With him for a sire and her for a dam.
What should I be but just what I am?
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1920
Blame it on heredity, or man’s instinctive nature as a hunter. Blame it on financial reversals, or the wife’s comparative success. Blame it on the corrosive effects of modern professional/marital life, or the departure of the fledgling from the nest. Blame it on the inevitable erosion of conjugal gusto, or a mounting fear of decrepitude and mortality. Blame it on a chance convergence of the needs of youth and age in the halls of the university, or lax evidentiary procedures in the Faculty Ethics Committee. Blame it on “the ecstasy of catastrophe.”
Musing over implausible and self-serving scenarios for days on end, I gradually settled on the least improbable. Though I was still not satisfied with the form that my confession would take, I felt that I must carry on with what I had, willy-nilly, or I might dither my way to the grave without coming to grips with my own pathology. “The unexamined life,” as Socrates famously declared, “is not worth living.”
I would rely on the very force of my self-examination, its unflinching candor and unvarnished truth, to tell my story, reveal the true motivation behind my reprehensible actions, and provide myself with the self-understanding and release that I so desired. My artistic intention, which had come to me only over time and with a good deal of subconscious resistance, was to place the blame squarely where it lay, on the guilty party, myself, and on my own unbridled license. Most importantly, I would avoid the obfuscation and self-justification that had riddled all my previous attempts.
Nevertheless, in a decision that may seem at first to be contrary to the letter and spirit of the latter assurance, I choose now to begin my confession with information that will perhaps appear to be self-deceptive and exculpatory, but which, I insist, is indisputably relevant. If I am to be judged, let the reader do the judging, but only after a full hearing of my peculiar case.
To begin with, extensive genealogical research, combined with abundant anecdotal evidence, points to the fact that my family possesses pheromones so uniquely aromatic that they render us, at least for a time, virtually irresistible to certain similarly endowed members of the opposite sex. Male or female, tall or short, thin or fat, handsome or not, we have always been thus, all down through the generations, and with few exceptions. This is not to excuse our perennial peccadilloes, for our maker has granted us all free will, but we have indeed faced temptations far beyond those of most mortals. To compound our predisposition to err, we are cursed with grotesquely inflated libidos that remain undiminished into late old age. This, in turn, has led us, almost unfailingly, into impulsive or destructive affairs of the heart that may strike at any time during our life span. Then to make things even worse, we seem to have some constitutional inability to be happy with our own lot. To put it another way, we always want what the other guy’s got, which perhaps explains our astonishing upward and downward mobility over the past two centuries. The above syndrome, taken in its entirety, and with its seemingly endless variations, is what my family over the generations has defined as “The Fever.” Had they been sufficiently literate, they might well have retained as their motto the immortal words of my own esteemed master, James Joyce, and his wandering Irish Jew of an alter ego: Love, lie and be handsome, for tomorrow we die.
As a case in point, let me offer the example of my paternal great-grandmother, Letitia Jane Warren. The attractive, well-bred daughter of an influential rancher, Civil War hero, and territorial legislator from the Tonto Basin of Arizona, she was stricken with the fever at the very flowering of her maidenhood. Defying not only family and friends, but also contemporary laws and morays against “cohabitation,” she absconded in the year 1889 with an infamously amoral outlaw named Milt Bradley.
Letitia Jane, whom I recall as a plump, sweet-natured old dowager who used to carve off the lean part of her meat and eat only the fat, rode with her criminal consort for five years, all over the Southwest, sleeping rough, stealing horses, rustling cattle, and dodging posses. “Through thick and thin,” she stuck with him, according to family tradition, even though he cheated on her, gambled away all their money, risked death in street fights and pistol duels, and beat her so badly the one time she dared complain that she miscarried their twin baby boys. She stuck with him, in fact, until he killed a man in a bar room brawl in Apache Junction and got locked away in Yuma Territorial Prison for the next ten years.
Forgive me if I now digress, but I believe this is a telling, if self-damning detail: I recently acquired some grainy copies of the outlaw’s old mug-shots from the archives of the State of Arizona, and the son-of-a-bitch looks just like me, right down to his receding hairline, drooping eyelids and big pointed ears.
Anyway, Letitia Jane recovered from her common-law husband’s abuse (once he was safely incarcerated). With the characteristic resilience of our race, she married a cattleman from Red Rock, Arizona, in the year 1897. Upon his death in a riding accident the following year, she inherited his ranch and married again. In fact, she married five more times before her death, trading up each time, and widowed each time, till at the age of eighty-one she tied the knot with a retired member of the Los Angeles City Council in Pasadena, California.
She had a daughter by the outlaw named Florence Emily Bradley, and the apple truly did not fall far from the tree. Pampered, willful, sweet sixteen, and living on the remote family ranch, she found herself in the year 1914 bored with country life, impatient with her virginity, and an easy mark for the Fever. Casting about for some source of amusement, she fixed on her mother’s tall, handsome, green-eyed Mexican foreman, Jesus Robles, despite or precisely because of the fact that he was a married man of thirty-six, with children her own age, and rumored to be her mothers’ ex-lover. Luring him out to the horse stable and up to the hayloft with obtuse questions of an equestrian nature, she succumbed to his half-reluctant arousal with only the most symbolic pretense of resistance.
“Noo, nooo,” you moan, Grandma, lifting your soft white derriere, wriggling your saucy hips, pointing your toes and kicking your little feet to aid in the removal of your lacy white knickers.
Do I know this for sure? No, but I do know enough of our ancestor’s libidinal appetites to imagine it with some degree of probable accuracy. And since you, Grandma, have been dead for twenty years, you are certainly in no position to refute my assumption. Whatever the particulars, it is an indisputable fact that Florence Emily was pregnant within a month. Within two, she had defied her irate mother, not to mention Jesus’ apoplectic wife, and run off with him to Tucson.
Seven months later, she gave birth to my father, Eduardo Robles.
Fourteen years later, having borne Jesus’ six healthy children, she met Adolfo Corrales, a younger, handsomer, dark-eyed Mexican who lived with his sister right next door on North Ferro Avenue, and was seized by the Fever for the second time in her life. After a torrid year-long affair that was the scandal of the barrio, she abandoned her family to the care of her mother, ran off with Adolfo to East L.A., and lived with him there on Marengo Boulevard, just down the street from the Chiquita Banana packing plant where they were both employed, until his death at seventy-one years old.
Thereupon, the newly widowed Florence packed her bags and flew back to Arizona where she quickly took up with a wealthy, sickly old tomato rancher from Yuma County and, much to the chagrin of his heirs, married him within the year. But that’s another story.
On the other side of the family, my maternal grandfather, Charles Holmes Watson, in a fit of pique over some now long-forgotten slight, stole a horse off his father’s plantation in the year 1895 and rode it all the way from Winn Parish, Louisiana, to Durango, Mexico, before his nineteenth birthday. Representing himself as a recent graduate of Louisiana Tech (and with superbly self-forged documents to prove it), he acquired a job with an American-owned mining operation as an apprentice hydraulic engineer, moved in with a young local girl of Yaqui Indian derivation named Nidia Sonoqui, and sired three children, all before he was twenty-five.
In the year 1906, after years in Mexico, Charles Holmes read of the great earthquake that had befallen San Francisco. Sensing opportunity for a man of his “engineering” skills, he vowed to Nidia that he would be back within the year, settled her and their brood of little mestizos in a rented adobe house with a small monthly stipend, and lit out for the Golden Gate by way of Chihuahua, El Paso, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.
He never saw them, never had any contact with his Mexican family again, as long as he lived, for he ran smack into the fever in El Paso, Texas.
Ambling down South Ochoa Avenue one morning in brand new lace-up boots and a pinstripe suit fresh off the rack, he spied a blond, buxom white woman wheeling a two-year-old child in a pram and was instantly captivated in spite of himself.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am,” he said, doffing his derby hat. “I’m new in town and I do believe I lost my way.”
Charmed by his gallantry, and his tones of the Deep South (she was a Daughter of the Confederacy herself, from Madison County, Arkansas), my maternal grandmother, Lula Ann Hastings, responded with a little curtsy and offered to show him the way, since she happened to be going in that direction herself.
He contrived to meet her the next day at the same time and place, and it was not long before they were strolling down South Ochoa Avenue together every morning. During long daily respites on a shady bench in Armijo Park, he commiserated with her discontent – dull, dry, provincial West Texas, a trainman husband who was always out of town – while her tranquilized toddler slept through the heat. One thing led to another and, in the inexorable progression that seems to come so naturally to my family, it was not a month before he talked her into running off with him alone to California, leaving her sister-in-law and husband to pick up the pieces.
In time, Charles Holmes and Lula Ann, too, had six children, the third of whom was my mother, Helen Bee Watson.
The prettiest of the Watson girls, a little coquette, Helen Bee was her father’s pet. As she was growing up in the Twenties, her family did well in construction, but by the time she was fourteen, in 1934, the construction business had dried up in the Depression, and they had been reduced to living in two rooms of their big old Victorian house on Central Avenue in Chino, California, renting out the remainder to boarders.
Right next door to the Watsons, in another tall, vast old Victorian, was the Helsinger Mortuary & Ambulance Service, which catered to the Hispanic community in Chino for two very sound demographic reasons: Hispanics outnumbered Anglos by two to one, and their mortality rate was far higher.
Residing on the premises and presiding over the enterprise, which flourished even in the Depression for the simple fact that illness and death are rarely unemployed, was a relative of the Bradleys from Arizona, a short, fat, bald, and nearly sightless character named Tom Helsinger. Putting his profits from others’ misfortunes to work, Tom had bought up most of the homes and businesses on Central Avenue as they went bust in the Depression. By 1935, he owned the whole block between Third and Fourth Streets, with the notable exception of the Watson place.
Tom was renowned in Chino not only for his bumbling myopia, and the cold rationality of his acquisitive nature, but also for something quite shocking and singular in our family history. Though married to Zita Mondragon, a Mexican woman of aristocratic pretensions who had provided him with three lovely grown daughters and twelve grandchildren, he indulged himself in an “unnatural pastime” – shameless, indefatigable pederasty – that was the scandal of the town.
Like an Oriental pasha, he kept his wife in the big house and a harem of poor, illegal Mexican orphan boys in an old barn behind his ambulance garage, rotating them on a nightly basis. The harem, or “stable” as it was known in Chino, was ruled with an iron hand by Ignacio “Eunuco” Contreras, an effeminate Mission Indian man with the withered face of an ancient crone, and his three vicious mastiff dogs, Ciego, Sordo, and Mudo, or Blind, Deaf and Dumb.
Paradoxically, perhaps, Tom was also renowned in the town for his extreme generosity, an almost proverbial munificence enjoyed not only by the Blindness Fund, the Burial Fund and several Baptist and Catholic charities, but also by the local police force, whose palms he greased on a monthly basis, and by his whole extended circle of friends and family. Thus, when his cousin Letitia Jane asked for his help in placing the motherless Robles children, he brought them all out from Arizona at his own expense, settling them on the empty third floor of his Victorian.
And he never touched either of the Robles boys, through all the years they were there, though they were both, from his point of view, eminently desirable. On the contrary, he treated them — especially the better looking of the two — like little princes, buying them anything their hearts desired and sparing no expense on their educations.
In short, he was the mother they had lost.
Their sisters, on the other hand, he more or less benignly neglected, and they had to defend themselves against the venomous animosity of his thin, sour-faced wife, Zita, all on their own.
Eldest of these sisters was a slight, curly-haired brunette who had been Maribel Robles in Tucson but was now known as Mabel Bradley. At the behest of her grandmother, Letitia Jane – “You’ll never get anywhere as little greasers!” – Mabel and all her five siblings had changed their surname to that of their jail-bird grandpa Bradley and left all vestiges of their Hispanic heritage behind in Arizona.
In the year 1936, Mabel’s next-door-neighbor and best friend was Helen Bee Watson, a former classmate at Chino High School who had dropped out to help support her struggling family. Helen now worked part-time as an usherette at the Chino Theater, and she had been able to get Mabel on the payroll as well.
When Mabel worked nights, her brother Freddy Bradley (it had been Alfredo Robles in Arizona) would pick her up in a big old Packard, a Black Maria. Being the Latin gentleman that he was, he volunteered to give Helen a nightly lift as well. Tall, slender and good-looking, with blue eyes, freckles, and the wavy, luxuriant auburn hair of his mother and grandmother, Freddy had been a star athlete in high school, student body president at Pomona Junior College, and now made good money working for his Uncle Tom, learning the mortician’s trade.
On their nightly trips from the movie house, Freddy and Helen chatted and flirted as if they couldn’t get enough of each other, leaving Mabel to glower, ignored, in back. And within no time, it seemed, they were, as one said in Southern California at the time, “a very hot item.”
Having retrieved the girls at the movie house and left his sulky sister off at the funeral parlor, Freddy would drive five miles out into the beet fields near Chino Prison and park between the dark and fecund furrows. There he would labor for hours without success to get Helen to lie with him in one of the empty, satin-lined coffins (which, rumor had it, Tom Helsinger used repeatedly) that were lying open in the rear section of the car.
“Now, don’t git me wrong, Freddy,” she would say, in the vestigial Southern accent of her family, “I ain’t squeamish about death, but do I intend to stay virgin till the day I walk down the aisle.”
Accordingly, within the year, they were engaged to be married.
Then Freddy made his one big mistake.
He decided to have a belated engagement party in the funeral parlor, to which he would invite all the friends and family. Despite his misgivings, he asked his older brother Eddie Bradley (ne Eduardo Robles) to come along as well, though they had forever been rivals.
Eddie did not get into town much. For the past few years, he had been working six days a week as a correctional officer at Chino Prison and living in bachelor quarters on the grounds. Before that, he had been at Pomona Junior College, so he had not seen Helen since she was a little snippet of a thing. Yet, the instant he walked into the party, the music, the laughter, the joyful voices, the colorful costumes of friends and family, all faded into the remote background, and the only thing he could see was Helen and her elegant aquiline features, her big, brown, heavy-lidded eyes and red, red lips.
He saw her from across the crowded funeral parlor as if across an empty stage. Surrounded by a gaggle of female friends in hats, veils and bright afternoon attire, she stood out among them as if alone under a powerful spotlight. In a little straw hat with a ribbon at the back, a long, wrap-around black and white striped satin dress with ruffled shoulders, a big black belt cinched high and tight to accentuate her tiny waist, her pointed two-tone shoes with ribbons and Cuban heels, she looked years beyond her age, and the very picture of Thirties’ chic.
Instantly, Ernie was smitten with the Fever.
Not the least part of his attraction, as I would deduce many years later, was the fact that she was his brother’s girl.
To make things worse, it was Fever at first sight for Helen as well, despite her vows to Freddy, despite the gravity of the setting, despite the fact – as she would never cease to remark and lament for years to come – that Eddie possessed fewer of those attributes that normally set young girls’ hearts a-twitter.
To whit: Freddy was tall and slender while Eddie was short and squat. Freddy had sharply chiseled features, pale skin, and fine auburn hair whereas Eddie’s face was square, swarthy, and nondescript, and his coarse black hair was quickly receding. Freddy was affable as an Irishman, but Eddie was dour as an Indian. Freddy had cultivated Uncle Tom, so he had bright prospects in the mortuary. Eddie, however, had forsaken Tom as a teenager and called him “a fat prancing queen,” so he had only the toil and danger of a low-paying prison job to anticipate.
Even I, when I got older, wondered at my mother’s seemingly inexplicable decision, until my great-grandmother Letitia Jane, when I visited her in Pasadena, shortly before her demise, set me straight.
“Love is blind,” she said, “once the Fever gets a hold of you.”
Great-Grandma Letitia did not know about pheromones yet, but it all amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?
Yet Helen’s blindness turned out to be prescient in this case, for one evening ten years later, facing prison for his third felony drunk-driving charge, Freddy shot himself in the bathtub while his fourth wife was downstairs in the mortuary kitchen making supper.
But that was to come. In the present, Eddie and Helen had other things on their minds. Having established their mutual admiration by instantaneous eye contact on the night of her engagement party, they found it both exceedingly difficult and immensely frustrating to assuage their raging fever in the days that followed. This was because her fiancé was jealous-hearted and suspicious and watched her like a hawk, and Eddie had only one day off a week.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” though, as Grandma Lula Ann used to say, so it wasn’t long before they were meeting secretly late at night, in the back seat of his Model “A” Ford in the alleyway behind the Watson place, after he got off from his job at the prison.
And this time she made no protests about her virginity. Or, as my master James Joyce had put it, more poetically: undoing with sweet pudor her belt of rushrope, offered her allmoist yoni.
Chino was a small community, and its white population in those days was positively minuscule. Very soon all the Anglos in town, with one exception, knew exactly what was up.
Freddy could not figure out why everyone seemed to be whispering and tittering behind his back until one night, driven by a perfectly reasonable suspicion, he crept around behind the Watson place and caught them in the act. Then came a yowling of such ferocity and profanity that it woke the entire neighborhood, followed by a flurry of female finery being rapidly set straight, and a male shouting match punctuated by much shoving and cursing. Helen ran into the house crying, and the argument ended in fisticuffs, with Eddie the loser. Freddy stamped off, and Eddie lay bleeding and half-conscious in the alleyway until Grandpa Watson’s cocker spaniel licked him awake.
The brothers never spoke another word till the day they died.
Word of the scandal got around fast, and Eddie and Helen found themselves outcasts in the town, scorned by even family and friends. To make things worse, Helen missed her next two periods. The Watson family found this less troublesome than the fact that the putative father, unlike his brother, was a throwback to his Mexican half; or, as Grandma Lula Ann called him, “this damn little wetback-lookin’ hombre.”
The lovers decided to elope, but since Helen was only sixteen, unable to marry without parental consent, she had to find someone to stand up for her. Yet everyone she asked turned her down flat. Finally, in desperation, she convinced Eddie to phone his wayward mother in East L.A.
“At least, with her record, she’s no one to cast stones,” Helen said, and she was right.
Without any fuss at all, Grandma Florence took a day off from her job at the Chiquita Banana plant, accompanied them in Eddie’s rattling Model “A” Ford to Tijuana, Mexico, and signed as a witness in the quickie chapel where they wed.
There was no honeymoon, of course, for there was no money for such things in those days, and Eddie had to get back to work at the prison.
The Sunday after the wedding, however, in a move that Helen would always extol as the epitome of their romance, he drove her up to Puddingstone Reservoir, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and feted her with a picnic of ham and cheese sandwiches and fizzy pink California champagne.
How do I know this?
Because eight years later, when my father was in the Army in World War II, she drove me and my little sisters up to Puddingstone on a Sunday picnic excursion. There was a misty, faraway look in her eyes as she sat under the gnarly oak trees, looking down the hillside over waves of yellow wild oats and orange California poppies to the shimmering blue lake, recounting her tale of romance to us. Yet there was another, deeper glint there as well. I did not understand it at the time, but I found it so singularly interesting that I committed it to memory.
Only years later did I finally understand what the look in my mother’s eyes meant: They had made love there, under the oak trees, on the yellow hill above the lake.
One of the other serious flaws in my family’s bloodline, one that I’ve neglected so far to admit, is that we are virtually without exception tellers of tall tales (or “congenital liars,” as my estranged wife would have it). Very early in my life, therefore, I concocted a version of events that placed the moment of my conception not in a dark alleyway, in the backseat of a Model “A” Ford, but on a sunny hill above Puddingstone Reservoir.
And I have maintained that version till now.
But it stops right here.
For this is my day of truth.