minerva’s and her brothers’ rock album covers and eating the left over candy. Incense smoke rises in long curls from a small, bell-shaped gold burner on the coffee table. Brilliant Corners, one of Minerva’s father’s Thelonious Monk records, is playing on the stereo. Minerva says we have to learn about jazz and blues in order to appreciate rock music. At first, it sounded like the musicians played the piano and horns off key and offbeat, but after hearing one song, I got into it.
I take the Alice Cooper album cover from Chris and hold it close to my eyes. “All I see are the band members posing sexy in their skin-tight pants. What are you talking about?”
“His penis,” Minerva mumbles; a ball of Bazooka bubble gum bulges out of her right cheek. She taps the slug-like thing in the crotch of a band-member’s pants.
“Penis,” Chris cracks up. “Is that how y’all call it here in California?”
“Dick. Weenie. Pee pee. Thing. I never called it a peeee…” I crack up, and then we all spazz out on the carpet.
“Hey now,” a guy’s voice startles us. Standing in the entryway are Minerva’s brothers—identical twins so cute it hurts to look at them. If we were in Hollywood, they would be models, rock stars, movie stars, or all three combined. They resemble Minerva, but their eyes are bigger and darker, like chocolate drops. And their hair is tamed. They dress so cool. One brother has on an unbuttoned fleece-lined Levi’s jacket, an untucked brown and teal blue plaid flannel shirt, Levi’s 501’s, and dark brown suede waffle stompers. His hair is pulled back in a ponytail. The other one is wearing an unbuttoned black pea coat, a tucked-in black t-shirt, black cords, and black Converse. His hair is shoulder length and loose.
I will never see guys this cute and cool again in my whole life.
Chris and I scramble to standing. We comb our hair with our fingers and straighten our clothes.
“Relax. They’re just my brothers,” Minerva says, taking her time getting up.
“You having seizures? Should we call an ambulance?” chuckles the ponytail brother. He nudges loose hair brother with his elbow and chuckles some more. “I think Minnie got electrocuted.”
“Minnie?” Chris cracks up so hard she coughs.
I glance at Minerva and crack up, too. “Your hair looks like a tumbleweed thrashed by the Santa Anas.”
Minerva rolls her eyes at us. Then she checks herself out in the mirror in the entryway and lets out a huge throw up of laughter. The three of us spazz out again. The brothers grin and shake their heads at us.
When we finally calm down, Minerva introduces us. Ponytail brother’s name is Mike and loose hair brother’s name is Matt. If it weren’t for their different hairstyles and clothes, I couldn’t tell them apart. They look nothing like the little boys missing their front teeth and covered with mud in the picture hanging in the hallway.
“Nuh. Nuh. Nice to meet…” My buzz and their cuteness have frozen my tongue.
“Matt made the fliers hanging on my wall,” Minerva says.
I want to say that the drawings are really good, but all I can get out is, “C…c…cool.”
“Why you home so early?” Minerva asks.
“The neighbors called the cops, complaining the band was too loud,” Matt says.
“Looks like the party is here,” Mike says. His voice is louder, deeper than Matt’s. “We need some rock.” He puts on a record. A song I’ve never heard before starts with a drumstick tapping a cymbal.
“Grand Funk. ‘Inside Looking Out.’” Mike’s voice gets teacherish like Minerva’s. “This song alone is better than everything they’ve put out since We’re an American Band. You know this is an Animals’ song? These guys do it better though.”
In order not to say or do something stupid, I avoid eye contact with brothers and stare at the stereo and bob my head. The longer the song plays, the funkier it gets. I would dance if the brothers weren’t here.
They take off their jackets and hang them on the coat rack in the entryway. Matt sits on the brown couch, and Mike plops down on their dad’s brown Naugahyde Lazy Boy. It hits me that the living room is all brown without any pretty decorations because it’s the father’s and brothers’ bach pad.
“You college boys have classes too-morrow?” Chris pours on her sassy Southern accent.
Mike explains that they arranged their schedules at Valley College so they have mornings and all Fridays off to help their dad with his business: The AzTech Electric Company.
Matt stays quiet and taps the drum rhythm of the song on the coffee table. I figure he’s the shy, sensitive artist type, which makes him even cuter.
Mike pulls a clear glass tube contraption from the cupboard in the end table beside him. Chris and I turn to Minerva.
“It’s a bong. For smoking pot,” she says. She looks at her brothers. “Their first time getting high.”
“Newbies.” Mike smiles and I swear his face glows. “Want to try? The high is more intense than a joint.”
“Sure,” Chris says.
I nod yes. I’d rather come down from the high I already have, but I want them to think I’m cool.
Minerva sits beside Matt and calls us over. Chris curls up on Minerva’s other side. I sit cross legged on the carpet, on the opposite end of the coffee table, as far from Mike and Matt as possible, so they can’t tell how nervous they make me. Mike takes the bong to the kitchen sink and pours water in it. At the same time, Matt steps over to the coat rack in the entryway. I watch him from the corner of my eye. He’s slender but solid, not skinny. His forearms have strong, ropey muscles, like he could lift me with one arm. He pulls a baggie full of pot, plump as a burrito, out of one of his coat pockets. He passes me on his way back to his seat, and my heart pumps loud in my ears. Mike kicks back in the Lazy Boy, and Matt packs the small silver bowl sticking out of the bong.
Matt’s hands are tanned cinnamon brown and muscular: working hands. His fingernails are clipped short and clean. Not like my father, whose fingernails were always chipped and dirty.
Minerva tells Mike and Matt to get high first so Chris and I can see how they use the bong. When it’s Minerva’s turn, she explains to us how to suck the smoke in deep without coughing, hold it in our lungs before taking our mouths off the end of the bong, and exhale long and slow.
Chris handles the bong like she’s used it for years. When it’s my turn, I suck in the smoke and choke. “I’m alright,” I say, embarrassed. I gulp some water and try again.
This time I hack like I have whooping cough.
Matt suggests we take a break. My mouth is dry and tastes like a dead animal. I stand to get water in the kitchen, but the heels on my boots stay stuck in the carpet. I scream in my head, ready to flip out. Then I remember to breathe. I take off my boots and tiptoe in my socks.
“I got the crunchies real bad,” says Chris. “How ‘bout some of your down home health nut cooking Minnie.” Chris cracks up, and I hear her body land on the carpet.
“Munchies, not crunchies,” Minerva laughs.
While filling my glass with water from the faucet, I think about Mama for the first time all night. I feel bad for getting high, like I’m betraying her. Then I picture her dancing in her costume at the party, laughing with strange men. Fuck her.
“Have you heard a Cheech and Chong record, Rachel?” Matt snaps me out of my thoughts. I didn’t hear him walk in. He’s close enough for me to reach out and touch his cheek with my fingertips. I want him to kiss me, for my first kiss to be from him. My hand that’s holding the glass trembles. Calm down, I tell myself. After what seems like an hour, I finally say, “No.”
“You’re going to like this.” Matt heads to the stereo.
Alone in the kitchen, I swish the water in my mouth until the dead animal taste disappears. When I return to my spot on the carpet, everyone is munching Minerva’s homemade tortilla chips and salsa. I lie on my back, close my eyes, and listen to Cheech and Chong do a trippy skit about Jesus in Mexico.
Next thing I know, Minerva is shaking my shoulder, saying it’s midnight and we have to go to bed. At first I don’t know where I am. Then I look across the coffee table and see Mike and Matt smiling at me. I smile back, sure that any chance of them thinking I’m cool is ruined.
I get up and follow Chris and Minerva.
“Good night,” Matt says.
“Sleep tight,” Mike chuckles.
I turn back to see if Matt has a special smile for me, but he’s already walking down the hallway with his back to me.
liz gonzález, a fourth generation Southern Californian, grew up in San Bernardino County. Her poetry, fiction, and memoirs have appeared in numerous literary journals, periodicals, and anthologies. Three of her poems are forthcoming in Wide Awake: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. She recently received an Irvine Fellowship at the Lucas Artists Residency Program, Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Currently, liz lives in Long Beach, California. She works as a writing consultant and teaches creative writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. For more info. www.lizgonzalez.com