By Sherry Shahan
This excerpt, originally published in Inlandia, is from a a work-in-progress memoir of the same name, Dancing on the Roof of a Fleabag Motel.
In 1959, Daddy drove a short-bed pickup. Eisenhower was president, not that I cared. A plane crash in Iowa killed 3 of music’s biggest stars—Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens.
I was ten years old, barely a head above the door handle.
Weekend treks with Daddy were patchy: an orange sherbet at Baskin-Robbins or lunch at My Brother’s Barbeque, a restaurant with a big brown and white plastic cow on the roof. The best days, a matinee at our local theater.
More than a decade before the Motion Picture Association volunteered a film rating system, Daddy swept me off to Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I smacked Sugar Daddies, enthralled by Maggie the Cat because she had the moxie to sashay in her silk slip and rocket cone bra in front of the audience.
I was always glad to see Daddy, but in a cautious way, because I never knew which Daddy would show up. The fun-loving guy with a bag of licorice whips? Or the other one?
This one Saturday Daddy honked for me to come out.
I’d tied my mom’s long-sleeved pink blouse around my waist to make a skirt and skipped down the brick walkway to Daddy’s truck. The inside smelled like pool cleaning chemicals. He’d given up his swimming pool business years earlier, but the stink of hydrochloric acid still burned my nose.
“Hi Daddy,” I said, climbing in the truck.
“Hi honey.” He drove with his middle finger, as if to say “f-you” to anyone in his way. “How’re things going with your stepfather?”
I fidgeted because my capris rubbed the scab on my knee. “The same.”
His hand shook when he patted my thigh. “Open a beer for me—will you, honey?”
He passed a church key from the rolled up sleeve of his t-shirt. The metal was sweaty-
hot. I poked a perfect triangular hole in the can and a second, smaller one to let in air. Thanks, Daddy, for teaching me that.
“How about spareribs?”
Now he drove with his knees, punching buttons on the radio. KFWB spun Elvis’s
“Jailhouse Rock.” Daddy knew all the words. “The Warden threw a party in the county jail . . . ”
At the restaurant he sat on one side of the red-vinyl booth wearing sunglasses, sipping black coffee and exhaling stale beer breath. I stripped pig meat off ribs with my buck teeth, turning my plate into a boneyard.
“When do I get to meet your new wife? Is she pretty? Nice?”
He lit a cigarette even though one burned in the ashtray. “Soon, honey.”
“That’s what you always say. I bet the motel is one of your made up stories. And why can’t we go to the beach?” I nagged and nagged. “Can I see Debbie Reynolds’ house?” She’d been one of Daddy’s former clients and I was dying to see if her swimming pool had been filled with dirt like he said.
In her 1988 autobiography Debbie: My Life, she wrote about digging up her
backyard and putting in a swimming pool while her father was out of town. She had the words “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” a hit from the 1952 movie Singing in the Rain, written on the steps in colored tile.
Debbie’s father hated it so much that he had the pool filled in, in 1955, when his daughter married Eddie Fisher. Later, Eddie Fisher dumped Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor and Mommy dumped Daddy, so I hoped Daddy and Debbie would get together.
The motel turned out to be a 10- or 12-unit dump a few miles from Santa Monica Beach, California. On a sun-faded sign: Twin Palms Motor Lodge. The single-story building was a stucco horseshoe around a rectangular courtyard.
Santa Monica still had a seedier side in the late 1950s. A no-doctors self-help drug rehab cult founded by convicted felon Christopher Bathum had taken over the Old National Guard building near the motel, adding a sketchy vibe. The name Synanon was chosen when a member slurred the words “symposium” and “seminar.”
The motel is where I first met my stepmother Marilyn and stepbrother Poompa, the nickname she inflicted on her only child. His head looked like a bowling ball, his eyes and mouth places for a thumb and fingers. Her face was always wet from standing at the stove.
Until then I’d thought motels were for rich people on vacation and planned on pocketing tips by helping visitors with their suitcases. Then I found out patchwork people moved in with ragtag furniture. Most had cats. The woman in the unit facing the street had five or six cats. Her name was Kitty, no kidding.
Daddy was the motel’s manager. In exchange for collecting rent and unclogging toilets he got a pass on rent.
If anyone asked, “What do you do?” He smiled just like in the glossy black-and-white photo kept in an old suitcase. It was stamped with the signature of the Hollywood agent who’d dumped him before I was born. “I’m an actor, between jobs.”
Nearly everyone at the motel was out of work or retired. I remember a shriveled guy with a British accent propped up in a hospital bed in front of a TV. He’d been a character actor, Tom Something.
And Sally, a former ballerina, who wore stretch pants and a V-neck leotard that drew attention to her bony chest. No boobs, thank god, so at least I didn’t have to compete with that.
I memorized people’s unit number by what they drank. Whiskey, Number One. Cheap Wine, Number Two. Martini Sally, Number Three. Units Four, Seven, and Eight were nameless since they slept all day.
During this period Daddy only drank beer so I believed Number Six was superior to the others. Better even than Maggie the Cat’s handsome husband Brick who guzzled booze straight from a bottle while hopping around on crutches. Besides, Daddy said no one ever died in Number Six.
The toilet in Sally’s place was always clogged, and there went Daddy, white knight with a plunger.
“As long as you’re here, Frank dah-ling, can I offer you a cold one?”
“Sure.” He never said no.
He never said no to me either.
“Daddy? Can I walk to the pier?”
“Daddy? Can I dance on the roof?”
“Daddy? Can I swing from the moon on spider webs?”
Some of this stuff ended up in my diary—hot pink vinyl with a gold painted lock and a tiny key hidden in my shoe like a secret.
I had to be nice to Sally if I wanted to spend time with Daddy. She faked friendliness, probably for the same reason.
What’s your teacher’s name?
Do you have a boyfriend?”
No way I’d tell her about my make-out sessions with Rodger, a fifth grader who flooded me with bubblegum cigarettes and wax lips. With him I felt chosen, less alone.
“Have you met Jimmy down the street? He’s about your age.” Her throaty voice sounded like that of a long dead actress.
Instead of answering her, I said that I wanted to learn dance steps. “Like Lola in Damn Yankees—when she strips in front of that cute baseball player in the locker room.”
Sally plucked a butt from her rhinestone-studded cigarette holder. She had perfect posture, as if balancing a jug of wine on her head. “Where did you hear about that?”
“A play date with Daddy.”
“Well, now, my dear. You must learn to walk before you leap!” Sparks flew when she flipped her filter into the courtyard. “Frank dah-ling? Did you hear what I said?” And she repeated it, “You have to learn to walk before you leap!”
I slipped away when Sally lit another cigarette, wondering when someone prettier and smarter would take over by body.
I didn’t need permission to prop the ladder against the backside of the motel. “Sure, honey,” Daddy would say. The roof was a safe place, a place with no adults, a place where I could lose myself.
I still remember songs popular in 1959, the year my parents divorced and both remarried. I related to the drama and suffering in “Mack the Knife.”
Heat rose from the roof in shimmery ripples while I pictured Bobby Darrin singing on The Ed Sullivan Show. I turned my face to the sun and jumped around in a loony-goony dance, hearing his voice in my head. Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear . . .
I untied my pink blouse-skirt, waving it over my head like Lola did. I bumped my hips like her and pranced on tiptoe, bowing when the theater exploded in applause. It was like drowning in whip cream. Then I dropped to my knees and peered over the rain gutter.
Sally posed against her door, sipping from a glass with a drowning olive. “Frank, dah-ling, I do believe my plumbing’s clogged.”
Whose? Sally’s? Or, her toilet’s?
Marilyn stood in the courtyard ready for battle, armed with Poompa, his bowling pin legs dangling from his diaper. “Frank, you get over here! Do you hear me?” She sucked on a Winston. “You’ve got more than enough things to fix around here.”
Daddy never looked back.
“I wasn’t born yesterday! Goddamn it, Frank. I know what’s going on over there!” I might’ve felt sorry for Marilyn if she hadn’t felt so sorry for herself. “This isn’t what I signed up for!”
Then she turned her three-pack-a-day barrel at me. “Sherry! Mrs. Tatum can’t sleep with you jumping around up there!”
Kitty Tatum. The only tenant with a regular job. On weekends, she liked to nap.
My sneakers turned into tap shoes as I stomp, stomp, stomped on her head.
“Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”
Sheesh! Everyone in the neighborhood could hear.
I clambered back down the ladder, rushing through the courtyard, figuring Daddy was still in Sally’s bathroom. “Can we go to the beach and collect sand-dollars?” I hollered through her open door. “Or Pacific Ocean Park (pee-oh-pee) and take the Sky Ride?”
“Sure, honey,” he called back. “Run along. I’ll be there in a little while.”
“Where?” I asked.
Later, I found Daddy slumped in a plastic chair, shivering under Marilyn’s quilted bathrobe. His face was a weird color, like Elmer’s paste.
“Daddy? What’s wrong?”
He tapped ash into the hole of his beer can. “Oh, honey, I don’t want you to worry . . . but I’m sick. I might not . . ..”
“Do you have a fever?” I plopped on the shabby couch. Threads had unraveled, waving like little antennas. “Did you take your temperature?”
“I’m cold. Freezing.” He reached out, his hand the same dull-looking white. Sick. Scary.
I brushed past him and banged out of there.
“Don’t leave me!” His voice chased me through the courtyard. “Sherry!”
I hid behind a turquoise Ford Fairlane parked in the carport, feeling rotten about leaving him alone. Me. Dying to be invisible. Longing for the Daddy who bought me a used bicycle and taught me to ride without training wheels so I could peddle and never look back.
I wondered if going to church would save his soul? I knew all about hell because the pastor at my grandparents’ church talked about a great fiery room called eternity.
Where was Marilyn anyway? I sort of remembered her saying she was taking the bus to Woolworth’s because they were having a sale, and then joking, “I married your father, even though he’s no bargain.”
The traffic on Wilshire Blvd. was loud in a good way. I liked knowing other people were around, even if they were knife-slashing murderers. Five’ll get you ten, old Macky’s back in town . . .
Sea air strayed in on fog so I headed back for a sweater. Sounds leaked from the half open door. Loud talking, maybe. Or, maybe laughing? Crying? I couldn’t tell the difference.
Sally stumbled out. “Oh, God! Frank, dah-ling, you are an interminable hoot!”
Frank dah-ling? Then he wasn’t . . .?
I drifted inside.
“Sherry, honey.” Daddy was wiping talcum powder from his face with a t-towel. “Tell them it was an Oscar-winning performance.”
I tried to picture the fun Daddy after one can of beer. The Daddy who made me laugh with silly knock-knock jokes.
Why couldn’t Daddy put a lampshade on his head and tell dumb jokes like that lush on TV? Or put on slippers, smoke a pipe, and work a crossword puzzle?
“Tell them. You really thought I was sick.”
I couldn’t answer, my heart capsizing in my chest.
Static on the 12-inch black-and-white made it look like Walter Cronkite was doing summersaults. I fiddled with the rabbit ears to make it snow on him. “Oh, Daddy. I knew you were joking.”
Sally had gone, but Kitty, who I’d just realized was also visiting, remained. She sat splay-legged on the footstool, shaking her drunken head, sponge rollers bobbing. Her eyes were pink where they should’ve been white. “I told you so! You couldn’t act your way out of a paper bag.”
Daddy considered his next move by pretending to drink the beer he’d already drained.
“Sherry?” He wasn’t letting this one go. “Tell them, honey.”
My heart slithered through the murkiness. Usually I was in on his jokes, not the butt of
them. I wished the grownups would move on to a different drinking game. Back outside, I hugged the stucco wall on the backside of the motel, the one lined with bathroom windows, glued shut from years of paint.
I ducked beneath the ladder and heard what sounded like gushing water. A broken pipe? No, Sally had the plumbing problems. This was our bathroom. I figured Daddy was taking a leak.
I hunched by the window using a wacky accent, like when I made crank calls. “Mack is coming for you . . .”
“Who’s out there?” Fat old Tatum. “Frank? Is that you?”
“Louis Miller disappeared, dear.”
“Frank?’ She shrieked. “Is this one of your tricks?”
Then, a loud knock from the far side of the bathroom door.
“Hey, Kitty.” It was Daddy. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, God! Frank! It’s not you! There-r-r’s . . . someone, something out there!”
I giggled because it was funny that I could trick her so easily, even if her blood alcohol level was on my side. “I’m here to take you away, Kathleen Tatum—”
“Frank! Get me out of here!”
Daddy again, “Unlock the door!”
“I can’t, damn it! My panties are in a bunch! Get a crowbar! Smash the damn lock!”
I don’t remember if Daddy broke into the bathroom.
I climbed the ladder and re-tied my blouse-skirt, dancing in the shadows of Lola and Mack the Knife. I sang to seagulls, not caring if the words made sense. Stumbles grew into new steps. Repeat. Rewind. Repeat.
Every other weekend during this time unfolded pretty much the same. Daddy played party animal to a party that never stopped. Tenants moved in and out. The old actor died in his sleep, and I continued dancing on the roof.
As a young adult I busied myself with a parade of therapists, new age self-help books, and magical-thinking cults. Nothing freed me from my genetic connections until I began taking dance classes. For the last thirty years, the studio has been my go-to safe place, a place where I open my wounds and let memories bleed out. Music embraces me, allows me to breathe. It doesn’t judge. I leave class sweat-drenched and less panicked about being human.
Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her novel in free verse Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 features a tumultuous year in history. Shorter work has appeared in Oxford University Press, Los Angeles Times, Exposition Review, Confrontation, The Writer and forthcoming from Gargoyle, Gold Man Review, F(r)iction, and Critical Read. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA for 10 years.