LEARNING TO CRY
The boy grew up in a hotel for traveling salesmen across the street from the train station in a very small town. The hotel was white clapboard, two stories tall, plain and neat, set about by trees that in the summer grew over the windows and cloaked the downstairs in thick shade. The boy liked to lie on the front-parlor carpet, tracing its wreaths of faded roses and listening for the train whistle, then for the traveling men as they alit, swinging their creaking leather sample cases, then for the smack of their wingtip shoes as they stepped up to the front door. The traveling salesmen wore bowler hats and houndstooth vests and watch fobs. They sat downstairs at the long cherrywood table, packing away the gravy-soaked meals his grandmother and the hired girls cooked for them, holding their sides and laughing. They'd been to Omaha and Kansas City and Chicago. They'd seen skylines ablaze with electric lights and gone to plays -- oh, plenty of 'em, and sure, there were pretty girls even in a little burg like this one, they'd tell one another, but, oh brother, how about those gals on the stage? The traveling men never stayed long in Brainard -- a night, maybe two. They gave the boy peppermint candies and distracted pats on the head. They hummed little snatches of ragtime while they trimmed their magnificent mustaches.
The boy did not have his own room. His grandmother wanted to keep most of the rooms available for the commercial men, and the few left over for the hired girls, whose fathers sent them to work in the hotel so they could learn how to cook from Mrs. Talbot. The girls were seventeen, eighteen years old, farm girls, from Czech families, though this was before there was a country of Czechoslovakia, so they were called Bohemians or, less kindly, Bohunks. At night, the boy crawled in with whichever of them would have him, snuggling down under their white comforters, listening to their soft snores and the words they muttered in Czech, smelling the faint whiff of onion and caraway on their curled fingers. In the summer, the breeze from the open windows stirred the lace curtains and the tendrils of hair pasted against their necks. In the winter, he pressed as close as he could to their warm backs. He knew only a few words of Czech, but the phrase he remembered all his life was "Hezka holka, dej mi hubicka." "Pretty girl, give me a kiss."
The hired girls woke in the smudgy light before dawn -- Mrs. Talbot was a strict employer -- but he scrunched down under the covers, hoping he wouldn't be ejected. At night, the girls laughed, and let him watch as they brushed out their long hair, heavy and glistening as horses' tails, but in the morning they were snappish and yawning, and told him to run along. He did little jigs, sang them a stirring Irish song about a boy and a girl with an ocean between them, told them about how he tried to ride the Jersey cow and how she'd tossed him. At night, the hired girls listened and sometimes clapped their hands with delight, but in the morning, he could try the same routine and they only sighed, stony-eyed, and shoved him out the door. None of them was his mother, after all.
His mother, he knew, was dead. He knew this because his grandmother told him so, and because every so often she called him to her side and took from a small velvet-lined box a lock of his mother's hair. It was pale gold and feathery, like a butterfly's wing. The first time he saw it, he felt nothing in particular, except confusion, because when his grandmother looked at it, she wept, and she was not generally a weeping woman. But the boy, whose name was Lyle, did not remember his mother; he had been just a baby when she died. When he did not cry, his grandmother told him he would get a beating unless he did -- "Think," she said, "of your poor mama" -- and then she took him over her knees and paddled him. The next time she brought out the velvet-lined box, he thought of the beating and how his bottom had stung, and he managed to squeeze out a tear. It wasn't quite good enough for his grandmother, but it was a start. The time after that, he screwed his eyes shut as tightly as he could and thought not so much of his poor mama as of his poor self, facing another paddling and unable to feel what his grandmother so urgently wanted him to feel. He produced a choking sob, and then, to his surprise, an increasingly persuasive crescendo of them. His grandmother sat back in her chair, exhausted. "That's my boy, Lyle," she said, and then closed her eyes.
Excerpted from "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century" by Margaret Talbot by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2012 by Margaret Talbot.