— Chapter Sixteen: Zella —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
It had been two weeks since Stewart attempted to visit Debra at her parents’ house and left the premises shaken by her response to the reaction she had to his good fortune. He was aware of some of Debra’s failings and had learned during the time they were dating to be careful about unintentionally making remarks that would offend her and responding negatively to humor that she found offensive. Overall, she had been a personable partner on outings with friends and people he knew from work, on bicycle rides they took in the country and on visits to museums, as long as they didn’t contain sexual themes or violence, to which she might visually overreact, showing her displeasure by frowning and displaying a “thumbs-down” gesture to people entering an exhibit she was leaving. Stewart was also careful about the books he would suggest that she read, about which she would rarely comment unless the title sounded offensive or the cover for some reason known only to her was offensive. Otherwise, she rarely had much to say about a book unless Stewart commented on it first, and then she smiled and nodded in agreement or frown and shake her head negatively to match Stewart’s assessments of the plot or the characters, and rarely offer an opinion of her own.
Stewart was upset that there had been no contact with Debra since the visit with her and her mother, so he thought he would extend an olive branch, and stop by with flowers for them both.
It was late on Saturday afternoon when he had completed a cartoon, and stopped at the farmers’ market to pick out two bouquets of fall flowers and two small gift cards on each of which he expressed an apology. On Debra’s he wrote: “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. I care about you, and would like to maintain a relationship with you if that’s possible.”
On her mother’s card he wrote: “I apologize if I haven’t met your expectations. I like and respect both you and Mr. Mallon, and hope that we can remain friends, no matter the outcome of my relationship with your daughter.”
He signed each card: “Affectionately, Stewart.”
He drove to their house and saw Debra’s father’s car in the driveway, and parked behind it. He crossed over a small patch of grass to a stairway leading to the kitchen door, and rang the doorbell. Debra’s mother answered, smiling nervously and looking behind her as if checking to see if someone was watching her.
“Hello, Mrs. Mallon,” said Stewart, handing her one of the bouquets.
“Hello, Stewart. This isn’t a good time. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go.”
“I just wanted to apologize to Debra. Would you give her these?” he said, as he handed over the second bouquet.
Debra’s mother quickly returned the second bunch and said,“ You’ll have to take these back, Stewart. Debra’s busy right now.”
From the living room he could hear laughter, which sounded like it was from Debra. He also heard a male voice that he didn’t recognize, and then realized that Debra had company.
“Thank you for the flowers,” said Debra’s mother, as she closed the door on Stewart. Dejectedly,about walked back to his car.
While backing out of the driveway, Stewart saw the front door open and a man appearing to be in his early thirties and wearing a sports jacket over a white shirt and flannel trousers walking out the door. Debra, dressed as if for a date, followed behind him with a smile on her face as the two walked to a car parked at the curb. The man opened the door for Debra, but as Debra was about to enter, she noticed Stewart’s car at the end of her parents’ driveway. She tapped her escort on the shoulder, and when he turned towards her, she leaned back dramatically, bent one leg, and pulled the man to her as if posing for a wedding photograph. She then took hold of the man’s head with her right hand, so that Stewart could see what she was doing, and gave the man a big kiss on the mouth.
It seemed to Stewart that Debra’s escort was as shocked by the stunt as he was observing it, and smiled awkwardly when Debra released his head. With her escort’s back turned toward Stewart, Debra squinted her eyes at Stewart and scowled at him. She then childishly stuck out her tongue and held the pose briefly before and turning back to her escort and putting back the happy grin on her face before entering the car.
Stewart couldn’t believe what he saw, and from where he was at the end of the drive he could see Debra’s mother peering out the dining room window and watching her daughter and her escort as they were leaving. She also saw Stewart, who had waited until the car ahead of him left before fully pulling away, giving a quick honk of his horn and waving goodbye to Debra’s mother through his open window.
Stewart had a hard time sleeping that night. His mind kept returning to the scene in front of Debra’s house, which without any further explanation had completely changed his opinion of Debra. The most probable scenario was that she had been dating the fellow who came to her house at the same time that she was dating Stewart. But when he thought about the amount of time they’d spent together, and the relationship they seemed to share, he couldn’t make the pieces fit.
The man in the Mallons’ house might have just come into Debra’s life and Stewart’s seeming rejection of her plan of developing a more permanent relationship had motivated her to find a new partner who might be more receptive to her visions for the future.
Stewart’s third option, which was the farthest out, was that Debra never really cared for Stewart at all, but needed to secure her future with anyone who would have her. This made Stewart sad for Debra, but also made him feel foolish that he had been tricked into a relationship.
The only person who might have a clue as to Debra’s intent was her mother, who didn’t seem particularly angry with him concerning his claim of not being ready to take the relationship further. She expressed more anger towards her daughter for her intolerance and insensitivity towards Stewart, who was just beginning to find his way in the world.
Stewart knew that Debra’s weekday schedule didn’t alter much, except perhaps at lunchtime when she would usually walk the short distance to her parents’ house to save money on her meal, but on some occasions would be included in a celebration of a birthday, retirement, or the engagement of a co-worker. Knowing that Debra’s mother wasn’t threatened by Stewart, and had always enjoyed his company, he decided to phone her from the cafeteria during his break at the office, at a time he knew that Debra wouldn’t be at home.
He didn’t know how long he’d need to talk, so he excused himself for a bathroom break prior to walking to the cafeteria and depositing his dime. After a few rings, Debra’s mother picked up the line and answered, “Hello, the Mallon residence,” and Stewart answered back quickly a “Hello Mrs. Mallon, this is Stewart Little.” Without taking a breath before continuing, in case Debra’s mother would think of hanging up on him, he said, “I’m calling from work, and I assume Debra’s at work, too. I just wanted to talk with you since I have no way of speaking with her at this time.“
Stewart paused for a breath, and Debra’s mother said, “It’s good to hear from you, Stewart. I’m sorry the way things have worked out for you and Debra.”,
“So am I, Mrs. Mallon. I do, or did care for Debra, but as I said, I’m just starting to build a career and I’m not really ready for marriage, or even living together with someone. You probably know that I’ve not even turned 21 yet, and I feel fortunate to have a job and to be able to begin to get a start on my life.”
“I understand that, Stewart,” answered Debra’s mother. “I’ve been concerned abut the relationship from the start, but Debra’s a grown woman and difficult to talk to. Her father and I have discussed your relationship many times, and although we like you, we have never been quite sure that you were a good match for our daughter.”
Stewart answered, “We’ve had some good times, and she seemed to be a good listener. I know that she’s a bit older than me from some of the things she’s told me, including the music she grew up with and experiences she liked growing up that I’d never heard of. Despite that, I thought that she cared for me until the day before yesterday.”
“Her actions surprised me, too, Stewart, but unfortunately it’s been an issue we’ve tried to address since Debra was young. She’s the last of our children: a surprise baby. And we had just come through the depression while raising and trying to educate two children. My husband Frank worked multiple jobs, and thank God, he was too old to be drafted into World War II, so the job market opened up at the start of the war and he began to make money working as a driver for Stroehmann’s Bakery and grew his route to include two convents in the area.
“As you know, we”re Catholics, and Frank has always been a genial man and is a good person.“
“I know he is Mrs. Mallon,” answered Stewart.
“When Zella was born... I mean Debra...she was a blessing and we were finally able to provide a proper life for her, as well as her siblings. We realize that we spoiled her. As the baby in the family, she was also doted on by Don and Elizabeth, and we also sheltered her from unpleasantries.” There was a pause accentuated by a sob or slight choke in the mother’s voice, after which she continued, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this, but under the circumstances, I.... (another sniffle) I think it’s necessary to say it to someone. Frank doesn’t want to hear about it and remains quite angry with you for not, as he said, ‘coming up to the plate,’ and proposing to Debra.”
“I get it, Mrs. Mallon. Maybe our talk will help in the long run.”
“I hope so, Stewart... anyway... we sent her to Sharon, a school for girls in Drexel Hill, a place where she would be further sheltered, and which she attended until she graduated. She had a few friends in school, but spent a lot of time watching TV and going to the movies, more than we might have liked, but we usually gave in to her requests. She was a quiet child, but liked watching the dancers in the movies. Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse were her favorites as well as Cyd Charisse and Gwen Verdon, so we started her on dance lessons, which she enjoyed and showed some talent. (another pause) I’m going to try to keep this brief, Stewart. I know you must have things to do. We can talk later if you’d like.”
“No, Mrs. Mallon. Please continue. I have another ten minutes before I need to return to work, but this may be helpful to me, as well as to you and maybe even to Debra.”
“To begin with, Debra’s not her real name. Her real name is the same as mine, Zella. She hated the name in school because it was so old fashioned. Debra was 16 when she saw Elvis Presley’s first film, Love Me Tender, which co-starred Debra Paget, and by the time she got out of high school, she had renamed herself after Paget, the girl that Elvis labeled “the most beautiful girl in Hollywood.”
“How was she able to do that?” asked Stewart.
“At first it wasn’t a problem, since she got her drivers’ license at 16 and used her real name, Zella, to get it. Since she never traveled abroad, she never needed a passport, so she just remained careful that no one ever knew her real name. She would include the letter Z as a middle initial on forms, so no one ever questioned it.”
“Wow!” said Stewart.
“She wasn’t exceptional in her academics, and her sister helped her get her job with Bell after high school. (another pause) She continued to take dance lessons. We had saved money for college for her, but Debra wanted to be a dancer, but believed that she wasn’t pretty enough. So during the summer after graduation, she requested that the money we saved would go into transforming her, which meant fixing her teeth and thinning and shortening her nose. That summer she dyed her hair black in the sink upstairs, and began to wear heavy makeup to cover scarring from acne she had in her early teens.”
Stewart was now getting a better picture of the discrepancies he’d seen in the photographs before and after her graduation, when he wondered how she could have changed so much.
“So, she had plastic surgery?” asked Stewart, confirming her mother’s statement about the “thinning” of her nose.
“Yes. It was expensive, but she believed it was her only way to be hired as a dancer, and we granted her request.
“The dentist did the best he could with her teeth by capping two in the front and taking out larger ones with silver fillings and replacing them with a bridge. The results brightened her mood, and she seemed to adopt a whole new persona, so we thought it may have been a good thing for her. But over time, we realized that she was damaged inside, perhaps from feeling unattractive as a child, or just by her nature.
“We never knew which person we’d be living with, Stewart. She could be smiling and happy one moment, and then lash out rudely at people, including me and her father, especially if we ever called her Zella in front of anyone. Her physical reactions were exaggerated, such as what you saw yesterday. And as happened repeatedly over the years, after a few dates with a man, she was never asked out by that man again. They just vanished.”
“That’s kind of scary... and sad,” said Stewart.
“Yes it was, and is,” said Debra’s mother. “And I know we became part of the problem. We wanted a perfect family, so we discouraged unpleasantries in conversations, and Frank and I kept things to ourselves.”
“Realizing that, I’m surprised that you’re telling me what you are telling me now,” said Stewart.
“When you came along, we weren’t particularly happy about the relationship. We knew you were just an adolescent and our daughter was an adult. We also knew that you weren’t Catholic and still going to school, and wondered why she had decided to date you.”
“I think I played a role in this, Mrs. Mallon. I pursued her, perhaps because she seemed more mature than I was. She was also attractive, and seemed wonderfully creative on stage in her role as Harriett in The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
“Yes. She was good in that role, which was a bit unsettling for us, since we experienced her ability to change her personality at the drop of a hat.
“She should have known better than to lead you on, but she had failed with so many men her own age, that she must have enjoyed playing the part of an “innocent” for you. If I may ask, when did you finally learn of the age difference between the two of you?”
Stewart thought about it and said, “Maybe just now, while we’re having this discussion. I knew that we were a few years apart, but I hid from the realities. Hiding was easy for me since I grew up in a household where my mother and I chose to believe my father’s lies and never mentioned the drunken abuse he committed that kept us awake after coming home drunk.”
“That’s sad, Stewart. I don’t hold you to blame for pursuing our daughter. She probably needs some psychological help, but at this point, I don’t know whether we could help her get it.”
“So who was the man she was with her when I arrived at your house the other day?” asked Stewart.
“A new manager at the telephone company. She met him right after you had come by and she evicted you after telling us about your good fortune. (pause) By the way, how is the arrangement working out for you with your cartoons?”
“My uncle’s found me an attorney, and I now have the knowledge I need to meet with the publisher. I’ve scheduled a meeting for next week. My immediate boss knows that I’m taking the day off to go to New York City. He’s covering for me.”
“Well, I wish you the best of luck, Stewart. You deserve it. I’ll talk to Frank and let him know about our conversation. He won’t be pleased that I’ve told you as much as I have about our family issues, but he’s a good man, and I know that ultimately, he’ll forgive you for not taking her off our hands, even as he’ll always remain faithful to his daughter despite her quirks.”
“That’s how it should be, Mrs. Mallon. If there’s any way I can help out Debra, please don’t be afraid to ask. I think what you’ve told me helps me better understand her actions. I’m just glad our relationship never went any further than it has.”
“For your sake, Stewart, I do too. Except that we still hope that someone will take the burden away from us. I pray for that every night.”
After saying goodbye, Stewart got off the phone and hurried back to his office just a few minutes late for his break, but continued to think of Debra’s story. By the end of the day, he couldn’t wait to get home to begin the creation of a single panel cartoon based on a strange and ambivalent dancer called “Zella.”