2. The Recital — Part 1
I am serializing my collection Stories from The Last Basin currently available on Amazon. The stories are best read in the order of Table Contents:
by John Anthony
“Paddy!” Patrick Samuel Beckett’s mother called out from the first floor of their disheveled apartment. He placed the mark at the page he was reading and laid the book on the bed next to him. The book was Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, which had come to him via a brown paper bag full of browned paperback books he had discovered placed on the curb a couple of indistinguishable apartment buildings away from the one he, his sister, Erin Patricia Beckett, and his mother, Elizabeth Patricia (Pat) Beckett née MacDowell all lived from as far back as Patrick could remember. The bag of books was nothing special; he’d already worked his way through The Caine Mutiny (a fast and thrilling read), The Magus (reading with little understanding), and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (a title his conscious mind easily remembered and a raft of essays — not so much). He wasn’t a particular reader by any measure; he also read all perpendicular faces of the cereal box while eating a bowl of corn flakes, for example, and sometimes more than once. He was better described as an avid but indiscriminate reader.
Patrick double-stepped down the staircase, as always narrowly avoiding the pile of newspapers, boardgames, Erin’s now-orphaned dolls, shoe boxes filled with discolored photographs, unopened mail, plastic bags of trash to be brought down, and a variety of parochial and catholic personal effects to be brought up, all gathered haphazardly on the landing. At the bottom of the staircase he saw his mother standing at the living room window, tethered to her well-worn institutional green oxygen tank and peering past the edge of a yellowed shade that was perpetually lowered, allowing the little sunlight available between the apartment buildings to enter the room under the shade’s strictly segregating filtering of visible wavelengths resulting in a color that closely matched the pages of Patrick’s new-found old books that he was currently reading. What his mother was looking at could only be the seldom used door of the apartment in the building next to theirs, the singular view from that window and one she alone seemed fascinated by. She let go of the blind when she heard him finish his descent.
“Yeah, Ma?” Patrick asked.
“Are you going to work soon?”
“In a bit.”
“I need some cigarettes before you go. There’s some money on the table there.” She pointed to three quarters on the dining table, which was covered with the same palette of life found on the landing in the stairwell. “Get me some of those Virginia Slims. I know you ain’t got the stones to steal ’em and smoke ’em in front of your friends, them being for emaciated women and all that.”
“I think you mean emancipated, maybe?”
“What’s the difference? Will you do your ma this little bit of a favor? “ Elizabeth Patricia Beckett asked, then added, “And do it without giving me smart-ass lip?”
“Sure, Ma. I’ll go now. But you know I don’t smoke.”
“Well if it ain’t you, who is it then? My sweet Erin? I count ’em and you’re a shitty liar,” Mrs. Beckett said, before she was engulfed in a paroxysm of coughing. Patrick went to her and guided her to the reclining chair where she spent her days and nights wrapped in a worn terry cloth bathrobe.
“Relax, Ma,” Patrick said. “Erin’s just turned thirteen.” Then, although he knew better, “Thirteen-year-old girls don’t smoke. Maybe you miscounted.”
“You’re as bad as your father, reflecting blame and all and then thinking how smart you are.”
“Yeah, I know. You’ve told me enough times. Not that I even remember him.”
“Well, you should else you turn out like him. You weren’t that young when he runned off.”
“I have to go, Ma, if you want your cigarettes and I want to be on-time for work,” Patrick said, scooping up the quarters she’d left him. Elizabeth (the hated name of the English Queen) Patricia (the blessed name of the Emerald Isle’s saint) MacDowell (temptress of unascertained guilt) Beckett (blessed mother of Patrick and Erin) again began to cough and waved Patrick off. Quick to take the cue, Patrick opened the door and exited.
He walked up 18th Street to Broadway and then down a couple of blocks to Gilberto’s Bodega. Patrick pulled open the glass door, and seeing Gilberto was busy with a customer, he wandered the few aisles, pretending to be shopping. After the customer left, he walked up to the counter.
“Hey, Gilberto,” he said.
“Patrick! How are you, mi amigo?”
“No change, still the same, Gilberto. Ma wants me to get her some cigarettes.”
“Que lastima. She shouldn’t if she wants to see her son become a man.”
“I’m not sure it matters to her. She wants Virginia Slims.” He put the three quarters on the counter. “She’s got it in her head I won’t steal them if they’re not masculine or something.” Gilberto took a pack off of the shelf and handed them to Patrick.
“Put them in your pocket, Patrick,” Gilberto said, sweeping the quarters off the counter. “¿Es la dulce y pequeña Erin?”
“Stealing them?” Patrick asked. “Stray Cat Blues, I guess. It’s not me, you know that. Ma thinks I’m as bad as my father. I guess she’d know about that better than I would.” Patrick said, stuffing the cigarette pack in his pocket. “Muchas gracias, Gilberto,” he said and began to leave.
“Patrick!” Gilberto called to him as he walked away, “Don’t let your mother make you what you are not.” Patrick turned back to smile at Gilberto and then hurried out of the little store.
When Patrick returned to their apartment, he tossed the cigarettes onto the overflowing dining table and said, “I have to go to work now,” but his mother was pretending to be asleep, so he left again. He walked up 18th Street to Wilshire Boulevard, then walked towards West Los Angeles, although his destination wasn’t nearly that far.
* * * * *
Patrick walked until he reached 25th Street and Wilshire Boulevard. On the corner was the restaurant Casa Esquivel, a Mexican restaurant where his seventh-grade Spanish teacher had taken Patrick’s class to lunch on a field trip, insisting that it was the best example of Mexican food in their neighborhood.
Patrick now parked cars as a valet at Casa Esquivel — just a trick of fate. The parking lot was small, and during the dinner rush he had to manage the incoming diners against the outgoing diners for two and a half to three hours, but just on the busy nights: Thursday through Sunday. He ran and hustled for tips, quarters mainly, and most nights he exceeded the minimum wage of $1.35/hour by three or four times. Rush hour lasted until eight o’clock most nights, and if he still had keys at eight o’clock, he left them with Sylvia, the hostess, and gladly forgot about the remaining tips. On this evening, he held out until eight-thirty before turning in the few car keys the lingering customers had left in his possession and calling it a night. There was someplace he needed and wanted to be, so with a “Si me hicieras este favor, Senorita,” he handed Sylvia the remaining keys. Sylvia said with a sweet smile, “Sure, Patrick,” knowing she’d pocket his remaining tips, and he took his leave. Everyone was happy and his destination was a short block away.
At the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 26th Street there used to be a bowling alley, but the economics of operating this kind of business was punished by the area’s rapidly changing demographics, so the owners pivoted and the building became a twin movie theater where patrons didn’t have to throw heavy bowling balls and instead were only required to consume sugary drinks and salty snacks while watching or sleeping as a movie played. Whether it was more or less successful than the bowling alley has not been disclosed. What was of specific interest to Patrick and his friends was that the theater was primarily staffed by young women of their age, whom the owners apparently trusted more than boys or young men.
The last showing always started around eight-thirty and the assistant manager would bag the evening’s receipts and head to the bank drop, leaving the staff to close, meaning shutting down the concession stand, locking the doors after the last of the audience left, sweeping up, and taking out the trash. It naturally became a hangout for high school kids, too young for bars but old enough for cars, a hangout which sometimes lasted late into the night, the theater brightly lit, kids sprawled across the seats eating pre-popped popcorn and getting high on soda made with corn syrup.
When Patrick arrived, the box office was closed and dark, the outside lighting dimmed, so he banged on the locked entrance doors and looked through the slim panel window with what appeared to be chicken-wire embedded in the glass. Shannon’s eyes looked back at his and she swung the door open. “Hey, Patrick.” Patrick stepped in.
“Hey, Shannon. Anything going on?”
“Nothing’s going on. There’re about five people watching the movie. The Last Picture Show, no irony intended. Shot in black and white to make it look like art — should’ve just shot the camera instead. Bang!” she mimicked with her forefinger and thumb. “Bored the hell out of me.”
“I kind of liked it. I think it’s got some awards coming in the near future.” Shannon just scoffed at him. “So nothing’s going on? No one is here?”
“Nothing,” she said. All of the girls that worked at the theater came from University High and Hamilton High and some private schools to the east, the places that West Los Angeles, Brentwood, and Westwood fed students into. Meeting the girls here was a theoretical coup; it gave Patrick, who attended Santa Monica High School, a whole new ocean to swim in, although in practice he rarely tested the waters. “Rose is giving her piano recital tonight. Yvonne’s sister Janet is picking her up in few minutes so they can drive over together. Maybe you want to check that out?”
“Yeah, maybe. Where’s Yvonne?” Patrick asked. He knew about the recital. Rose had invited him in a low-key, offhand way. He didn’t read too much into it. The invite had been proffered, and there was little to lose. Hanging around the apartment with his mother inventing excuses for Erin’s comings and goings would not make for a happy time anyway. Yvonne came out of the private offices having changed into her civvies. It seemed as though she was six inches taller than Patrick, though height gets magnified for young men when in the presence of tall girls, so he never really looked at her, not in any way more than a friend who also had friends.
“You look lost, little boy,” she said to Patrick. She wasn’t going to throw him a bone with the height thing, ever.
“And now I’m found,” Patrick answered, but Yvonne ignored him, turning to Shannon. “You sure you guys can handle the close?” she asked Shannon.
“Not a problem, Yvie. Hopefully none of these movie lovers sit around through the full credits. Either way, I see us locking up by ten-thirty. Have fun.”
“Thanks, Hon. Don’t forget to punch me out.”
“Do I ever?”
Finally, Yvonne turned to Patrick. “I hear you want to tag along.”
“I don’t have to.”
“No. It’s cool. Can’t guarantee a ride home, though.”
“Where are we going?”
“Westwood. Near Sepulveda and Sunset.”
“I can always walk back if I have to.”
“Such a resourceful boy,” Yvonne said.
At some point the world had changed, and girls that were Patrick’s age could no longer see boys of the same age as anything more than tolerated nuisances. Older guys were preferred.
“Let’s go wait outside for Janet,” Yvonne said. “She should be here soon if she isn’t already.”