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MY LIFE OF CRIME & PUNISHMENT

Marguerite Quantaine


The first thing I ever did to indicate the direction I was heading resulted from letting my kid sister, Kate, annoy me. I was 3.3 at the time and tiny for my age; she was a martinet of 2 and already bigger and brighter than me.
     We lived in a drafty 19th century farmhouse on the brick street of a south side neighborhood in a small midwestern town back then, where her crib sat in my parents bedroom, being used one night to corral us while company visited.
     It was late. We were lying back-to-back. I was weary and wanting to sleep. She was incessantly demanding that I “Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!” of her bed until I got fed up and gave her a reason to bellyache.
     I peed on her.
     That was my crime.
As punishment, every person Kate introduced me to from that night onward included the preamble, “This is my sister, Margie. When we were kids she peed on me,” invariably prompting the retelling of our toddler turf war.
     The last time she introduced me was to her late shift hospice nurse in May of 2015. It’s allowed her to maintain the upper hand on my heart, forevermore.

~
When I was not quite five I crossed a busy street in the middle of the block after being warned never to do so.
     That was my crime.
     As punishment I was, first, hit by a taxicab, and then vilified by my kindergarten teacher, Miss Beech, for losing the school’s celebrated green-and-white stick figure safety flag awarded to the most accident-free district. I spent all of kindergarten, first, and much of second grade shunned.
     The alienation ended when we moved from our neighborhood into the school district that was presented the prestigious safety flag after my mishap.

~

In junior high school my best friend was Beverly Brown. During the summer of 1959 we’d frequent the Bloomfield Elementary School playground where all the neighborhood kids hung out.
     One day I discovered the basement door to the school was left open. Upon further exploration, I found I could easily walk through the door of the humongous furnace, and crawl through the boiler tunnels leading to classrooms located on the first and second floors.
     Inspired, I became an entrepreneur as The Bloomfield Boiler Guide charging a quarter per tour, commencing with a Cokes & Chips Party in the furnace chamber while whistling to Mitch Miller’s The River Kwai blaring repetitively on Bev’s Stromburg Carlson portable record player. 
     That was my crime.
     At the end of the first tour we were, one-by-one, greeted by police officers as we gaily emerged from the furnace and transported by patrol cars, sirens screaming all the way to the joint where we were sentenced to sit on hard benches behind bars until parents arrived to spring us.
That was my punishment.
     Bev’s were there within minutes. Mine never came.
     After six hours, a change in shift occurred and I was released to walk home feeling my claim to chain gang fame crumble.
    
~

At age 14, I forged my parents signatures to wangle a coveted 40 hour a week job working 5 hour weeknights and 15 hour Saturdays as the record department sales and inventory control clerk at Hopkins, the most popular electronics store in town.
     The Hopkins family consisted of the Magooish father, Robert, Sr., who was obsessed with soybeans, and two feuding brothers, Motorola Bob and Prince John, the latter being a local disc jockey who depended on me to choose the best of the latest released demo records arriving daily in the mail for playing on his prime time show. All three men were members of the Kiwanis Club which placed a freestanding, glass globe, stainless steel Ford Gumball machine at the entrance to my music department.
     Ford gumballs came in pristine white, cadmium yellow, royal blue, Pepto pink, and verdant green, each with a fiend thirsty flavor cementing a brisk business as the best penny chews of the 50s and 60s.
     Back then, 45 RPM records were a buck plus one cent tax the dollar, so Magoo kept plenty of pennies on the top of the cash register to pay the tax for any customer short of change.
     As it so happened, I was addicted to Ford gumballs.
     That was my crime.
     I used the freebie pennies and a few from the till to treat my multi-record buying customers to a free gumball without thinking to inform the trio.
     Many miles and decades later I learned the missing cents — sometimes as many as 20 a day — were wreaking havoc each evening when Motorola cashed out the register and came up short against the receipts. He swore Prince was stealing change to keep the books from ever balancing. The discourse turned so beastly between accusations and denials that one day Prince packed up and moved his family to Texas.
     My punishment was in learning I was the trigger, much too late.
     Not that Motorola would have admitted any error, and not that Prince would have accepted any apology, and not that Magoo cared beyond the ticker tape apparatus (next to the gumball machine) operating 24/7/365 tracking the soy bean market.
~
As a corporate executive in New York City for the designer line of the largest provider of leisurewear in the nation, I’d occasionally gift a sample pair of pajamas, ‘borrowed’ from the showroom for delivery to a very wealthy friend who pestered me for a freebie each time she planned a new paramour sleepover.
     That was my crime.
     One day I was served with a subpoena to appear in court to testify as “the other women” in a high profile NYC divorce proceeding.
     It seems the wife of my friend’s lover had discovered her husband’s affair and promised not to divorce him as long as he told her the name of his mistress. Unbeknownst to me, my friend suggested her lover give the wife my name instead of hers, thereby allowing them to continue the affair without consequence.
     Hubby complied, never suspecting his wife would use the confession as proof of his infidelity, backfiring on all three of them once I was deposed.
     That wasn’t my punishment.
     That was my cure.
~

Life is a silver lining for those of us willing to scrape the surface of adversity.
     At five, I may not have grasped the words, but I already knew how oppression is forged from the indignation of adults. Being alienated taught me to observe more, listen closely, talk less, read well, recognize the treachery of language, and understand that bullying won’t be curtailed from the child up until it’s eradicated from the parent, down. Oh, and by the way, it doesn’t take getting hit in the head by a taxi cab to learn that.
     As for those in uniform, it’s true, I still challenge authority. But I never again broke into another school (unless you count the times I didn’t get caught), and I make every effort to shake the hand of all police officers I encounter, thanking them for their service while trying not to whistle The River Kwai as I work the crowd.
     Meanwhile, the mere mention of gumballs requires I battle temptations to buy a vintage Ford machine on eBay as a tribute to Motorola, Prince and Magoo who taught me the invaluable skills that eventually landed me a job in Manhattan where I sang New York, New York with gusto after turning the head of Ol’ Blue Eyes when we passed as strangers in the night outside the 21 Club.    
     Which takes me to the brink of divorce court with one of the most interesting and exciting bad influences I ever had the endless pleasure of knowing — and leaves me within the aura of my sister, Kate, who remained my loyal partner in crime and laughter for the balance of her life.
     Sleep sweet my peep.

# # #

Copyright Marguerite Quantaine © 2017
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Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
is available on AMAZON, in paperback and Kindle. Please choose LOOK INSIDE
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ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS

final-xmas-tags
MAY THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON
Fill you with the awe of a child,
the serenity of feeling loved,
the courage of a feral cat,
the gratitude of a rescued dog,
the joy of a songbird,
& the hope of another day
to get it right,
do it better,
& say what’s in your heart
to all those you hold dear.
.
Happy Holly Days
My Sweet Peeps!

.
Marguerite & Elizabeth
#UpToSomethingSince1970
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McQ©2014-2016

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HAPPY TRAILS TO YOU . . .

Kate b:w

“You’re always a happy camper,” my kid sister, Kate, says to me, frequently. “Even from back when. I’ve seldom seen a photograph where you weren’t. Whereas, the rest of us…”  She sighs as her claim tapers off; the ‘rest of us’ being our four older siblings.

     I’m in her Florida home, fifty-eight miles southeast of mine, enjoying faded photographs of her and me during childhood, a monochrome to Kodachrome procession of us aging over the years, corralled in silver and brass frames crowding the desktop in her den.
     “You’re smiling in them, too,” I insist. 

     “But even when you aren’t you’re happy.”

She’s right. In every print I stand guilty as charged, picture-proof that regardless of the rocks life hurled at me, I caught them as stones and skimmed them as pebbles across a body of blue. Setbacks, solutions, and silver linings have ruled my world in that way.

     Kate triumphs, too; but does it differently. Unlike me, be it a word, a look, or an action, she wounds easily and holds onto the hurt as lifeblood. She can recite the time, place and reason for every slight she’s perceived from others, intentional, or not. She suffers the “slings and arrows” of both fortune and misfortune. Her self-esteem rarely rides on an even keel.

     Most of that is reflected in Kate’s self-deprecating sense of humor where she casts herself as the ugly duckling and also-ran. 

     Until she turned 12, she shadowed me like a stray puppy inviting approval — but as a tall teen, she began rolling her shoulders forward and slumping down to avoid attention. She took a back seat in all her outings with friends. She never challenged authority. She catered to the wishes of others. She refused to go to her junior prom with a boy she had a crush on unless I agreed to find a date and go with her. (I did.) She always worked harder to strive higher because she felt, in doing so, maybe, just maybe, someone would love her.

I don’t think she’s ever accepted that everyone does love her — not because she played a great game of league softball for nine years, or bested those at any table where board games ruled, or succeeded at every task she undertook, or graduated from college summa cum laude, or even when she became an executive at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, rubbing elbows with celebrities, daily — but because she is without guile. She’s soft spoken and generous. She’s never late for anything, ever. She’s decisive and dependable. She is the first to answer the call, to offer her time, and provide for others whether asked of, or needed, or not.  Her meek demeanor matches her downy curls and wise eyes the color of a Russian Blue.

She’s also a coincidental copycat. Although Kate lived 3,000 miles away for a decade, she’d somehow manage to buy the same label slacks, sweaters, and shoes that I wore, paint her rooms the same colors as mine, be partial to the same movies and songs, plant the same flowers, and even managed to select the identical holiday cards for my mom, with both hers and mine delivered in the same mail, on the same days for seven years running. 

     When she moved to Florida eleven years ago, she arrived in the make and model of car I drove. Eventually, she gave me that car, and added my name to the title of her next one so I could have it someday, without any fuss.

     It’s what I’ll be driving, soon — and what I’m driving at.

     Kate visits regularly, making the trip from Deland to spend the day with her gal pal, my Elizabeth. They leave within moments after she arrives to scan pawn shops and scour garage sales, saying when they’ll be back bearing gifts, and what they want to eat upon return. I’m chief cook, baker, bottle washer and decider of the games we’ll play into the night. 

     Sometimes she stays over, but more often, twelve hours of each others company is one hour shy of perfection. Before she leaves we belt out a chorus of,  “Happy trails to you, until we meet again” as we did while in our matching cowgirl outfits, sitting on the floor in front of the Sylvania set during the 1950s, joining Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in their signature song.  Then I wait by the phone until she gets home and calls to say she’s safe and sound.

     My dear, sweet sister, Kate.

     So, imagine my surprise when, after a splendid celebration for her 67th birthday on January 22nd, followed by wishes exchanged for Valentine’s Day, and plans made for Elizabeth’s birthday on February 24th, she called to say, “I’ll be there. I’m looking forward to it. But…”
K&M& Andy Car

     She’d felt nauseous with a sharp pain in her side so, assuming it was her gallbladder, she visited the clinic, which ordered the ultrasound, that revealed the liver cancer. The following week an MRI found pancreatic and bile duct cancer. A PET scan upped the ante to bone and spinal column cancer, after blood tests confirmed it was everywhere.

     No, this is not the kind of diagnosis that responds to clinical trials, chemotherapy, or radiation. Hers is the type that robs you of 25 pounds in 25 days and makes you hope for enough time to get your affairs in order.

     Nothing seems real now. We act on automatic, listening to orders we don’t want to hear and filling out forms we’re forced into finishing, as if any of it matters more than these last precious days spent together.

     When she asks me to translate the results of her latest tests I relay a bowdlerized truth, and she listens with an editors ear, both of us trying to alter the inevitable.

     If it were me, there would be levity. 

Instead, it’s Kate, who counts on me to be there for a final cowgirl singalong.

     Yes, I smiled when she asked it of me.

     But I am not a happy camper.

#    #    #

Marguerite Quantaine © 2015

SECRETS & TIES

New Jane & Me

Marion Deyo didn’t start out as my friend, or exactly finish up that way. And yet, twenty years after our final exchange, the ending to our story still astounds me.

It will you, too.

We met in 1966, when I was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, desperately searching for a different dream. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy acting. I did. In fact, my audition instructor, the late great Jessica Tandy, said I had the natural talent to guarantee a bright future in the theater.

But I knew I didn’t have the personality for it — especially the New York City six-floor walkup, noisy neighbors, nasty bugs part. And, the menial labor between parts part. Or, the suck up and shut up part. The waiting for hours to audition with those who actually wanted to wait for hours to audition part. The desire for fame and fortune part. The tediousness of twiddling thumbs while slow learners remembered their lines part. The talk among actors about nothing but acting part. The throw momma under the bus to get the part part.

It’s why I applaud, but never become a fan of celebrities. I know how hard they worked to get to where they got. I know the bad choices they made. I know of their struggle to get by in the public eye. I know how self-destructive they become when disdaining fellow actors.

But I digress.

One Stouffer’s morning with hot buttered pecan roll and golden coffee in hand, an advertisment in The New York Times classifieds for a media clerk at a Fifth Avenue agency caught my eye. I didn’t know what the job entailed, but figured clerks keep records. Enough said.

Upon entering the office of the department head assigned to interview me, I zeroed in on her desktop nameplate: Marion Deyo.

The older woman (by 21 years) didn’t look up. She didn’t ask me to be seated. She didn’t make any attempt to put me at ease. She even forced me to introduce myself to the top of her bent down head, busily engaged in reading my job application.

“I’ve never heard of anyone with your last name,” she muttered.

“Oh yeah?” I snapped back. “Well I’ve never heard of anyone with your last name, either!” It was a pompous, knee-jerk reaction that I don’t know why I had since — then as now — I’ve yet to encounter a single person outside my immediate family who has my last name.

Suffice to say, the interview ended abruptly and I went on my Mary-quite-contrary way until a week later when I got an early bird phone call saying I was hired.

“How?” I asked. “And, why?”

“No one else applied for job,” replied the person who’d spend five minutes training me later that day.

Technically, Marion was my boss, but she never spoke to me, and made a point of ignoring me whenever we were in the same room, or passed each other in the hall.

Cue Ruth Ruffino (a fictitious name in this, otherwise, true story).

Ruth was a four-foot-eight gentile yenta with coal black hair to match her widow’s wear daily outfits. She had half-dollar size eyes, skin the color of Pattypan squash, and a passive-aggressive control freak personality that she conveyed through a chronically clogged nose. Ruth was just so transparent, so disingenuous, so cloying, so suffocating, so much the type of women I truly didn’t like a lot.

Nevertheless, Ruth was a popular little Miss nicey-nicey, chirpy-chirpy, brown-nosey to everyone, earning her favor by supplying our communal office of eight women with free donuts most mornings and coffee every afternoon.

The thing with women working shoulder-to-shoulder in one room is that their eyes are always peeled and ears cocked, providing the perfect stage and an instant audience for anyone enjoying fanfare, which Ruth invariably made whenever leaving me a box of candy, or personal note, or annoying tchotchke — then yelling from her desk, “Did you get the gift I left?”

Oh-h, I got it all right.

I just didn’t give it. I didn’t eat the donuts, or drink the coffee, or accept the gifts, or read the notes, or engage in conversation — even when she was hovering over me, talking at the top of her elastic sacs.

One day upon returning home from work I found flowers had been delivered, not by a florist, but by Ruth, personally, giving the bouquet and card to my landlord with her delivery instructions.

The next day, she crowed, “I was late to work yesterday morning because I rode all the way up town in order to deliver you flowers. Did you get them?”

“Yes,” I cawed back, “and assured the landlord the flowers were for him and I gave him your telephone number as you requested.”

Soon after, Marion summoned me into her office to tell me she was letting me go for causing too much trouble in her department.

To my chagrin and our surprise, I burst into tears, blubbering my side of the story from the minute Ruth laid eyes on me until my moment of breakdown before her.

Marion listened, stone-faced until I finished. Then she offered me a tissue and said she’d handle it — which she did. But she never said how, we never spoke of it again, and I wasn’t fired.

Hours later Ruth announced her engagement to a dweeby, much taller, older account executive who wore his suspendered pants up around his atrophied pecs; a bloke who’d been transferred to our Chicago office that very same day, taking Ruth to the windy city with him. The other communal room women shunned me afterwards.

Over the next six weeks I was assigned to a task no other employee (past or present) had been able to complete. I tackled it by initiating an unorthodox protocol, earning me a promotion and my own office.

Upon becoming Marion’s executive colleague, the walls came down. We sat together at department head meetings and lunched together regularly. She learned I was single and living in Manhattan. I learned she was single and living with her cousin on Long Island. The weekend she invited me out for a visit began a quintessential friendship lasting for years — right up until the day I discovered the two women weren’t cousins, but a couple.

I had an inkling, but I never completely understood why everything suddenly changed after that. Our daily routine ended abruptly. I ceased being invited to their home. Marion took another job at a different agency. Eventually, so would I.

Over time we continued to touch base, but seldom, until not at all.

I fell in love and my life took many dramatic turns. We ended up living in the same Long Island town as Marion and her partner. The company we launched and grew was in stark contrast to the enterprise they undertook. For fifteen years we rarely crossed paths. In 1990, we semiretired to Florida. They remained on Long Island.

Then in October of 1994 I had a premonition. It prompted me to write Marion a long letter saying how much I loved the two of them and always would. Essentially, I thanked Marion for being my friend and confidante during a still-single period of my life when I needed guidance and protection the most.

I mailed the letter. I don’t know for certain if she ever received it.

But a week or so afterwards, I began getting phone calls at odd hours of the day, at least once a week, from someone who just listened to my voice and stayed on the line for as long as a minute before hanging up.

I sensed it was Marion. It might have been her partner, but it felt like Marion.

Nearly five months later, in late February of 1995, the weekly phone calls mysteriously ceased. It wasn’t until May that her partner called to say Marion had passed away on February 28th.

I immediately got online and searched for her obituary. There wasn’t one — so I dug deeper.

This is all I ever found:

During the late 1600s, the first woman fleeing France to America with Marion’s last name married the first man fleeing France to America with my last name.

We shared their DNA.

Marion Deyo was my distant cousin.

# # #

Marguerite Quantaine Copyright © 2014

If you’re at all enchanted by this story, I promise you’ll be charmed by
Imogene’s Eloise: Inspired by a true-love story.

I welcome your feedback, so go ahead and let me have it by commenting here, or Liking and Sharing this on Facebook.

My heartfelt thanks to you and yours, now and always.

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DRESS REHEARSAL : TAKE ONE

Mom & Me Kiss
A week after my father died in 1969, my mom bought her burial dress, a long-sleeved bevy of beige chiffon accordion pleats with contoured organdy hemlines and cuffs resembling parched petunias.

The collar was fashioned into a multilayered sash, cresting the shoulders and flowing down the back to veil the neck and screen the zipper. A peach taffeta sheath shimmered underneath.

“Everyone knows a wife dies seven years after her husband,” Mom declared.

“Is that the law?” I asked.

“It is,” she assured.

“And, if you don’t die, what then? Do they give you a ticket?”

Mom flashed me the look of admonishment that every parent keeps ready to actuate in times of insolence.

“It’s a glorious dress,” she said.

“Yes,” I conceded. “A veritable work of art.”

My mom was never as thin as she thought she was, or planned to be. After 56 years, six children and a passion for chocolate, she arrived at widowhood 20 pounds heavier than ideal for her 5-foot frame.

Still, she was striking. Her ivory-streaked ebony curls were invariably fastened atop her head like crown jewels. Her posture was precise. Her apparel was meticulous, with a penchant for pastels, fabric flowers and contemporary styles.

The exception being, that dress. Where other designs died on the rack and emerged in time as retro vogue, her burial dress remained permanently detained in 1969.

I don’t know why Mom never saw fit to keep the dress in a garment bag. Perhaps she just preferred the convenience of instant viewing. Regardless, she carted it, unprotected, through five dress sizes, three homes and 37 more years.

“She makes me put it on, you know,” my sister, Sue, disclosed one day.

“The burial dress?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Whatever for?” I wondered.

“So she can imagine how she’ll look in her coffin.”

I guffawed.

“She’s serious,” Sue cautioned. “Every visit, she makes me put that dress on and lie down. Eyes closed. Hands folded. Perfectly still. She makes Kate do it, too. Every holiday. But Kate lies with arms stretched wide, like wings.”

(Kate’s our kid sister. Both she and Sue are 5 feet 7ish.)

“Wings?”

“Yeah. When the sleeve pleats open, they look like angel wings.”

“Why hasn’t she asked me to try it on?” I almost pouted.

“Because you resemble a younger, thinner her,” Sue teased. “She characterizes you as her little dolly.” I scoffed at her remark, but took it as true.

“So? How do you look in it?”

“Puh-lease,” she chortled.

Maybe I spurned the dress because Mom acted ageless by never appearing seriously sick. Sure, her gallbladder dealt her a fit before she gave up doughnuts, and she wrestled seasonal colds. But her heart was strong. Her wit was quick. She was ever valiant and resourceful.

Nevertheless, I phoned her every day after my dad died. And gradually, what began as a daughter’s concern for her mother’s well-being turned us into cronies.

As we aged, I called more frequently. Mine was the first voice she heard most mornings and the last each night. In between, we’d chat over coffee, prepare meals via speakers, trade views of the news and laugh at English comedies before retiring. An entire day’s dialogue was condensed into less time than it takes most people to commute.

It was a fracture to her left leg that finally forced Mom to forfeit her independence for the security of Sue’s care in Texas. Plans for our move to there were delayed so she could visit Florida once again.

“I’ll be there on my birthday whether you like it or not,” she vowed.

“Only 21 more days until you arrive,” I grinned into the phone. “Are you feeling festive yet?”

“Actually,” she said, then paused. “The strangest thing is happening right now. I’m watching my brain leave my head.”

“What do you mean, Mom?”

“I’m not sure,” she said quietly. “It’s so odd. I don’t know where it’s going, or why. It just is.”

“Like you’re floating outside yourself, looking in?”

“No. I’m here. It’s my brain I’m seeing go.”

“Mom,” I said. “You know I love you very much, don’t you?”

“I . . . know . . . you . . . do,” she echoed. It was more of a blessing than a goodbye, those final four words of her life.

Three weeks later, on the morning of what should have been Mom’s 93rd birthday, a package arrived from Texas.

While we’d been engaged in a dance of denial that she’d ever die, Mom added “cremation in my birthday suit” as a codicil to her will. Afterward, she painstakingly wrapped and lovingly labeled one last gift to me.

The dust of 37 years has darkened the chiffon, but each pleat remains crisp.

The organdy binding still echoes the contours of petunias. The taffeta slip still shimmers like skin. The sleeves, now raised, still mirror angel wings.

I encased the dress in glass and placed it as a watchtower over my desk.

It’s treasured there as a testament to my mom, who always was what this dress truly is.

Glorious.

#   #   #

This essay © by Marguerite Quantaine first appeared in St. Petersburg Times, on 11/5/2006.

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