THE MOMENT OF SEPARATION
Based on A True Story
Joe pulled gently on the top drawer of his bureau. About halfway out, it stuck. Maintaining a firm grip on its rusted slide, he jimmied it slightly, but it wouldn’t budge. He glanced at his Elgin wristwatch, lying face-up on top of the dresser. 4.45 P.M. Marguerite expected him at 5 P.M. exactly. “I’ll be in hot water,” he said, shaking his finely chiseled face. Then he smiled. He didn’t like to fret about things that he couldn’t control. And he found this predicament silly, standing there half-naked in his white boxers and calf-high brown socks. He stopped daydreaming long enough to focus once more on the brass pull. Using both hands this time, Joe gave the drawer a sharp tug. It protested with a long-drawn-out wail. Needing a clean tee-shirt more than he needed the old cherry dresser, he tore the drawer clean out from its shelter.
“Pepe, what are you up to in there?” his sister yelled.
“Nothing Mae. Nothing,” he called back, a slight irritation was evident in his voice.
“I didn’t hear nothing, Joe, I heard…” at that point, he cut her off by opening the door and peeking out.”
“It was the dresser, just the dresser. The drawer stuck; that’s all.” And before she had time to protest, he shut the door again.
Glancing around the bedroom at the matching double beds and nightstands, Joe sighed. His father Marcantonio, had left the furniture behind when he moved back to New York with his young bride and baby daughter. The furnishings were drab, dull even, dark stained wood and green curtains.
Mae knocked loudly on the door. She was a spitfire, petite, and always in control. Joe looked at the drawer in hand. The wood had splintered with age. He reached for a clean white undershirt. There were a dozen to choose from, all folded and stacked neatly beside a pile of starched handkerchiefs. He preferred order and constancy, unlike the other kids in 1928, who were rebelling; the girls that were powdering their knees and bobbing their hair in defiance, the boys that frequented the speakeasies and listened to jazz. Joe had no need to be defiant. Although, he had rejected his father’s wish that he become a baker. It was hard, lonely work. He loved the stock exchange, all noise excitement, passion, and wits.
“There is nothing for an Italian out here, Joe. The Chinese …they’ve taken over everything, everything we’ve worked so hard to build. Look at La Puma Ravioli, Chinese making pasta. Can you God Damn believe that?” His father had slammed his hand down on the kitchen table. Usually soft-spoken, Joe had never seen him react with anger before. Soon after, his father had packed up his personal effects and had moved back to New York, leaving his oldest two children to fend for themselves.
“Mae, everything is fine now.”
He’d already showered and shaved, slicked back his wavy black hair. He would wear his new brown suit. Marguerite would like that. She was always swooning, admiring his coffee-colored eyes.
“You have the eyes made of sweet chocolate,” she’d said.
“I hope you’re not going out. It’s your night to cook,” her voice had a deeper pitch.
“I’m taking Marguerite to Olvera Street.”
“I’m eighteen now, Mae. You can stop treating me like a child,” he said, pulling on the tee-shirt, inspecting it for holes and stains. “Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry? She’s a sweet young girl. You graduated High School last December. Haven’t you broken enough teenage hearts?” She could hear him chuckle.
He took one last look in the mirror, opened the door again, tilted his head, and smiled at his sister. He knew she hated it when he did that. That it made her feel that she was no better than the flappers he dated. But that smile, it was ineffably sweet and enchanting. She crossed her arms across her chest in mock anger.
“I’m taking her to have a pencil portrait done. I’ve promised her for weeks.”
His hands belied his excitement. He used his arms and shoulders like a marionette controlled by strings. “I took a walk last week, and I met this kid, well he’s only a few years younger than me, but he’s huge, 6’1″ or taller. He wears a big floppy hat. It looks ridiculous, but I didn’t have the heart to break it to him. The girls stared at him like he’s some kind of freak, but I could see he was an all right guy. He’s really talented at portraits. You definitely get your dollars’ worth.”
Mae straightened her green silk dress and gave him a look of uncertainty, examining his face for any hint of a lie, as a mother would do to a small son.
Joe loved driving his shiny black Model A Ford. It gave him a sense of freedom he’d never enjoyed before. He’d worked two jobs all through high school until he had saved up for it, and he hadn’t had it long. Of course, Mae didn’t approve, but that’s because she had all the responsibilities for their household now. Joe was working at the Stock Exchange. He didn’t make much. Mae was working as a secretary for a Naval office in the Van Nuys building. They did ok.
Marguerite lived on North Oxford Boulevard, which wasn’t far from the tiny house, Joe shared with his sister on Montana Street. It was a beautiful June afternoon when he drove into her driveway and parked. She ran to the front window. Her bobbed blond hair bouncing as she waved excitedly. She blew him a kiss, and he winked at her. She mouthed something though the window, but he didn’t catch it. Climbing out of the car, he strutted up the stone pathway to her front door. The yard was carefully groomed, full of red and pink rose bushes. Her mother loved to garden.
Joe rang the bell. Mrs. MacKenzie answered. She was dressed in an elegant yellow straight-lined dress with matching pumps, and she held a hat in her left hand.
“Hello, Mrs. MacKenzie. Is Marguerite here?”
“Hi Joe, she just ran to grab a scarf. She’ll just be a minute.” And with that, her daughter pushed her way through the front door.
“You behave yourself, Marguerite,” her mother warned.
Marguerite went straight up to Joe and gave him a peck on his cheek.
“I’m so excited. I’ve never had my portrait drawn before.” She smiled with the exuberance of a young child. She was dainty, petite, about 5’2″ and barely 90 pounds, but her charm could fill a room. “Don’t worry; I’m with Joe. He always takes good care of me. Right, honey?” she squeezed his left hand.
“We won’t be long, Mrs. MacKenzie. I’ll have her home by seven.”
Mrs. MacKenzie smiled slightly. The two kids turned and walked to Joe’s car. He opened the door for Marguerite, and she nestled down into the warm leather seats. Then she rolled down the window and tied a white silk scarf around her head.
Joe put the key in the ignition and started the car.
“Bye, mom,” Marguerite said. She waved goodbye to her mother and Joe drove the car down the street.
“You’re really going to get a kick of this guy who draws pictures. They turn out great, and it doesn’t take him long to do it. He’s an oddball, though. Not very talkative. When he stands up, he’s huge, real tall, and he has a pockmarked face.”
“Poor guy. I’ll have to find him a gal,” Marguerite giggled.
Joe smiled to himself. She was such a sweet and sincere girl. Most of the gals he’d dated were so bossy, and they got serious right away.
“It’s hot out today. I shouldn’t have worn this suit,” Joe said, tugging at his shirt collar.
“But you look so handsome in it. I’m glad you did.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you if you were going to the Graduation party at the beach.”
“We’re all going. Mazie, Myrene, and me. We were hoping to get a ride from Anthony. Would you be a doll and ask him for us?”
“Anything for you, princess.” Joe winked, and Marguerite giggled.
“I’m not a princess.”
“Well, you should be then. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
“You’re lying. I’m going to tell your sister.” Marguerite teased.
“Am not!” He sounded serious.
She blushed and looked down at the floor of the car. “You really think so.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. Marguerite, you are one of the sweetest and truly charming girls I’ve ever meant. I only hope that you don’t find me to be a cad.”
“I’d never find you a cad Joe. You’re not like the other boys. You’re a gentleman.”
Joe grinned and stepped on the gas.
“Whee,” said Marguerite as her blue headscarf fluttered in the wind.”
Sometime later, they’d found a place to park and wandered down Olvera Street looking for the kid. Joe spotted him right away. “There he is in front of the old winery. He’s doing that little girl’s portrait right now.”
Marguerite jumped up and down. Her little white pumps were like springs. She clapped her hands together in excitement. Joe grabbed her hand and drug her over towards the sketch artist.
“Hey, do you remember me?” he asked.
The kid nodded. “Sure.”
“Well, I brought my gal back for a portrait. You said you could do one for a dollar, right? Well, I have a dollar right here.” Joe reached in this suit pocket and brought out a new dollar bill.
“I’m almost finished with this one. It’ll just be a minute,” the kid explained.
“Great, we’ll wait then.”
Marguerite studied the artist’s hand. She noted how steady it was, how he made the portrait come alive. He was very talented, indeed.” Finally, he had finished.
“Have a seat. What’s your name, miss?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Joe stepped in, “this is Marguerite.”
“What a beautiful name,” he said as he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Joe said, not to be outdone.
The artist looked down at his shoes, seemingly embarrassed.
Marguerite sensed some tension and reached out with her hand and touched his shoulder. What is your name?
“Oh,” the boy stuttered. I’m known by Chuck. Chuck Jones.”
“Do you go to High School around here, Chuck?” she asked.
“No, Well, I did, but I’m at the Chouinard Art Institute now.”
“Here’s to your success Chuck,” she winked. Chuck smiled. Joe didn’t like this. He walked up and wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her head.
“Well, he can’t draw my portrait with you in it, can he silly?” she chastised.
It took about ten minutes, and then it was done. Marguerite thought it was the most beautiful portrait she’d ever seen. She held it in her hands as if it were gold and skipped back to the car. “Thanks, Joe. Thanks so much. I’ve going to remember this day forever.”
The night of the party, Joe dressed in his best black suit, with a starched white shirt and gold cufflinks. There was going to be a live jazz band at the beach club, and he wanted to look his best. He’d just about finished up when Anthony honked the horn on his new roadster. Joe lingered a few more minutes, making sure that he passed inspection. The horn honked again, and he could hear his friends call out impatiently. Anthony Castro was an athlete, a former left fielder for the L.A. H.S. baseball team, and he was always raring to go. Angelo, the assistant coach, and his girl Hannah were already in the car.
Joe strutted out like a king.
“Come on. We’ve still got to pick up Marguerite and Myrene.
Joe laughed and got into the back seat of the car. Before long, both girls had joined him. He loved being sandwiched between two women and was up to his playful, entertaining conversations. The girls stared in awe. The boys ignored him because they’d learned long ago that Joe would always win. Joe and Marguerite strolled hand and hand back to Anthony’s car. They load in the same way as the ride there. Anthony and Angelo in the front seat with Myrene. Joe, Marguerite, and Mazie in the back. At about half-past eleven, they began the drive away from the picturesque beach, back to the city, back to their parents who were waiting patiently in the living room for the headlights of the familiar car.
The girls think the dance beat all. They are excited and touchy-feely. Marguerite cuddles on Joe’s lap for the ride home, deciding she’s tired. They settled by the left window. The night is warm, and they are warm from dancing, so Joe rolls the window down, and they enjoy the breeze. After a little while, they began to neck. They are in their own little world as Anthony drives through Westwood and turns on to Wilshire Boulevard.
“You two better watch it, Myrene might squeal on you.”
“Will not,” she said, hitting Anthony on the shoulder.
“Well, Mazie will then. Mazie Conkite always blabs.”
Mazie stuck out her tongue. By then, the entire car was in hysterics. Joe hugged Marguerite tighter. He loved the feel of her slim soft body against his. She smelled of ginger and spice. Her hair was soft and curled under at the nape of her neck. He leaned forward to kiss her shoulder when he heard Anthony and Myrene scream simultaneously. Joe looked up just in time to see two headlights coming directly for them.
“What the hell?” It was all he had time to say.
What the hell seemed like it took hours to say. Every movement happened in slow motion. The positioning of hands on the seat in front of them. Anthony’s desperate attempt to swerve the car out of the way. The roadster smashing into the front of their car, first the headlights spraying upwards, then metal whining, the impact sending both cars rolling. Bodies thumping against one and other, against seats, the car, the door, pieces of glass embedding in skin. Their roadster landed on its left side. The other rested up against it.
Joe hollering. “Is everyone ok?” He could hear moaning. He yelled again, although he wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t an echo. Time seemed to stand still.
Marguerite still in his arms but she was limp. He shook her. She didn’t respond.
Her head had slipped partly out the window. He could feel her body shudder and grow silent. The weight of the other sedan was directly on her.
“Oh, God. Everybody get out now. Marguerite’s pinned. Her head. It’s under the other car.”
“I can’t Joe move, my hand.” Angelo whimpered. Joe could see that it was badly mangled. There was blood dripping from his leg, as well.
The others freed themselves from the car. They were banged up, and in no shape to free Marguerite from the heavy sedan. Not that it would have mattered. It was thirty minutes before help arrived. Marguerite had been dead for most of that time. Joe ripped off his tee-shirt and made a makeshift tourniquet for his Angelo’s hand and leg. Mazie and Myrene were in shock. Joe crawled back into the car and held Marguerite. He kissed her pale hand. “It’s going to be ok baby. I’ll take care of you. I promise. Joe’s here, baby.”
He stared up at the sky and hummed her favorite song. He remained like that unmoved until the ambulances finally arrived rushed Angelo and Marguerite away. Joe felt cold; a river of ice pulsed through his veins. The police drove the kids home, wrapped blankets around them. Angelo was in his own personal hell. He nearly had his hand amputated, but doctors were able to save it. They stitched up his leg as well.
Joe was glad Mae didn’t see him enter the house, drenched in blood, disheveled. He went straight to the shower and sat on the cold tile floor. His mind raced. Why Marguerite, he asked? He hugged himself and hit his head on his knees.
He later learned that the police had determined that the driver of the other car, Walter, B. Cox, 25, had been drinking and had been arrested on manslaughter. Drinking, he thought, during prohibition. He had hated the law before. He now had a new opinion.
Sheree La Puma is an award-winning writer whose personal essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in or are forthcoming in Juxtaprose, Heron River Review, The Rumpus, O:JA&L, Plainsongs, The Main Street Rag, Burningword Literary Journal, I-70 Review, Inflectionist Review, Levee, The London Reader, Bordighera Press – VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Gravel, Foliate Oak, PacificReview, Westwind and Ginosko Literary Review, among others. She received an MFA in Writing from California Institute of the Arts and taught poetry to former gang members.