Lena

by Mary Taugher

Tom Cooper was working under the jacked-up chassis of a Chevy Impala when his boss Freddie shouted that a Miami Beach police officer was on the line. Tom rolled himself out from under the car, stood up, and nonchalantly wiped his hands with the rag from his pocket. He ignored Freddie’s inquisitive stare. Tom was fairly law abiding, unless you counted the spindly marijuana plants in his backyard or an occasional reckless after-midnight drive home from Blackbeard’s Pub. Still, his stomach knotted up as he sauntered over to what passed for the garage’s office and picked up the rotary phone slick with grease. His grandmother had been arrested for shoplifting at a drugstore, the cop said. She had only a small amount of cash and no ID with her. Someone needed to bail her out.

Tom asked if he could speak to her. A few minutes ticked away on the wall clock while he listened to Bruce Springsteen howling from the paint-splattered boom box, a lone fly buzzing around a glass sticky with lemonade. When the cop came back on the line, he said Tom’s grandmother didn’t want to come to the phone.

“She’s a firecracker, that one,” the cop said. “Looks like a socialite, cusses like a longshoreman. Weird accent though. Where’s your granny from?”

“East of here,” Tom said.

He asked about bail, then slammed down the phone. It was going to take him at least an hour to drive from Pembroke Pines to Miami Beach, hours to deal with her, and Freddie would want him to work Sunday to make up the lost time. He’d have to listen to the Dolphins’ game on the radio.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Tom stood in the windowless office barely large enough for the chair and desk littered with pink copies of invoices, stacks of outdated specification manuals, and ashtrays spilling over with butts. There, above the desk, hung a dart board and the calendar opened to June 1943, never mind that it was October 1999.

The calendar featured a pinup photo of Tom’s grandmother that Freddie had picked up at a garage sale after he’d learned her identity. Lena Hoffman, faded beauty, forgotten Hollywood icon.

Tom had met her only a year earlier, a few weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday. He’d answered the phone one day and heard her exotic accent as she introduced herself and said all the signs in the astrological charts pointed toward their reconciliation. They couldn’t be reconciled if they’d never met, he told her. He asked how she’d found him, and Lena Hoffman laughed, a cackle that sounded somehow both bawdy and graceful, and said, “I’ve had loads of experience with private investigators, darling.”

She instructed him to meet her that night outside a strip joint not far from his apartment. Right away he spotted her, chin held high and short hair lacquered into stylish waves, standing alone under the purple and pink neon lights flashing HOT GIRLS. Nobody had to tell him that this woman had once been a movie star. The neon lights popped off her white pantsuit as if spotlighting her on a stage.

“I need an escort,” she said, flashing him a smile outlined in ruby red lipstick.

“I’m your man,” he said. “I’m Tom.” He wanted to shake her hand or lean over and hug her, this person who claimed to be his grandmother, but for an old woman, she looked untouchable, like a Porsche or Ferrari.

“Don’t be silly,” she answered, hooking her arm into his and pulling him toward her as she stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “Of course you are. You look just like your father.” It had been years since anyone had said that to him. He’d run away from home a decade earlier, his father had died four years later, and his mother had been AWOL since he was a kid.

Inside, Lena Hoffman headed to a corner table far from the stage. After she ordered an Old Fashioned and he a beer from a waiter who seemed to know her, she explained she came to the joint for the music and pointed out the trumpeter, an old friend. Lena deflected any questions about his father, asking Tom about his own life and spilling a few tales of her own. Enough to keep him wanting to see her again. They became friends, meeting a few times at the same strip joint before she started inviting him to her condo twice a month for Sunday night dinner and gin rummy card games.

Tom glanced at the calendar with the black-and-white still from one of Lena’s movies. She had played a seductress on a plantation in a sub-tropic country: a native girl, her white skin implausibly bronzed, a hibiscus flower in her hair. With a caged canary as a backdrop in the photo, she lay sprawled on a bed, propped up on an elbow, one bare leg extended, her small breasts jutting forward and covered in a strapless bikini top.

Tom grabbed a dart from the clutter of scissors, pens, and pencils stashed in a coffee mug. He threw it at his grandmother, hitting a bull’s-eye in her hoop earring. Turning to leave the cramped office, he bumped into Freddie, who had the habit of creeping up on him.

“What gives?” Freddie eyed the calendar, his thumbs tucked in the waistband under his potbelly. “Destroying my property. I didn’t pay chump change for that.” Freddie pulled out the dart and rubbed the pricked mark. “You in trouble?”

“Nah, it’s got nothing to do with me. A friend needs bailing out of jail down in Miami Beach. DUI. Hell, in the middle of the day. Long story. I gotta go.”

Freddie scratched his gray stubble and narrowed his eyes. He put on his gruffest voice to order Tom to make up the hours on the weekend.

Outside, the Florida glare was brutally hot. He’d parked under the shade of a tamarind tree, but the heat in his car came at him like an open oven, and within minutes of turning on to I-95, his shirt was plastered to his seat like postage to an envelope. The air conditioning was on the blink, so he cranked down the windows.

Strip malls and strip joints, fast-food outlets, and gas stations rushed past him until traffic came to a sudden stop on the outskirts of the city. He was thirsty as hell and had no water in the car. “God damn it, Lena,” Tom muttered, slamming his fist on the steering wheel.

He’d never met anyone like Lena Hoffman, demanding and manipulative even as she was sweet and thoughtful. She’d grown up in Vienna, and the stories she told while they played gin rummy, about Nazis goose-stepping down cobblestone streets and rampaging through synagogues, fascinated him. And her yarns about the golden era of Hollywood weren’t bad either. She’d co- starred in movies with Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart.

The seamier side of her past, something she never mentioned, fascinated him most. She’d starred in a racy foreign film before she’d landed in Hollywood, run naked through a forest, even mimed an orgasm, the camera zooming in on her face and neck at the height of her fervor. The movie was incredibly risqué during the code years of Hollywood, and the film forever haunted her. Lena Hoffman, posh prostitute, she’d been labeled by unfriendly critics. She was a mystery to Tom, and the more he got to know her, the more he wanted to take her apart like an engine, find out what parts she was made of.

He guessed Lena had contacted him because she was lonely. She had no other children or grandchildren. He told himself he was doing
the decent thing, spending time with a lonesome old woman, but he also hoped that when she died she might leave him serious cash. He’d been working for Freddie for three years, saving nothing, and he had college debt from Florida International University, where he’d dropped out a few semesters shy of graduation.

Lena complained bitterly about the studio system, how today’s celebrities earned more than she’d ever dreamed, but she’d mentioned
stock holdings and homes in Beverly Hills and Phoenix when discussing her many exes. Tom was sure she had a ton of money socked away. The idea of schmoozing Lena for it didn’t shame him. It seemed like a karmic payback after the way she’d treated his father, a worldclass asshole, but still once a kid, Lena Hoffman’s kid.

Usually, Tom willed himself not to think about how Lena had neglected his father. The man was a lazy prick who only got off the couch to beat the shit out of Tom and his mother. But he realized his father might have become hard-hearted, in part, because of Lena. She’d shed him like an old coat, shipping him off to a military school when he was ten, leaving him with the headmaster and his wife on holidays and vacations. After his father turned sixteen, he never saw Lena again except on television.

Once, not long before he ran away, Tom had spotted her name in the TV listings and turned on one of her movies. She played an Egyptian queen to some dark-haired brute’s conquering warrior. She was beautiful, but he noticed she was small breasted, not the type of woman he’d be attracted to, and then he felt strange thinking about her that way, seeing how they were supposed to be related. Her acting was wooden, laughable even, and Tom hadn’t watched more than ten minutes of the movie.

Traffic finally unsnarled after twenty minutes at a slug’s pace, and Tom made it to the police station in just over an hour. Inside, he found his grandmother seated behind a desk. A cluster of uniformed officers and plain-clothes detectives crowded around her while she autographed Xeroxed copies of her mug shot, laughing and chatting as if she were on a talk show. Tom could tell she was acting. Lena Hoffman was pissed.

“Tommy,” she cried when she saw him. Nobody but his grandmother called him Tommy. It made him feel emasculated, but he let it slide. “You’ve come to set me free, darling.”

Lena was dressed in a crisp, sleeveless shirt-dress and silver sandals she called “kitten heels.” She wore a diamond ring on her left hand. She’d divorced five husbands, the last one two decades ago. She wore the ring to fend off suitors. Florida was brimming with geezers and schemers on the prowl, she’d told him, and she was done with men.

“Lena, let’s get you outta here.” She was a big fan of his drawl, which he souped up for her now.

His grandmother rose from the swivel chair like a monarch from her throne. She gave the oldest detective a two-cheek kiss and strolled toward Tom, opening the purse hanging from her arm and pulling out sunglasses and a scarf, which she wrapped over her hair and tied under her chin even though it was hot enough outside to warp metal.

In the parking lot, a reporter with a cameraman ambushed them. Tom couldn’t believe anyone still cared about his grandmother. The reporter, a short and pimple-faced guy younger than him, thrust a microphone in Lena’s face and asked her if her arrest brought back any bad memories. Like Tom, the boy had done his homework. His grandmother had been arrested in the sixties when she was still semi-famous, charged with shoplifting at a department store in Los Angeles and again in Florida before he’d met her. The previous arrest and the dollar amount of the items she’d lifted that morning, a little over $100, had triggered the need for bail.

Lena smiled, walking and waving as if to her fans, her other hand on Tom’s elbow. Tom tried to shield her—no woman her age should have to do the perp walk—but she seemed to be doing fine on her own.

While Tom backed out of the lot, Lena took a tissue from her purse to wipe down the handle before rolling up the window so that just a crack remained open. Then she turned to him and asked in a voice icy with disdain, “How can you drive this pigsty?”

“Want to call a cab or walk?” he asked Lena.

“Watch your tone of voice, young man.” Though Lena had scrubbed away most of her Viennese inflection after living here all these years, it came back in her “w”s and “v”s when she wanted to put on a show, or when she was ticked off or stressed.

“Cops said you lifted stupid things, half-dozen lipsticks, perfume, an electric toothbrush, bag of chocolate almonds, and, uh, other stuff.” Tom decided not to mention the laxatives.

“Why do you presume I’m guilty? Dammich. The world is full of evil, stupid men. That manager was un dummerarsch.” Lena took off her scarf and primped her hair, then pulled another tissue from her purse and patted her brow.

“It’s not like you couldn’t have afforded to pay,” Tom said.

“I did not take a thing. I simply forgot to pay for it.”

“Right,” Tom said, not sure he wanted to know the truth. Sticky fingers or faulty memory, either way it wasn’t flattering. And who lifted laxatives? “News people after you? Looks like the public still wants to know what Lena Hoffman is up to.”

His grandmother gave him a steely look. “Privacy,” she said, drawing out the word to emphasize it, “is a commodity I’ve come to cherish. All those years living in the public eye. It’s torture.”

She shifted in her seat and looked down, smiling, at the tan, checkered purse on her lap. Like hell, Tom thought. She enjoyed the attention.

Neither one of them spoke the rest of the short ride to Lena’s condominium complex in Lagunita Gardens. Her place was old world meets new. Modern condo furnished with avocado appliances, white-tiled kitchen countertops, and fabricated oak flooring dotted with faded Persian carpets. Dark wood furniture with curlicue legs, dressers draped with doilies, the couch and chairs covered in brocade or velvet. Some of it looked like it might have been hauled over from Austria, but Tom knew it wasn’t. Lena had emigrated alone, fleeing the Nazis and her overbearing first husband, a shipping magnate who’d kept her locked up like a diamond necklace.

“You’ll stay for dinner, darling,” Lena said.

Tom shrugged and said he guessed he would. “The bail was five hundred bucks, by the way. About wiped out my bank account.”

Lena dabbed pearls of sweat from her forehead. “I’m not about to, what do you say, jump bail. I’ll write you a check now if that’s what you’re asking.”

Instead of reaching for her checkbook though, she sat down on her wine-colored couch and looked up at him. “If I had money,” she said, “I’d leave you more than the trifle I’ve put down for you in my will.”

“Trifle?” Tom asked.

“I have a reverse mortgage, darling—”

“What about your other homes and stocks? All those husbands must have—”

“Hung me out to dry,” Lena said. “And I’m afraid I haven’t managed my money well, Tommy.”

Sparks tingled down his arms. He looked around Lena’s apartment, the faded, old-world look of it, and knew instinctively that he’d been fooling himself about the extent of Lena’s wealth. He felt himself deflating, like a tire slowly losing air. He hadn’t been counting on an inheritance, but just the idea, quixotic as it might have been, had kept him buoyed with a sliver of optimism about his future.

“Let’s not talk about that now,” Lena said. “I’m awfully hot and thirsty.”

Tom turned his back on her to hide his disappointment. He switched on the central air and got them both a glass of tap water from the kitchen. But as he sat down next to her, he couldn’t keep the
spite out of his voice. “So, you want to tell me about the shoplifting? What gives? Your memory?”

“Perfectly intact,” Lena snapped.

“Why’d you take the stuff then?”

“Stop pestering me,” she said, uncrossing her legs, correcting her posture. “If you must know, my hands were full, so I slipped a few things in my purse. I paid for the magazines on the way out. I forgot what was in my purse.”

“Bullshit,” Tom said. “This isn’t the first time. You think I haven’t checked you out?”

“You hired a detective?”

“Where the hell would I get the money for that?”

Lena sighed and said, “In my day, the studios and gossip rags were always sending private investigators to tail us.”

Then she reached for her glass of water on the coffee table and swirled it, studying the tiny whirlpool. “It’s a distraction if you must know, a game. Trinkets, that’s all I snatched.”

“So it’s the thrill of the thing.”

“I’ve had enough analysis in my life,” Lena said, setting down the glass. “Did I ever tell you my father once played chess with Freud?”

“And your first husband associated with Nazis and you—”

“Tommy, darling, none of it matters now. We get our joie de vivre where we can. I’m through with looking for reasons. You can’t teach an old cat new tricks.”

“It’s dogs.”

“Dogs?”

“Never mind,” Tom said. “It’s gonna take forever for your condo to cool down. What do you say we go out for dinner? You don’t want to be cooking in this heat.”

They sat at a table tucked in the corner of a restaurant adorned with giant clay sculptures of Aztec gods sandwiched between plastic palm trees. Tom slammed back two beers waiting for the food to come while Lena sipped a Diet Coke.

Their table was near the bar and Tom had a clear view of the television, tuned to a news channel. It wasn’t long before he spotted the reporter trailing Lena in her sunglasses and scarf, Tom towering at her side, looking sunburned, a few pounds overweight, and scruffy in his grease-stained jeans. He’d never seen himself on television and quickly averted his eyes. Sometimes, it still startled him how this famous person had parachuted into his life. He looked low-rent beside her.

He told himself not to goad Lena, but a kind of boozy insolence mushroomed inside him as the word trifle flicked back into his mind. Keeping his eyes on the television behind her, he said, “Damn, Lena, you don’t look bad for eighty-something. Guess it’s the repair work
on the face?”

Lena didn’t flinch or turn around to look at the television. She smiled, close-lipped and regal, and reached into her purse for her pack of cigarettes and lit one with a heavy, antique lighter.

“Tommy, you think this bothers me? This is nothing. I’ve lived nearly my whole life shadowed by notoriety.” She exhaled a plume of smoke before she continued.

“That singer, that chameleon with the music video a few years ago, where she kisses a black Jesus, dances like a stripper in front of burning crosses. The pope condemned her as blasphemous. I laughed when I read that. How life loops over and over. She wasn’t the first woman to be crucified by a pope for public decadence. That was me seven decades ago.”

Tom had wanted to ask his grandmother about her scandalous movie ever since he’d gone to the library after meeting her to look her up in encyclopedias and microfiche, where he’d found photos of a green-gray-eyed beauty with alabaster skin, black hair, and a look of cool self-possession. She was eighteen when she starred in the film.

Now he saw his opening. “You mean that movie where you faked an orgasm?”

“Don’t be vulgar, darling. It was an art film, lost on simple-minded Americans.” Lena flicked her cigarette in the ashtray between them. “The director was a genius. The film won awards in Czechoslovakia and Germany. But that’s so long ago. Let’s talk about something different. What do you know about computers and the Y2K thing? Will we have a meltdown do you think?”

“Stop trying to switch trains.”

Tom’s shoulders tensed. He’d echoed a line his mother used to shout at his father, and he remembered how she’d screamed it that night while he’d crouched under the pine table in the dimly lit kitchen. He’d gone outside to fetch the Mason jar of fireflies he’d caught earlier, but discovered he hadn’t poked enough holes in the lid. In tears, he ran back to house with the dead fireflies. His parents were fighting again so he scrambled under the table. He didn’t realize his mother was holding a knife until his father hit her. It flew upward before it helixed to the floor, and to this day he saw that knife in his dreams, falling, falling. His mother left for good that night and he never saw her again.

The kitchen was backed up and the waitress brought Tom another beer. Lena gave him a disapproving glance and told him to slow down.

“I can tell you’re a mean drunk.”

“If I was a mean drunk, I’d ask you why movie reviewers called you a posh prostitute.”

Lena stamped out her cigarette. “Take it back,” her voice thick now with intonations of old world Vienna. “Apologize.”

“I’m trying to figure out how a person like you could have made a movie like that. Way back when.”

“You called me a whore.”

“No, I asked why other people, film-critic people, called you a prostitute.”

“You remind me of your father right now.” Lena’s tone was dismissive, but Tom thought he saw a hint of sadness tugging at her lips. “He threw appalling tantrums, raging over the silliest things, and nothing would calm him down. Once, he raced through the house knocking over vases and glass figurines. He called me vile names. When I locked him in his room, he punched at the door, and broke his wrist.”

Lena never talked about his father. Conversation about his father was verboten.

“Don’t have to tell me about the man,” Tom said. “He punched more than doors. Beat the shit out of me and his wife.”

“Your mother, you mean.”

“If you want to call her that. If that makes you feel better. She left me when I was seven. But you know what that’s all about, right?”

Lena lifted her chin. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You like bullying older women? You disappoint me.”

Tom steadied his voice. “It’s no secret you abandoned my old man,” he said. “He told me the story whenever he was drunk or pissed, and once right after my mother took off, when he threatened to drop me at Child Protective Services and never come back.”

His grandmother’s head began to shake almost imperceptibly. She dropped her chin and opened her palms on the table between them. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Tell me how a parent does that, throws away a kid.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Lena said. She reached across the table, laid her palm over Tom’s free hand. The back of her hand was etched with blue-purple veins from wrist to knuckles like forks of a river, his hand twice the size, his nails jagged and rimmed with grease.

“I’d just remarried and Harold didn’t like children. I already had two bad marriages behind me and the movie roles weren’t coming my way. He was so difficult—”

“You can’t even say his name.”

“Stephan,” she said, enunciating his name slowly. “He was violent. I adopted him because a doctor told me I’d never get pregnant, and—” “Adopted him?” Tom squeezed his eyes shut. Yellow stars burst before him.

“Your father never told you?”

Lena’s story seemed to float indistinctly from her mouth. It was as if the noise of the restaurant had ratcheted up and Tom needed to read her lips. She told him about the joy Stephan brought into her life, how she’d become depressed after the failure of her second marriage, how her career had faded with her looks, one B-movie role after another. A nanny raised Stephan before Lena sent him away to school. Perhaps she’d never bonded with him. These day’s people talked about children damaged in their mothers’ wombs by alcohol and drugs, Lena said. But she hadn’t known how to handle her son’s belligerence and so walked away from the problem, easing her guilt by setting up a trust fund for the boy.

Tom knew about the trust fund. Enough for his father to buy a ranch and sit on his ass watching television and drinking beer. When she’d finished her story, Tom realized that Lena was stroking her thumb against his knuckles. An awkward silence settled between them.

Tom broke it, yanking his hand away. “We’re not even related.”

“Darling, I’ve never believed that silly saying, blood is thicker than water,” Lena said. “What is family? I’ve loved men and women, friends and lovers, just as powerfully as I ever loved my parents. You’ve become dear to me, Tommy. I worry about you.”

Lena tilted her head as if to put him in perspective. “I wanted to make things right when I first called you,” she said. “You were my penance, I admit. Anyone can see what a sad young man you are, a good man. I thought I might be a diversion. I thought I might be some comfort to you.”

Tom gave Lena a cold look and downed another swig of beer, wiping his lips with his fist. Time to cut and run.

“I need to make a phone call,” Tom said. He pushed himself up so violently the table shook.

He headed for the exit. Outside, lit by a full moon, was a Coke can standing upright in a parking space. He ran toward it as if he were punting a football and kicked it with all his might. The can and its contents arced above him. He raced to stand under the brown gusher of soda. Bull’s-eye. It hit his face, and then the can clattered on top of a baby blue BMW where fireflies blinked around its wheel wells. Seeing those languid yellow semaphores unleashed something inside him, and as he yanked up his shirttail to wipe away the Coke, he heard a sound like bawling, raw and sorrowful. It sounded like it was coming from far, far away.

Hidden under the shirttail, he felt invisible. So stupid and childish of him. He was a grown man for Christ’s sake. Uncovering his face, he scanned the parking lot. Empty, he saw with relief. A few of the fireflies winked close by and he remembered as a kid trying to decode their imagined messages. It came to him then what Lena Hoffman meant to him, and it wasn’t her glamor, her money, or her racy past.

Without thinking, Tom found himself back inside. At the table Lena motioned for him to sit down. “I thought you’d left,” she said. “That’s my role. I left all my husbands, and your father, too, I suppose.” She took her napkin from her lap, dabbed it in her glass of water and handed it to Tom. “Your face looks like a flytrap, sticky with something.”

“Coke,” Tom said. “I basically took a shower in Coke.”

“Oh, dear, my weakness all over your face,” Lena said, running her finger across the condensation on her glass of Diet Coke. “What would an analyst say about that?”

“I need to get on the road,” Tom said, shrugging with counterfeit indifference. “I need to make up the time I missed today at work tomorrow.”

Lena’s hand trembled as she held up her glass. “Let’s toast to each other. I can see you’re tired of me, and I’ll understand if you want to part ways. But let’s go as friends.”

Her voice, its exotic throatiness infused with affection, charmed him as it always did, and for a moment he saw her as she’d been in her heyday, the beauty on Freddie’s calendar. Tom lifted his beer can to her glass of Diet Coke, saluting her with a nod of his head. After she paid the bill, Lena insisted that Tom call a cab and spend the night on her couch. The drive back to Pembroke Pines would mean risking a DUI, and Tom reluctantly agreed to leave his car in the lot.

Outside, the air was warm and humid, the night sky shrouded with clouds. Lena and he stood wordlessly a few paces apart, gazing at the restaurant’s terrace, where a boisterous party was going on, the noise competing with the chorus of cicadas in the surrounding trees and shrubbery. When the cab pulled up, Lena stepped off the curb and stumbled. Tom grabbed her waist and pulled her toward him. She felt so fragile, so small. Lena looked up at him, quickly masked her fright, and said with affection he knew for sure wasn’t an act, “Thank you, Tommy, darling.”

Under the stark glow of the streetlight above them, Lena’s face looked undeniably old, her paper-thin skin marbled with wrinkles, her bone structure as delicate as cut glass.

“Gin rummy next Sunday?” he asked.

Lena smiled brightly and said, “Jupiter, the planet of good fortune and happiness, moves into Virgo next week. It will be the perfect time for me to kick your arsch.”

As they walked toward the cab, Tom locked Lena’s elbow tightly to his side. A budding sense of hopefulness, twinned with something like tenderness, came to him as sharply as the pain in his chest, as if someone had taken a wrench to his heart, trying to twist it back into its rightful place.