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D. B. Cunningham

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Stolen Memories
By D. B. Cunningham
Friday, April 25, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Tillie Smith, an 88 year old gypsy convinces her granddaughter and her friend to commit a robbery.


(For Tillie Smith)

D.B. Cunningham 

     I was afraid the goats would smother back in the U-Haul. The goats weren't very big…but neither was the U-Haul. It was one of those covered orange trailers, and I wondered how Marcy would explain the smell when we took it back to the rental place. I had suggested an open trailer, but Marcy guaranteed me there would be goat meat all over I-5 if we tried the trip with an open trailer, so we hitched the smallest, cheapest covered trailer we could rent to the back of my '64 Lincoln. The car had about 80,000 miles on it. I trusted it to take us from Sylmar to Stockton and back in well-worn comfort, but recognized I was being optimistic.   Marcy considered herself as shrewd and clever as any man, but I knew that two divorced women in their late twenties in an old car was a mechanic's dream. I kept my fingers crossed that the car would survive the 300 mile trip.

     Getting rid of the goats was a good idea. Marcy's 86 year old grandmother had given her a goat as a present, saying mysteriously that goats would bring Marcy home. I thought a goat was a strange gift to give someone who lived in Santa Monica and loved Led Zeplin. But Marcy's grandmother was a gypsy, so maybe giving goats as presents was a family tradition. When Marcy had gotten the goat, it was a cute animal, about the size of a dog. The goat lived on Marcy's porch with the washer and dryer, and careened around the living room during her parties. Marcy liked to walk the goat on a leash in Palisades Park. The park was actually a grassy strip along the cliffs that overlooked the ocean. It was a favorite walk for old people. They approached Marcy carefully to ask what breed of dog the goat was. Each time she was stopped, Marcy patiently explained that it was an African Pygmy goat.

   The goat was still cute when Marcy moved from Santa Monica to Sylmar, but within a few months had grown gnarly corkscrew horns and was mean, chasing anything that came into Marcy's yard, butting the metal mesh of the fence with such ferocity that the mailman refused to deliver the mail. Marcy got a female brown Nubian goat because she thought the male pygmy would calm down if he had some company. The Nubian got pregnant, the Billy was meaner than ever, and before long Marcy had three pet goats. Her suburban neighbors were annoyed by the small herd roaming her yard, and Marcy was spending a lot of money on goat chow. She advertised the goats for sale in the newspaper and managed to sell the kid. But no one wanted the mean pygmy and the Nubian both, and Marcy wouldn't split the couple up, seeing them somehow as a metaphor for modern relationships. There is enough divorce in the world, she averred. Having been married several times herself, she knew whereof she spoke. Marcy's grandmother suggested the solution -- take the goats to Uncle Jess who lived on a farm in Jenny Lind, CA and who could offer the goats the wide open spaces they needed and deserved. As long as we were driving North, she reasoned, we might as well take her along.

     I realized we were finally getting to the real reason for the journey. We were taking Marcy's grandmother to visit her sister. They hadn't seen each other in five years, and although they never liked each other, the rest of the family felt it was time for a reunion before one of them died. This was the topic of family discussion around the dinner table at every family event and Marcy was tired of hearing about it. Marcy's grandmother’s name was Tillie, and she was the older sister. Misella was the younger sister; she was 80. I knew Marcy’s family well. We spent a lot of time together. Tillie came to stay with Marcy for long periods of time and she told good stories. I had heard about the evil Misella for a long time. And I knew what rest of the family didn't know -- that we were going North to rob Aunt Misella.

     Marcy's family looked normal on the surface. Her father was a stern authoritarian, but he lost control early. Marcy had gotten pregnant, married, and divorced while still in high school. Her two daughters had two different fathers. At 28, Marcy was planning her third marriage, and longing for more kids. The secret of Marcy's family was that it was an absolute matriarchy. The men didn’t have much to say about what went on. The women made up and enforced the rules. They were tall, blond, and strong-willed and they were gypsies. I had thought all gypsies were dark eastern Europeans, like the fortune teller in “The Wolfman” or Hungarian violinists. Marcy's family came from Irish/English gypsy lineage. They were light-skinned and fair haired, with high cheekbones.

     So, five of us left Sylmar in the Lincoln at sunset: Marcy, the two pre-teen daughters with different fathers, her grandmother, and me. And then there were the goats in the U-Haul. Grandmother Tillie was on a mission that had been brewing for five years. There were keepsakes of the family, left over from Tillie's childhood. They family had traveled around the American West in covered wagons, selling lace and telling fortunes. Gypsies traveled light, so wealth wasn't measured in quantity, but rather in quality. There was silver, fine linen and antique jewelry in the family. But it wasn't the silver Marcy's grandmother was after, it was old photographs. Most were of her when she was young, some from when she was older. The pictures she wanted most were of her and Willie, the second cousin she was supposed to marry, only to have him die of appendicitis on their wedding day. All these pictures, along with Willie's spurs, were taken by Aunt Misella during a busy family reunion. No one used the word "steal". "Gypsies don't steal!" Marcy's grandmother admonished me often. She was the only gypsy I had ever met, and if she said gypsies didn't steal, I was prepared to believe her. So somehow, Tillie's younger sister ended up with the family pictures. Since Tillie was oldest, at 86, she felt the pictures were rightfully hers. This quarrel divided the family.

      We up drove the Grapevine, the highway that crossed the darkening Northern mountains. Marcy's kids were well-behaved and snuggled in the back seat under quilts that Marcy's grandmother still sewed for various members of the family. Marcy's grandmother sat in a corner of the back seat watching warily out of the window. As I drove, she recounted how the land we were passing through had once been planted with cotton. She marveled at how fast the Lincoln covered the miles, compared with the horse and wagon. But she missed the slower days of the past, where she could almost get to know people before the family picked up and moved on. We pulled off at a truck stop coffee shop where Tillie leered suspiciously at a young Highway Patrolman.  

     "Muskra. Never trust them," she hissed.

     "Muskra is the gypsy word for cop. Grandma Tillie hates cops," Marcy explained.

     "Because of Glen?" I whispered. Glen was Marcy's first husband, a policeman.

     "No," Marcy replied. "Gypsies just don't like cops."

     As we drove the darkness was pierced occasionally by a train headlight. Marcy's grandmother described how she had crossed Death Valley mostly on foot, to spare the horses in the hot weather. "Then we got to San Bernardino." Tillie said with a sigh. I had always considered San Bernardino to be of little interest, a small city nestled between the industrial outback of Fontana and the endless desert.. To me, San Bernardino had been a good place to stop for ice cream. Tillie spoke of San Bernardino as if it were some beautiful mystical oasis, not the diesel fumed truck stop it had become. "The first green we saw in two weeks was those orange trees," she mused. “And we could smell their perfume long before we saw them.”

     "When you traveled, how did you make money?" I asked.

     "The men shoed horses and sharpened knives," she explained. "And the women went calling."

     “You mean visiting?" I asked.

     "We called on people," she said. "We knocked on their doors and showed them some pretty lace for sale. But lace was just to get us in the door," she confided. "Once inside, we dukkered. "Told fortunes," Marcy translated.

     "Can you really see into the future?" I asked.

     "Don't need to," Marcy's grandmother answered. "You can tell a lot about people by looking around inside their houses and by really looking at them, their faces, how worn their hands are, what pictures they have on their walls, what books. What color the furniture is. I always said, `You will receive a letter.' That's a good one. Everyone receives a letter sooner or later. But mainly you just tell people what you think they want to hear. We made a lot of money that way."

     The plan was leave Marcy's kids and grandmother at Aunt Misella's house, then proceed to Jenny Lind, a tiny farming community, to drop off the goats. Misella's porch light was on. We knocked. A three-legged dog in a plaid jacket hobbled to the door to greet us. Aunt Misella, an old lady with a round, pleasant face followed. She wore fluffy slippers, a pink chenille bathrobe, and a hairnet. We ushered Marcy's sleepy children into the bedroom, and left the two old sisters to drink tea and talk. They greeted each other warily, but seemed to warm up as they tended to the children and put the kettle on. "The dog only has three legs," I commented when we were back in the car. Marcy shrugged it off like it was normal. I guess it was, compared to keeping goats as house pets. Marcy tried hard to remember how to get to Jenny Lind. After two more hours of driving through blackness, we turned onto an uphill dirt road. I was dead tired, but Marcy urged me on. "What if we were gypsies, traveling like Tillie and Misella, across the desert. Would you just give up?” she challenged. “The house must be at the end of this road." I imagined myself a skeleton in the Mohave. I imagined myself as a skeleton in Jenny Lind. It was awfully quiet in the U-Haul. I wondered if the goats were dead. The road narrowed. The 64 Lincoln was a wide car and I began to worry about getting stuck. Finally, Marcy said "You'd better stop. There's a cliff on my side, and we're close to the edge." The headlights illuminated dirt and rocks and a road that seemed to melt into the brush. "Better back up," Marcy suggested. Now, I had never really learned to drive a car with a trailer hooked up to it. As long as I was going forward, I was O.K. I knew to swing wide on turns. But when it came to backing up, I was lost. I didn't remember if I should turn the wheel in the same direction I wanted the trailer to go in, or the opposite direction. It was one of those confusions like remembering whether you were supposed to starve a fever and feed a cold or the other way around. The trailer seemed to sway from side to side with a will of its own.. I switched off the ignition, accepting my own inadequacy. "I'm waiting until it's light," I declared. "It's four a.m. and we're nowhere near a desert. I need to do this when it’s light.” Marcy reluctantly agreed.

     I stretched out on the front seat and Marcy stretched out on the back seat and we slept until dawn. It was a good thing that we had stopped. It was a new day. We could see that we had turned off on the wrong dirt road. The cliff was more an embankment than a chasm. I managed to back slowly down the road. The goats kicked around in the trailer. Marcy’s uncle wasn’t surprised to see us when we drove up at 6:30 a.m. He made us breakfast and then took the goats out of the trailer and put them in a field where they cavorted happily. He even swept out the U-Haul for us. We ate fresh eggs and milk. Marcy's teenage cousins came out to say hello. They were students at a rural high school and had grown up without indoor plumbing. At least they had T.V. Marcy bid the goats an emotional farewell. They responded by munching grass. We said goodbye to her uncle and cousins and listened to the empty U-Haul clatter along behind us. We returned it to a rental place in Stockton and arrived at Misella's house ready for lunch. Aunt Misella's furniture was dark green naugahyde. A round woven rug covered the polished wooden floor. In the kitchen we sat on green vinyl chairs around a metal kitchen table with a gray marbled linoleum top, and the most ornate silver tea service I had ever seen. Marcy's grandmother and Misella served us tuna sandwiches. Marcy's grandmother was the best cook in the world. Her pea soup was the best I'd ever eaten. Her stews and soups were always seasoned with fresh herbs. She introduced me to greens and to turnips, with stern instructions never to pick the greens at the edge of the field, only the ones from the middle, where no animals or men were likely to pee on them. She tried to teach Marcy and me to cook like her, but our cooking never tasted as good. When Misella left the room, Tillie turned from sweet old lady to co-conspirator. "Here's the plan," she hissed. "Tomorrow we'll take the children to a barbeque. You stay here and when we're gone, you find the box with the pictures and take it. It's in Misella's bedroom closet. Put everything back where you found it, and she won't know for years that I took them." I had never stolen anything in my life. Nothing. I was so afraid of "getting in trouble" that I wouldn't even consider pocketing a candy bar or pack of gum. Marcy, on the other had a more liberal viewpoint. She fantasized about backing a moving van up to a model home and taking all of the furniture. She thought it was the perfect crime, since no one would be emotionally attached to the furniture and it would be fully insured. No one would lose except the insurance company and, hell, they could afford it. Marcy had been arrested once, on the unlikely felony charge of horse stealing. She had saved an abused horse in Sylmar, and its owner filed charges. They were later dropped when Marcy had proven that the horse was mistreated. I was appalled at Marcy's Robin Hood attitude toward the law, but I recognized a higher morality. Maybe it was gypsy morality. Marcy had a fine conscience, and I admired her courage. But here I was, an accessory, not even a gypsy, and I was plotting a theft from a house not owned by anyone I was related to. Aunt Misella and Marcy's grandmother took the kids to the barbeque, Tillie whispered some last minute instructions "Remember to put everything back where you found it." The silence in the house was broken only by the sound of the three legged dog's toenails clicking on the hardwood floor. Marcy led me to Misella's bedroom. A dresser had been moved in front of the closet door. I helped Marcy move it away, wishing I had gloves and realizing I was leaving fingerprints all over everything. "This is it," Marcy whispered, although there was no one else was home. "You stand by the door and make sure no one comes in. I'll find the box." Marcy opened the closet door and was confronted with a Chinese puzzle of boxes: department store boxes, shoe boxes, cigar boxes, and some cartons stacked floor to ceiling, filling every available inch of the closet. "We've got to remember how these are stacked up, so we can put them back the way they were," Marcy said. She took one box down at a time, looked into it, and stacked it in the middle of the bedroom. There were swatches of cloth, boxes of buttons, purses, and old shoes. Like an archeological dig, we were going down through layers of Misella’s past. We found chiffon scarves from the sixties, polka-dotted material from the fifties, and hats with veils from the forties. Near the bottom of the stack was a cardboard carton. Marcy opened it. "This is it!" she exclaimed. I wanted to look, but she wouldn't let me. "Not here," she hissed. "We don't want to get caught." I helped her stack the boxes back up in the closet, rebuilding the layers like we had found them. We moved the dresser back in front of the closet door. We carried the box out to the Lincoln and put it in the trunk, making sure no one saw us. "Drive", Marcy commanded. I drove the get-away car, adrenaline pumping, my hands shaking so badly I could hardly steer. We parked about six blocks away under a pepper tree with long drooping branches that shielded us from the street. We opened the box. There were riches in memories: a tintype of Marcy's great-grandmother when she was young. There were many photos of two earnest young girls staring wide-eyed at the camera, Tillie and Misella. One posed shot around a campfire of a family and, eerily, a three-egged dog. A banner reading "Buy Our Elixir" was affixed to the tent behind them. At the bottom of the box were metal spurs. "Willie's spurs," Marcy whispered, like we were looking at emeralds. We left for L.A. right after Tillie, Misella, and the kids returned from the barbeque. Marcy's grandmother was in a hurry to get on the road. She told Misella that I didn’t drive too well after dark. She pecked her sister on the cheek goodbye, and we headed south. Before we got on the freeway, we pulled over and presented Tillie with the box from the trunk. She squinted at the photos in the twilight, and when she found the spurs she cried. We had stolen back her memories, she said. As we drove, she explained who all the people in the pictures were, and sang us songs from her girlhood until we reached L.A.  


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Reviewed by John Domino 7/29/2008
An excellent write!

My daughter is an editor in San Diego - Lisa Domino.

I like your style! Lets chat sometime...

John Michael

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