Excerpt from Making It Work
a 300-page novel-in-progress

Chapter 1 — Medio Street — June, 1965¬†

The pink stucco building, circa WW II, had a couple of straggly palm trees in front, symmetrically planted on either side of an archway that led to a raggedy-lawned patio. A white board with sloppy, black handwriting advertised that the Van Dorn Apartments had a furnished efficiency for rent. It looked like this might be something Jim and Sheila Gallagher could afford

“Medio’s the shortest street inLong Beach–only one block,” Mr. Grey, the manager, told them.

Each unit on the two floors had its own entrance door, like a motel back inMinnesota. Jim told Mr. Grey, “I want a place on the second floor so Sheila will feel safe when she’s alone.”

The apartment had a kitchen, a bathroom, and a front room with a Murphy Bed that came out of the wall. It rented for $80 a month. After signing a month-to-month lease and paying for the first and last, they sat on the Murphy Bed. Sheila felt relieved that Mr. Grey had gone back to his own apartment and strange looking wife; and also relieved to have a place to call home. Soon, they would walk back to the hotel from the night before, and pick up their belongings.

Running fingers through her dark red curls, she said, “They’re so old.”

“Who?”

“The manager and his wife.”

“Lucky. They have an apartment with a bedroom.” Jim looked at the beige vinyl sofa and chair. “Sorry. This is the best I can afford.”

“It’s fine. Maybe we’ll move once I get a job.” Sheila shuddered. “She must be sick.”

“Who?”

“Mrs. Manager.”

“Yeah. She looked like she belonged in their bedroom.”

To Sheila and Jim, the manager and his wife seemed old, but they were both in their early fifties, and the wife was dying of cancer. The day the young couple rented their apartment, Mrs. Grey huddled on a rocking chair in the front room, glazed eyes staring at a game show on the television, fingers playing with a multi-colored knit afghan.

“I never saw anyone so skinny.”

“Let’s forget about them.” Jim nuzzled up to Sheila. “Should we try this out before we go?” He patted the mattress.

For a moment, Sheila nuzzled back, then hopped off the bed. “I wonder how trustworthy that hotel clerk is. We better hurry to get our stuff.”

Jim hauled his large frame, that had served him well in high school as a tight end on the football team, into a standing position. He wrapped his arms around Sheila’s much smaller body. “This is gonna work. It’s not such a bad place.” He bumped his knee against the Murphy Bed. “We’ll make good use of this later.”

“I’ve never seen one like that. Coming out of the wall.” Sheila wrinkled her freckled nose.

“Think of all the fun there’s been had here.”

“Gross! I don’t want to think of anybody else.” The rhythmic sounds of sailors and their girls in the hotel the night before flashed through her mind. “I just hope this bed’s clean.”

She was nineteen, he was twenty-one, and they had been married six months.

Four weeks after the Catholic ceremony attended only by families, Jim came home one evening to their Minneapolis furnished one-bedroom honeymoon apartment from his construction job, and told Sheila, who had only minutes before gotten home from work at a downtown bank and was trying to figure out what they should have for dinner–Kraft mac and cheese or hot dogs–that he had enlisted in the Navy. She could have been furious. Why didn’t he talk to me first? However, she’d been denying that he would be drafted for too long. Deep down, she knew this was his best possible action. Still, she thought she’d die of loneliness after he left for Basics at Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago. Counting the days, hours, minutes until he would get home, writing long letters that proclaimed her undying love, playing her guitar and singing “I Will Wait For You,” and other songs considered to be “theirs,” kept Sheila going. Work at the bank gave her a routine, making time go faster. She spent weekends with girlfriends who attended the University of Minnesota. But only for shopping and lunch, never going to parties the way they wanted her to do. Occasionally, she visited her parents and younger brother, Tommy, who lived nearby, each time coming away disgusted with her mother’s drinking and her father’s critical attitude. If it wasn’t for Tommy, she’d have kept her distance.

Three month later, Jim came back for two weeks leave, with assignment to the USS Matthews, AKA 49, home ported in Long Beach, California. She left most of their few things–dishes and linens and records and books and her precious guitar–in a friend’s garage.

Carl Doty, Sheila’s father, insisted on taking them to the Minneapolis airport where he hugged her so tightly, arms around her like a straightjacket, that she had to push him away. Undaunted, he said, “Here’s for when you have to come back,” thrusting a one hundred dollar bill into her jacket pocket. He also demanded to pay for a return ticket.

Lily Doty, her mother, with a sickly sweet smell of whiskey filling the air every time she opened her mouth, murmured, “Don’t see why you have to leave.”

Tommy quickly hugged Sheila, then looked at Jim as if he might cry. “You’ve been like a brother. Take care of yourself.” The two guys shook hands with Tommy hanging on tightly, refusing to let go for several seconds.

Sheila had promised herself never to go back to Minneapolis without Jim, but neither of them had flown before. After a particularly scary tremor of the airplane, she feared her ability to carry out these plans. She looked at the layer of clouds outside, feeling queasy like she was coming down with the flu. How could she be trapped this high up in the sky in this big metal torpedo? Then, she kissed her fingertip and leaned toward where Jim slept, leaning on one arm, scrunched up against the window. She touched his cheek and love surged through her body. She couldn’t live without him. She would do anything to be with him. She would go anywhere in the world with him. If the airplane crashed, so be it. They’d die together.

Jim stayed asleep for most of the four-hour flight.

Once having arrived at the Los Angeles airport and retrieved their luggage–a three-piece red American Tourister set and a duffle bag–they searched for a way to get to Long Beach, eventually finding a dusty tan bus.

After the thirty-minute ride, with palm trees (something neither Sheila nor Jim had ever seen, except in pictures) lining the road, and hot summer air blowing in open windows, they were dropped off at the Seavue Hotel. Located across the street from the Pike, an amusement park which earlier would have grabbed Sheila’s attention, the hotel was a shabby orange stucco building which served as a bus depot as well as a lodging. Despite the name, there were no views of the ocean. The hotel clerk, a middle-aged man with slumped shoulders, reeking of cigarettes, helped carry their bags up to the second floor.

Upon entering the sparsely-appointed room, Jim had looked out a grimey window and immediately said, “How ’bout that amusement park for dinner? Corndogs and cotton candy?” He threw his arm over Sheila’s shoulder and stroked her elbow as they watched sailors in uniforms like his, with girls hanging on their arms, stroll through the entrance gates. When she didn’t agree at once, he added, “You love this stuff. We can ride on the Ferris wheel. I’ll bet we can see the whole town from up there. I’ll win you a teddy bear.”

“Where are we going to put a teddy bear? We’ve got enough junk to lug around. Can’t we just eat here in the hotel and go to bed?” Sheila collapsed on a worn brown armchair, feeling like she could sleep for days.

They shared a hamburger in the coffee shop–Sheila gave Jim the pickle–and went to bed still hungry, as soon as they returned to their room, for once skipping the lovemaking. In the middle of the night, she awoke to rumbling male voices and girlish giggles. A short while later, other panting, moaning sounds pierced the thin walls. Bodies slapping together. She had never heard anyone else having sex. Nudging Jim, she whispered, “Do they have to be so loud?” He sleepily chuckled, and held her tightly until morning in a tangle of threadbare sheets.

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