The Dangers of Independence

There was a one-room cottage in the woods that looked like a dollhouse, painted powder blue and shielded by willow trees. It was near the railroad tracks, where we were warned never to go since a classmate was hit by a train, there. No one magical lived there, just a platinum blonde with the drenched pink lips of a movie star. Her name was Paulette, and we thought she was beautiful.

She sparkled with goodwill, unlike most grownups who were not that friendly. Her voice had the raspy lilt of a harmonica, and she called us honey, sweethearts and baby dolls. When we complimented her house, she told us her ‘man friend, Ray’ had built it. ‘It was his hunting cabin,’ she explained, ‘but he did it over just for me.’  Inside was pink wallpaper with rosebud teacups, a dresser, and a bed with a frilly white coverlet. Next to that was a bassinette with a baby inside.

“Is she yours?” We asked.
“She sure is,” Paulette said. “Her name’s Sheryl Lynne.”
“Are you married?”
“I was married. A while ago when I was sixteen, but I’m not married, now. I didn’t like it.”
“Was he mean?”
“I don’t even want to think about him.” She spoke as if he’d been a nasty visit to the doctor when he gives you a shot. “I have been on my own. I’m very independent.”
“What does independent mean?”
“I take care of myself.”

She was the first unwed mother I’d ever met. I’d just turned ten and believed girls carried seeds that bloomed into babies only after they fell in love and married the way plants burgeon in the Spring. Apparently, Paulette’s seed had burst too soon, and that made her seem like an unlucky mutant.

We all helped Paulette as much as we could. We scrubbed her baby’s diapers in a tub because she didn’t have a washing machine though she did have an old Westinghouse refrigerator and a small TV and radio. The song, Primrose Lane, always floated around the room along with her cigarette smoke.

We mostly minded her baby so she could leave the house and walk over the railroad tracks to go into town. While she was gone, we watched My Little Margie or The Little Rascals and sometimes, we read her fan magazines. She said she was named for Paulette Goddard, a big star at the time she was born. There was one magazine called Confidential that showed harsh pictures of movie stars as if someone had marred their faces with ink. It was mean fun to see them looking coarse and ugly; strangely satisfying. The stories chronicled their nasty behavior, so the photos were fitting as if they were getting their comeuppance. ‘Hellcat Ava Gardner’ or ‘Homewrecker Liz.’ ‘Beatnik Baby, Tuesday Weld.

That summer we went to Paulette’s winsome cottage all the time. When she was gone, it was our sorority house, and when she was there, we were her handmaidens.

After her mother, Olive, came to visit, everything changed.

Olive looked like an ancient kewpie doll or Betty Boop gone to seed. She must have been about fifty but dressed like a flapper as if a witch had put a curse on her, and she’d aged thirty years overnight. Her hair was platinum blonde like Paulette’s, but in rigid, starchy waves and her red lips were as thin as her penciled eyebrows. She never smiled, and I figured she was just aggrieved over being old. She seemed demoralized.

“Why don’t you girls go home and get your bathing suits on?” Paulette told us. “Ma’s gonna take us to McDonald’s Beach.”

We immediately ran home to get changed. We were usually gone all day with no supervision. At that time, kids led their own lives, not unlike children in fairy tales who left home to seek their fortunes. We only came back for meals. It was our parents’ house, and we were more like boarders which was why girls married so young, then. If you had to help your mother clean her house, you might as well clean your own.

When I changed into my bathing suit and grabbed a towel from the linen closet, my mother wasn’t even curious. My little brothers were down for naps, and she was using the break to get her ironing done. She smoked while she ironed and played the radio. She was listening to a quick, choppy tune called ‘The Typewriter’ as if the rhythm would help her get chores done faster.

“I’m going swimming,” I announced although she hadn’t asked.
“Just get home in time for dinner,” she said, without looking up.

I met the other girls at Paulette’s house, and Paulette smiled brightly at us. She was wearing a floral robe over her bathing suit, ankle-strapped sandals and cat’s eye sunglasses with white plastic frames.

“Ready?” she asked.

We had to walk through the woods to get to her mother’s car, and there were a lot of broken bottles on the railroad tracks. Boys came there to drink which was another reason we weren’t allowed to go there.
It was very sunny and humid out, and scrims of mosquitoes hung over the ragweed. Olive protectively kept a handkerchief to her face.

“Look at all this glass,” Paulette said, kicking at some green shards.
“Hobos live here,” Judy said. “My brother saw one carrying an ax.”
“Oh, please!” Paulette squealed. “Remember, I live here, too.”
“Our friend, Patty, was killed here,” I said.
“By a hobo?” Paulette asked.
“She fell off her bike and got hit by a train.”
“How do you know she fell off her bike?” Paulette asked. “Were you there?”

Her flippant tone was disparaging. She didn’t seem to register any sadness over a little girl’s death, but then she hadn’t known Patty.

“Nobody saw what happened,” Susie said, “but the train ran over her bike.”
“Well, I just hope I sleep tonight,” Paulette said. “I hope nobody comes to pay me a call like your friend’s ghost or some hoboes. You girls are scaring the bejesus out of me.”

Patty was the first contemporary of mine to die. She’d become a legend among us kids, and Paulette demeaned her memory by referring to her as a ghost. Ghosts were unholy and we’d all been assured that Patty was in Heaven. The tragedy had even been glorified with the claim that she was riding her bike home from church, having just come from Confession.

Olive’s yellow Plymouth was parked on the street. It was an old car, a plump model from the 1940’s, vastly different from the knife-sleek Chevys that were popular, then. Judy sat up front next to Olive and Paulette, who held Baby Sheryl on her lap. Denise, Susie and I sat in back.

Paulette put the car radio on, but her mother promptly turned it off.

“Not while I’m driving.”
“You’re so old-fashioned,” Paulette said. She couldn’t seem to open her mouth without needling Olive.

McDonald’s Beach was on the highway, but it wasn’t a beach at all. It was a private lake whose owners charged people money to swim there. At first, the lake looked like flood water, but we’d had our polio shots, so we weren’t afraid to swim in it. The place was also crowded which assured us it was safe. When we drew closer, the lake appeared glassy, variegating from brown to hazel-green the way some eyes change color depending on the light.

“This isn’t really a beach,” Susie piped up. “It’s not like Cape May.”
“What do you want? An egg in your beer?” Olive snapped.

None of us had ever heard that expression before. When I mentioned the phrase to my mother that night, she said it meant “If you want something better, that’s just too bad.” I could imagine Olive saying that to Paulette at Christmas when she opened a present that disappointed her.

Paulette had spread a blanket out on the ground near a picnic table and put the baby’s car carrier on it. There’d also been a chaise longue in the trunk of the car, and she unfolded that, took off her robe and splayed herself across it to sunbathe. She wore a black one-piece and posed like a lesser starlet waiting to be discovered.

“Take my picture, Ma!” she trilled.
“I didn’t bring the camera.” the old lady sat at the picnic table and primly smoked a cigarette, holding it between her thumb and index finger as if it were a canape. “Well, what are you staring at?” she addressed us kids, directly. “We’re at the beach. Go dunk yourselves.”Paulette screamed with laughter though we didn’t get the innuendo.

The lake was as tepid as bathwater and pleasant to swim in. We played Marco Polo and Duck, Duck Goose and there was a wooden island in the middle of the water. I’d taken swimming lessons at the Red Cross and was tempted to swim out there, but no lifeguard was around. After a half hour, I went back to our spot and overheard Olive telling Paulette, “You had stormy relations with men from the time you were thirteen years old.”

“Look who’s talking,” Paulette smirked. “You couldn’t even hang on to the one trolley car you caught.” When Olive noticed me watching them, she pursed her lips.“I don’t know why you had to drag these urchins along.”

I didn’t know what an urchin was, but it didn’t sound good. She behaved as if we were as pesty as the mosquitoes she’d hidden her withered face from.

Paulette smiled at me, dismissing the old lady. “They watch the baby, so I can leave the house. And they wash her diapers. I need all the help I can get, no thanks to you. Honey, would you like an ice cream?” she asked to make up for Olive’s attitude.

She gave me a quarter, and I walked over to the snack bar. It was an old cabin with card tables, folding chairs, and a jukebox, inside. Two teenaged girls were dancing to ‘The Happy Organ,’ while everyone watched. The overhead fluorescent lights made their tans look like jaundice, but they showed off like big shots. I watched them for a while, eating my Eskimo pie.

When I got back, there was a good-looking young man talking to Paulette. The two of them were discussing a place they’d both worked called ‘Industrial Village’ a local factory complex while they flirted intensely. Their casual blather was completely out of sync with their fevered blue eyes like a bad dubbing job in a Hercules movie. “Oh yeah, yeah, I remember him,” Paulette affected a detached tone while leering at this guy. “Is he still there?”

Olive watched them with flagrant disapproval, but Paulette could have cared less. The man looked about eighteen, younger than Paulette, but it was hard to decipher her age with the heavy powder and rouge she wore. She might have only been eighteen, herself, but then again, she could have been thirty. “Want to go for a dip?” she asked him. He grinned, and Paulette put on her white bathing cap. It fetchingly hugged her oval face like a fashion accessory, much prettier and more expensive than the kind our mothers wore.

I shyly walked behind them and went back in the water to join my friends. Paulette and this young man swam out to the middle of the lake, to that wooden island. We really couldn’t see them; they just melded in with other bodies, there.

A week later, we visited Paulette, again. When she came to the door, she was wearing a sleeveless pink gingham dress with a black belt and a flouncy skirt. The rosy scent of Evening in Paris wafted around her hair like a halo. She seemed surprised to see us and not completely thrilled about it.

“You know I’m going out in a little while.”
“You look real pretty,” Judy told her.
“Why thank you,” Paulette said formally like a hostess on a TV show. “You girls can come in for maybe just a few minutes.”
“Where’s Sheryl Lynne?” I noticed the baby wasn’t there. Even her bassinette was gone. “She’s with my mother, now,” Paulette said.
“For good?” Denise asked.
“Not for good, but for the time being.”
“You mean, like a visit?”
“No, she’s staying with her.”
“How come?”

“She’s getting too big for her bassinette, and I can hardly fit a crib in here,” she said tersely. “It’s really none of your business, anyway.”I was taken aback by her snotty tone, but I realized she was just a grown-up, after all. Her contempt hardly surprised me now that she didn’t need us to watch her baby, anymore.

“You girls should leave now,” she was blunt. “I’m expecting someone.”We obediently filed out, but Judy looked bereft. She idolized Paulette. I was much fonder of Baby Sheryl Lynne, a happy, responsive infant who was as friendly as a puppy. If she’d been mine, I never would have given her up, especially not to Olive.We went over Judy’s and played cards for the rest of the afternoon in her garage. Old Maid and Go Fish. I didn’t care if I never saw Paulette again, but Judy went back the next day. I found out when I saw her crying on the sidewalk in front of her house. Judy hardly ever cried, so it was startling to see her sob this pitifully as if begging passersby for comfort.

“What happened, Judy?” I asked, thinking maybe her dog, Taffy, had died. I sat down beside her. “I won’t tell anybody.”
“I hate Paulette!”
“What happened?”

“I went to see her. She said I could never come there, again. None of us could. She said we stole her music box!” Paulette had a jewelry box on her dresser that played a tinkly version of Swan Lake with a tiny, painted ballerina who spun around when you opened it.“Did you take it?” I lowered my voice.
“Of course not!” Judy looked irate, and I knew she was telling the truth though she did covet it.

She hoped Paulette would give it to her, but like most people who’d lived through the Great Depression, Paulette was very withholding. It was a psychic trait they’d all acquired like residual effects of a disease. I had an aunt who loved me very much, but wouldn’t let me play with a baby doll she kept. She said it was the only doll she’d ever had and she was afraid I’d break it. Whatever was theirs, they hugged with all their might.

“Paulette is a liar!” Judy said. “If she didn’t want us around anymore, she didn’t have to lie about it!”

I didn’t think Paulette was worth this much emotion, but Judy felt betrayed. I guess she’d really loved her. When Paulette called us all those endearing names like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart,’ Judy thought she meant it. I never did.

“She’s a witch like her mother,” I commiserated.
“She was drunk, too,” Judy said.
“How do you know?”
“I could smell it on her. And there was a man with her holding a beer can. I saw him through the door.”
“Was it that guy she went swimming with?”
“I’m not sure. It might have been someone else.”
“Her friend, Ray?” I remembered Paulette mentioning he’d been the one who‘d built her little house for her.“Maybe. I don’t even want to talk about it,” Judy said.

We went inside, and she asked her mother if we could play in the house, but her mother’s kaffeeklatsch was watching The Guiding Light and didn’t want any interruptions, this was a crucial episode.
We walked over to my house, and my mother let us read comic books on the porch. My family was leaving for vacation that night, and she was busy packing. We were going to Asbury Park for the weekend, where the ocean was fresh, pure and as blue as topaz. Nothing like the murky beach where Olive brought us.

The day I got back from the shore, I went over Judy’s with a box of saltwater taffy I’d bought on the boardwalk.

Judy’s father had attached a tire to a rope on a tree in her backyard and kids were taking turns swinging on it. Susie and Denise were there and Judy’s older sister, Christine, was sneaking a cigarette, outside. She smoked Salems because she said parents couldn’t smell the tobacco on your breath if it was a menthol cigarette. Occasionally, she even let us take puffs though I always coughed it up.

“A lot happened over the weekend,” Judy said. She looked serene, markedly different from the last time I’d seen her. “I told my mother everything.”
I was nervous to hear this because we weren’t allowed to go near the railroad tracks and if she’d told her mother, her mother would probably tell mine.

“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I told her about how we used to visit Paulette and how Paulette said we stole her music box.”
“You know it didn’t happen like that,” Christine corrected her. “You told me, and I told Mom.”
“Well, anyway, Paulette is in jail,” Judy said triumphantly.
I was surprised. I didn’t know how Judy had managed that.
“How come she’s in jail?”

“She’s a prostitute,” Christine lowered her voice. “Do you know what that is?”
I shook my head. It was the first time I’d ever heard the term.
“Men pay her to be their girlfriend,” Judy said.
That really didn’t sound so terrible; it didn’t seem to merit prison.

“They pay her to take her clothes off,” Christine elaborated.
“You mean, like a stripper?” I asked.
“They touch her private parts. When a woman lets men do that for money, it’s called ‘selling your body.’ It makes you a prostitute.”

“You can go to jail for that?” I asked. Christine sagely nodded. “Even that guy at McDonald’s Beach paid her,” Susie said. “He gave her money and said ‘show me your goodies!’” We all burst out laughing, and I felt a little dizzy from these revelations as if jolted around on a whip ride.

The screen door slammed and Judy’s mother, Mrs. Maitland, came outside, looking as determined as a hawk. Christine deftly dropped her cigarette and crushed it. This all had the grave, taut feel of an incident when a little boy on the block had swallowed a whole bottle of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin and was rushed to the hospital. There was the same aura of emergency.

“I just talked to your mother on the phone, and she wants you to come home,” Mrs. Maitland told me.
“Is she mad?” I asked.
“No, dear,” Mrs. Maitland assured me.

When I got home, my mother looked tense the way she sometimes did before company came as if she feared being judged. She walked me out on the porch and spoke to me there so my father wouldn’t hear.“Tell me about this woman you and the girls were seeing,” she said.

“She was a prostitute, but we didn’t know that.” My mother stared. “Do you know what that means?”
I instinctively gave her the milder definition. “A lady men pay to be their girlfriend. Her face relaxed. At that time, girls were kept hermetically sealed for purity like frozen vegetables. If children or food got ruined, it was the mother’s fault which is why they never discussed sex with us. They were afraid of making us curious.

“Well, she wasn’t a prostitute, per se,” My mother said. “A married man was keeping her.”She made Paulette sound like a pet rabbit. “Was he giving her money?” I asked. She grimly nodded.“Was his name Ray?”
“How do you know his name? What did she tell you girls?” I didn’t dare mention the trip to McDonald’s Beach and the guy Paulette had picked up, there.

“How did you know his name was Ray?” she repeated. “She told us her man friend, Ray, gave her the house. That it was his cabin. Judy said she went to jail.” My mother shook her head. “Just for one night. She got into a fight with Ray’s wife and Ray’s wife called the police.”

“How do you know?”

“Because Ray’s wife is a friend of Mrs. Maitland’s!” My mother’s lovely face turned disturbingly severe. It was always scary to see how anger distorted her features like the wicked queen’s in Snow White. “You girls were told never to go near those railroad tracks!”

“That was in second grade, after Patty got killed.”

“From now on, you tell me exactly where you’re going and who you’re with!” I kept my eyes downcast and wouldn’t meet her glare. She was treating me as if I’d trespassed in a quarantine zone and might have gotten myself infected.

The scandal took weeks to die down. No one asked us any more questions about Paulette as if hoping we’d completely forget about it, but her presence enveloped us like stagnant air.

Judy still overheard her mother talking to her friends. Ray’s wife, Agnes, was no longer part of the kaffeeklatsch, but she and Mrs. Maitland stayed in touch. Agnes had kicked him out of the house and asked for Special Dispensation from the Church so she could divorce him. Ray still had to pay living expenses for her and their children. As Mrs. Maitland put it, “Agnes is tapping him dry and more power to her.”

It seemed that Sheryl Lynne was ‘his baby.’ I still hadn’t formally learned about intercourse, but this phrase added a new dimension to how newborns came to be. Men were inextricably involved, somehow.
Paulette was no longer in the cottage. She wasn’t in jail, either, but no one knew where she was. Probably, she was living a wretched existence with that ghastly mother of hers.

For the hell of it, Judy and I did sneak back to see what became of the cottage. We told our mothers we were going to the library and we weren’t lying because we planned on going there, later.

The door of the little house had been ripped off, and the windows were broken. We went inside and found all Paulette’s furniture gone. Boys had written obscenities all over her teacup wallpaper: A Hoor Lived here, She wants it bad, and a ditty that read: ‘He who writes upon these walls rolls his shit in little balls; he who reads these words of wit, eats those little balls of shit.’ There were viciously crude drawings of male and female genitalia, and I understood why my mother and Mrs. Maitland worried about us girls. Men and boys could vandalize you.

Paulette’s movie magazines were strewn across the floor like manuals she’d read as guides for living. An issue of Confidential was still intact, and Ava Gardner was on the cover wearing a bathing suit and a grin that oozed lascivious victory. She certainly looked independent, but someone should have told Paulette she wasn’t Ava Gardner.

Photo Credit: ssoosay Flickr via Compfight cc

Robin Vigfusson

I earned an M.A. in Political Science from NYU, but my real love is fiction, especially short stories. My work has appeared in Coe Review, Windmill, The Blue Hour, Referential Magazine, Caravel Literary Arts Journal, Lunaris Review, Bookends Review, Junto Magazine, Jewish, Fine Flu Journal, Old 67 and podcast on No Extra Words.


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