Betty Grable, the pin-up, was married to the actor who played Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.
I was half of an unlikely romantic pairing myself, once.
We met on the day I was planning to quit my job. The extremely hot summer of 1972, so I was just seventeen. Mr. K and I were lazily exchanging bullshit on an early bright-lit morning while milling around on the steaming sidewalk outside of GiGi’s Fancy Dress Shoppe, a run-down, completely un-fancy deep-deep-discount woman’s clothing store located on the uneven cobblestoned avenue that ran like a twisting artery through the diseased heart of what was then one of Philadelphia’s shabbiest commercial neighborhoods. Waiting for a delivery. I remember the unfiltered brilliance of the July sun, the strip of softened asphalt running alongside the cobblestones in the center of the avenue already emitting visible lines of heat. Everything around me was glowing: the gun-gray metal of nearby shuttered shop-windows, and the bent polished trolley tracks embedded in the cobblestones, and strewn square bits of multi-colored broken glass glittering in the gutters.
But it wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds.
Mr. K was the store manager, a tall Jewish man with poor posture and an unruly stand of gray hair, an unrepentant bully who ran GiGi’s as his own little low-rent fiefdom, leering at and otherwise abusing the grossly underpaid saleswomen who worked there. As the stockboy, and only other male employee, I was perhaps treated slightly better than the others – he didn’t leer at me – but frankly, that didn’t count for much. This was a summer job and not one I was enjoying in any way – I was intending to quit that day as soon as the hand-scribbled paychecks for the previous week were distributed. I knew if I resigned earlier I wouldn’t get paid at all.
Anyway, Mr K was an incorrigible, annoyingly continuous talker, and his excited chatter was overfilled with supposedly fascinating trivial so-called facts he had garnered from who-knows-where. I suppose a person who speaks continuously runs out of any real wisdom or truth he might have to relay fairly quickly, so he has to fill in his unending monologues with questionable assertions and out-and-out lies. Mr. K was the type to say any crazy thing to anybody (no complaining customer ever won an argument with him), but he tried to be mysterious about one factoid – his complete, true name. Actually, he endeavored to imply, with no real subtlety, that he could not relate his lawful identity because he was a fully paid-up member of the Jewish mob.
I saw through him. I’m half Jewish myself, and half Protestant Irish. Between them, my modest parents provided me with seven very entertaining, very loud uncles. Each one of these uncles, even the underweight shoe salesman with chronic asthma, was a more accomplished bullshitter and, I suspect, miles tougher than Mr. K could ever be. Though an innocent dopey kid in many ways, I knew enough even then about the world and actual gangsters to know that they wouldn’t advertise themselves the way Mr. K did.
But maybe he knew a guy who knew a guy.
My main job duties: first, bringing in deliveries. For some reason, the goods delivered to GiGi’s never arrived in any sort of official delivery truck, and we didn’t know ahead of time what merchandise we were receiving. Instead, just after dawn on Saturday mornings, a smoking, battered sedan (always different, but always the same) would squeal up to the curb in front of the store, the vehicle driven by a smoking, battered, non-English speaking guy (always different, but always the same). The trunk, and the interior of the car, all the way to the roof, were piled high with mis-matched mountains of shabby coats, shoddily-made slacks, out-of-date dresses, and tatty underwear that might have just as believably been on their way to the city dump.
Then I began sorting. It was my job to convey the jumbled heaps of clothing to wide wooden tables in the dank store basement, un-wad the densely-packed individual items, and sort them into types, then sizes. You might think I would enjoy this, at least the part where I handled the ladies’ underwear, an unsupervised seventeen year-old boy pawing through piles of slips, panties, and bras. But really they were just sad pieces of cloth, very, very cheaply made cloth. To me, women’s undergarments have only ever been interesting and enticing when worn. (By a woman.)
Later that morning, I was climbing the shaky wooden staircase that connected the basement to the more brightly-lit interior of the store itself, feeling dejected and fatigued by the back-breaking task I’d just accomplished, moving the entire contents of winter goods from one stockroom to another in the sub-basement. I was also feeling more than a little disgusted by the extra gorilla-like coating of dark hair I was sporting on my arms, the result of the loose cheap fur from the coats I’d been moving adhering to the sweat of my skin.
That was when my life changed.
Mr. K, descending the stairs toward me, made a small lazy gesture with his gigantic head and said, very casually, “This is the new girl.”
Then he passed me, allowing me to behold the much smaller figure silently descending the stairs behind him. That figure turned out to be… well – the most beautiful human being I have ever seen.
I suppose you’re expecting a detailed physical description of that human being at this point, but I’d rather just keep it to myself, if you don’t mind. I will say this, however: I learned then that I had unknowingly been harboring an image of ideal feminine beauty in my otherwise mostly vacuous adolescent male cranium, a heretofore unacknowledged representation of what a perfect future mate of mine might look like. When I met Marisa – for that was the lovely, lovely new girl’s name – something, some new, pleasantly violent, hard-to define emotion, stirred inside me as I regarded her sweet face smiling down upon mine. Because she stood between me and the large store window, her dark-haired head was, I remember, surrounded by an aurora of golden sunlight. Perhaps God was allowing me a glimpse, a preview, of heaven, where the real and ideal align—
Okay, okay—-I’m overdoing it. More likely it was just a teenaged boy falling in love with a teenaged girl.
Which can be momentous enough.
In any case, I immediately decided I could forgo quitting my job for the time being.
A few hot weeks passed, and as Marisa and I got to know each other a bit, I came to realize an important fact about her beauty, which was that I was the only one who seemed able to perceive it. The other saleswomen, all older, treated Marisa in a friendly, kid-sister kind of way, not as a competitive threat or as an angelic presence whose radiant charm and goodness meant that she outshone them to such a degree that they were made coarse and ugly by comparison. And Mr. K, the ogling ogre, did not send any more sexual leers Marisa’s way than he did to the other members of his oppressed staff; in fact, he might have leered at her less often than he did at the taller, more mature, curvier females in his employ.
Marisa herself certainly did not see her beauty. A young woman of her grace and allure would have been well within her rights to demand that she be conveyed to her place of employment by a cadre of softly-singing cherubs strewing fresh rose petals in her path so as to soften the insultingly hardened surface of the ground upon which she was to set her delicate feet. Instead, every morning she hopped off the number 23 trolley, just as if she were some sort of normal person.
So Marisa and I began our romantic relationship. What made it such an unlikely pairing, as I intimated earlier? Was it that she was a petite Roman Catholic of Columbian descent, whose parochial school teachers unanimously extolled her as an academic “all-star,” while I was a gangly, sandy-haired McJew whose public school teachers’ most laudatory assessment of his academic performance was “needs improvement”? Actually, no. Was it that Marisa was a sweet-natured, kind, ethereal beauty, while I was just an ordinary, if generally well-meaning, schlump? Well, yes, there’s that, but the main difference between us was this: I believed that young people were capable of making a serious, sustained commitment, which may, if they were fortunate, lead to a lasting, lifelong relationship that matured and deepened over time, granting them an existence brimming with spiritual fulfillment and unremitting joy, while Marisa, on the other hand, did not actually know we were in a relationship.
The Roman Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians at the Battle of Edessa in 260 AD. The Persian leader, Shapur, humiliated his distinguished captive by using him – for years – as a living footstool. Finally, the day came when Valerian decided he couldn’t tolerate his situation anymore, so he stood up and offered Shapur a huge bribe for his release. Shapur’s response was to have Valerian killed by pouring molten gold down his throat.
So, whatever one’s station in life, Holy Roman Emperor or downtrodden inner-city stockboy, suffering should be seen as a given, a requisite part of human existence. And being in a love affair with someone who is unaware of it offers innumerable opportunities for suffering. If we grant that the rewards people seek from intimate relationships are some combination of, say – understanding, appreciation, and love, then my affiliation with Marisa offered me less than the ideal amount of these elements. In fact, it offered me, well… none. She was friendly and rather gracefully laughed at my sometimes moronic jokes, but showed no sign of knowing she was unconditionally adored.
On the other hand, I accrued some advantages by being in such a relationship – I didn’t have to worry about whether Marisa’s friends or parents liked me, and I had no need to fret over the possibility of overlooking her birthday, Valentine’s Day, or one of those tricky “anniversaries” girls create. And of course, as the de facto “proprietor” of the relationship, I was therefore solely responsible for determining when it might possibly end, a time which I was inclined to think of as… never.
So August came along, with no sign of letup in the heat. People moved in syrupy slow motion along the glimmering sidewalks outside the store. And my Marisa and I continued in our unusual relationship. Oh, we had our little ups and downs, like all couples do. Once I saw her talking to one of our rare male customers in what I considered an unnecessarily friendly way; it took me nearly nine minutes to forgive her. And I remember a Thursday when she wore an un-ironed gray skirt that I didn’t particularly care for. Of course, our main difference continued to be our divergent states of awareness re the existence/non-existence of our love.
Aeschylus was one of the most revered of the ancient Greeks, the renowned author of dozens of brilliant plays, nowadays widely considered to be the father of modern theater. One day he was given a terrible prophecy, a prediction that he would die soon, that he would in fact be killed when something fell on him from above. So canny old Aeschylus decided to try to outwit the Fates by moving his entire household to the out-of-doors, living in the wide open spaces near a rocky shore. Whereupon a seabird dropped a turtle on his head and killed him.
Yep, just when you think things are going along fairly well, when you feel you might have designed a system – however imperfect – for day-to-day living that minimizes your chances of getting hurt, a seabird drops a turtle on your head.
Or the psychological equivalent.
On a Saturday morning in late August I happened to see Mr. K and my Marisa enter one of the back rooms together. Actually, the “back rooms” at GiGi’s were not really what I would call rooms at all, but mostly-vacant and unused areas partitioned by walls of dusty maroon curtains. The setup made eavesdropping easy.
I approached the curtain.
“You’ll have to ask Mrs. Gold about that,” I heard Mr K say.
(Mrs. Gold was a muttering old woman who came shuffling in late on Friday afternoons to tally the saleswomen’s commissions from the register tapes for the week. These minuscule amounts were then added to the paychecks doled out on Saturdays. Mrs. Gold, I noticed, always wore the same dress when she came to work, a cheap flowered blue print. And matching blue shoes that looked suspiciously like bedroom slippers.)
“No,” Marisa said. “I have spoken to her. And she referred me to you.”
(Marisa spoke English in the beautiful way achieved by some people who master it as a second language, an elegant, precise manner which puts those of us who grew up speaking no other language to shame. But I would gladly have listened to her talk all day.)
“Look, Girlie. I told you Mrs. Gold handles the commissions. Leave me out of it,” Mr. K said.
(I knew our much-hated manager’s much-hated voice well enough to detect his very great and genuine annoyance at being questioned by this young woman. He had entered gangster mode.)
Marisa’s responding voice was calm. “I’ve spoken to Mrs. Gold at some length, Mr. K. It turns out that she is your cousin. And according to her, she has been systematically cheating all the saleswomen on commissions for years, based on direct instruction from you.”
(Wow. My Marisa! What strength and moxie for a teenaged girl. Who wouldn’t love her?)
But my thoughts were derailed by an ugly noise emanating from behind the fabric, a sudden violent rustling sound I found so disturbing I was moved to step up to the interceding curtain and whip it aside.
Marisa and Mr. K both turned to look at me. Marisa’s face (as I recollect it now) was composed, almost placid; Mr. K’s was bright red. Her left arm was extended, and he had an awkward and fierce grip on her elbow. That’s what did it: the sight of his vile fingers digging into her perfect flesh was more than I could bear. My customary hesitance evaporated in an instant and I strode determinedly forward and punched Mr. K in the throat.
Percy Shelly, the great English lyric poet, died on July, 8th, 1822, when his small boat went down in a violent storm in the Gulf of Spezia, near Italy. His partly-decomposed body was recovered and cremated on a nearby beach. It is said that his highly-emotional friend, Edward Trelawny, reached inside the smoking corpse as it burned on the pyre and retrieved the heart, saying something like, “The great heart of Shelly must not burn!” Somehow this gruesome artefact eventually made its way to the poet’s widow, Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein, who was not present at the cremation. By some accounts, she kept the desiccated heart flattened between the pages of whatever book she was reading.
A half an hour after I struck Mr. K, Marisa and I, both newly unemployed, were strolling up the sweltering avenue side by side, heading to a nearby diner for lunch. The diner was not a particularly charming place to eat, but it boasted the admirable quality of being air-conditioned. Marisa was going to treat for the meal – she had already been paid that day and I never would be.
We were teenagers, so we ordered burgers and fries from the sour-faced waitress. While waiting for the food to arrive, Marisa looked me over for a few seconds, then leaned across the chipped lime-green linoleum of the tabletop and said, “I am going to need someone to escort me to the homecoming dance in a few weeks. Would you be interested?”
Of course, of course. Being human, I embraced this chance to know Marisa better. I’ll admit I did not spend even a fraction of a second mourning the sudden un-ceremonial demise of my ideal, imagined romance. And I intuited (rightly, as it turned out) what actual romantic involvement with Marisa was going to bring me: a great deal of joy at first, and ultimately, a great deal of pain. But it would turn out to be ordinary human joy and ordinary human pain.
So, if a Holy Roman Emperor can be downgraded to a footstool, and the head of a great dramatist can be used as a surface for cracking shells, and if Percy Shelly – handsome, dynamic, prodigiously talented, perhaps the greatest of the English Romantic poets – could so very easily be demoted in the eyes of his wife from a romantic demi-god to the status of a mere bookmark, then really, tell me: what chance did I have?
James Morris asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work