Although my two stints as a hired hand writing screenplays were, ultimately, not very successful, I’ve never regretted them. For one thing, the jobs were crazily well-paid, by my standards at least, and for another thing, I picked up a lot of narrative strategies that I’ve applied ever afterwards to my fiction. And for another thing I learned a screenwriter’s “game” that I’ve used again and again over the years to generate ideas when ideas weren’t jumping up and biting me in the imagination. The game is this: take two disparate (but successful) movies and splice them–then see what ideas start to percolate. Example? Okay. Um. All right–how about this. The Godfather meets On Golden Pond. What might that look like? Or–The Hangover meets The Evil Dead. See? It’s great.
So when Art Spiegelman asked me to write a short story for an issue of RAW that would fit in with the issue’s mini-theme of “50’s Commie Nostalgia,” and when I was desperate for some workable idea, I recalled that old screenwriter’s game. First, I asked myself: when I think of the 1950s, what comes straight to mind? And what came was “I Love Lucy” and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the televised McCarthy hearings, all of those propaganda films we were shown in grammar school, and the anti-communist B-movies of the era like The Red Menace, Whip Hand, I Was a Communist for the FBI…and (bingo!) I Married a Communist (a film by Howard Hughes later retitled The Woman on Pier 13, and a title appropriated much later by Philip Roth). Thus the story below–which originally appeared in RAW Volume 2, Number 1, in 1989–was generated by this bit of associative game-playing: “I Love Lucy” meets I Married a Communist. The result: A 50s “sitcom” (called ”Peg”) about commie spies in the suburbs.
I don’t know how great a short story it is, but it still makes me laugh when I read it. So I like it.
WITH MARGARET NEELY AS “PEG”
Salt, mixed nuts, Worcestershire sauce, butter, Wheat Chex, Rice Chex and Corn Chex: nothing could be easier, or more scrumptious, than Party Mix. Everybody loves it! I always served it whenever Stuart had a big pow-wow with his spy friends from the aircraft company. In fact, I always made them a double-batch–they were such two-fisted eaters!
Once the mix was in the oven, I took an Equanil, then started to clean up. But as I was putting away the salt canister, the cabinet door right above the stove came off in my hand!
All through the subdivision, doors were falling off left and right, linoleum was buckling, toilets wouldn’t flush. It was crazy! Nobody expected sheer perfection for $6,900, but come on! I’d heard about a toddler who’d thrown a softball through his living-room wall. I kid you not–it landed in his mother’s garden!
Six months ago, I thought I’d love moving out here from the Bronx. I’d be like a pioneer, only comfortable! I’d be happy and content, and ready to conceive a child. Well, I was maybe ready to conceive (though how that was supposed to happen, with a husband who stayed up till three o’clock every night reading history books and talking to his red paymasters on the shortwave, I’m sure I didn’t know), but happy and content I definitely was not.
Stuart wasn’t happy, either, but then he’d never been, and probably wouldn’t be till the Communists seized power. He was content, though. He liked his foreman job at Grumman, and he’d stolen a lot of really good secret plans lately.
Living in the suburbs was great camouflage for Stuart’s espionage activities. The greatest. And besides that, I think he really liked Levittown. I tell you, he’d turned into a bona-fide cookout nut, making a charcoal fire in the grill every Friday and Saturday night from May through September, unless it rained.
But I was sick of hamburgers and the very sight of pickle relish! And most of the time I was feeling bitter and lonesome and bored. No trees! No convenience stores! Bulldozers everywhere. Crated bathtubs stacked in last year’s potato fields. How many magazines can one person read? How many hours a day of Art Linkletter can she possibly stand?
I guess that cabinet door got to me, because I just held it to my chest and started to cry. I was still blubbering when Dickie Denton rapped on the window and hollered, “Dugan man!”
Lugging his full carrier of baked goods, Dickie bumped open the back door with his hip. “So what’ll it be today, Mrs. N? How’re you fixed for bread?”
“I’m good in that department. Do you have one of those coffee cakes with brown crumbs, though?”
“Does a leopard have spots?” he said, producing just the cake I wanted. Dickie was a tall, gangly, long-necked teenager with a cowlick and a high-pitched voice. He was riding for the Dugan bakery to earn his tuition at C.W. Post. A very nice young man. Whenever he happened to stop by at lunchtime, I always fixed him a spiced ham sandwich, and he kept me company for a while. But don’t think there was any hanky-panky, we just talked. Basically, he talked, and the things he told me about my neighbors were just incredible. You wouldn’t believe how early some wives start to drink, and you couldn’t possibly imagine how many of the cleanest-looking homeowners have the filthiest houses!
“What happened to your door, Mrs. N?” Dickie asked. I was still holding it in my arms like a real ninny. “You have a screwdriver?” he said. “I’ll put it back up for you.”
“Oh, you don’t have to,” I said, but he insisted, and set right to work, climbing on the stepladder.
“You know the Rileys over on Golf Links Drive?” he said, twisting and twisting the screwdriver. “Their front door is so out of whack, it won’t even shut.”
“I don’t doubt it.” While Dickie was finishing up, I got him a Coke from the fridge. I had to offer him something. I opened one for myself as well.
“And that door’s not the only thing cockeyed over there,” he said, coming down off the stepladder. He looked at me shaking his head. “No, I probably shouldn’t say anything.”
“Oh, but you have to, since you put it like that.”
So then he grinned. “Well, yesterday morning? Who do I see tiptoeing across the hall in back of Mrs. Riley? Just about the ugliest woman in creation, only she happened to be Mr. Riley.”
I must’ve given Dickie a totally blank look.
“Mr. Riley had a dress on. And a wig. He had stockings!”
“I don’t believe it!”
“Good,” said Dickie. “Don’t. That way you won’t ever tell anybody. But it’s true. I was there. The man was wearing lipstick.” He shook his head in wonderment. “You never know.”
“No,” I said, “I guess you don’t.”
“You think people are one way, they’re really another. You know Dr. Stone, right? The pediatrician that lives on Frieda Lane? Well…some people have told me that they’ve seen him coming out of the woods right after there’s been those mysterious lights in the sky. Of course, it doesn’t mean for sure that he’s in cahoots with any flying saucer people, but…you never know.”
“Maybe he just goes out to investigate.”
“Maybe,” said Dickie, but I could tell he didn’t buy it. “Nothing can surprise me anymore. Not after what I’ve seen this summer. Jeez, I wouldn’t even be a bit surprised if somebody I sold bread to was actually a wanted killer–or a Communist spy!”
It happened exactly as it does in the movie when somebody gets a shock. My Coca-Cola bottle burst on the floor.
Dickie and I both gaped at the brown foam and the heavy green chunks of glass. I said, “The bottle was sweating.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Dickie.
Quickly, I looked up at him, but he avoided my eyes. Oh, dear God, what was he thinking? Was Mrs. Riley going to hear all about this? Was Dr. Stone? “Mr. N,” said Dickie, “are you–”
“Am I what?” I sounded manic, even to myself.
“…going to pay for that coffee cake now, or should I collect on Saturday?” His Adam’s apple bounced wildly.
“Now,” I said, “I can pay you now.” I ran and got my purse, then dug out two singles, stupidly giving him a dollar and some change for a tip. Big-eyed, he thanked me, then took one last look at the foamy mess on the kitchen floor, grabbed his carrier and backed out.
After I’d picked up all the glass and gave the whole floor a good mopping, I collapsed in a chair and smoked a cigarette, trying not to think about that Coke bottle. Every time Stuart had a cell meeting, every single time, I ended up with a nervous stomach and diarrhea! Marriage is such a disappointment, for everybody! Look at poor Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn. Look at Lex Barker and Lana Turner!
The telephone rang in the family room.
“Hello?” I said, all out of breath from the mad dash through the dining area and down the hall.
I noticed an old issue of Soviet Russia Today sticking out of the drawer in the telephone table, and stuffed it back in. “Mom?” I said. “Oh, hi! Listen, I really can’t talk to you now. Stuart is having some friends over, and I have to get ready.”
“If it’s the same bunch that I met, I wouldn’t answer the door. Honestly, Peg, those men are even mopier than Stuart, and that’s saying something.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think your father will ever forgive him for not coming to our anniversary party last month. If he had to stay home, at least he could’ve had the decency to tell us he was sick. Imagine saying he was too upset about Stalin’s death! We very nearly called the FBI.”
“I know, Mom, I know. But it was just a bad reaction to some medicine he was taking. He really was sick. He was delirious.”
My stomach had knotted. Mom suspected! First Dickie Denton, now Mom! I really could’ve murdered Stuart–somebody should’ve taken away his library card, years ago. And saved his wife a lot of grief. Who cared about the means of production, or the peasants’ role in revolutionary struggles? Nobody with half a brain. Dialectical Materialism! Loosen up, Stuart! He couldn’t talk about Lassie’s pups, just once in a while? As a favor to me?
Oh, he was basically kind, and a good husband. It was just–well, if I had to blame his treason on one single thing, it would be his poor physical coordination. Absolutely! He’d been clumsy and stiff all his life. He couldn’t throw or catch a ball, and he’d trip over his own two feet trying to run across a field. Boys groaned whenever he came to bat, or else they sniggered–and before you knew it, Stuart had a chip on his shoulder, he was mad at the whole world, in complete sympathy with Marxist doctrine.
Colonial powers demanded useful metals from exploited peoples, classmates demanded arithmetic answers–to Stuart it was all part of the same rotten system. You and I can see, because we’re rational people, that there’s a big difference between tin and manganese and long division, but not Stuart, not my Stuart.
If only my skin had been clearer as a girl, if only Dr. Gleason hadn’t prescribed that sulfur ointment when I was in high school, I’m positive that somebody else besides Stuart would’ve asked me out. And my whole life would’ve been different…
“Oops, there’s the bell! Gotta run, Mom!”
I’d expected to find Stuart’s nervous cronies standing at the front door. Instead, it was little Jimmy Stocker, a sturdy nine-year-old, dressed that balmy evening in a striped polo shirt, dungarees and sneakers. He blushed, struggling to speak, then twisted around and gestured frantically at his father Pete, who was hosing a patch of grass seed, one lawn away. A dozen new framed-out bungalows, plus a tractor and a cement mixer, were silhouetted on the rumpled muddy horizon.
I smiled at Jimmy, and he grimaced at his feet. “Are you watching anything at 7:30?” he finally mumbled. “Our television’s busted.”
Pete Stocker shut off the spray at the nozzle, and shook it. “Hiya, Peg!” He waved, and I waved back. “Jim,” he called, “go ahead and tell Mrs. Neely that our TV’s not working. Go ahead, son, she won’t bite you.”
“I already told her about the dumb television,” Jimmy grumbled through his teeth. Then to me he said, “I usually watch the Lone Ranger at 7:30.”
Oh great! Just what I needed–another dilemma! On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem unneighborly. On the other hand, I knew that Stuart wouldn’t like anyone else in the house during a meeting. Shoot. And double shoot!
Pete had tossed down his hose, and was coming across our lawn. It seemed to me that he might’ve walked around the sod, not trampled it, but I’d sooner have died than said anything. “Would it be okay, Peg? If he watched his program at your house?”
“Well–I guess. Sure!”
“I told Jim that you people probably watch the Lone Ranger yourselves. I know that Ruth and I do. Say, would it be too much if we all came over? Just until eight?”
Before I could answer, Pete was proposing I let Ruth bring the pretzel dip and a bag of Veri-thins, and he’d bring the beer. “Okay? Terrific!” he said, flinging an arm around his boy’s shoulder and walking him back across the lawn. He promised to return at half-past-seven. I could’ve stamped my foot.
Instead, I scurried around in a dither, emptying ashtrays, gathering up newspapers, and looking under seat cushions for subversive periodicals. Then I checked the Party Mix, gave it a lusty stir, and ran upstairs to change.
Wearing headphones, Stuart was seated at his little pine desk in the bedroom, carefully jotting down a coded message in my good stationary tablet.
I showered in a jiff, toweled dry, dusted myself with talc, then started picking out fresh clothes.
“That’s pretty fancy underwear,” said Stuart. “What’s the occasion?”
“It isn’t fancy.”
“Pink isn’t fancy?”
“Pink is not fancy, no,” I said. “Not in this day and age, it isn’t.” Are all Communists such prudes?
He rolled his eyes and pressed a stud on our pogo-stick pole lamp. Immediately, part of the bedroom wall spun around, whisking away his desk, chair and shortwave, and returning my vanity.
“Stuart,” I said, buttoning up my blouse, “the Stockers are coming by in a few minutes. To watch the Lone Ranger.”
“Are you serious? Peggy!”
“Did you want them to get suspicious? To think we have something to hide? Well?”
“All right,” he said. “All right, already. But just keep the volume down.”
As bad luck would have it, Otto and Hank arrived simultaneously with the Stockers. When I opened the front door, Ruth Stocker–she looked so cute in her pindot blouse and charcoal Bermudas–was tugging on the hem of Pete’s short-sleeved shirt, telling him, “The Neelys have company, Pete. We can miss the Lone Ranger for one week, it won’t kill us.”
Little Jimmy was scowling warily at Stuart’s two friends.
“Oh,” I said, “I see that you’ve all met.”
Pete said, “Not formally.” Then he said, “Pete Stocker,” and stuck out his hand, friendly as could be. He shook first with Hank, then with Otto. Neither of them introduced himself. I could’ve died! And those fifty-cent subway-barber haircuts! Ugh! “Come on in, everybody!” I said, taking Ruth by the arm. The glass lid on the casserole dish shifted a little. I saw bits of minced clams embedded in grayish cream cheese.
The Stockers filed away down the hall, Ruth stopping once to admire the series of framed pen-and-ink drawing of Paris landmarks, but Hank and Otto stayed put in the living room. I moved to the foot of the stairs, to yell up to Stuart, but Otto stopped me. “These people,” he said, meaning the Stockers. “They’ll be around all evening?”
“Just till eight. They’re watching the Lone Ranger.”
Hank looked at Otto, and they both snorted derisively. They didn’t have to say it, I’d heard it often enough from Stuart. The Lone Ranger was a tool of the status quo. Tonto was an historical impossibility. Brother! Those guys could find some nasty crack to pass about anything. Except, of course, their dopey Party.
Otto was about to say something further to me, but got only as far as “Mrs. Neely…” when Stuart came trotting downstairs in chinos and a blue knit shirt.
“Good evening, comrades,” he said, but Otto shushed him up with an uneasy glance toward the hall and a downward chop of his pudgy hand.
Then Pete Stocker’s voice bellowed in from the family room. “Is that Big Stuart I hear?” Stuart smiled abjectly at his fellow reds.
A moment later, Pete appeared in the living room. “Hope you don’t mind us barging in like this, guy! But it’s just too bad if you do!” he said, with a roar of kidding laughter. Handing Stuart a glass of beer, he clapped him manfully on the shoulder. “How about you fellows?” he asked Hank and Otto. “Ready for a cool one?” Hank and Otto shook their heads. “Peg?”
“I’ll wait a while,” I said. “Thank you.” Then, at the first notes of the “William Tell Overture,” I turned Pete around–his arm felt as solid as a rock!–and walked him down the hall. Behind me, Stuart was leading Otto and Hank out to the garage.
After I’d gotten Pete settled in one of the butterfly chairs, I went and took the Party Mix from the oven. I spread it out to cool on two flattened grocery sacks, then hurried back and watched the Lone Ranger, disguised as the Old Timer, wheedle some information from a pair of cowboys in the assay office. At the first commercial, I jumped up. “I made some Party Mix–should I bring it out?”
“Let me help you,” said Ruth.
“No, just sit and watch your program.”
But she came anyway, following close at my heels like a terrier. “Looks good,” she said.
“I hope it tastes good,” I said, handing her a red plastic bowl and grabbing another down from the shelf, then taking half a second to smooth the Con-Tact paper. I used a spatula to transfer half the mix into one bowl, half into the other. When I finished, I told Ruth she could take hers to Pete and Little Jimmy, and I’d take mine to Stuart and his friends. She nodded, then looked at me intensely. So intensely that I’m afraid I squirmed.
“How long’ve you kids been married?” she asked, out of the clear blue sky.
“Three years,” I said. Wasn’t she missing her program? Why was she dawdling here–why did she want to know how long we’d been married? “How about you and Pete?”
“Ten,” she said. “Eleven come November.” Then she smiled, still holding me fixed with that powerful stare. “Do you ever–” she said, then stopped.
“What?” I said. Ever what? Go camping? Play canasta? What?
But she only shook her head. “Let me get back,” said Ruth. “I’m missing half the story.”
She was? What about me?
“Fellas? A little snack?”
The garage door rumbled part-way up, and I stooped, passing the bowl to Stuart. “How about some iced tea?”
“Peg,” he said, “I wished you’d stayed with the Stockers. I don’t want them nosing around.”
“Nobody’s nosing,” I told him.
I looked past Stuart and saw Hank poring over a messy sheaf of blueprints, which Otto busily photographed with one of those tiny cameras you always find advertised in the last few pages of trashier magazines.
“Can’t you boys leave this door open a little bit?” I said. “You must be suffocating.”
“We’re fine,” said Stuart. “It stays shut.” And down it went.
By the time I returned to the family room, the Lone Ranger was over, but the Stockers showed no sign of getting up to leave. In fact, now they were watching You Bet Your Life. At least Pete and Ruth were, chuckling over some bit of tomfoolery between Groucho and George Fenneman. Little Jimmy seemed disinterested: he was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, putting a series of gum cards in numerical order. On one card, I noticed Stalin’s face, looking especially ruthless. Then Mao Tse-tung’s, all green-skinned and warted. The series was called Fight the Red Menace.
Pete noticed me staring. “They’re pretty educational,” he said.
“I believe it!” I replied, numb to the very tips of my fingers. “Have you tried the mix yet?”
“It’s delicious,” Pete said. On Groucho’s program, somebody said the Magic Word: shoe.
Ruth laughed. “Who’d think anybody would say shoe?”
“Stuart still busy?” Pete asked me.
“His two friends, they’re from Grumman?”
“Takes home a lot of work with him, does he?”
“Stuart?” I felt the blood drain from my face. “No!” I said. “Well…not much.” Now my ears were buzzing.
“I never do that,” said Pete. “When I leave work, I leave. Don’t give it another thought.”
“Sometimes you do,” said Ruth.
“All right, maybe sometimes. But very rarely.”
Ruth drew in her lips, looking pained. Then she hitched around in the recliner, and we both stared at the automobile commercial. But Pete never took his eyes off me. I was on the verge of hysteria. Why had he asked me that–if Stuart took a lot of work home with him? Was it some kind of trick question? A cruel joke? Was he toying with me? Did he know? I told myself, Don’t be ridiculous–Pete Stocker works for Bristol-Myers, he’s a toothpaste scientist, not a federal agent! Still…
If Pete hadn’t grabbed me, I’d have hit the floor like a ton of bricks.
“It must be the humidity,” I said, mortified, as he eased me down on the plaid sofa. “It’s so close in here.”
I shut my eyes, and forced myself not to tremble. A broadcast announcer said, “Treasury Men in Action!”
“Turn it off,” said Pete.
“I said turn it off, it’s your bedtime, indian.”
“It’s only eight-thirty!”
“Ruth” said Pete. “Mother?”
“Come on, Jimmy,” she said, “no fair. You got to see your program. Now be good.” Then to me, she added, “Good night, Peg–I hope you feel better. You and Stuart have to come visit us now, okay? All right?”
“And if old Stu can’t get away from his important business, you just come by yourself, little lady,” said Pete, squeezing my wrist. “We don’t need your husband to have a good time, right? Right, Ruthie?”
“Pete,” she said, “honestly. People don’t know when you’re fooling around and when you’re serious.”
He winked lewdly at me.
I probably should’ve, but I didn’t walk them to the front door. Foo on the security breach, I was completely wrung out.
When Stuart came in, just after ten, I was sitting at the kitchen table with the new issue of Coronet. “Mambo-Italiano” was playing on the radio. “Your friends leave?” I asked.
“Yep, they’re gone.” Then he said, “Must we listen to this?” and shut the radio off. His musical tastes, naturally enough, ran to Paul Robeson and Leadbelly.
“So how was the meeting?” I asked.
“Great! Moscow should have its own jet-powered transport by September.”
I managed a tiny smile. “I’m glad it’s all going so well for you.” And I was, but…but couldn’t he join the Elks or the American Legion–he was a vet!–if he so desperately needed male companionship? “What are you looking for, Stuart? Can I help you find something?”
“He was brusquely opening and closing cabinets and drawers.
“I need a…small tin. Like a cookie tin.”
“Otto wants me to bury some film.”
“Would a coffee can be all right?”
“I need something with a lid.”
So I found him an old tea canister we hardly ever used, then followed him out to the garage, where he grabbed a spade and a flashlight. Then he made a beeline straight to my flower garden. “Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “You already killed my impatiens with your silly microdots!”
“But it’s the perfect place!”
“What, it says so in your handbook?”
“All right,” I said, “but let me do it, you’ll just rip everything up.” I got down on my knees, and used the light–there wasn’t any moon–to find a spot where digging a hole wouldn’t cause too much damage.
“Come on, Peg, hurry it up. I don’t want anybody to see us.”
“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Hot-Shot Spy.” Between the asters and marigolds looked okay; I’d planted petunias there, but they’d never come up.
Stuart handed me the canister and I buried it. “There,” I said, smoothing the dirt. “You’re all set.”
As soon as I got up, he enfolded me in his arms. “What would I do without you, Peg?”
“Probably get the electric chair,” I said, giving him a playful poke, and a pinch. Then we both laughed and laughed, just laughed and laughed, as gaily as Eve Arden and Richard Crenna.