Incognito Excerpt

As a present for my seventh birthday, Mom took me to visit the top of the Empire State Building. This was back when my Mom was nice when she didn’t drink, and she was beautiful. She was only thirty-two, she still hoped to find a good husband and nice father for my sisters and me, and we could all be a family again.

This was the nicest thing she ever did for me because of her dreadful fear of heights. Shaking through the long elevator ride, Mom exited when the doors opened and the crowd poured out. Clinging to the inner wall of the promenade she gripped my hand tight, her palm perspiring. I tore loose from her grip and rushed to the parapet with a tall wrought iron railing.

Peering through the bars, I saw Manhattan stretched out below me like a toy city. I had an overpowering yearning to be part of it. A vision fleeted through the back of my mind of a grown up me leading a glamorous life, traveling in limousines, dancing and dining in the glittering world below. Where did that come from? I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. The thrill of the height made me giddy, unlike my mother I loved to be up high. Lingering for over an hour, I peered through the binoculars they had there. You put a nickel in and could see the Statue of Liberty or the highlands of Inwood or the Jersey Palisades on the other side of the golden-brown Hudson River.

Mom said it was time to go. “Would you like to take a stroll and look around?”

Breathless with anticipation I said, “I would love to. Let’s go.”

Holding hands, we sauntered up Fifth Avenue all the way to the East Fifties on the Upper East Side. All the guys wore fedoras and gray flannel suits. Heads turned to gawk at Ava in her brand new navy blue business suit. The pencil skirt hugged the contour of her hips that swayed when she walked. It was the confident stride of a woman who knew she was gorgeous. Feeling gawky in my frilly pink puff-sleeved frock, I feared I would ever grow up to be so beautiful. My neck hurt because I couldn’t stop staring up at all the skyscrapers. The rumble of the traffic, the blare of the horns and the crowds motivated me. This is where I needed to live when I grew up. I wanted to be an artist who designed and sketched elegant dresses and innovative sportswear.

We turned onto a cool, tree-lined street in the East Fifties and halted in front of a brownstone apartment house. Mom just stood there staring at the building, silent, seeming to remember something.

“What’s the matter, Mommy? Why are you sad?” Was that a tear in her eye?

“I’m not sad honey. Someone I used to know lives here.” She squeezed my hand.

“Why don’t we go say hello?” I loved meeting new people.

“Oh, they wouldn’t want to see me.” She took a deep pained breath and closed her eyes. “We haven’t seen each other in over seven years, since before you were born. Wearing a false, bright smile, she said, “I’m glad I have you. It’s not important. Let’s go to Central Park and then we will take a cab back to the station.”

“But Mommy?” I knew something was up, but she would not speak of it anymore. Could this place have something to do with my real father? Was this where Paul Morand lived? This was always in the back of my mind, the goal to find out who my actual father was. I used to hear my mother and Aunt Arlene whispering about someone. Every day, I prayed that Paul Morand was alive and not lying dead at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

We entered the front part of Central Park across from the Plaza Hotel. My mother sat on a bench while I climbed age-old granite boulders.

“Get down! Be careful. Why must you alway climb everything?” Why must I? I climbed every tree and hill I could find, loving to be way up high. But from now on nothing could surpass that feeling of being on top of the Empire State Building.

Ava didn’t speak much on the taxi ride back, lost in thought. I amused myself by contemplating at the thousands of people on the streets. Everyone was bustling, going somewhere in a hurry. Hundreds of taxis and cars crept along at a snail’s pace. The cars were magnificent futuristic sculptures with gleaming chrome and aerodynamic fins.

We entered Penn station by a side door that took us straight down to the Long Island Railroad. We passed a newsstand, bursting with colorful magazines and Ava grabbed a newspaper. Racing past shoving passengers, smelling coffee, popcorn, and hot dogs, we squeezed through the door of the train just as it was about to pull out. Breathing hard and laughing we found two empty facing seats where I could look out the window. The crowded train was stuffy with hundreds of commuters returning home after a hard day, smoking and drinking and playing cards. The hard seats and the vibration of the train caused shakes and bumps making the ride uncomfortable, but no one cared.

Ava whipped out her purse and reapplied her lipstick without looking in the mirror. After freshening her face, Ava opened the newspaper. There was a picture of a radiant bride and a dapper bridegroom. The caption said Senator Jack Kennedy had married the beautiful debutante of the year, Jacqueline Kennedy. Ava read the entire article to herself. She offered me the comic section. A man sat down beside me. I tried to make myself smaller to avoid touching him. He soon fell asleep, his loud snores interrupting my battling thoughts. The adventure was over. I had to go back to the foster family. My mom would not rescue me this time. She wanted to, but she couldn’t. Why couldn’t she? The rattling train penetrated the lengthy tunnel under the East River that connects Long Island with Manhattan. I knew there were tons of water on top of us and felt a little shiver.

“Mommy, please don’t take me back there.”

“It can’t be that bad. You’re just tired. It’s nothing to get upset over.”

“But I hate those people.”

Drawing a long breath and releasing it before speaking my mother said, “You should be thankful that you have a warm bed and nice clothes to wear and that you have a roof over your head.”

“I miss Pop and Nana and Tricia and Judy. I miss you and Daddy. I want to come home.” It seemed ages since I had played in my own yard or jumped on the beds at Nana’s house.

“Pop and Nanna are too sick to care for kids, you know that. Daddy is gone, and he’s not your Daddy, anyway. We don’t have a place to live. I am saving up my money. It could be worse. You shouldn’t feel that way. Just don’t worry about it. Get over it.”

Another father was gone. First, the real one died, and now this one ran away. Men were cold, slippery creatures. You couldn’t trust them. Mothers were cold too. No one understood how I felt. I kept my feelings inside, my ragged cuticles and bitten down fingernails betrayed my anguish.

The train sped through dark, bleak stretches of Long Island country roads, past local stations with people on platforms, clanging bells and bright lights flashing through the windows. I saw a little girl holding her father’s hand.

“Where is Daddy?” I gnawed on my thumbnail,

She lightly slapped my hand. “Don’t bite your nails.”

“Why did he leave?” I said holding my hands behind my back and gripping my own wrist.

“Just drop it. You should just forget about it.” How could I forget about it?

“The kids at school say he doesn’t love us anymore,” I said, clutching her arm.

“I’m sure they didn’t mean that,” she said, dismissing my concerns as she picked my grasping fingers off her silk sleeve. There was a crease where they had been. She tried to smooth it out. “Don’t look so serious.”

My foster parents, the Dickson’s were well known to have a series of new kids who drifted in and out of the elementary school. We were the odd strays who didn’t fit in. Hardly any of the children bothered to make friends with the foster kids because you could be gone the next day.

“They all know I’m a foster kid.” My tired body slumped against the windowsill.

“You shouldn’t let it bother you.” She dug through her large handbag.  “HDorris and Kidsere, look at this nice coloring book and crayons I bought for you.”

That took my mind off the impending separation. I loved nothing more than to draw and color. The activity distracted me until we stopped at Willow Grove station. Francie’s spiffy convertible, a brand new Aztec Red Cadillac with an expansive wrap-around windshield was parked in the station lot. Ava opened the door for me. It wasn’t locked. People left their cars open all the time. Once inside I inhaled the new car smell as the soft leather seats caressed my bare legs. A hard tonneau cover, flush with the rear deck, hid the convertible top. Ava showed me the windshield washers, a signal seeking radio, power windows air conditioning and a heater,

“Mommy, where did you get this beautiful car.?”

“I borrowed it from a friend,” she said.

I noticed a gold-colored Eldorado name-plate in the center of the dash. “Mommy, what does El Dorado mean?”

“In the old days, people believed somewhere in the New World there was a place of immense wealth known as El Dorado. It also means the gilded one.”

So where is this lost city of gold?

She quoted Edgar Allan Poe, “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow. Ride, boldly ride, if you seek for El Dorado.”


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