“Charlie Ritter,” she’d sigh whenever a photo of him would rise to the surface of our photo box.
We’d sit side-by-side on the sofa or her bed and poke through this box of memories, the left-over images not put into an album; pulling out a black & white image of some forgotten event, relative, or friend (I refuse to believe they were forgotten, instead I think it was a way to avoid traveling down an uncomfortably bumpy road of memories) or a faded polaroid my grandfather had taken—back when you had to apply the chemicals to the surface of the polaroid after it was ejected from the camera and you’d stand on tiptoe next to him to watch the image magically appear–it was magic too, for who among them could explain that to you?—on one of their trips to Oregon or Washington or wherever it was he and my grandmother would go in their pink Nash Rambler on a fine spring/summer/fall day; grandmother sending postcards to Button and Evelyn from this roadside attraction or that one, a monument to the relentless march of the white man across the great divide. You know.
This box of photographs would have never been taken out of the closet it was stored in were it not for me. It held, what I believed at the time, the secret to my mother’s mysterious past, and including my forgotten past—how quickly children set aside memories as they age. The photo albums, the proper ones with their black pages and photo corners, and the special pen with white ink that my mother would use to caption each one in her perfect Palmer Method hand-writing, the teacher within her irrepressible, were of less interest to me. After all, what was there left to discover?
But this box of photographs held a surprise inside of it every time I managed to dislodge it from its perch on the top shelf of the linen closet, for years I had to stand on the metal kitchen stool to reach it (remind me one day to show you a picture of the metal stool that was in our kitchen forever, it actually still sits in my kitchen today); the thrill of teetering on tiptoe and reaching into the closet, with its smell of fresh linens and old magazines, cardboard and antimacassars, talcum powder and beeswax candles, was only slightly mitigated by growing taller until I no longer needed the booster rocket of the metal stool, always cool to the touch with its painted surface, a decal on the seat back that was changed every few years—florals, kittens, puppies, dolls in sunbonnets and gingham, and repeat—and its rubber-tipped legs.
There were times when I would take the box into my bedroom and sort the photographs according to a code that only I was cognizant of: photos of men over here on the pillow, men with women over there at the end of the bed, landscapes somewhere in the middle or I would take all of them out of the box and spread them all over my bed like a map to a past that I had a hard time comprehending, or even remembering, for no matter how often I asked my mother about this photo of him, she’d always sigh, “that’s Charlie Ritter,” and I store that away for a while until I was older then she might add, “he was my boyfriend when you and I lived in Highland Park.”
Charlie Ritter, divorced like my mother—where did they meet? I never found out—had grown children–in fact, somewhere there’s a black & white photo of him and his son, the son with a blond duck-tail, rolled up shirt sleeves, and a motorcycle leaning next to a pole with a basketball hoop stuck on top at the end of a driveway with a cinder block wall–how I remember this I don’t know, but there it is–and another of Charlie sitting in the stands of Wrigley Field, a day at a ball game taken by mother, am I there too? possibly, but not in the photo, just Charlie sitting there with his Ray-Bans on, black hair slicked back from his forehead—a Mount Rushmore head: prominent forehead, nose, chin, all poking outward like the granite spires of the Black Hills we were soon to call home, perhaps it was prescient, but who was psychic enough to realize that? Certainly not I at six, nor my mother in spite of her abilities.
I have no reason to believe that he treated her with anything but respect. It may be that he even found me, if not amusing, at least not a hindrance to his infatuation with my mother, but I have no way of knowing for sure. This gray area of adult life remembered from such great distance (and forgetfulness). when I think about my mother at 43 now that I’m well past that age, it’s easier to accept her sexual life — the one area of their parent’s life that children refuse to acknowledge — and when, at only six or younger, and for that matter older even, you have no experience to even entertain the thought of a hot embrace (the only time perhaps is when you were in tears and pulled to the bosom of your mother in comfort, there is a bit of sex in that, is there not? don’t cross your eyes and wrinkle your nose at me, denying it will only confirm my suspicions.)
My mother had other boyfriends after we moved to Rapid City late in 1959, driving from Highland Park, Illinois in a black & white Plymouth sedan–it had fins which gave it a chariot quality — not that I knew from chariots at the time — but looking back, and that is what this is all about, the looking back at the past for clues to the present, I see a stop-motion animation of that car flying across the prairie, the corn fields, the wheat, the rivers, and the plains, the Badlands and the foothills, the gullies, the washes, the cottonwoods turned bright yellow running along the silvery ribbons of the Missouri, the Platte, the Mississippi, the little creeks, and rivers that fed them, the Mitchell Corn Palace, the feedlots, the bison, the Herefords — when I first learned to identify the Charolaise, the Aberdeen, the Brahman, the heifer from the bull — the geese flying south crossing our westward motion, but none of them have a name associated with them–there was the one who gave me a pair of dress rodeo cowboy boots for Christmas one year that I only wore once because I was promptly beaten up in middle school for wearing such ‘queer’ boots, there was ‘Floyd’, and although he has a name, it may not count as his real name as I never met him. She said he was her masseur and once a month, sometimes twice a month during my early teens, she’d come home from “a massage at Floyd’s” looking like she’d just been freshly fucked, but I only think that now in retrospect, because, you know, you know that look after a while don’t you, but at the time, when you’re in your pubescence, you want to still believe your mother, father, the adult(s) in your life when they say “I had a massage and I’m going to go lay down now. Why don’t you be a dear and make us something for dinner. Wake me when it’s ready, will you? That’s a sweetheart.”
“How did you decide on Robert?” I would ask repeatedly because the answer pleased me so, even as I grew older. And she’d say, “Well, we considered Harold Frederick since Lee, Jr. was out of the question because you were adopted, although that would have been okay with me, but your father thought otherwise and how could I argue with him? Harold Frederick would have been a nod to your grandfathers, but you didn’t look like a Harry to me and I loathed the idea of a Fred, so I said we’ll call him Robert Lee and your father thought that sounded right. You’d have a little bit of his name and it seemed the right name for you when you were born.”
“But why Robert?” I’d beg, and she’d pause for a moment, a Marlboro lit and suspended between the ashtray and her lips and reply, “That was the name of my first boyfriend, the first one who meant something to me and I knew that whenever I would call your name that it would remind me of that first love. you’re my first love now, you know, and that’s why I named you Robert.” she’d put the cigarette between her lips and inhale, her look somewhere between then and now, a smile curling up with the smoke from her exhale.