And the Part of Me Will Be Played by Marilyn Monroe
by Alice K. Boatwright
Alice K. Boatwright
Alice K. Boatwright's fiction has appeared in journals such as Mississippi Review, Marco Polo, Beloit Fiction Journal, America West, Storyglossia, and Stone Canoe. Her first book, Collateral Damage, will be published by Standing Stone Books in 2012. This is her third appearance in Amarillo Bay.
When the movie of my life is made, the part of me will be played by Marilyn Monroe. Now you may object, because Marilyn is dead, but I don't see that as a problem at all. This movie is strictly for private showing. And besides no one else has the right combination of beauty, spunk, and trouble in her face.
Johnny Depp will play my first husband, Thomas, because he's lean and dark, with crazy sexy eyes. When Thomas comes to town, Jackson—he's my husband now—just melts out of sight. Thomas pulls up in front of the house and, no matter what car he's driving, I know who it is. Like birds before a storm, children, dogs, and cats grow quiet.
Then in comes Thomas. He strides across my freshly waxed linoleum floor with his dirty boots and throws his arms around me. I put down my dishcloth and we kiss. For a few hours, we are sixteen again and very hot for each other.
I will give the part of my mother to Kathy Bates. She is one sour old lady when she wants to be and smokes all day long no matter what the doctors say. Her idea is to spit life in the eye, and, if it spits back, so much the better.
Mama lives two blocks away in her own house, which is the pride of her life. She spent years working at Newberry's, puffing away on her Luckies and doing the books, to own that house. Plenty of men and my brother and I came and went while she was at the task.
The house isn't much: a pale green cinderblock rectangle with five rooms sitting in the middle of a patch of darker green lawn. It is indisputably hers though, as she is fond of telling her neighbors, family, dogs, salesmen, and passers-by.
"This is my house—now beat it!"
The opening scene, where the credits roll across in big white script, will show me walking down the sidewalk with George and Willa, Marybeth and Sue, all dressed up for the first day of school, and the baby on my hip sucking her fist. The sound of music comes from someone's open window, a radio station playing country. Then there is the sound of traffic as we turn off our street, which is quiet and shady, onto Nelson Boulevard, which is wide and noisy. It is hot. The sun is surrounded by a white glow that says it's going to be hotter.
I am wearing a thin pink v-neck and my yellow skirt, the one that clings around my hips because I believe if a woman can have five children and still keep her shape she deserves to flaunt it. You know what I look like—Marilyn Monroe—but I am wearing flip-flops as my feet trouble me in the heat.
The children are all complaining about their new shoes and shifting their lunch boxes from one hand to the other. Going back to school is like death for them after the freedom of summer. Tomorrow they will be all right, but today they drag their feet like a little chain gang.
"What time does the bus come, Mama?" George asks.
"Seven-oh-five," I tell him.
"What'll we do if we're late?" he wants to know, but that's George. He has always been a worrier.
Willa is dragging a stick through the dust. Dust floats around her fresh white socks and covers her shoes.
"We won't be late. Willa, honey, you're getting dirty," I say. She looks up at me sweetly. "Put the stick down, please," I tell her and she drops it. I am always amazed when one of my children obeys me.
"Did you remember your milk money?"
She nods, and I give her a pat on the head.
Willa is going into first grade. Sue and Marybeth are in third and fourth, George in fifth. All my children are blondies like Jackson and me, except for Willa. Her hair is nearly black.
"You all look out for Willa today," I say to them as we reach the corner of Nelson and White. We park ourselves under a dusty, drooping tree just as the school bus rounds the bend. It pulls up and the faces of strange children press against the glass to watch my children climb aboard.
"Will you be home when we get there, Mama?" asks George.
"Of course I will," I say. Then I give them each a kiss and a pat and help Willa with the first stair. She doesn't cling, not my little dark-haired girl. I'm the one who has trouble letting go. Who's still waving when the bus is a block away.
In the movies, life doesn't make people yawn, so I don't, even though I have been up since four a.m. Instead, when the baby and I are left alone in the hot thick morning, the buzz of cicadas turns my thoughts to Thomas, whom I have not seen in ever so long.
The camera will come in slowly for a close up, and you'll understand from my expression that, although I am tenderly rubbing the baby's velvety arm, my heart is far away as I sling her onto my other hip and begin to walk back home.
You don't remember seeing Marilyn carry around babies in any of her other roles? Well, that's why I am finally giving her the chance. She would have loved to be me.
Now the scene will shift to a garage in the desert. The landscape stretches brown and gray and faded green, rolling to the horizon where a bank of towering clouds is pierced by pointed blue mountains. A single strip of highway passes the tin garage with its two pumps. A white car, long and cut down like a low rider, is parked by the pumps.
There is no music, only the wind, so you pause, popcorn halfway to your mouth. Something important is about to happen, and you wait for it.
The screen door of the garage opens and out walks a man, one hand holding a Coke, the other scratching his belly. He needs a shave, but God, is he handsome. He wears a t-shirt and low-slung pants that say one shake'll get these off. So look out. It is my first husband, Thomas.
Thomas lifts his face to the morning sun, takes a drink from his Coke, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He and his car both look like they've been on the road awhile.
The gas station attendant comes out after him and Thomas hands him some bills.
"Where you headed?" the man asks.
Thomas stretches and smiles. He names a town.
It is where I live.
I am spooning applesauce into the baby when Thomas arrives. I begin wiping the baby's cheeks, taking off her messy bib, even before his car comes to a stop; and I turn to see him looking at me through the kitchen door.
"Hi there, girl," he says, as if it has not been ages since his last visit. He looks just like Thomas the child, staring through my mama's screen door, his nose picking up the grid.
"Are you hungry, Thomas?" my mama would say. "If you are, come on in. But if you aren't, kindly stop bending my screen." Thomas always came in.
"Hey there," I say with a grin, smoothing down my skirt.
Then the screen door slams and Thomas has his arms around me. He picks me right up off the floor and swings me around 'til we're dizzy. The baby laughs and bangs a spoon on her tray, enjoying this new game.
When we are all breathless, Thomas sets me down with a kiss and examines the baby.
"This one's a beauty just like you," he says, following me into her room where I put her down for a nap.
At last we are alone, and I lead Thomas to my bedroom. Sun pours through the half-closed blinds, coloring the room with a golden haze, as we lie down side by side on the chintz spread. For a moment, he just looks at me.
"I have missed you so much," he says, each word round as a grape and full of sweetness.
"Oh Thomas," I whisper, "I've missed you too."
Is there just the tiniest shade of guilt in my eyes before I close them and run my hands up inside Thomas's shirt? Maybe. Maybe not. That's what made Marilyn the great actress she was. Her face could show that what is true changes from moment to moment.
Some people in town would claim that Thomas and I have been bad from the get-go, as if the meaning of good and bad could be locked in two separate boxes. Our worst crime has generally been not to care what people like that thought.
When he was little, Thomas's mama had a house up the street, but she was usually too drunk to remember where she lived, much less worry about him, so my mama took him in. He would play with us, eat with us, and, at the end of the day, mama would toss him right into the tub with my brother and me, give him some pajamas, and tuck him into our spare bed. Even then, he smelled of the outdoors no matter how much she scrubbed.
He didn't look the type to play with a girl, but Thomas sought out my company right from the start. We'd skip school to go rambling and forget to come home until after dark. We'd sneak into the reservoir to go skinny-dipping and then lie out on the rocks, where everyone could see us, to dry.
He grew from a scrawny child into a lanky kid in greasy denims who would ride his motorcycle up the sidewalk to the front door and fetch me away from whatever I was doing. It didn't matter to me or Thomas. Once I went with him dressed only in my nightgown. The breeze blew it up around me like a flower.
It was only natural that we should become lovers. At thirteen, I knew I would marry no one else. Mama would holler at me about finishing school, and I'd be looking out the window, listening for the rumble of that boy's bike. The day after my sixteenth birthday, with the remains of my Sweet Sixteen ice cream cake still in the freezer, Thomas and I took off.
We spent three years together, squabbling and making love, picking up jobs and quitting again as soon as the gas tank was full. We lived in so many different states it would be like one of those geography quizzes to name them all, but finally I got tired.
One night in Nebraska I said: "Thomas, I'm nearly twenty years old, and I haven't got a home. I need a home."
"What do you mean, sweetheart?" he asked. We were lying side by side on the back seat of our old Dodge convertible. Around us crickets chirped, and overhead there were a billion stars. "Wherever I am, you have a home."
"I know that, honey," I said, "but I'm talking about the other kind now. The kind with a roof and walls."
"What do you want that for, when we have all this?" He tried to sweep his arm but there wasn't enough space. I knew what he meant though: The white line of the highway running through the dark. The sound of cicadas, when we would boil our coffee by the side of the road in the morning. The freedom to be part of the world-at-large, as Thomas liked to say.
"I don't know, but I just do."
"What you really need is a little more room," said Thomas. He skootched over against the seat back and threw his arm up over me. "There," he said, as if the matter were settled, and gave me a kiss.
I could never say no to Thomas's kiss, but the feeling came back in Utah, New Mexico, Montana, and South Dakota. It was an unfortunate thing, but Thomas's idea of a secure future was having a can of water in the car in case the radiator blew and I, having been brought up by my mama, thought it was a green cinderblock house.
One night I announced: "Thomas, I have to be going now."
He was cooking a can of hash over an open fire for our supper. It was nearly dark, and we had no money.
"I'm going home," I said, my chin stuck way out.
He stopped poking the hash. "Honey—" he said, his face flickering in the firelight. "You can't leave me. It just won't work out."
"Oh, yes I can!" I said. I had already lifted my bag and headed for the shoulder of the road.
"But we belong to each other!" I heard him say.
That's when I started to run.
My mama was tough with me when I got home. She didn't want any full-grown children living with her, but she did help me get a job at Newberry's and a room over the drugstore. During the day, I worked a cash register, wearing a pink nylon smock. At night, I would sit at my window, smelling the smoke from the cigarettes of the youngsters who lounged on the stoop below and listening to their bragging and jokes.
I took pleasure in making curtains for the window and cushions for the day bed. I bought matching saucepans and a small TV. At first it was a miracle to me to wake up every day in the same place and walk down the block to the same job, nodding "Good morning" to each person I met. But when I went to bed at night, I would look at the starless square of ceiling over my head and wonder how I could have ever left my Thomas.
Of course, I thought he would come for me. Sometimes I even woke up, certain he was outside calling my name. But night after night, month after month, he never came, and I persuaded myself that he was the one, after all, who had abandoned me.
Meeting Jackson was an accident. I had started to go out now and then with Jimmy Creel, a fellow a few years older than myself who ran the big Exxon station out by the highway. I thought he was a responsible man, on account of the garage, but he turned out to be a terrible drunk.
One night we went dancing and Jimmy must have had more than usual because, when it came time to go home, he passed out cold at the wheel of the car, his forehead down on the horn. The horn was blaring, and I couldn't move him an inch. As I stood in the parking lot looking for help, who should materialize out of the dark but the tall blond shape of Jackson.
He had just moved to town, and, in the movie he is played by a newcomer too. A strong, good-looking fellow whose name you've never heard, but it's obvious he has a promising future.
After he laid Jimmy down on the seat to sleep it off, he offered to drive me home in his new smelling car with soft leather seats. He was a contractor, he said, and building homes was his specialty. When he asked for my phone number, I wrote it on the back of his hand with a ballpoint pen. "So you don't lose it," I said with my most irresistible smile.
He didn't, and the first time we slept together, lying side by side afterward in his big clean bed, we discovered our feet were exactly the same shape, big and little.
"It means we're destined to walk the same path," he said, nuzzling my neck.
I was touched, but I said nothing, because at the time I believed you had only one destiny, pure and simple, and I had walked away from mine.
Did I come to love with Jackson? Yes, I did.
Did I divorce Thomas? Yes, I did.
Did I marry Jackson in church wearing a white dress with a veil, my brother's three girls strewing rose petals on my path?
Yes, I did, though I prayed on my knees at the altar for a sign if what I was about to do was a sin against myself, Thomas, or Jackson. No sign came, only a deep wide silence, so I became Jackson's lawful, wedded wife. People said they'd never seen a lovelier bride.
I never heard a word of Thomas for so long I came to believe that he must be dead. A pile of bones in a rusted-out wreck somewhere under the sun. Then when George was nine months old, one afternoon I heard a car pull up out in front of our house. I was hanging out the wash with the baby crawling in the grass under my feet, nearly twenty-four years old, with a mouth full of clothespins, but I knew. Don't ask me how, I just knew. Thomas was back.
That night, Jackson and I sat on the porch, rocking the baby. Overhead the stars were blurred by the glare from the highways running east, west, south, and north. I thought of Thomas, heading away into the dark, his elbow hanging out the window, foot to the accelerator, and I put my hand on Jackson's arm to stop his rocking.
"Honey," I said. "I've got to tell you something."
He was half-asleep with George sprawled against his chest, his chin resting on the baby's head. He looked at me, with eyes that were sleepy and calm.
I told him then about Thomas coming, and how it was with us. That we had been together always like fingers on the same hand. I told Jackson I loved him, but that when Thomas came nothing could make me turn him away.
At first he didn't get it. He continued rocking George and listening as if I were telling him about something I'd seen on TV. Then suddenly his face went slack and for a moment his eyes were blank, so I knew he understood. His chair toppled over as he got up, clutching George so hard the baby began to howl. Then Jackson began to howl too. God, it was a terrible sound.
"For heaven's sake, girl, what's going on?" said Mama, as her screen door slipped from my grasp and slammed back against the frame. She was playing solitaire, her thick fingers moving swiftly, laying the cards in crisp neat rows across the pink kitchen table. She had a cigarette in her mouth and another smoking in the ashtray. A bowl of jellybeans stood by her right hand.
"Thomas came back today, and I have just told Jackson," I said.
Mama understood me right away. She had watched me and Thomas grow up, never more than a split second apart.
"What did you tell him?" she asked.
"Everything," I said.
She drew hard on her cigarette, then dropped it into the smoldering ashtray. Getting up slowly, she went to the refrigerator and took out a couple of Cokes.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"He cried," I said.
Mama nodded. She swept her cards up into a pile and began shuffling them. They flew from one hand to the other in a sliding cascade of colors, over and over until she was satisfied they were mixed.
"Want to play double?" she asked. Trouble with husbands was no news to Mama. She'd had several of them over the years, but they never stayed long.
I shook my head, the sound of wailing still in my ears.
Mama began laying out a new game.
"If he cried, everything will work out," she said, as she slapped down the cards. I looked for my future in their patterns and when the queen of spades and the king of hearts fell against each other, I believed she might be right.
A week went by during which I waited, day after day, playing cards with Mama, one eye on the telephone, one ear listening for the doorbell. Then finally Jackson came, driving up to the door in his freshly waxed car.
"We're a family now," he said solemnly, sitting on the edge of Mama's plastic-covered couch. "If we can just do our best to stay together, that will be enough for me."
I knew from the way he looked at me that he wanted me back. Sometimes, when you're beautiful, people make allowances that they probably shouldn't, but we all have to use the tools God gave us to survive. Marilyn knew that, and I did too.
I was grateful to Jackson and I did love him, so I cried and thanked him for his generosity. I think in his heart he was hoping that Thomas would never return. That has not been the case, but, fortunately for the stability of our family life, he doesn't come often.
When Willa was born a few years later with a shock of black hair, Jackson was surprised, but then he chuckled and picked her up in his arms as if her different looks made her special to him.
"We'll call her Willa," he said, "after my great-granddaddy William. He had a black beard over a foot long." And that was the last thing he said about it.
When Thomas and I get up, I fix him a meal and he hangs around me, his elbows leaning on the counter, drinking a beer, just as if we were an old married couple. If the phone rings, I don't answer it. There is never enough time to allow interruptions. Already I see restlessness begin to twitch in the corners of his eyes.
I wash up the dishes and put them away while he has coffee. The baby sits in her high chair dressed for a ride.
"Are you ready, hon?" I say, hanging the dishcloth neatly over the sink.
Thomas grins. "I'm always ready, babe," he says.
We load the baby into the car and drive off, the low rider leaving a cloud of dust that settles slowly on my neighbors' square green lawns.
Each time he comes, it takes longer to reach the country. Our town has prospered and its spreading pavement fills the valley where Thomas and I roamed as children. Miles of mercury vapor lamps block the starlight that illuminated our nighttime rambles.
"Grab us a Coke, sweetheart," he says, and I reach over the seat to pull one from the cooler I have packed. I open it for him and pour some into his mouth, then settle back. He drives fast, one hand on the wheel, the other around my neck.
We go up over the hills and the town disappears. Open country lies before us. Thomas hits the gas, and he looks completely happy.
I lean back against the worn upholstered seat and sing along with one of our favorite oldies on the radio:
"Islands in the stream. That is what we are. Nothing in between . . . how can we be wrong?"
"Sail away," he joins in on the refrain.
"Sail away with me," I sing.
"Sa-a-a-a-ul away!" we finish together and it almost seems like we could do that.
I close my eyes to the scenery rushing by and remember the sound of Thomas's heart beating next to mine, bathing in streams so cold we could hardly feel each other's hands, the sweet smell of cooking beans, and the heat of an open fire on my face. The freedom of piling into the car and moving on.
But I say nothing except, "It's almost two o'clock" and, without a word, Thomas turns back.
When the car pulls up in front of my own pale green house, I climb out with the baby and go around the side to give Thomas a kiss.
"'Til we meet again," I say, which Thomas has told me is how the French say goodbye. I don't know where he learned that, but I like it.
"Bye, honey," he says and pats the baby's cheek.
"I love you, Thomas," I say. He smiles, but his hand is on the ignition key.
Then he is gone.
The baby and I are settled in front of the TV with some juice and a stack of ironing, when we hear the slap of lunch boxes on bare legs, the squeak of the screen door, and a clamor of voices.
"Mama?" George calls. "Are you there?"
"In here, honey," I say, "I'm right in here."
The children pile in and wrap me with hugs and kisses. George's knees are scraped; Willa says she doesn't think she'll go to school anymore. Marybeth and Sue want to make lemonade.
"OK," I say and we do that.
We are all on the back porch together, when Jackson comes home. The children rush to greet him, dancing and bumping around him. Each one gets a hug.
He crosses the yard, children trailing him like iron filings, and, when he reaches the spot where I am sitting, he takes the lemonade that I hold out, drinks it long and slow, then bends to give me a kiss. The taste his cool wet lips leave on mine is sweet and sour. I lick it off, trying to catch the moment where one ends and the other begins.
Jackson has brought home comic books—a treat for the first day of school—and the children follow him inside eagerly, George carrying his daddy's tool box, Marybeth holding the baby like a large sack in her arms.
The screen door slams behind them, and I am left alone to enjoy the hot sun and silence. I look down at my toes, their nails painted alternately pink and orange by Marybeth and Sue, and try to imagine having to choose only one color, one man, one life.
As the final credits begin to roll, the camera angle shifts from me to what I am looking at: the fenced yards where laundry snaps in the late afternoon breeze, the rows and rows and rows of rooftops that have grown up all around us, the distant shimmering hills, and a single low rider speeding toward the vanishing point.
The camera shifts again, and you watch as I slowly turn away from the view. I open the door and step back inside the house. For just a moment I am blinded by the change in light, but then my eyes adjust, and I know perfectly well where I am going.
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