Photography : “Starry Night at Mt. Evans”
Non-Fiction: “When My Aunt Vida Disappeared”
“Your Aunt Vida will be here in three hours,” my mother announced. This was news to me. “Put down the book and go pick up your room, please.” Together with Albine, Peg, Gladys, Hanna, Lynne, Christine, and Norma, Vida was one in a cast of women, none blood relatives, whom I was taught as a child to address as “Aunt.” I had no real aunts. Or uncles, cousins, or even grandparents. After my parents and my sister, these middle-aged women, all old girlfriends of my mother, were the nearest I had to family.
Vida, I learned with some digging, was about to land at JFK Airport en route from London with two of her finest Papillons, a kind of toy spaniel. Vida would stay with us for the week, in our New York City apartment, while she showed her dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club Show. Westminster was the biggest dog show of them all, and Vida was coming to win.
Among my “Aunts,” Vida was the most intriguing. For starters, she was an oil heiress. Vida was born Vida Halliburton, daughter of Erle Halliburton Sr., founder of the Halliburton Company and one of the world’s richest men. Vida, Erle’s fourth of five children, never wanted for anything. She married pop singer and Hollywood producer Artie Wayne, and together, their young children and film crew in tow, plied the world’s oceans in their yacht, a converted Navy minesweeper, making movies. This was when my mother, a radio producer seeking her own fortunes in Hollywood, struck up a friendship with Vida. Ultimately, Vida’s interests shifted to her prize-winning dogs, and she was now mostly on the road with them. Vida was fun, and wickedly eccentric, and unlike some of my mom’s other friends, not disposed to climb into my business.
It was February. A crust of snow coated the sidewalks, and flurries were in the forecast. My sister and I scrambled to clean up the room where Vida and the dogs would stay. We put down towels where the dogs would track in snow from the park. As city kids, my sister and I never owned a dog, and we were excited to receive our new charges.
I didn’t really know Vida — a sandwich layer filled by my mother saw to that — but she was a welcome guest. As were the other “Aunts,” who came to stay from time to time. All were unusual, even exotic women. Norma was a model and TV “weather girl.” Peg was the creator and star of an early radio and TV sitcom. Gladys was a song and radio jingle writer. And so on.
Albine, while not in show business, was the most mysterious of all. She had known my mother since early childhood, growing up in the house next door in Queens, New York. She was there for the upheaval of my mother’s youth: the times she ran away from home, the first marriage about which my mother never spoke — scraps I picked up from sentence fragments overheard in empty corridors. But if Albine had stories — information — about my mom, she wasn’t telling.
I understood roughly how these women were connected to my mother, but little else about their friendships. Each woman was linked to a period in my mother’s life, from her career in radio. As a child I held a suspicion that these links concealed elusive truths about my mother — truths she kept from me and my sister. But if these truths were discernible from the way my mother pursued these dear friendships, I didn’t see it. Nor did I trouble to ask why I was to address these women as “Aunt.” I simply did, in the way of a child. It was not until I became an adult that I understood this designation was really about my mother, a gaudy homage to friends she had accumulated, and not at all about me, or even them.
On schedule, Vida arrived by taxi with the two Papillons. The date was Sunday, February 10, 1980. Away from the primping and klieg lights, the Papillons were still dogs, and my sister and I spilled out onto the apartment landing to scoop them up.
Something immediately wasn’t right about Vida. Normally smooth and confident, today she was unfocused and shaky. As she settled into our apartment, and over the next couple days, Vida’s peculiar behavior had my sister and me whispering to each other in the halls: “Aunt Vida just came back from walking the dogs in her nightgown. In Central Park. It’s February!” I broached the subject with my mother. She waved me off, with a quick sound bite about medication. Beyond that, there was no discussion of Vida’s behavior. Per usual I was out of the information loop. I decided to keep my distance.
Our apartment was a hive of activity on Tuesday morning, the opening day of the Westminster dog show. The dogs had the run of the apartment, and they were yapping about. The dogs’ handler, the renowned Barbara Humphries, came by to collect the dogs to shuttle them to Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, my mother and Vida, both fashionable women, were in the midst of their own productions, primping, perfuming, and preparing for the day out. Vida always wore jewelry befitting an heiress, and this day she was decked out in her diamonds. I was in my room getting dressed for school, when I heard Vida in the entryway yelling in to my mother: “Charlotte, are you ready? It’s getting late.” My mother was going to drive Vida down to the Garden. My mother, from the other end of the apartment, yelled back: “Just a minute, Vi, I’m finishing my makeup.”
I slipped past Vida in the entryway, exited our apartment building, and hopped the bus to school. The day was uneventful, until I returned home. “David, have you seen your Aunt Vida?” my mother asked rhetorically as I came in and dropped my bag. I had not. My mother related how she’d come out of her bedroom that morning, ready to drive Vida, and Vida was gone. Eventually my mother drove down to Madison Square Garden, expecting that Vida had grown impatient and left the apartment without her. But Vida wasn’t at Madison Square Garden, and didn’t turn up there all day. My dad arrived home from the office. We had dinner. My mother called the police.
The police were nonplussed, as my mother would later recount:
“It’s been less than 24 hours, ma’am, she’s not a missing person,” the detective chided over the phone.
“She’s wearing a quarter million dollars in jewelry,” my mother rejoined.
“We’ll be right over.”
There was no word from Vida that day, or the next day, or the next. The NYPD missing person’s unit visited our apartment several times. An alert was issued: “Vida Wayne is 58 years old, 5’ 4”, weighs 120 lbs., and always wears a man’s ring with a gold lion’s head with a diamond protruding through the nose on her right index finger. Anyone having information should contact…”
My mother engaged a psychic.
Leads were plentiful. Vida’s wallet was found in the back of a taxi. The New York Times reported that the taxi had dropped Vida at Madison Square Garden, but the driver didn’t notice if she’d entered the building, and no one else came forward to say they saw her there. Later that day, according to the police, Vida walked into a McDonald’s at Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street and asked an employee behind the counter to cash a $50 traveler’s check. The employee turned away briefly, and when she returned Vida was gone, leaving behind a fur hat and a pocketbook containing an airline ticket to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Vida’s family in Los Angeles began placing daily ads in New York City’s three major papers. The ads gave a description — brownish-red hair, wearing a light brown fur coat, maroon boots and a black leather skirt — and offered a sizeable reward. The ads failed to generate new leads, and the trail started to grow cold. Vida was nowhere.
After Vida disappeared, my sister and I continued to go to school; my dad to work; and honestly I don’t recall what my mother did. Truth is, I don’t remember much from that week — surprising to me given that an oil heiress, one of my mom’s close friends, my “Aunt,” had just vanished from our home. I seem to recall that, apart from the disappearance, the week felt ordinary.
I’d like to report that the mood in the apartment was frenetic, as we organized searches for Vida; that we combed the streets looking for her; that we posted fliers; that all non-missing person activity came to a halt. That we were distraught, my mother in tears. But I can’t say these things — because they didn’t occur.
If we huddled as a family and talked about Vida, the fate that might be befalling her, and our own feelings about Vida’s disappearance, I don’t remember that at all. What I do remember, quite distinctly, is that, with Vida missing only a few days, my mother drove my sister and me to Vermont to ski for President’s Day week. As we stuffed our skis in the car, I recall asking my mother, “Is it OK to leave?” “Yes,” came her one word reply. I knew not to question, and I climbed into the backseat. In many families, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In my family, this was time for a road trip.
It’s a regular source of surprise to me, the things people choose to say to the ones they love, and the things they don’t. I imagine my family sitting at the dinner table in the days following Vida’s disappearance, staring at each other and wondering who was going to speak first about the tragedy unfolding in our home. But if my mother wasn’t going to ask if I was upset about Vida going missing, I wasn’t going to volunteer it. I wasn’t going to lead that conversation.
And I’m left to wonder how uncommon a dynamic this is in families: the child looking to the parent for direction; the parent who won’t — can’t — engage the child. Each person contributing to a growing space between, and into that silent space flowing misgiving and regret, a warehouse of feelings not expressed and actions not taken. And what’s left, I think, must be blankness and rigid veneer, slick surfaces to which memory and sentiment don’t adhere.
I don’t remember when they pulled Vida’s body out of the East River that summer. Or when the medical examiner’s office returned her — her jewelry intact — to her family. I don’t remember if there was a funeral for Vida, and if there was, if my mother attended. I don’t remember what I may have said to my mother at the time in consolation, or what she may have said to me. But after 38 years, I remember enough to have learned, finally, that this is not just a family story about an heiress who disappeared from a New York City apartment. It’s also a story about family, and the things we leave unsaid. D
Sculpture: “Dolly Cher Glitter Princess”
FICTION: “Outside Clayton”
The heat off the tent, and the flames roll, and roll. Nothing to see here but forty kneeling souls. By noon, twenty saved and, by October thirty nine lost. First, the tithe, then the scythe. The world may never know, said Renata, and they knew it to be true. The tent cast in the wind and bode stunned silence. And then desultory shuffling forth into the desert heat.
So it was, out into the shade of half meaning, and unspoken truths, but with purpose that made one wept. Bearing witness, holding forth, presenting false choices for the ill prepared and the uninformed. Renata fell in behind the two men as they made towards the Chrysler wagon, and began to listen to a conversation in progress.
– Someone should have told us this.
– I suppose someone has now.
– Believe what you will, for soon it won’t matter. This is what it looks like when a beast imitates its master. We left enough in the basket for this tent to lurch down the road.
–The saving of souls, hell. The saving wasn’t done when the shop girl’s beaux got blown in half in Iraq. Ain’t no replacement suitor to be found now. Ain’t nothing to be done for the winter. The birds done ate what didn’t get shriveled up under the sun with no rain about. Tonight didn’t do nothing for the pensioner’s leftward stoop that wasn’t already evened out by the gout on his right foot.
As the glow dimmed behind, the sound of trumpets was proven to be motors rattling to life. Renata slipped into the back seat while the men were absorbed with digging for cigarettes, fumbling for lighters, probing for a switch with keys, punching buttons on the radio, muttering disgust, punching more buttons. For a time, the riders bore the ruts and stones in silence as narrow as the beams of light ahead of them, illuminating far too little in the twilight.
When speech came, the truths spoken fell obliquely upon the truths shown, and the truths learned. It was Renata who spoke up first.
– The moon is nearly full tonight. Praise be. See what He has made.
And then, to herself. Lord God, please do not take me with Your waters, they do not suit my lungs. Please do not impale me, my body cannot brook the wood. If I be crushed by stones, may they not be wielded by my neighbors.
The house was dark when Renata turned away as the Chrysler rattled off. She prayed Papa had gone to sleep by now.
– Wait Renata! Where did you go? Why did you leave me here all alone?
– But Papa, I told you. I went to sermon. Outside Clayton. With my prayer group.
– I saw them again. Your mother was with them. Her eyes were black like two empty holes. She reached for me, but my arms, they would not rise. Damned arthritis! I needed her touch. It’s been so long since the Lord took her. I’m so cold.
There was a terrible accident last night. The heat brought out the snakes. Startled, a young cocktail waitress on her way home from the casino swerved. A long-haul driver, fighting to stay awake, hit her straight. 9,500 gallons of fuel turned the asphalt interstate into a river of fire.
– We prayed for their souls tonight. I will pray for yours, Papa. Goodnight.
Why does she think of Inez now? Was her soul saved? Immolation completes the tasks; there is nothing more to be done. The temptations have been resolved and the consequences yet borne. But she is complete now, and one can only regard, aghast, at the ripples of consciousness lapping against the unknowing. Renata bore enlightenment, but Inez could see only what she felt, and she felt desperation. Their frivolities of youth gave way to the churn of obligation. And then the lure of the casino. That is what brought her onto the highway and into the fuel tanker.
It is not that Renata resented the time she spent with Inez at Highlands. Necesitamos aceptar a la gente de la manera en que los encontrarmos. Federal dollars were available, and they tried to pry up marks that would forestall the inevitable. At first, their time together almost felt like what it would be like to have a sister; the exaggerated exasperation at obvious outcomes, the solemn, resigned nod at the known and unknowable, the shriek of understanding. Yet, the last celebratory hug initiated by Renata ended with a perplexed or distracted sideward glance from Inez.
The distance was there before money entered the dorm room. Renata’s stipend was now over seeded with what Inez brought in from dancing at the cabaret, not that singing or dancing were so much the attraction there. But the more the rain clouds brought, the more the drought of daylight would evaporate. And so went the attendance of Inez at Highlands.
By third semester, Inez has only the routine of the jefes. The nightmares of the sleeping hours and the waking hours took hold as quizzes, tests and finals pulled at the stomach of Inez. Renata knew that Inez was missing, and Inez knew that the vagaries of her patron’s generosity was fickle.
As Inez drifted from pole to pole, Renata found Rd. Horacio, and felt stung by news of a house party here, a huge drop there, and the promise of a novio every day. But Rd. Horacio was clean and clear; the path to enlightenment had no place for pipes and short straws and the hollow victories of outdoing the worst.
Renata drifted awake to the sound of Papa’s snoring in the other room, and she immediately began praying.
– Papa is so lost. You show him. His thoughts stray to the undisciplined, and the idle daydreamer. You know so much more. Show him those thoughts. Show him the thoughts that will bring him peace. He thinks he knows. He doesn’t know. That’s my job. If I find the right words, if my language doesn’t fail me, he will finally understand. I will make him understand. And all will be back as they belong.
She felt herself resent how little it would take. She saw her lack of empathy for what it was. She felt the resentment, and the resentment became a thing unto itself. She did not ask for this.
As the light failed, the rhythmic hacking of the obreros on the piñon only barely registered as they packed their tools for the night. It struck her as a harbinger of winter, this gathering of fuel. Hacking off limbs, hacking off the gift of language, hacking off life itself.
The Padre of the Order of the Paraclete came by last Good Friday. They came, they spoke to her prayer group, they spoke largely to the alter boys. They spoke of their damnation, about the hell that lies beyond. As they spoke, Renata wondered about her life as the wife of a Highlands graduate; maybe he would manage the accounts for the shopkeepers who make their living off travelers on the Interstate. She would be given that joy, and it would last forever. Renata redoubled her efforts:
– Lord, protect me. I love, and I want to be loved. Please make that enough. Make that enough for those who profess to love me.
A cool breeze blew off the mesa, giving less than what was asked but more than what was promised. Pintos and pork still simmered on the stove, tortillas still warmed further from the coals. Renata rose from her seat and began to eat. Rd. Horacio would be back in October, well before the snows. Renata had so many questions for him. How does a woman have a child without being with a man? How does a spike pierce a man’s hands and feet and hold him aloft? What exactly is it that one sees from heaven? If I see God, how will I recognize him? Rd. Horacio will surely know. And so shall she.
Papa called from his bedroom.
– I want to go home! Please take me home!
– Papa! You are home! Go to sleep. D
Poetry: “Let Go”
Digital Art: “Untitled”