Stuffy, remote, and secluded, an attic is the household’s inner psyche. If our lives are movies we screen for ourselves and each other, our attics are often the cutting room floor. We put things there when we run out of room for them, which is sometimes another way of saying: in the context of the story we’re telling, they no longer fit in. Through careful editing, we whittle it all into a narrative. "In three weeks, I was a good waitress," Mildred Pierce tells her audience, "in six weeks, I felt as though I’d worked in a restaurant all my life, and in three months, I was one of the best waitresses in the place." Exposition means elision, compression, privileging one piece of information over others. One key scene, one little piece of the picture, properly placed, can alter the entire trajectory of a plot. Too much information, or the wrong kind, can derail an intended impression. The attic serves as damage control and image management. Editing has to do not only with pacing, but with consistency, coherence, and believability. Who gets final cut is often an issue. The films of Orson Welles, considered uncommercial, were infamously tampered with by the money men, often bastardizing the director’s original intentions. The Lady From Shanghai, initially 155 minutes, was butchered down by Columbia Pictures to 88. RKO studios cut The Magnificent Ambersons in half. Mildred Pierce did things in James M. Cain’s novel which ultimately had no place on the screen. The movie was a star vehicle, driven by market imperatives. In the course of adaptation, words were put into Mildred’s mouth––by Joan Crawford, her director, her editor, and her screenwriter––in ways which steered novel and character in slightly different directions. Joan as Mildred was an interpretation, informed by Joan’s own feelings about motherhood and her adopted daughter, Christina, her various very public divorces, and her career.
Like Joan, we’re all actors, interpreting our roles, our performances, the past, and each other. Things happened one way, as far as we’re concerned––or should have––or might have. If our lives are movies, and the attic is the cutting room floor, the house is a stage or a screen for our highly biased dramas. We tell the story through well-rehearsed expressions and gestures, through acceptable dinner conversation, through the clothes we wear and the products we buy and the meticulously selective chronologies of our family albums. Often, in noir, the witness who didn’t testify at the scene of the crime turns up a little later––and knows who was at the wheel. He turns up in the pristine family den, a dark spot in the bright, shiny kitchen, an unexpected guest at the dining room table, disrupting our dinner theater. Noir and pulp are the American home turned inside out and upside down: the attic as dirty laundry, spilled, in one big amorphous mess, across the living room floor.
In the story of my family, men can be counted on not to be counted on, and women can be counted on to keep learning the hard way. One of my grandfathers was so regularly unfaithful, such an unreliable narrator, that nothing he said could be taken at face value. The other disappeared into alcoholism. Both left the little details to their wives. Each of my grandmothers worked tirelessly for her house, raising a family as if by herself, working as hard as or harder than her husband, with much less credit and much more grief than gratitude. Each struggled with an image she’d created to protect herself in various ways, a tough, self-sufficient facade, refusing to discuss the hurt her husband had caused her. As a child, I rarely ever saw my mother’s father, an amateur photographer with professional aspirations. Given his walking papers by my grandmother, he kept walking. He’d moved clear out of the way by the time I was born, embarrassed by a small town reputation no amount of sweet talking or posturing could live down, defeated, eventually, by the discrepancies between his private and public images. I knew him through the vocabulary of curse words reserved for his name.
Despite the hostility he inspired, he wasn’t the first man to leave my grandmother, I later discovered. Her own father, along with his pregnant, underage mistress, died in the family car, from exhaust fumes, during an illicit parking lot rendezvous. They’d grabbed a quick lunch––though not quickly enough; when their bodies were discovered, the better part of a sandwich was lodged in the young girl’s throat. My grandmother thought the world of her father, regardless, but she didn’t think much of her husband, or so she wanted you to believe, as if she’d married him by accident, without knowing what she was doing, as if she wasn’t herself at the time. She brought him up only to dismiss him in some more elaborately malicious way. Though they’d raised three daughters together, the house my grandparents once shared gave little if any indication they’d both resided there. Until a certain age, I never saw a picture of "him" amongst my grandmother’s possessions. I never saw any proof they’d lived under the same roof––that "him" had actually existed––until I snuck into the attic.
The big surprise was how much my grandmother had saved and stockpiled upstairs. In retrospect, it made sense, for a woman whose expression had never given anything away. Anything associated with happy memories, with incidents she openly acknowledged and still often candidly talked about, had been packed into cardboard boxes, some of which were labeled and stacked immediately inside the door, or somewhere close by. The most accessible area of the attic reflected the picture of things I’d been given, corroborating my grandmother’s version of events. Dresses from her youth, a program from Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian concert, real estate brochures, Norman Rockwell collector plates, flatware, foot wear, and a lamp made out of a blowfish. All of these items illustrated anecdotes I’d heard at various times, so often I felt I might have been there, but they were only a fraction of the attic’s contents. Beyond them, where the ceiling sloped down with the roof, was another story.
Buried under a large, dust-covered air duct, I found several suitcases, each packed full of slides, photographs, and personal mementos. For the most part, they showed locations and occasions I’d seen or heard about throughout my childhood. The only real difference was my grandfather’s presence in them. Together, they filled holes in the story I’d been told about my mother’s upbringing. They complicated, to the point of utter bewilderment, the impressions I’d been given by my grandmother, superimposing conflicting figures into the frame. Most of the photos had been taken by my grandfather himself, reinforcing all the more viscerally the sense that they represented, in some significant way, his side of things. By collecting, and withholding them, my grandmother sought the last word.
The attic, like the serpentine convolutions of pulp and film noir, is typically a big mess. Studio boss Harry Cohn, story has it, offered a reward to anyone who could explain the plot of The Lady From Shanghai to him. Pulp piled irony upon irony, depredation upon depredation, favoring characterization over narrative cohesion. We keep saying we intend to straighten it all up––the mess up there, in the attic––we’ll get to it, we say––but we rarely do. No single sequence in noir expresses this "great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality" more memorably than the final showdown in the Magic Maze of Mirrors, the climactic scene in The Lady From Shanghai, wherein Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, bumping up against themselves and each other, enact on celluloid a kinetic, self-delusional estrangement reflective of their personal life at the time. The couple had split, the marriage old news, by the time the movie came out.
Noir tells its stories in flashback, narrated by detectives––official, inadvertent, and amateur––men or women misled by false testimony. Hopelessly turned around in a labyrinth of misinformation, heading down one dead end after another, the noir narrator tries to get to the bottom of an apparently bottomless enigma. The so-called clues, up close, are often more like question marks. Mildred Pierce’s narration, a series of urgent flashbacks designed to protect her daughter Veda, leads us to believe that Mildred herself is her husband’s murderer––and in a sense she is. The standard reading of Mildred Pierce, novel and film, takes it as a punishment of the increasingly independent modern woman. Leaving the home front, she steps into the minefield of emancipation, triggering the destruction of everyone around her.
Clearly, the movie doesn’t think too highly of women, but it doesn’t think too much of men, either. Men, women, mothers and daughters, friends, lovers, and enemies: Mildred Pierce concerns itself with the tragic folly of interpersonal communication in general, the patterns our pasts lock us into, the vast distance between us and the people with whom we’re closest, and the inevitable likelihood of misleading and misreading ourselves and each other. "Only one thing worried me," says Mildred, in Crawford’s inimitable voice-over. "That Veda would find out I was a waitress." And yet, like Harry Cohn, she just doesn’t get it. Veda’s expectations of her mother were instilled by Mildred herself. "You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady," Veda tells her mother, after discovering her secret, "but you can’t, because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing." Her statement, which registers as an indictment, signals one of pulp’s most central dilemmas: the ultimate irreducibility of who you are. Despite the square-shouldered minks, which augment her true shape, despite changes of scenery and any manner of elaborately painted mask, Mildred can only hide who she really is for so long. Sooner or later, someone’s bound to brave the ladder and venture up into the attic. Sooner or later, someone’s bound to ferret out the truth.
You can’t escape your past, noir says repeatedly. My grandfather’s mother left him with her parents, who referred to him as "The Bastard." My grandfather was socially inept, I’m told, and photography served many purposes for him, allowing him a way to engage with other people, with women especially, who might have reminded him of his mother. Like my grandmother, he never really knew his father. He’d met him only once, without realizing it, when he was a child. My grandfather and my grandmother both had a lot of baggage, and brought it into their relationship. After he married my grandmother, the couple got into real estate. They moved to the middle of nowhere and built a town, a reputation, and a name for themselves from scratch, but once a bastard, always a bastard.
My grandfather wasted their hard-earned money––on other women, a plane, nice cars––living beyond their means. He’d come from nothing and had nothing to show for it. To some extent, he’d been an outsider in his grandparents’ home, and must have left feeling he had no place, no right, to take anything with him. Years later, when my grandmother finally sent him packing, he left with only the shirt on his back. He’d made a laughing stock of his wife. His image was bad for hers. Noir characters are forever crossing social boundaries, they might be upwardly mobile, but they always get yanked back, abruptly, to where they started out, with a lot more momentum and a much nastier landing. The characters of pulp and noir are doomed but dream of happy endings. As a teenager, my grandmother shamed her mother by taking up with the brother of her dead father’s mistress. Like my grandfather, she seemed to look for her father and mother in other people, never quite sure what exactly it was she was looking for. My grandmother was unusually determined for a woman her age. She went after what she wanted, and she couldn’t be talked to.
Among the suitcases in my grandmother’s attic were various black and white glamour shots. Taken by my grandfather, the photos revealed a side of my grandmother I’d never seen or imagined before. Imitating the Hollywood portraiture he admired, my grandfather had portrayed his young wife as various starlets of the day, posing her in pearls and furs and various hairstyles under highly keyed lighting. The expression on my grandmother’s face in this handful of photos is relaxed enough to indicate she was game, an enthusiastic if unpracticed participant in her own recreation, whether to keep her husband’s interest piqued or to entertain and enact an image of herself otherwise inaccessible and unacceptable. After finding the photos, I could never look at my grandmother again without seeing some undiscovered star, a loose amalgamation of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rita Hayworth. I couldn’t watch noir without seeing her in it.
My first exposure to pulp came from my grandmother’s own neglected library in the back room, a more motley assortment of books than the library in her den, which contained encyclopedias, historical biographies, and atlases, mostly hard bound. For me, this other library was closely associated, if not inseparable, from the attic. Lining the bookshelves were paperbacks, Penguins, Pockets, Anchors and Ballantines, "complete and unabridged," and their trashier kissing cousins, celebrity biographies from the thirties through the fifties, airport reading, and gothic romance novels, all of which interested me equally. Perhaps because I’d found them together, I made no moral distinctions between one and another. All seemed forgotten or forbidden to me, as if knowledge in general were a suspect pursuit. I knew enough not to be caught reading these books, because I wasn’t supposed to be "up there," but I wondered why they were left virtually out in the open, too, and wished I could ask questions about them. Once my grandmother relegated something to the back room or the attic, it seemed, she could never bring herself to look at it again, not even to get rid of it.
Inevitably, I viewed her life and secrets through the prism of the various pulp plots and characters on her shelves. Her story seemed just as melodramatic to me as any of their tortured peregrinations, defined by tragic incident, missed opportunities, dashed hopes and monumental betrayals, an "almost overwhelming feeling of impending doom." "She fell for the wrong man." "He liked fast cars and beautiful women." I merged the stories together, mixing and matching through fantasy and imaginative role-play, concerning myself more with tone than plausibility. I don’t think I ever really understood my grandmother, but I wanted to. I identified with her more than I did with my grandfather, putting me that much more at risk of repeating his mistakes, if only because I couldn’t see myself in them. I think I was trying to find a way to connect the grandmother I knew, or thought I knew, with the person she’d hidden from me, to understand her through movies and books, the things available to me, and I adapted and interpreted in various serviceable ways the language and logic of these things to explain the plot points of her past. My grandmother was the woman in the photos I’d seen, a femme fatale, the girl from Bells, Tennessee, the tough, bitter broad who lived downstairs, or some combination of these––or no one, at least in the sense I imagined. Most of the more pressing questions are so unanswerable in the end. Why does Veda––why did my grandmother––betray her past by taking up with a man responsible for compromising her mother’s self-image? I collected my grandmother’s emotional detritus, in secret, trying to figure it all out. I got that urge, to collect and invest, from her.
I wasn’t there the day my grandmother died, but I think I know the story. The night before, she’d insisted my mother go home and get some rest, sleep in late, she’d be okay, she said, but the next morning, my mother had a funny feeling. She went to my grandmother’s a little later than usual, after a phone call she’d made to the house went unanswered. Walking in, she heard her name called out: "Patricia," after Patrick, the boy my grandmother met before my grandfather, and almost married. My mother found my grandmother in the bathroom, where she’d probably been applying her make-up, slumped against a wall. She was still in her robe and appeared to have fallen off her chair. "I need to lay down," she told my mother, and my mother tried to lift her, but my grandmother’s body was too limp to maneuver. My mother called the paramedics. When she returned, my grandmother was vomiting. It looked like she wasn’t breathing, but her heart was still beating. My mother performed mouth to mouth until the ambulance arrived, though my grandmother wasn’t responding; she’d slipped into a coma. A woman who insisted on applying lipstick at the very least before allowing anyone to take her photo, she would have hated being seen by anyone without her face on.
I myself wasn’t prepared for the shock of her appearance, later that day, when I saw her in the hospital. Hooked up to life support, her body shaking arhythmically from the kicks of the life support machine, she was totally unrecognizable, frail and slightly lopsided. It was impossible to see her any other way. I couldn’t reconcile the figure on the bed with the woman in my grandfather’s photos, with the woman I’d made her in my mind. Her eyes had milked over and rolled back into her head. You couldn’t tell what she was thinking, if she was thinking at all. The next few days were agonizing, seeing her like that, trying to decide what to do––what she’d want us to do. My grandmother collected stamps, postcards, rocks and crystals, antiques, and various other conversation pieces. Any or all of those things might have said a lot about her, but they didn’t tell us whether to pull the plug or not. We sat in the waiting room, feeling helpless. We started telling our stories about her, and it struck me, after hearing my family’s feelings about her, that we’d all known very different people in her. Though I’d long since recognized the significant incongruities between the person my grandmother had revealed to me and the woman I saw in my grandfather’s photos, I’d bridged those gaps, mentally and emotionally, to such an extent that they felt seamless to me. It had never really occurred to me, the fact there might be even more to her. "Gilda didn’t do any of those things you’ve been losing sleep over," a cop tells Johnny in Gilda, just when Johnny’s most confident he has Gilda all figured out. "Not any of them. It was just an act. Every bit of it. And I’ll give you credit. You were a great audience." Some of the lines in that movie could have been lifted directly from my grandmother’s life. Then again, maybe she’d seen the movie herself, and certain parts stayed with her.
There was a time in my twenties when no one in my family really knew where I was or what I was doing. I didn’t want them to know. I’d never been good about birthdays. I’d never remembered Easter, Valentine’s Day, and only belatedly presented Christmas gifts, along with a lot of excuses. By then, I was wrapped up in my life and didn’t really think of anyone else too much. My own problems, my own childhood dramas, were too pressing. They pressed right up against me, blocking out everyone and everything else. When, several years later, I re-appeared, I thought I was a changed person. I wanted to believe I could be. I wanted to prove to my grandmother, those last years of her life, that not all men were like my grandfather––that I wasn’t, at least––and I wrote her letters full of praise, extolling her virtues, her importance to me. I knew who she really was, I told her. She and I were on the same page. I still had trouble remembering holidays, but she and I understood each other now, I told myself. I think my grandmother knew how full of shit I was. I think she was more than a little familiar with sweet-talking and men who have a way with women. I think she saw my grandfather in me, and herself, the two of them combined. Maybe she accepted that, or maybe I just like to think so.
My grandfather reappeared himself, soon after I did. He moved back into town. My grandmother was pretty frail by then, had trouble eating, keeping hydrated, getting around, and my grandfather called her a few times, offering to help in whatever way he could, he wanted to make up for the past, but she refused. I imagine it kicked up a lot of dust for her. Sensing her resentment, I took what I imagined was her side. He was wrong and she was right. We didn’t want him around. He’d never set foot in her house again, after they parted ways, but he showed up at the hospital during her coma, and his daughters, hoping for closure, ushered him into her room. I despised him for even thinking he could come, for going against her wishes, for kicking her when she was down, which is how I viewed his visit. At the time, I knew she wouldn’t want him to see her that way, but now I’m not so sure she wouldn’t have wanted to see him at all. Watching Gilda, it dawned on me that the word hate, for my grandmother, at least in reference to my grandfather, might mean the opposite, like it had for Hayworth and Ford, or at the very least something much too complicated to apprehend. "With these mirrors, it’s hard to tell," says Bannister, Rita Hayworth’s double-crossed husband in The Lady From Shanghai, pointing his gun at his better half. As the shooting begins in the Magic Maze of Mirrors, one shattered image instantaneously replaced by another, husband and wife merge and divide, combine and recombine. "You are aiming at me, aren’t you?" Bannister sneers tentatively. "I’m aiming at you, lover. Of course, killing you is killing myself. It’s the same thing."
A year later, my grandmother’s estate was boxed up and sold off at auction. Nice victorian pump organ, Queen Anne game table, Tiffany style slag glass lamp, Norman Rockwell collector plates, flatware set, lots of neat old cameras,10 millimeter black sea pearl necklace in gold with diamonds, Masonic ring with 1/3 carat 30 pt diamond in 14 kt gold, plus tons of miscellaneous items not listed. The attic and storage shed are full of untold treasures! Something for everyone. Call 870-266-SOLD. I was out of town at the time, partly because I couldn’t stand the thought of my grandmother’s possessions being divided and dispersed, but also because, like my grandfather, I’d always dealt with pain by finding a watertight excuse for leaving. I have no idea what happened to all those paperbacks, or anything else, though I’m told several people who’d known my grandmother bid on some of her possessions, just to have a piece of her, something to remember her by. I asked for a Polaroid Land camera out of my grandmother’s bedroom closet, probably because it fused memories of my grandparents into one object, representing a mutual hobby they both enjoyed. My grandmother’s house was put up for sale soon after the auction. The new owners say they can feel her there, even though they’ve never met her. They know what she looked like, but not who she was, and they ask a lot of questions. This couple wasn’t messing around. They didn’t waste much time. They finished the back room right off the bat, making it into a family coffee bar like something out of an Italian Villa. They like "the Mediterranean Style," apparently, which is something I’m guessing they made up. They’ve never been to Europe, but they’ve seen pictures. They have a pretty good idea what it looks like, they think.