The Law of Falling Bodies
I was again pulling into a windy trailer park, this time in the flood-scarred canyons outside of Searchlight, Nevada, where my mother was temporarily stranded. She’d blown a piston two weeks before, en route to Hollywood (after innumerable disappointments, she’d finally been accepted as a contestant on The New What’s My Line?). She’d pleaded with me to take a week off work to be her cheering section and chauffeur. I was more than a little nervous: my own life (first apartment, six-month-old job) was still so fragile and untested that one strong tug from my mother’s world might easily unravel it.
I braked at the top of the hill. I had to keep swallowing because of the high altitude, and I had to keep rubbing my eyes because, from the moment my tires had swung into the park, everything was blowing and blurred with double-take familiarity-clotheslines, screen doors, tumbleweeds (the same kind of thorn-and-thistle bushes I’d scratched my six-year-old knees on) and then, blowing across my high-beams, a lawn chair somersaulted toward me in the dust.
It was almost dark but I could still make out our trailer a couple of Airstreams away, bucking in the wind, and I could see the back of my mother’s Aztec-stripe popover housecoat slapping against her thighs as she stood on the front steps, up on her tiptoes, surveying the wrong road in the wrong direction for me.
I didn’t honk or anything, I just wanted to sit there for a while behind the tinted windshield and watch her. The way she toed the ground in her impatience, the way her thin hair whipped back and forth, the way the world of my childhood fluttered and heaved before me.
And I remember saying aloud to myself: “You don’t have to go through with this. Just turn around. She won’t even know you’ve been here. Phone later with some excuse. An important breakthrough ... No, a miraculous scientific discovery ... No, a miraculous scientific discovery that could lead to a big promotion (the less plausible, the more she’ll believe it) was happening at the planetarium on, say, Monday, and you had to be there. Just make sure that if she doesn’t win the jackpot, you wire her money from time to time.”
Then I was out of the car and in her arms.
My mother and I had not seen each other in almost two years (since the day we’d rendezvoused at a truck stop during our months of parallel drifting). I sat down on the coconut chair. She sank into the swayback sofa, then reeled around and piled the bolsters so she could sit bolt upright to study me in my new adult countenance: my first crow’s feet, my newly veined wrists, the nervous habit I’d acquired of raking my hand through my hair.
“Hey,” she said. “Hey,” I said.
I raked my hand through my hair.
She fingered the hem of her housecoat and just looked and looked at me. I knew she was grappling with a way to ask me about my life, but everything she could think of — apartment leases and car payments, quasars and gamma rays-was just outside the orbit of her knowledge.
“Well,” she said, slapping her thighs. “Well,” I said, shrugging.
Then she leaned over (I drew in a deep whiff of her Lilies of the Valley: my mother never wore her own perfumes) and she tenderly kissed my brow.
“Would you like to see all the changes I made in the trailer, kid?”
“You’re not just saying that, Kim. I mean, you’re really interested?”
“Because, you know” -she made a small sweeping gesture with her right hand: the same gesture I use when giving my tour on the Milky Way-”all this is going to be yours someday.”
She showed me some brick contact paper she’d slapped up over the range, and a new paper towel rack, and a burlwood coffee table she’d picked up for a song.
“And I stocked the refrigerator with all your favorite foods. I even put the Mars bars in the freezer, just like you like them, Kimmy.” She opened the freezer door and a waft of tepid air floated out. “Something’s happened to the thermostat, though, so the caramel’s not really frozen yet. I was hoping you’d take a look at it later.”
I said I would.
“Also, the water in the kitchen sink isn’t going down the drain properly and ... really, Kim”-she sank back onto the sofa, folding one leg under her-”I don’t know why I’m so fond of this dump.”
A caravan of trucks thundered by. The trailers adjacent to the highway rocked, headlights washing over them. For a moment they glowed against the cavernous night sky like aluminum foil logs.
“Do you know what the people in those trailers wish for?”
I said I didn’t know.
“Getting my spot in the park, that’s all.”
Then she led me into my old bedroom-a tubular wedge at the front of the trailer with a tiny louvered window.
“I just changed the sheets yesterday. I’ve been using the place as a storeroom for my perfumes. I’m not like one of those mothers who, after their kids leave home, turn their bedrooms into a shrine or anything.”
I flopped down on my old cot and bounced a couple of times. “It still has some spring.”
“I guess it’s good for a couple more years.”
Stretching out, I rested my head on my old pillow, the scent and yield of which were as familiar to me as breathing.
“You’re tired, huh?’; she asked.
“I’ve been driving since dawn.”
“You know we have to get an early start tomorrow. It’s a six-hour trek to Hollywood and I’ll need some time to get my beauty sleep before my big debut on Monday. I wouldn’t want the What’s My Line? panel to guess I’m a professional zombie.”
“We’ll catch up on all your latest adventures manana.”
“Mom, I understand.”
“Well, you know where everything is. I mean, aside from the brick contact paper et al., I haven’t done any renovations.”
Then she started out the door, stopped, and pivoted on her sandal-shod foot. “Kimmy, do you still like a glass of water next to your bed?”
I said I did. I said I was touched she remembered.
And she returned with a paper cup of water.
But later that evening, well past midnight, she came in one more time. My light was off but I was awake, racked with misgivings. I didn’t want to go to Hollywood tomorrow. I didn’t want to be in this trailer, back in her world, with the perpetual lure of the highway outside, the musk of her dreams all around, the aluminum walls closing in. I feigned sleep, cracking open one eye to watch her. She was wearing a pair of eyeglasses I’d never seen on her before (not sequined or winged, but big and round and pink and bifocaled) and she just stood there, at the foot of my bed, with her temple resting against the wall, looking and looking at me.
By sunup, we were on the road again, barreling down Interstate I5. My mother was at the wheel of my Volkswagen, her freshly dyed blond hair pinned up for her big debut and tucked neatly under a rajah turban so that it wouldn’t “whip into a fur ball.” I was in the passenger seat, my nose slathered with white zinc, reading one of our old road maps. And for every landmark that whizzed past-The Gold Strike, a casino standing in the shadow of the Nevada State Penitentiary; Kactus Kate’s flamingo-pink sign LAST LOOSE SLOTS BEFORE CALIFORNIA; the Flying A gasoline station in Death Valley; the eucalyptus windbreaks with their silver-and-taupe leaves-my mother would say, “Do you remember that one, Kim?” And I wasn’t sure if I did remember, or even wanted to: the strangest images were coming back to me-our odometer at 4I,206 miles; my mother’s foot, ten years younger, the toenails painted coral red, flooring the accelerator, a hurly-burly of years and speed, mirages and dead ends, racing across the tropical-green lenses of her winged sunglasses. And then we were slowing down, circling the giant four-leaf clover of the Harbor and Hollywood Freeway interchange and gliding down the ramp at Vine where my mother, all bronzed and gritty from the wind, pulled into a tiny stucco motel off Hollywood Boulevard and said, “Oh, come on, Kimmy, you must remember the first time I took you to Hollywood and we stayed here?”
And I remembered: She had reserved us a “special” second-story, north-facing room in this particular motel because, when she lifted me up to the aluminum casement window over the bathtub and gently pressed my five-year-old cheek against the cold glass, I could just make out the HO in the HOLLYWOOD sign.
We unpacked, carefully hanging up my mother’s debut suit for tomorrow. Then, despite our exhaustion, she insisted on taking me out on the town, to one of her old haunts, Johnnie’s Steak House, a sort of hoi polloi version of Musso and Frank’s, the old movie star hangout.
“Unfortunately,” my mother explained a couple of minutes later, as we were sliding into one of Johnnie’s red booths, “this place tends to attract the starlets and starmen after they’ve descended.”
We ordered a couple of Johnnie’s Sunday night specials.
“Could you rehearse with me, Kim?” she asked as soon as the waitress left. “At least until the main course arrives.”
“Mom, I never saw the show.”
“It’s exactly like twenty questions. Just ask me if I perform a service.”
“Do you perform a service?”
“No. Ask me if I sell a product.”
“Do you sell a product?”
“Yes! Okay, ask me something else.”
“Is your product legal to send through the United States mail?”
“Really, Kim, this is very important to me.”
“I’m sorry. Is your product used by both men and women?”
“Is your product bigger than a breadbox?”
“Smaller than”—I looked around for inspiration—”a ketchup bottle?”
“Is your product utilitarian?”
Long pause while my mother toyed with the straw in her Coca-cola.
“I don’t know.”
“Is it something men need?”
Suddenly my mother let go of her straw and gulped down the mouthful of soda pop she had just taken and put down her bubbly glass.
“Don’t turn around, Kim,” she said in a soft voice, “but directly behind you is someone who was somebody a couple of years ago.”
She quietly snapped open her purse and handed me her compact mirror.
I positioned it in such a way as to reflect as many of Johnnie’s patrons as I could fit into its round, smudged surface. Remember, in the intervening years, I’d lost my mother’s ability to retouch the world and defuse its sharp edges and all I could make out in the tiny glass were a couple of elderly men in loud check suits and polo shirts, sitting alone in red booths, cutting up what appeared to be Salisbury steak, and suddenly I wanted to cry.
“Enough of that stargazing, Kim,” my mother said. “Ask me if my product is-”
“Mom, is your product something men can taste? Touch? Inhale? Hold? Feel? Want? Desire?”
That night, as my mother slept soundly (with two alarm clocks running beside her), I sat on the edge of our bed, my legs drawn up, my chin on my knees. It wasn’t cold but I was shivering. A palm frond scratched against the air conditioner grille. The violet shaft of a searchlight, on the other side of the Hollywood hills, swept around the night sky. Over my mother’s pillow hung a painting of a sunset with far-reaching rays and four metal screws pierced through i frame to thwart theft.
I rested my head against the bed board and watched her for a while-curled up under the sheets, breathing raggedly absolutely oblivious to this world. Her mouth was open in dreamer’s awe, probably following some mad plot. I wandered into the bathroom and shut the door. I just needed to be alone for a moment before her alarms went off and I was back in her world.
I sat down on the rim of the tub and stared out the casement window. I could see the pink minarets of the Egyptian Theater, the on ramp that led to the freeway that led to Oakland and my apartment, the neon satellite above Astro-Burger, and farther up, lit by a sepia spotlight and looking truly grand on the crest of the hills, the H and the o of the HOLLYWOOD sign. The rest of the letters were cut off by a concrete retaining wall.
“Today’s my big debut, kid. How do I look?”
She was already dressed, standing above me, her hair teased into a cumulus effect, a kiss curl plastered on her furrowed brow. The stark light of the morning burned through the half-open blinds. She looked old.
“Terrific,” I said.
“Really, Kim, don’t lie. Besides, the worse I look, the better my chances are for stumping the panel.” She chucked me my clothes and approached the mirror to take one last gander at herself: first full-face, then profile. “I mean, who in their right mind is going to guess that this decrepit old thing has sold aphrodisiacs for the past twenty years.”
“You’re going to be loved by millions,” I said.
“Hey, it’s only a syndicated rehash, Kim. What kind of nut watches game shows on local TV?”
On the boulevard, hurrying down the gold-flecked sidewalk that led to the television studios, my mother stopped for a moment to gaze down at the stars. “Do you know what I really wish,” she admitted.
I hadn’t the slightest idea.
“I really wish I’d gotten on What’s My Line? during its heyday, with John Daly and the gang. That had class, kid. Perhaps Bennett Cerf would have asked me to write my autobiography. And I could have exchanged witticisms with Dorothy Kilgallen. I might have become a cult figure of sorts. A real Lucille Ball. One that didn’t have a Ricky to save her. I am so nervous, Kim,” she sighed, plodding on. “I haven’t told you this, but I’ve been practicing my Signature, just like a schoolgirl, for that moment when the host says, “Will our contestant sign in please.”
We were greeted at the studio doors by a poker-faced, teenage usherette, who handed my mother the following rules:
Welcome to The New What’s My Line? Contestants are forbidden to talk with anyone before airtime; that includes other contestants, personal guests, and/or members of the audience. In addition, contestants may not wave, point, or in any fashion whatsoever signal or receive signals from members of the audience. If a contestant has to use the lavatory, an usher or an usherette must be present. We wish you all the luck in the world.
Then she was led away.
I took a front-row seat in the audience, watching the bustle of electricians and gaffers. For a moment I caught a glimpse of her, slouched against a Coke machine in the wings. And I think she saw me too, but under the scrutiny of her teenage duenna, she just looked at me without a flicker of recognition on her face. Then a buzzer blared,and the technicians retreated, and a microphone was rolled onto the stage. The director counted off the seconds-four, three, two, one-and Bill Blair, the host, fabulously tanned, the Brylcreemed part in his steel-gray hair a work of geometry, tripped down a couple of glitter-strewn steps in time to his theme song and welcomed us all to The New What’s My Line? The audience hooted and thumped.
Then everyone grew quiet as Bill approached the microphone. “Will our first contestant sign in pleeeeeease,” he said.
Dressed in her new beige tweed skirt and caramel blazer, with a white satin blouse, white fishnet stockings, and black pumps, my mother clicked onto the soundstage. An arm emerged from the wings holding up an APPLAUSE sign and everyone clapped. My mother flashed a toothy smile at all three wheeling cameras, then faced the blackboard, took a deep breath, and meticulously signed her name, looping her I’s and dotting her i’s, and even blushing charmingly when the chalk accidentally squeaked.
Bill came over and shook her hand. “Welcome to The New What’s My Line?” he said.
My mother slid into the contestant’s chair.
“Gloria, why don’t you tell us a little something about yourself.”
“I’m from Southern California, Bill, and thereabouts.”
“And do you have any hobbies, Gloria?”
My mother was taken aback for a second. She blinked into the lights. “I travel,” she said.
“I hope that’s not a clue.”
“It’s not, Bill.”
“And is there anyone you want to say hello to today?” “I’d like to say hi to my daughter, Kim, who’s visiting me from the Bay Area. She’s in the audience.”
“Well, Gloria, are you ready to stump the panel?”
“I am, Bill.”
“But first ... ”
A huge door revolved and Tanya Latour, a comely redhead enveloped in a skintight, sequined gown sauntered out to show my mother all the prizes she could win. Tanya demonstrated the consolation prize, a massage recliner, by reposing, in a shimmering blur, on its crushed velvet cushions. Tanya touched, with a blood-red nail, the silver wing of a cardboard airplane that would jet my mother off to Lake Tahoe. And finally she pulled out, from God knows where (there were no pockets on her gown), the grand prize, a check for two thousand bucks.
Bill Blair grinned and my mother, with stoic dignity, faced her panel-two sitcom comedians and the handsome hawk-like star of a soap.
“Are you ready, Gloria?” Bill asked.
My mother officiously cleared her throat. The chintz curtain behind her, catching every glint of light, looked like a glass pitcher shattering on the floor. “I am, Bill,” she said and the panel began firing questions at her.
“Gloria, do you perform an act?”
“Do you provide a service?”
“Do you sell a product?”
“Is your product something you use by yourself?”
“Bill, do I have to answer strictly yes or no?”
“That’s right, Gloria.”
“I guess I’ll have to answer yes, sometimes.”
“Is your product used by both men and women?”
“Is your product something men might use with their kids?”
“In a group?”
“Yes. Why not?”
“Is it something men operate?”
“Do they wear it at work?”
“At play ”
“Do they wear it below the waist?”
“Is it medicinal?” Long pause.
“Gloria, the seconds are ticking.”
“I suppose I have to say no.”
“Do they wear it for pleasure?”
“To keep them warm?”
“Is it an article of clothing?”
The buzzer sounded. My mother had stumped the panel. She slumped momentarily in her seat, stunned, arcing her penciled brows, mouthing, “I won?” The audience clapped and clapped. Bill Blair threw up his hands and winked at the camera.
“Gloria,” he boomed in a loud deep voice, “let’s find out WHAT YOUR LINE IS!”
“Well, Bill,” my mother said, suddenly impatient for the last throbs of applause to subside, “I sell aphrodisiac perfumes.”
“Boy, oh boy, Gloria, meet me in the wings after the show.”
Instructed by the LAUGH sign, the audience burst into hoots of raucous laughter. My mother fingered the hem of her skirt and smiled politely-lips curled, the cords of her powdered neck taut.
“No, really, Gloria,” Bill said seriously, “tell us all about it.”
“Well, Bill, have you ever heard of pheromones?” My mother didn’t wait for his answer. “A bull struts past a herd and suddenly the cows go nuts. There are other steers around. Why this guy? The answer is pheromones, a subliminal scent, the scientific proof of animal magnetism. I work with the human equivalent, Bill, mixing one tiny drop of the stuff into my perfumes-after all, pheromones can overcome a two-thousand pound animal-and my customers tell me the results are wild. No one knows exactly how it works in human beings-I can’t make any guarantees but, say, a gal walks into a room and she’s suddenly attracted to a man, I mean really, really floored by the guy. He hasn’t said a word. He’s not even handsome-a Bogart, maybe, or an Onassis type-but he’s got it. Why? Pheromones.”
“Thank you, Gloria,” Bill said. Then, glancing over his shoulder, he shot a gaga look at the audience as if to say, “Where do we find them?”
I wanted to kill him.
But Tanya had reappeared holding up the grand prize check. Camera one zoomed in to show a close-up of the transfer (from Tanya’s red fingernails to my mother’s new ceramic ones); camera two focused in on my mother’s face (eyebrows knitted; scrutinizing her prize); and camera three panned out to show the whole glitter-strewn stage (my mother wasn’t jumping up and down as she’d been instructed to do, she was standing woodenly between Bill and Tanya, waving her check above her head like a football pennant). Then the New What’s My Line? theme song kicked in again and my mother was escorted off the stage, past the hooting audience, whose wild applause, egged on by the APPLAUSE sign, drowned out the click of her heels.
“What is this big deal everyone makes about success? I feel nothing,” my mother said. We were back in our motel room. She sat slouched in the overstuffed red spring chair, her fishnetted leg hooked over the arm, her foot idly dandling. She hadn’t yet changed out of her debut skirt or removed her television makeup or chosen her “motel memento”_a bar of sample soap or a face towel or a fork from room service.
“Mom,” I said, “ten minutes to checkout time. You don’t want to squander your winnings by having to pay an extra day in this dump, do you?”
She shrugged. I brought her a wet washcloth and helped her dab off some of that television makeup.
“Listen,” I said, “we’ll celebrate as soon as we get back to Searchlight. I’ll drive you to Kactus Kate’s. We’ve got to go, Mom, or we’ll hit rush hour.” I threw everything into the suitcases. “Do you want me to pack you some sample soap?”
“Okay. A fork? The pillowcases?” (My mother was incapable of leaving a motel room Without taking something.) “It’s not necessary, Kim. I have my winnings.”
She held up her game show check and stared at it, front and back, running her finger over her embossed name. Then she shook her head, and her Wide-set eyes drifted away from her winnings to the yellow lampshade, then to the olive green rug, then to the motes of dust wafting in a corner, and finally to nothing at all.
“It’s astonishing,” she said.
“What?” I was checking the drawers to see if we’d forgotten anything.
“The taste of victory. I don’t seem to be able to savor it.” “I’m sure you will, Mom,” I said, grabbing our bags and ushering her out the door. “You’ve been looking forward to this win for so long, you’re probably just in shock.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
As we inched along Hollywood Boulevard in bumper-to-bumper traffic, she didn’t look down at the stars or up at the Capitol Records building, her favorite landmark, designed to resemble a stack of records. Once on the highway, she didn’t run me through her gauntlet of memories. She just sat quietly beside me, in the passenger seat, her wind-chapped elbow on the window gutter, her hair whipping back and forth.
“You know,” she said finally, “I’m nearly fifty-two, Kim, but I believe today marks the end of my youth.”
Then she cranked down her bucket seat and stretched out, staring up at the enormous dusk. To the east the sky was ultramarine shot with funnels of black mist, to the west silver-tooled clouds hung motionless in pink-and-gold space. Lightning was flashing along the horizon. The hood of my Volkswagen, with its winged ornament, was passing into darkness. My mother glanced down at the odometer. We were exactly halfway between the trailer park and Hollywood, day and night, reality and a dream, and suddenly I had the odd sensation drivers experience after innumerable hours on a flat highway, in a landscape that never changes: we were going nowhere, we weren’t moving, what had happened never took place, our tires were spinning to no avail.
I turned to my mother but she was staring out the window at the rush of sagebrush and sand, her cheek crushed against the simulated leather. In the waning light, her features looked almost invisible but I could just make out, by the pale glow of my dashboard, the Technicolor proof of her victory: a tinge of azure eyeliner, a shadow of coral rouge.