Dale Corvino

Dale Corvino

Miss Bensonhurt

     Mrs. Helen Guagliardo of Island Park sunk to the floor, sobbing in front of the television–a brand new color console model she would thereafter despise. She wore a leopard print dressing gown, and kept her hair in a sweeping bouffant, which resolved into a single large curl on one side. Her mouth was painted red. Her creamy skin lost its color, and tears tracked through her eyeliner. Her mime-like reflection startled her when she caught it in the mirrored console on the wall opposite. Clutching a pair of black leather stilettos to her breast, she murmured, “Poor doll…poor doll,” through blackened tears. The phone rang eleven times but she wouldn’t answer.

        The atomized grief peculiar to the passing of a beloved figure hung all over the country, but Helen was seized by a loss both personal and manifold. She’d lost her friend twice before; once after she’d entered into an ill-advised marriage, and again when the fury of her fame would not relent. Now those knotted old losses were permanent. As the television flashed newsreel footage of her entertaining troops in Korea, Helen ran her own newsreel projection of how she came to meet the beauty whose picture hung in her vestibule. It was in San Francisco, while living that darling bungalow. She’d pushed her husband to relocate out west, to get away from her domineering mother. That was until the big earthquake hit.

        “You’re not marrying that Africano,” was what her mother had hissed, in reply to her proclamation that she had fallen in love with Antonio Guagliardo–a Sicilian. “He’s a good catch, Mama. He’s getting a law degree on the GI bill,” she pleaded. Helen had never been so angry with her, nor felt so defiant. She seethed. It was true that Antonio was swarthy, while Helen’s milky complexion was a point of family pride. Helen had fallen for his good looks and his wavy pompadour, but she’d come to love him for his quiet dignity. He was smarter than any of the other boys in Bensonhurst. She held her tongue, while glaring at her mother through narrowed eyes, her teeth clenched.

        They eloped the following week and moved into their own apartment on Manhattan’s West Side. Antonio had a position in the legal department of an international trading company. Helen worked as a buyer for a fashion house, something else her mother disapproved. They visited his family on Sundays, and while Helen’s brothers would occasionally stop over, she did not see her parents for a full year after the marriage. Her brother Romeo didn’t share his parents’ bias.

        “I like your lawyer well enough, but I really like his mama’s arancini,” he said, licking his fingers.  

        “Tell them I’m expecting,” Helen whispered to him as she kissed his cheek goodbye.     “Madonna mia, you’re gonna give her a heart attack,” replied Romeo, as he shook Antonio’s hand.

        Romeo brought his fiancée to meet his mother the following Sunday.  “Hello, Signora Camera,” she greeted her future mother-in-law with deference. Everyone called her that because she was from the old country, and she was formidable. It had pained her to leave her home in Amalfi, to board a steamship with her young children for a journey across the sea. She was picking herbs when Romeo gave her the news. She clenched the rosemary sprigs tightly, releasing their aroma. Romeo tried following along with what his parents were saying, although his comprehension of the rapid-fire exchange was incomplete. The family had emigrated when he was just eleven, and he’d grown up in the streets of Brooklyn, running with Irish and Polish kids. He certainly understood “Que vergogna!” (what a disgrace), which she yelled repeatedly. The name of the priest at Holy Angels was summoned repeatedly. “It’s a blessed event, Mama,” cried Romeo, surprised that the news hadn’t softened her stance.

        Helen named her son Sergio–after her mother’s father–and an icy detente was forged. Even when her second, a daughter, was born, little of her mother’s outlook had changed. She was nothing better than curt with Antonio, and she’d turn away and give her own daughter a cheek whenever she kissed her. That she was withholding with her olive-complected grandchildren was something Helen could not forgive; so when Antonio’s company offered him a position in San Francisco, she jumped at the chance to move away from her rigid disapproval.

        The young family settled into a bungalow in the Sunnyside section. Antonio’s company imported products from all over Europe. There had been some unrest on the docks under the last manager.

        “Overseas commerce–you’ve got this, we want it–will go a long way towards getting this world back to normal,” Antonio told the dockworkers now under his helm.

        “Did you serve, Mister Lawyer?” one of the stevedores–a real smart-ass–challenged him.

        “Reggio, ‘forty-three. Can you believe they sent me back there? Caught a team of Jerry infiltrators in U.S. uniforms with baseball questions,” he answered, chuckling. The men laughed along. “The wife did her part, too. Brooklyn Navy Yard switchboard operator,” he added. Their laughter subsided.“The Army even issued me an Italian phrasebook,” he added, “Illustrated! It was good for a laugh,” as he pulled it out of his jacket and showed it around. From that day forward, the dockworkers respected him, and Antonio thrived in his new position.

        The day her phone was installed, Helen called her brother.

        “We’ve got a darling bungalow out here. You should see the backyard! This area’s full of Italians, Romeo.”

        “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

        “Oh stop! Our neighbor, Marie DiMaggio, is Sicilian. She’s a dear. Her father owns a fishing boat, docks it right in the wharf…” said Helen.

        “Yea? That sounds like the life.”

        “You might know of her brother too–Joe…” she teased.

        “The Yankee Clipper? You’re pulling my leg.”

        “Come out and see us! Tell mama I’m fine,” she said as she hung up. They’d found familiars in their new surroundings, and were unburdened by family discord.

        Soon after, Romeo brought his family out, and found work on the wharf, thanks to Mr. DiMaggio’s connections. He needed to get out of Brooklyn, for reasons not entirely clear to Helen. “The less you know, the better,” he said of the matter. They rented a house in the neighborhood, and their children played together at one house or the other. Helen missed working; she liked having her own money, and clamored for the stimulation of the business world. She enjoyed dressing up for work, too.

        Marie took to Helen’s young daughter–also named Marie–with her bright eyes and black curls. So she was especially drawn to her young namesake as a protector. Marie went to Helen’s for lunch one day, and little Marie clung to her. While unpacking, Helen had come across a photo taken when she was seventeen, and had entered into a local beauty pageant. Her hair was wavy, her curves ample, and she had a birthmark just above her mouth. It was punctuation on her pleasing face, like the dimples bracketing her smile.

        “Oh! That darling one-piece and wedge heels,” Marie exclaimed.

        “And my sash. I still have it somewhere. The photographer posed me three-quarter, to show my better side,” said Helen.

        Little Marie, standing on her toes, imitated the pose in the pictures, to their amusement.

        “She has your good looks, but with the olive complexion,” Marie noted of her namesake, as she examined the photo. Helen at first beamed at the comparison, but winced when remembering her own mother.        

        When Joe began courting the film star Marilyn Monroe, it was big news in the DiMaggio family, and even bigger news beyond. The day Joe brought her to Marie’s house for a visit, Helen was visiting. Her children were in the back yard, playing with their cousins and some of Marie’s nieces and nephews. The men were out picking up a jug of wine from a neighbor who made his own. Joe went outside to play with the kids, and Helen’s boy, a diehard Yankees fan despite his recent relocation, was awestruck. Joe autographed his baseball and tousled his hair.

        Marilyn stayed in the kitchen with the ladies. Helen thought that the movie star would be snobbish around them, but instead found her eager to fit in.

        “You know, Helen did some modeling, too,” said Marie.

        “Oh, stop…” replied Helen.

        “Did you? That’s how I got my start,” said Marilyn.

        “Just a bit, for a bridal shop in Bensonhurst, mostly,” replied Helen. She unwrapped her tray of lasagna.

        “She was a beauty pageant contestant, too,” added Marie.

        “I can see why, she’s a beautiful woman,” said Marilyn.

        Helen looked at the woman before her, for the first time seeing her and not the person she’d seen on magazine covers. They were about the same age and height. Underneath her confection of platinum hair, her eyes were soulful, while her mouth trembled a bit, her body restive. She caught her gaze and said, “Aren’t you a doll to say that,” and smiled warmly. Marilyn studiously parroted her new friend’s Brooklyn accent, which made them all laugh, though Helen blushed a little, too.

        “I hope you’re staying for supper, Helen’s lasagna is to die for,” said Marie, and she went off to find Joe.

        “It looks wonderful,” said Marilyn.

        It was just that summer when Antonio had taken Helen to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “Not my type of picture, but it was enjoyable,” he said of it afterwards. Helen went into the theater a fan of another dark-haired beauty, Jane Russell, but left impressed with Marilyn’s vamping performance. Several of the issues in her magazine rack had cover photos of Marilyn, too. She didn’t know it, but Sergio had pawed over the inaugural issue of Playboy, with its racy centerfold, with some boys from the old neighborhood. When he was sent inside to wash up, he was astounded to find her in the kitchen talking to his mother. He blushed instantly, and could barely make it through stammering, “Pleased to meet you.”

        “Could you show me how it’s made?” asked Marilyn of Helen.

        “I’m happy to,” she replied.

        The cooking lesson would have to wait for another day. Joe came in, and took Marilyn away. “We’re stopping in on Vince next,” said Joe, referring to his older brother. He searched Marie’s eyes for approval; despite her worries, she couldn’t help but beam when thinking about Marilyn. He nodded to his sister in acknowledgement as they left.

        Soon after, Marilyn and Joe spent a weekend in San Francisco, and planned Sunday dinner at Marie’s. Marie made her mother’s arancini recipe, and Helen did the rest of the cooking. Marilyn drove by in her new Pontiac convertible to pick up Helen and the big pot of sauce she’d made. Helen was running back and forth between stirring the pots and fixing her hair when Marilyn knocked at the back door. She embraced Helen like an old friend, and removed her headscarf and sweater.

        “Goodness, that smells wonderful,” she said, taking in the aroma coming off the stove.

        “Taste it for me,” said Helen, offering her a spoonful.

        Marilyn raised her sunglasses, then blew on the spoon and tasted. “Mmmm, I just love the flavor. It has a sweetness,” she said.

        “Marie’s tomatoes,” Helen said. “You start with garlic in oil, not too brown. Then an onion, the tomatoes–take the skins off–a bay leaf, fresh basil. Salt, pepper.” Then she added, confidentially: “If your tomatoes aren’t sweet, add a little carrot,” and Marilyn smiled. She grabbed a handful of parsley and threw it into the pot. “And the final touch–fresh chopped parsley–the flat leaves, never curly!” she insisted. “Oh! I’ll remember!” replied Marilyn, giving a little salute, and they both laughed. Helen packed the sauce and the meats in containers and Marilyn put them in a crate. On the kitchen table was a box of photos and mementos.

        “I pulled that out of the attic. I was looking for my sash, it’s somewhere in there,” Helen said of the box.

        “Where was this?” asked Marilyn of a photo on the stack. Helen came over to examine it.

        “This was in front of the office building where I worked, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.”

        “Oh?”

        “Yes, I was a buyer for Hattie Carnegie Wholesale,” Helen elaborated.

        “You’re so photogenic. I love your dress,” said Marilyn.

        “Aren’t you a doll!” She handed Marilyn her sweater. “That is my good side. You couldn’t wear halter dresses to the office, but a sweetheart neckline I could get away with.”

        “I do so admire you, Helen. You have your beautiful family, and you’re your own woman,” said Marilyn. “Here’s your sash!” she said, as she pulled a roll of blue satin from the box. “Miss Bensonhurst, nineteen forty-three,” she read off the inscription as she unfurled it.

        “The one and only!” Helen said, striking the three-quarter pose with a laugh. She gathered up her handbag. “You admire little Miss Bensonhurst? But you can have everything you want, dear,” she said.

        Marilyn laughed ruefully. “When they find out what I want, they hold it out further away,” she said with a gesture.

        “Who?”

        Marilyn took Helen by the shoulders, and answered with mock seriousness, “The jackals…”

        “Oh, them–they can go frig themselves!”  answered Helen.

        “Oh my!” reacted Marilyn. Shock turned to laughter,  and Marilyn gave Helen a mock scold. “I’m going to remember that the next time I get called to the boardroom, ” she said, putting on her sweater.

        “I have a mouth on me, I forget sometimes…” said Helen with a grin, as she picked up the crate. Marilyn lowered her sunglasses and gave Helen a sultry pout.

        “So do I, ” she whispered the phrase breathlessly, sending up her own sex appeal. She and Helen broke out in laughter on their way to the car.

        Once on the road, Marilyn raised the subject again.

        “Vince is coming,  you’re getting the full DiMaggio once-over today…”

        “I can make a good wife for Joe,” said Marilyn. “Mrs. Marilyn DiMaggio…”

        “Excuse me for saying, but Joe’s a testardo…”

        Marilyn gave her a quizzical look.

        “He’s stubborn, a mule. He wants an old-fashioned Italian housewife, like his mother,” Helen explained.

        “Well…I’m taking some time off from pictures…”

        Helen held her tongue. She smiled at her friend, and touched her shoulder.

        Some weeks later, Helen was back at Marie’s house. She was watching her niece Loretta, while her mother was at a doctor’s appointment. Romeo’s wife had stopped in with her newborn. Little Marie and Loretta were about the same age, and played endlessly when they were together, games of their own invention that picked up from just where they left off. Marilyn stopped in, while Joe was busy with his brothers. Helen watched as the troubled expression she’d entered the room with fled her face once she crouched down to greet the girls. “Why, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two girls as darling as you,” and they smiled and swayed their little bodies. She immediately joined their game. They had a View-Master, and for every picture on the reel, they would invent scenarios.

        “I wanna go on the Fairy Wheel,” said Loretta, looking through the View-Master.

        “I do too!” added Marie. Marilyn laughed when she looked through the View-Master.

        “Ah, the Fairy Wheel! They have one at Playland. Would you like me to take you there?” she asked them.

        “Yes,” they cried collectively.

        “Isn’t that nice of Miss Marilyn, girls?” asked Helen, and the girls nodded in unison.

        Marie agreed. “It’ll be good to get them out of the house,” gesturing towards the sleeping newborn. The trio took off to the amusement park, just past Golden Gate Park along the coast. Marilyn put her headscarf and dark sunglasses back on as a precaution. As they were admitted at the gate, they saw the Big Dipper roller coaster and the Shoot-the-Chutes ride in the distance, but the girls only had eyes for the Ferris Wheel.

        Marilyn spotted a photo booth and said, “Come on darlings, let’s take a picture.” She dug a quarter out of her purse, and they all squeezed into the booth, laughing. It was nice to be close to them, and not to worry about the crowd for a moment. As they waited for the photo to process, a sailor recognized Marilyn from that Playboy pictorial. He kept it respectable once he saw she was with children, but raised his eyebrows suggestively once and again. She gave him an autograph, urging him with her expressions not to spread the word, glancing at the children. The photo dropped down behind the chrome bars; in it, little Marie held a composed smile while looking right into the camera. Her dark curls filled much of the foreground, while Loretta was caught unawares by the flash, looking out of frame with a half-smile. Marilyn laughed behind Marie’s curls.

        They headed off towards the Ferris wheel, with the picture in Marilyn’s purse. A brisk wind loosened the headscarf from around Marilyn’s neck, and carried the chiffon off in quick strokes, over the heads of the crowd and away. The people around her had already picked up murmurs of her presence from that sailor, now confirmed by the sight of her signature platinum bob.

        “Look Jimmy, it is her!” one man said to his friend, as he turned his camera towards her.

        Autograph seekers and picture takers began crowding her, and she quickly grew worried for the girls’ safety. “Please…the children,” she pleaded to the engulfing crowd. The commotion attracted the attention of the Ferris Wheel operator, who called the police. Two uniformed officers rushed in and escorted them out of the park. The only ride the girls had that day was on the shoulders of San Francisco policemen.

        Upon their return to Marie’s house, Helen said, “Back already? It’s like you hadn’t been gone at all.” Marilyn had broken out in a nervous rash, and ran into the bathroom. When the policemen appeared at the door to explain what had happened, Helen seized with panic, then rushed to hug the girls. After making sure they were unharmed, she sent them into the sunroom for a rest. She thanked the policemen as she saw him out, then knocked on the bathroom door, to find Marilyn wiping her eyes. “Are you all right, doll?” Helen asked and she took her by the shoulders, and reviewed her body for harm, too. She noted the red splotches on her cheeks and her forehead.

        “Helen, I’m so sorry, I got recognized, and…” Marilyn said.

        “What is it with those animals? Everyone’s okay, that’s all that matters,” said Helen and she hugged Marilyn, who crumpled with relief. Marilyn pulled the photo out of her purse and showed it to her. “Look how my daughter is upstaging you. Your agent won’t like this!” Helen shrieked, and the women laughed.

        Some months after the Playland incident, she watched the television reports of Marilyn and Joe’s wedding at City Hall. “Managgia,” she found herself saying reflexively. She went over to Marie DiMaggio’s that Sunday with a tray of lasagna and Marie said of the elopement, “Romantic, huh?” but her mouth quavered, and Helen could see the hurt in her eyes. “Then they went to Japan,” she said with a helpless glance upward, towards her savior. Helen sensed that Marie couldn’t bring herself to say what she really wanted to. “Tony and I eloped too, you know. My mother…” said Helen, gesticulating her exasperation with a shake of her raised fingertips.

        The marriage went bad quickly, and it became a taboo topic in Marie DiMaggio’s house.

        The day Marilyn announced that she was seeking divorce, an earthquake struck San Francisco. Little Marie was at school, a girl’s school run by Dominican Sisters, housed in a former convent. For hours, Helen was sick with worry, not knowing whether her daughter had been injured. She hadn’t been seized with panic like that since Playland. When she could make her way to the school–a complex of brick structures built in the 1800’s–its prominent bell tower was swaying ominously, threatening to collapse with every aftershock. She spotted Marie with her classmates assembled in the courtyard; the nun led the class further away from the tower.  “Basta! I’ve had it! We’re going back to New York,” she muttered on the way back to the car, to Marie’s confusion. Once in the car, she said, “I’d rather deal with your testarda grandmother than friggin’ earthquakes!”          

        Antonio requested a transfer back to the New York office and bought a newly-built house on Long Island, with a spit of beach along the inland waters. Helen stood out to her neighbors because she commuted to the city three days a week to work at Hattie Carnegie, and for the way she furnished her home. Her living room had pink walls, and the gilt sofa was upholstered in fuchsia, as were two matching chairs with swirling backs. The coffee table had mirrored sections, which reflected the room in multitudes. “It’s flamboyant, like a movie set,” her next-door neighbor declared, to which Helen replied, “Why thanks, cookie!” knowing it wasn’t exactly a compliment. Antonio kept out of the living room; he staked out the backyard in good weather, tending his grapes, or trapping crabs in the creek. In the winter, he retreated to his locked study upstairs. Sergio, an engineering whiz, turned the attic into a sprawling laboratory, while Marie had the front room upstairs. She’d grow up talking to the neighborhood boys out her window. The smile of the platinum starlet in the 25¢ picture presided over the stairwell, mediating the separate domains of Helen, Antonio, and their children. Once they were settled into the house, Helen and Marie DiMaggio corresponded regularly–but Helen never saw Marilyn again.

        Her daughter had only the faintest recollection. One day after school, Marie sat at the coffee table, flipping through a magazine, when she came upon a story about Marilyn. In the accompanying photo, she attended a luncheon seated next to Nikita Khrushchev; the magazine made a red-baiting scandal of it, as if her sitting next to Khrushchev represented a breach of the nation’s defenses. Helen came home to find Marie looking at the magazine; she herself had attended a luncheon, and wore a dark suit with those black leather stilettos.

        “You remember Marilyn, don’t you dear?”

        “She’s the blonde lady?” replied Marie, pointing towards the vestibule.

        “That’s right. Do you remember when you went to Playland?”

        “Umm…I remember the police man’s uniform,” Marie struggled to remember. She touched the photo in the magazine. “I liked her hair. It smelled nice, like flowers,” she offered.

        “I’m not surprised you don’t remember much about Playland, doll–you were only six. We never went there again.”

        “She was a nice lady, Mama. Did she go all the way to Russia?” asked Marie.

        Helen smiled. “She’s been all over the world, dolly,” she answered with a measure of remorse. “These shoes I’m wearing? She gave them to me,” she added, turning a foot. “They’re Ferragamo. I only wear them on special occasions. They’re from one of her movies.”

        “You look beautiful, Mama,” said Marie, beaming, and she got up to give her a hug.

        “Thanks dolly,” said Helen, moved. “Now help me out of them, they’re killing me,” she added, as she leaned on her daughter to step out of the shoes.

***

        Marie, now sixteen, returned home from school, history textbook in hand. She found her mother on the floor in front of the television. Just a few seconds of newsreel footage was enough for her to understand what her anguish was about.

        “Did something happen to Miss Marilyn, Mama?” she asked, running a finger along the television console.

        Helen wiped her eyes. “Oh dolly, I don’t know what they’re saying, an overdose…” she said, as she struggled to stay composed.

        “I’m sorry, Mama, I’m so sorry,” Marie said, hugging her, “She was your friend…”

        “We had that time, dolly, yes,” she answered. A torrent of recollection hit. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe she was just studying me for her next part.”

        “You don’t really believe that, do you Mama?” asked Marie.

        “Oh, I don’t know. She told me once she just wanted to be a good Italian housewife for Joe…” she hesitated.

        “I think she loved you. She gave you shoes,” offered Marie.

        “That she did,” said Helen, still clinging to them, smiling through her pain. “But she had some bad men around her,” said Helen. Remembering her friend’s turn of phrase, she muttered, “Holding out carrots on sticks…those goddamned…jackals.”

        “Who were the bad men?” asked Marie.

        Helen picked herself off the carpet and took her daughter by the shoulders. “Marie, I want you to know something. Yes, she wanted something she couldn’t have. The grass is always greener, right? But she was the most…determined woman I’ve ever known. Did you know she was a business woman? And you know how that goes,” she said, as despair threatened to overcome her.

        “I don’t understand…” answered Marie.

        “She protected you,” she said, sobbing as she squeezed Marie tightly. They walked in an embrace to the vestibule, and Marie went up to her room.

        Helen walked over to the 25¢ picture. Marilyn had smiled a thousand and some times for photos–always the practiced smile she’d learned in modeling school–but in this photo, she threw her head back a little and was caught in a moment of spontaneous joy. Helen’s guests had marveled over the photo for years, and Marie was the envy of her school friends. “You poor doll,” she said as she crossed herself. Then she kissed her fingers and touched her hand to the photo. Though she’d been passing it for years, only now it conjured a vision of her friend’s abridged visit to Playland: She and the girls are enveloped in the warm bakelite booth. A curtain shields her from the crowds. The two little angels share the hard seat. The camera–that possessed apparatus which would stalk her to the end–here blinks obediently. Flash. Then the menace outside the booth struck her, and Helen shuddered.

        She walked to the kitchen, letting her disheveled gown fall to the floor. The belt got stuck as it fell, so she threw it around her shoulder. Now in a black bra and girdle, she put on the stilettos and stepped into the high heat of a summer afternoon.  Her runny eye makeup liquified under the sun. She descended the porch stairs and walked out into the backyard, sinking into the grass here and there, but otherwise maintaining her poise. Sergio, startled at her appearance, watched her from the attic window. Marie followed her into the kitchen and watched her from the window over the sink while pouring herself a glass of water. There on an August day in nineteen sixty-two, Miss Bensonhurst, in an improvised sash, pageant-walked to the bulkhead, and spit black tears into the sea.

 

Bio:

Dale Corvino has published essays on Marilyn Monroe, Blondie, and kink. His short fiction has appeared in Jonathan and Chelsea Station, and his creative nonfiction in Carte Blanche (CA). He’s participated in live storytelling (RISK!), received the 2015 Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction, and was a finalist in the 2017 Saints and Sinners Short Fiction contest.

 

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