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Watching Marilyn

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

One night years ago, when my husband and I lived the implausibly leisured lives of graduate students, we were sitting up very late watching Marilyn Monroe on television. It was one of her better movies. And we were debating if she were or were not so luscious, so desirable. Did she deserve her fame? We were discussing this issue and watching the blond star strut inside the neon pallor of the screen when we heard a curious and sudden sound outside. It was a loud burst—almost as if something inhuman had tried to vocalize the word, “PLOT!” This sound was followed at once by another, a tinkling swish, the characteristic noise of breaking glass. Marilyn, whose satin dress was stretched tightly across her breasts, was just opening her mouth to say something that we never heard . . .for we rushed downstairs at once and opened the door.

Outside on the quiet, house-crowded street where streetlights shone, there was nothing to be seen except parked cars and the black shapes of gables and foliage. No cars passed. No pets strolled. There were no people. It was a warm, summery, California night. Even though it was very late, we were still fully clothed. Without having to return to the house to dress, and without any hesitation, we walked down the sidewalk to the corner. On the four-lane main thoroughfare, about 50 feet from where we stood, the pavement was littered with glittering fragments. Moving closer and crossing the street, we saw that the large window of a storefront had been blown out. The dangerous shark-fin shards of the glass still adhering to the window frame ringed the dark and silent interior.

“Hello anybody!” I called. We didn’t move closer.

“Let’s phone the police,” said my husband. And we went back to our house and did exactly that. Then we returned to the street to wait, along with the several other people who had gathered to examine the disaster. The damaged building had once been a neighborhood grocery store, but its space had been leased to a small political group which called itself the Peace and Freedom Party. They counseled young men who wished to avoid the draft and they organized anti-war demonstrations. This was their headquarters.

All of us stayed a respectful distance from the debris. In fact, we huddled under the streetlight as if its glow were an umbrella and the blackness surrounding us, rain, Everyone felt relief when the blue beacon of the squad car came around the corner—even though it was the late 1960’s, a time when the police were not popular.

Two policemen got out of the car, which they had parked so as to avoid the broken glass. Their uniform buttons glowed in an authoritative, official manner, and the static of their radio sporadically sizzled. We watched as one of the policemen began to circle the house with a powerful flashlight in his hand. The other began to ask questions; and finding that my husband and I were the ones who had reported the incident, he flipped over to a new leaf on his clipboard pad. He began to take down our names and our address as carefully as if we had been responsible,

“We were watching the late movie,” I felt moved to explain to him.”We were watching Marilyn Monroe.”

“We heard the explosion at approximately twelve fifteen,” said my husband.

“We thought it was a car accident,” I said.

“We didn’t know what it was,” my husband said.

The officer asked us if, as we approached, we had observed anyone running or driving away.

“It was too dark to see them,” I said.

“Them?” asked the officer, halting the scribble of his ballpoint pen.

“We saw no one,” said my husband. “We only heard the explosion,” He gave me a sharp look,

The officer with the flashlight came around the corner of the building to report to his companion that there was no one on the premises.”Three other windows in the back blown out. And inside, in one of the rooms, there’s a cot with a pillow and blankets, but nobody on it.”

Then the officer with the clipboard handed over his notes and took the flashlight so that he could see for himself. When he returned from his inspection, he affirmed there were no injured persons. He mentioned that he had seen metal fragments which had sprayed over the walls and had caught sight of the bomb casing—a length of common steel pipe—lying on the floor.

“All right, everybody, there’s nothing to worry about. Let’s all go home,” said one of the policemen, making shooing motions with his hands.”Nobody’s hurt and there’s nothing to see.”

The crowd dispersed. My husband and I went back to our house and caught the last of the movie. Surely something satisfying and romantic had been happening in the course of the hour, for Marilyn Monroe looked happy.”She’s not my type,” said my husband as he unbuttoned and removed his shirt in front of the screen, “but I can see that if she were my type, she’d be the ultimate.”

The next morning, shamefully early, I went out to see if anything else had happened to the unfortunate headquarters of the Peace and Freedom Party. I found the scene pleasantly abuzz. There was a small crowd of citizens murmuring questions. Already the glass had been swept from the street. The police had cordoned off the area to a radius of 20 feet, and several policemen stood around—calm, bored, uninformative—with their thumbs hooked in their belts, looking the very image of quiescent legality.

My husband was not with me. I suppose he was off at a class, or reading—certainly doing what he should have been doing. I, however, have always been attracted to the sidelines of destruction. I could not have kept myself away. When it comes to violence, I want neither to commit it nor to submit to it. I want merely as a spectator to feel the solemn elation which comes over me at the illusion of my escape. To stand in the debris and feel genuinely, even if inexplicably, saved. It was a breeze-ruffled, sunny morning, and I stood there looking at what remained of the shattered windows, feeling a simple, ghoulish thrill that I had not been blown to pieces and that my house was still intact.

It was at that moment that there emerged from the door-way a young man accompanied by a policeman. He was stooped, carrying a bundle of what seemed to be clothes and some books. He was not older than 25, and he looked nervous and upset. The moment he ducked under the restraining strand of rope, which a member of the crowd politely held up for him, a news reporter, who happened to be standing at my elbow, seized the youth and began asking eager questions.

“I just want to get out of here,” said the young man, who was about to drop his books. He had several books and what looked like some embroidered shirts wadded close to his chest. I reached out impulsively to stop the books from crashing to the ground. A fall always weakens a book’s spine. Reaching out to help support the teetering pile of books was how I inadvertently became involved with a fellow to whom I never otherwise would have spoken. He said at once, “Hi! Let’s go to your place. Where do you live?” And I told him— “Over there”—before I had reconsidered and wished I had not, The reporter followed us for several yards, but was put off when my new friend turned to him and said, quite sympathetically, “Sorry, man—but the lawyers told me not to talk,”

He did talk to me, however. He talked to me for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon. His name was Joseph Ignaze. He was about my height—not tall for a man. His hair was a golden frizz, and his skin, like good beach sand, was coarse and very white. His gauntness, the length and delicacy of his hands, his denim clothes gave him the air of divinity in masquerade—as though he were the angel Gabriel dressed as a student or janitor. He had grown up in Evanston, Illinois, flunked out of Cornell, worked abroad in a German coal mine, and moved to California the previous summer, He believed he had been put on the earth for a purpose as yet unrevealed to him. After his sister had thrown him out of her San Francisco apartment, the Peace and Freedom Party had let him sleep in their office in exchange for his stuffing envelopes and fixing lunch for the working members.

This was what I learned as I gave him a cup of tea and a sandwich. He cautiously removed the baloney from the bread and requested cheese or watercress.”Do you have any almonds? Maybe an apple?” he asked. While he ate, he was perfectly silent, chewing slowly and serenely. He proved to be really quite pleasant. His face was gentled by a disproportionate gratitude for small favors. For example, he behaved as if the cup of tea had cost me a great deal of money. I noticed that he wore a necklace, and by way of making conversation not too self-revealing, I remarked on it by asking, “What’s that you’re wearing around your neck?”

“See if you can guess.” This he said with a gesture, lifting his chin and holding out the trinkets strung on the fine gold chain,

“It looks like a bell and a claw.” The bell made a slight tinging sound—and I realized that that was what I had been hearing faintly, like loose change in a deep coat pocket, all during our conversation.

“That’s right,” he said. “A brass bell and a lion’s claw— both from India.” He was altogether grave, serious, without humor.”The bell symbolizes the spirit, and the claw symbolizes the flesh.”

“I see.”

“Do you believe in charms?” He was looking at me. His eyes were green, yet flecked with little dots.

“Charms? I wear jewelry, if that’s what you mean,” I said. I held out my left hand and pointed.”Two rings. This one symbolizes engagement and this one symbolizes marriage.”

He didn’t seem to realize that I was teasing him, He resumed staring at me with a solemn face.”That’s beautiful, really beautiful,” he said.

Using my telephone, Joseph Ignaze called his sister in San Francisco, He spoke eloquently of his predicament. The hand that was not holding the phone receiver waved expansively to emphasize the extent of the explosion’s damage. But she would not let him come back. I thought her singularly pitiless for someone whose blood relative had narrowly escaped being atomized by a bomb.

“She’s not my sister anyway,” Joseph confessed after he had hung up.”I just said that because I didn’t know that you were married. She was my girl once, my old lady.”

Then Joseph insisted on washing his teacup and his plate, even though I protested it wasn’t necessary. I noticed how he soaped them and held them under the water, not so much to clean them—but as if the china pieces were sentient and enjoyed being given a bath, he let the water course over their surfaces. It was an odd and endearing act.

His books included Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and The Hobbit, as well as a vegetarian cook book and a work of science fiction. We talked of the books we liked. We both loved Kafka. While I prepared dinner, he leaned against the kitchen wall and drew a harmonica from his pocket. He played it well, although he was a perfectionist and would break a tune to repeat phrases that didn’t suit him . . .until they were just the way that he thought they should be, and then he would continue. As he blew into the instrument, then sucked air back, his cheeks would puff and collapse as his eyebrows wavered. In high passages, his forehead wrinkled horizontally; in low or difficult passages, his forehead leapt into the verticals of a frown. By the time my husband came back from wherever he had been doing whatever it was, I had become fond of Joseph and had decided to suggest that he spend the next few nights with us.

“He’s even a vegetarian. He won’t eat much,” I whispered out in the hall. My husband is suspicious, the sort who imagines that the gas meter reader will steal the stereo.

“We can’t have that guy living with us. Suppose those bomb throwers are after his ass.”

“Exactly. What will he do? Where will he hide?”

“Not here. He can hide someplace that needs blowing up. Like the Army Induction Center.”

“Have a heart, darling,”

“I do. I also have a life. And it’s worth saving.”

“But nobody saw him come over here.”

“Yeah? Well, nobody saw who bombed that headquarters.”

Very sadly I served dinner. Josph ate with us, ravenously, everything but the stew. Since I had never actually suggested that he stay at our house, he had no reason to believe that he was being rejected,

“If you eat meat,” Joseph was saying to my husband with reckless eagerness, “it creates tensions in the gut here and here.” He pointed to areas on his abdomen.”These tensions, in turn, create an imbalance in the homeostasis and erupt as aggression,”

My husband was silent, looking at Joseph and chewing his beef stew somewhat aggressively. Finally he said, “As I see it, if humans weren’t supposed to eat meat, they wouldn’t develop bicuspeds.” Then my husband swallowed and pulled back his upper lip in a ferocious sneer, indicating his teeth with the point of his knife.

Undaunted, Joseph went on talking about food as the agent of all human thought and emotion. He talked of yen and yang. He counted protein units on his fingers and said many fascinating things, most of which I have forgotten, about soybeans. After we had finished dinner and my husband went upstairs to read the news and watch television, I gave Joseph a brown paper bag full of all the raw vegetables in the refrigerator,

“Keep safe,” I said, waving good-bye.

“Keep smiling,” said Joseph.

The next day the morning newspaper carried an editorial on the Peace and Freedom Party episode. The conservative editor noted that radical leftist groups were usually responsible for terrorist bombings—ergo the Party members must have bombed themselves. They were trying to enlist public sympathy in a frighteningly bizarre way—but it wouldn’t work: so said the editor.

As I thought of Joseph’s carefully cultivated homeostasis, his love for soybeans, his meatless sandwich, his unsweetened tea, I laughed at the editor’s theory. Joseph the mad bomber—absurd 1 But then I stopped laughing as I considered that we were living on the West coast in an area where stranger things had happened. Whom could you trust? I was ready to believe that Joseph might have manufactured a bomb and thrown it into his own sleeping quarters, for after all, it seemed just the sort of weird and convoluted motivation that might take root in a land of huge eucalyptus and feathery acacia trees. The vegetation was strange, the people were strange. I was glad to be rid of Joseph.

Since I was in that frame of mind, you can imagine how startled I was to walk through the back door—I was carrying out the garbage before fixing a late breakfast—to find Joseph with his bare arms bent wing-like over his face. He was sleeping on sheets, under blankets, on a cot that was not ours. Obviously in the dark of the night he had moved his belongings from the damaged headquarters and had set himself up on our screened back porch among our plant pots and gardening tools.


He sighed and unfolded his arms.

” Joseph 1”

Surprised, he sat bolt upright. He looked as pathetic as a furbearing animal when it’s wet—sort of half the normal size. He was nude and his bare chest was ridged with ribs. His collar bones were prominent. He rubbed his eyes, then looked at me as I stood there, an angry woman with garbage in her arms.

“Hi,” he said. “I hope it’s cool, my sleeping here.”

“You should have asked.”

“I would have. Except I thought I would sleep at the headquarters. But after I shook the glass out of the blankets, I got scared.” He rubbed his hair, which stood up in shining, fluffy coils.”So I came back here and saw no lights on. You must have been asleep. I thought you wouldn’t mind.”

“How did you get that here?” I nodded at the cot.

“Easy, It’s on casters. You just fold it up and roll it away.” He gestured, folding the palms of his hands together.

“Well, you better just fold it right up and roll it away before my husband sees you,” I said sourly. I don’t like being surprised. I pushed at the screen door with my shoulder and began to step carefully down the stairs with the garbage.

At once Joseph sprang from the cot saying “Let me help you.”

He pulled the sack from me—its yogurt cartons, egg shells, coffee grounds, and glittering wads of tinfoil trembling precariously—and with a ceremonial calm, in dazzling nakedness, he carried the load to the covered metal cans across the yard. The bright white cheeks of his buttocks seemed to float over the lawn.

It took me by surprise that my husband did not share my annoyance. He almost seemed to admire Joseph’s boldness. And Joseph, in a brilliant diplomatic move, repaired our birdfeeder that had been ravaged by squirrels, a task my husband had been putting off. It came to pass that my husband lost his qualms about Joseph at almost the same time I discovered my own apprehensions. My husband rarely argues with a fait accompli. Joseph was allowed to sleep on our back porch for days and on into weeks. Occasionally I would search his belongings for gunpowder and wires. I was not convinced that he had not been making bombs. But in all my searching, I never found what I couldn’t explain or approve. This fact, however, did not make me relax my guard or feel less suspicious. In dark moments, I was almost convinced that Joseph was diabolical. After all, why shouldn’t he fashion explosive devices and terrorize the population? What had he to lose? If one comes to believe that the world is made up of two sorts of people, the drivers and the hitchhikers, Joseph was definitely a man with a cardboard sign as yet uninscribed with a destination—and we drivers, my husband and I, had picked him up, perhaps unwisely.

Joseph was always cheerful and helpful. He sat beside me at the kitchen table peeling vegetables, and he went to the laundromat with me, lifting whatever was heavy and reminding me to put the clorox in the white loads. He was companionable and domestic—as my husband never had been. Food stamps and a small legacy (he was spending the whole of the capital) gave him his leisure. He took an exuberant delight in the mundane. He might spend an entire morning sewing a patch on his clothes or reparing his belt buckle or searching for wild onions in a vacant lot.

Our conversations, when they did not concern matters such as which brand of laundry soap interfered with the environment the least, were centered on politics, Joseph loved to talk about “the Oppressors” and “the People.” Listening to his recapitulation of the news was like listening to an old-fashioned radio show. The mighty Oppressors aimed their rifles, and the People stuck flowers down the barrels. The Oppressors kept records of what everyone was doing and saying— and the People broke into the office and poured goat’s blood over the files.

“The Revolution,” said Joseph, pushing my cart through the grocery store, “will change all this.”

“You mean we won’t have to eat any more?” I said this while dividing 16 ounces at $1.45 by twelve ounces at 97(f.

“The Revolution will see to it that everyone has enough to eat. No more starvation.”

Joseph was the thinnest person in the store. One of the people who definitely was not starving pushed her bulk and her cart past us.

“Who’s starving?” I asked.

“Lots of people. You never see them on the streets because they are herded together and kept in special compounds. We live in a carefully planned ignorance of mass suffering. The people cannot cry out with one voice, for they haven’t been organized. They cannot break their chains, for they haven’t learned to pull together.”

As we walked down the produce aisle, we saw a girl who wore a big sandwich placard which was reminding the world at large to boycott grapes. Joseph patted her affectionately on the arm as he passed her.”Right on!” he said.

When my husband and I were alone together late one afternoon, I related the gist of my conversations with Joseph. He smiled and shook his head.

“But are there special compounds where starving people are hidden?” I asked.

“Beats me. I wouldn’t doubt it.” One of my husband’s favorite pretenses is that he believes everything.”I do know one thing,” he said, “and that is that Joseph needs a woman.” He chuckled.

“A woman! I suppose you mean just any woman.” I was annoyed.

“I didn’t say that. All I said was that Joseph needs a woman.”

“You think an affair would affect his politics?”

“Maybe not. But it would certainly affect his life.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I said. “Joseph should fall in love.”

“Oh love!” my husband said and shook the newspaper so it would stand upright in his hands.

“Don’t say “love” in that tone of voice.”

“Don’t get upset. I meant only that Joseph would do well to go out and find himself a woman. Love’s not so easy to find. Love just happens.”

It is my husband’s theory that love is a species of road accident—the unavoidable collision of two people traveling in opposite directions who suddenly find themselves too damaged to move on.

“I wish you’d talk to Joseph about the Revolution,” I said.

But my husband had dismissed the subject by beginning to read.

I sat there, reflective and uneasy. Lately I had been learning something unpleasant about myself, and I felt ashamed. My contentment had made me a fiendish spectator of Joseph’s life. I had pawed through his few belongings feeling glad that my own possessions were so numerous. I had observed his loneliness and rejoiced that I was married. I had been skeptical of his philosophies and theories, mocking them, even though I was just as mystified as he by cruelty and destruction on a grand scale. Something of my own smug self-satisfaction was finally being blown apart.

They put a new window in the storefront, and the Peace and Freedom Party reinstalled the mimeograph machine. Joseph rolled his cot back to the headquarters and set himself up in a room littered with envelopes and hung with posters. We were still friends. Often he came over in the evenings, sometimes to eat whatever vegetables or rice I had served with our carnivorous meal. Sometimes just to talk. He had bought a red book and as I washed dishes he would read me some quotations of Chairman Mao. There was something that began: “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend. . . .” Sometimes he sat on the back porch meditating in a trance. Sometimes he played his harmonica—only slow, sad tunes.

One evening Joseph stayed with us unusually late and sat with us on the sagging divan as we watched the late movie on television. The network must have been running a special series that season, for again we found ourselves staring at Marilyn Monroe. She was for us, that evening, the very image of beauty—what is rare that can instantaneously and for no reason be lost.

Joseph leaned forward and said, “Oh wow! She’s fantastic. Why don’t I get lucky and find a woman just like her?”


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