Partners in Crime, Part Two

January 20, 2023
2200 words

When I was born in San Francisco, my brother, James, was seventeen months old. I have no memory of my father, just a black-and-white photo taken with a Brownie camera of my father holding Jimmy and my mother holding a baby wrapped in a bundle. My older half-brother, Johnny, probably took the picture. He was the child of my mother and her first husband. My mother and father were on the verge of divorce by the time I arrived. My father wanted to name me Bonnie. My mother went along with his request, but added the middle name Sue and called me Susie as a child. Since my father was out of the picture, I had a first name that was only used on formal documents. With his departure went whatever relatives Jimmy and I had on his side of the family.

Jimmy and I were part of the Baby Boom generation, born in the years after World War II. Everyone wanted to forget the Depression and the world war and get on with life, which meant everybody should get married and have lots of children. In California, schools and libraries were well funded. New housing developments were required to provide playgrounds. Anything that was considered helpful to family life was valued and respected. There were so many "Baby Boomer" babies, demographers called us "the pig in the python" because we outnumbered every other age group. Every phase of childhood we went through became something to remark on and write about in newspapers, magazines and books.

When I was born, Johnny was seventeen years old. His hair was dark, like my mother's, but his eyes were brown, not gray like hers. Johnny took us on the bus to well-baby doctor's visits and did what he could to help with his two blond-haired, fair skinned toddler half-siblings while our mother worked. He was barely old enough to join the Army when he decided that was the best way to help our family financially. Although my mother said she didn't want him to go, she signed the papers for him to enlist. He said goodbye to his steady girlfriend and, after basic training, was shipped off to Korea to be part of the occupation force.

After Johnny left, our mother was able to quit her job and stay at home. Now it was just her, me and Jimmy. We first lived in a big box of an apartment building. My mother's friend Marie lived upstairs with her two children. Their bond was forged by both being single mothers on welfare. They were part of the large group of single women who qualified for public assistance during the postwar years. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program gave single-parent families enough money for food and shelter. When the social worker on a home visit suggested Mom sell the old black-and-white television, my mother balked. She said, "You can see what the situation is," meaning there's nothing else to do all day with two little kids at home but watch TV. And Jimmy and I watched a lot of television. We spent a lot of time with Captain Kangaroo, Beanie and Cecil, and later the Mickey Mouse Club. It was great fun.

Once we got a little older, our mother started working at MacFarlane's Candies, a company based in San Francisco. Some times she brought home treats on special occasions like sugar pumpkins for Halloween or hard ribbon candy for Christmas. We moved into a place she always called "the house on Boutwell Street." The house was big with a yard we could play in all our own. We had a housekeeper when my mother was at work.

The house had belonged to a widow who died after a long illness and was rented out at a reasonable price with all the furnishings intact. I remember my mother asking the son if there wasn't anything he wanted from the house. He didn't.

One day, we got a package from Korea. In it, there were toys for Jimmy and a kimono made of bright red fabric patterned with little Oriental girls wearing kimonos on it for me. There also was a matching pair of slippers trimmed with white rabbit fur. My mother said it was from Johnny. "Don't you remember Johnny?" she asked.

I thought awhile and decided, no, I didn't remember Johnny, whose face had faded from my memory, but I was fascinated by the robe with the little girls who looked so different from me. The kimono fit for a few months. The slippers were already too small for my chubby feet, but I loved holding them in my hands and running my fingers over the silky fur which was oh, so soft. When Jimmy started school, my mother told me kiss him goodbye every day. Jimmy and I both hated this, so we made a fuss over the obligatory kiss and then say, "Yuck!" at the same time. I'd wipe my lips and he would rub his cheek where I had slimed him. My mother would say to me, "Don't do that. He's your brother. You love him." Well, I did love him most of the time, but I wouldn't own up to loving him always.

Helga, the housekeeper, was a sturdy German woman who did not put up with any foolishness. Once when I was home alone and she was busy cleaning, I decided to "finish" my lunch. Lunch was leftover mashed potatoes fried in bacon grease. To me they tasted like hot glue sticking my insides together. No amount of milk helped wash them down. I scraped them off the plate into the trash. When Helga came back to the kitchen, she asked if I was ready for dessert. "Yes," I chirped. While I was eating chocolate pudding, Helga opened the trash to empty the dustpan and discovered the potatoes. I got sent to bed for an early nap and that was the end of desserts at lunchtime.

Jimmy and I loved to play in the backyard of the house. One morning in spring, the little fruit tree was in full bloom. We jumped to catch the thin branches with our fat hands to make the wood sway as we bounced. "Snow! Snow!" we screamed as the petals cascaded around us.. We must have seen snow on television, because it never snowed in San Francisco.

Our mother saw us from the kitchen. "Don't you break my peach tree," she yelled out the kitchen window. We stopped "making snow" and instead scooped up the petals and threw them at each other. This was not nearly as satisfactory as the petals wouldn't stick together. The house was a treasure trove of mysteries. I found an empty cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris that still smelled of musty sweet perfume. There was also an empty tiny brown jewel box with gold leaves painted on the outside. Inside was lined with crushed blue velvet. I imagined it came all the way from China. I could fit three eucalyptus button seeds in it, four if they were small. I imagined the house belonged to my grandmother and when she came back I would show her all the things I'd found.

There were larger treasures, too. The piano!

Jimmy and I pounded on the piano every chance we got. A great cacophony of sound rolled off our hands. We "sang" along and shrieked with laughter. My mother smiled for a minute or two, but she liked her quiet. When we weren't watching, she'd escape to the kitchen to calm herself with a cigarette. We lost ourselves in the thunder, crashing on the keys louder, trying to outdo each other in the sound and the fury. Eventually, when we realized she wasn't there, we yelled for her to come back and listen, as if she couldn't hear us in the whole house, let alone the next room.

When we still lived on Boutwell Street, Jimmy and I had our first experience with church. We went to Vacation Bible School. Jimmy was old enough to be in the class where each student made a paper church with stained glass windows. He colored the windows with pencils (we'd never seen colored pencils before, only crayons) and he made the roof of popsicle sticks labeled with the names of the books of the New Testament. I was stuck with a younger group in a class with a very old lady who had thick glasses. Her loose, crepey skin looked like a turkey wattle. When she talked, her neck vibrated as if the words rumbled around her throat before coming out her mouth. She threatened us with hell if we didn't give our lives to Jesus. I didn't understand what Jesus wanted with my life if he was still living, as she claimed. And if he had his own life forever, what did he want with mine? Her descriptions of eternal fire were vivid and scary. But it wasn't enough to make me believe.

After Johnny went into the Army and my mother and father were officially divorced, she married the man who raised Jimmy and me. She met him when she answered a Personals column, charmed because his advertisement was signed, "Okie Boy." Every time she told the story, Dirk said, "I didn't sign it at all!" She always ignored him and continued with her version, how she was sure he wouldn't show up and she'd washed her hair and it was drying in curlers when he appeared.

Dirk was a big grizzly of a man. When he came through a doorway, he filled it up with his heavy frame and tall figure. His buzz-cut hair was already white, his eyes dark brown. He had thick, stubby fingers with calloused hands and wore khaki work clothes. When he was quiet, his lips disappeared in a straight line. I didn't understand what my mother saw in him. When he looked at Jimmy or me, we never felt approval.

After they married, we left the big house on Boutwell Street and moved into a one bedroom apartment in the Hunter's Point district of San Francisco, also known as The Projects. The housing was built during World War II and convenient to the Naval Shipyards, where Dirk worked as a welder. Instead of a house with a yard, we had a tiny apartment in a big block building with a large concrete pad in front of the door, where kids could play among the neighborhood drying laundry that hung out on lines. Jimmy and I did like having lots of playmates. There was usually some kids around our age outside.

The only thing Dirk had that fascinated me was a metal, matte-black lunch box. My mother would fill it with two sandwiches, an apple and a banana. She would clip a big thermos of coffee cut with a shot of condensed mile, just the way he liked it, on the domed side of the container. When you latched it closed, you couldn't tell what was inside. To me, it looked like a grown-up version of "hide and seek." Imagine the surprise if you opened it and found peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat instead of pimento loaf on white bread. Or what if you opened it and found it full of chocolate chip cookies? The one time I pulled it off the counter and played with it, my mother caught me and took it away, saying it was not a toy. From then on, she kept it on top of the refrigerator.

The apartment was cramped with four people and soon there was a baby, Billy. He was born a month premature and stayed in the hospital until he gained enough weight to come home. The day he came home from the hospital, I leaned over the front seat of the car and stared at all five pounds of him, cradled in my mother's arms. He was wrapped up in a yellow blanket and sported a yellow bib cap on his tiny head. I thought, 'So this is what all the fuss was about.' Such a tiny bundle for all that worry. His nickname became 'Little Peanut.' He was a cute baby with brown eyes like his father. It was obvious to everybody that he was Dirk's child. And Jimmy and I were not.

Although I liked Billy and I was happy to be a big sister, I was never sure about Dirk. I wasn't used to a man being around. Men came into and out of your life. Maybe Dirk would join the Army, too, like Johnny. But I told myself as long as my mother loved me, everything was okay. Billy moved into the bedroom with Dirk and our mother.

It was an uneasy truce in the apartment, Jimmy and me trying our best to stay out of the way of the adults and Billy.

© Copyright 2022, Bonnie Ferron