Desert Blues

Desert Blues

by Bill Albert

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On the fifth day of July, 1957, Harold Abelstein’s father, Norman, tried to make a U-turn on the Pasadena Freeway. A short time later, Harold awoke in a hospital bed battered and parentless. That was bad enough. Worse was that his remaining relative was Aunt Enid and everything about Aunt Enid embarrassed him. Wearing too much make-up and not enough clothes,

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On the fifth day of July, 1957, Harold Abelstein’s father, Norman, tried to make a U-turn on the Pasadena Freeway. A short time later, Harold awoke in a hospital bed battered and parentless. That was bad enough. Worse was that his remaining relative was Aunt Enid and everything about Aunt Enid embarrassed him. Wearing too much make-up and not enough clothes, she talked loudly and touched everyone, especially Harold. He didn’t like being touched. Having to deal with each other, Harold and Enid are forced to learn important truths about themselves. The result is a poignant, extremely funny tale of misunderstanding, understanding and self-discovery set in the small town which was Palm Springs in the 1950s.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Swinging from poignant drama to edgy satire to farce, Albert's moving and funny first novel pairs an awkward orphaned adolescent immersed in 1950s rock 'n' roll and an unconventional ``kept'' woman. In 1957, confused, taciturn and fat 15-year-old Harold Abelstein, survivor of a car crash that killed his parents, goes to live with his Aunt Enid, a Palm Springs, Calif., cocktail waitress whose flowery perfumes, loud talk and constant pinching and touching make him uncomfortable. Enid's rent and car are provided gratis by her part-time lover, incredibly self-absorbed Archie Blatt, a St. Louis garment manufacturer who pops in a few times a year to escape his invalid wife and teenage daughters. Though resenting her dependence, Enid faces a bigger problem when her manipulative, self-pitying father, Abe, who walked out on the family 25 years ago, suddenly reappears, shabby, reeking of whiskey and terminally ill. Tensions snap as Abe grows ever sicker and then Archie shows up, forcing four disparate souls to fitfully coexist under one roof. With a fine ear for dialogue, Albert perfectly captures a time and place-and the emotional chafing between family members who can't help but care for one another, despite themselves. (Dec.)
Mary Carroll
Set in 1957, "Desert Blues", a first novel, tells of pudgy R & B aficionado Harold Abelstein, almost 16, who is orphaned (Harold's father reacted to his wife's kvetching by making a U-turn on the Pasadena Freeway) and forced to live with his mother's flashy sister Enid Carson in Palm Springs. Enid is a "kept woman," supported by St. Louis clothing manufacturer Archie Blatt, who relishes this warm-weather escape from his invalid wife and teenage daughters. Enid wants to help her silent, clumsy nephew but wonders how Archie will feel about her new housemate. The situation grows more complex when her father arrives, a dying drunk who deserted his family in the Depression. "Desert Blues" has its full share of hilarious, and touching, moments. Albert skillfully captures the small western town ambience of the celebrity winter resort sweltering through the dog days of summer.

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Chapter One

Freeway Driving

Harold always knew that his father was a stinking, lousy driver but just how stinking and how lousy he didn't find out until the day the old man tried to make a U-turn on the Pasadena Freeway.

    They were on their way to Palm Springs for the weekend to visit his aunt, his mother's younger sister. When his mother said they were going his father had protested. He always did. It never made any difference.

    "But we never go this time of year. July is murder there. You can fry eggs on the sidewalk. Maybe we should wait until October or something. Wadda you say, Sylvia?"

    "What do I say? I say no. You're not going to melt, Norman, or fry on the sidewalk like an egg, and besides, I want to see my sister. For Christ sake, it's only two days!"

    "Jesus, Sylvia, you know she hates me! And two days is two days. You and the boy go. OK? I'll be fine here by myself."

    "Norman, she doesn't hate you, it's you! You hate her! And the boy's name is Harold."

    "For the love of God! Sylvia, please!"

    "No pleases. No! And, if you don't go how are we supposed to get there? The Greyhound? Five hours with a lot of cowboys and shvartzers, stopping in every cockamamy town from Azusa to Banning? Is that what you expect me to do? Is it?"

    "You should learn to drive," he said lamely, the battle slipping from his grasp, the war long sincelost.

    His mother snorted dismissively and strode out of the room.

    "Sylvia! I don't ... Ah, hell!"

    His father slumped down in his easy chair, staring vacantly at the wall through heavy horn-rimmed glasses. His hands knotted into small fists. He held the fists up in front of him as if trying to decide what to do with them. Harold knew there was nothing his father could do with them. He never had. He never would.

    Harold was sitting in the far corner of the room trying not to be noticed. However, the corner wasn't far enough away for not being noticed.

    "Wadda you think, Harry? You wanna go down there?"

    He didn't have to ask. Harold hated the long tedious drive, his parents' constant quarreling, his father's nervy erratic driving. And at the end of it there was Aunt Enid. Every time she saw him she gushed all over him, pinching and cooing as if he were still a small baby.

    "So big, Harold! How did you get so big? Give your Aunt Enid a nice kiss. Come on, darling, I haven't seen you forever!"

    She stank of flowery perfume. When she got near him the sickly-sweet vapors pushed uninvited up Harold's nose. Aunt Enid's odor clung to his clothes for days.

    And Palm Springs. At home, in Los Angeles, he had his records, his friends, seven different TV stations, and the endless selection of dark, forbidden movie theaters on Hollywood Boulevard. In Palm Springs he didn't know any kids, there were only three movie theaters, if you didn't include the Sun-Air Drive-In, which the carless Harold didn't, and only four TV stations. In short, there was nothing to do. Nothing, that is, for an overweight redheaded kid who sweated a lot and whose skin burned a stinging pink in the desert sun. No, Palm Springs was a place for golfers and tennis players and guys that pretended to be cowboys; in other words, a place for jerks. It was most definitely not for Harold Abelstein. He saw himself as strictly a big-city sidewalks kind of guy.

    "Come on, Harold darling, the pool is lovely and cool. Why don't you get into a pair of trunks?"

    "Uh, no thanks, Aunt Enid."

    "It's not healthy, a big boy like you staying in the house all day long. Fresh air. You need fresh air, not TV all the time. Ten, fifteen minutes, that's all. I promise you, you won't burn. Look, darling, the sun is almost behind the mountain."

    He tried not to notice the curls of dark pubic hair that escaped from the crotch of her swimsuit or her breasts, large, oily-brown and strapped loosely to her chest with a bikini top.

    Everything about Aunt Enid made him uncomfortable. Mascara gave her eyes a look of perpetual surprise, her mouth was too big, swollen to an unnatural size by bright red lipstick. She talked loudly and touched everyone. Not even the milkman was safe. With red-nailed fingers she would tap out secret messages on his arm while ordering a pound of butter, an extra quart of milk. Harold didn't like being touched.

    The only thing that kept him sane on those long weekends was the certain knowledge that they were only long weekends. That soon he would be home again, away from the sun, the heat, the endless desert sand, and especially away from his aunt's unavoidable, overripe body.

* * *

He rarely listened to his parents' constant arguments. Their quarrels were the background static of his life. Only when he heard his own name would he tune in, and then very cautiously, not wanting to hear too much. So, he could never remember exactly what they were arguing about before his father missed the turnoff for the San Bernadino Freeway. What happened immediately afterwards he could never forget.

    "Norman, now look what you've done! Why don't you pay attention?"


    "The freeway, the freeway! You're on the wrong one! Pasadena! Pasadena! We're on our way to Pasadena. You know somebody there maybe? Somebody maybe you're not telling me about?"

    "What? Who? Hey, I couldn't ..."

    "Look, for God sake!"

    At this point Harold began to listen more closely. He looked out the window to see if they actually had taken the wrong freeway. The pale blur of stucco tract houses on both sides of the road told him nothing.

    It was very hot in the car. Harold was sweating and could hardly breathe. His father said if you kept the windows closed the smog wouldn't get in. He'd heard there was a lot of smog in Pasadena.

    Soon they were in the far right hand lane and moving slowly. Now Harold could make out the individual houses with their thin green lawns and new wooden fences. The driver behind them honked. Immediately another, louder deeper horn sounded, followed by the hiss of air brakes and the squeal of fires. Harold did not turn around.

    "If you hadn't been yenting on and on at me, Sylvia ..."

    "A yente, am I? A yente! Sure, sure, always my fault, isn't it? God, I don't know about you, Norman, I really don't."

    "You don't know what about me?" his father shouted, his hands tightening on the wheel, his voice rising in an indignant squeak.

    They were now in the emergency lane, moving about five miles an hour. A steady stream of traffic rushed by them. The wind displaced by the big trucks rocked them gently from side to side. Finally, his father stopped the car. His mother's voice rose another quarrelsome octave.

    "So, now we have to go all the way to Pasadena I suppose? An extra hour, maybe more. Dumb, Norman. Really, really dumb. We'll have to stop so I can call Enid. You know she's expecting us for lunch? Norman? Norman, what do you think you're doing? Norman!"

    He had put the car in reverse, rolled down the window, stuck his head out and was backing up, apparently searching for the misplaced San Bernadino Freeway. His wife continued to shout, to pull at his shirt, but Harold's father was through listening.

    After a few minutes he stopped. He pulled his head back into the car, straightened his glasses. His thin face was contorted. Harold saw flecks of saliva bubbling at the corners of his mouth. He thought it was the effects of the Pasadena smog pouting in through the carelessly opened window. Almost immediately he realized it wasn't the smog.

    "You don't wanna go to Pasadena?" his father screamed. "Right, no Pasadena! No fucking Pasadena for the Abelsteins!'


    Harold threw himself from the back seat to the floor of the car.

* * *

Harold had come to lying in a hospital bed. He tried to move but had to close his eyes against the pain which bayoneted through his forehead. He lay very still. When he opened his eyes again, a young man in a white coat was standing next to the bed looking down at him. He picked up Harold's wrist, checked his watch.

    "How do you feel now, Harold?"

    His head ached, and he was sick to his stomach.

    "Huh? Oh, fine, I guess."

    The man patted his arm.

    "Good. Very good. I'm glad to see you're back with us."

    Back, Harold thought. Where have I been? Then he remembered.

    The freeway. His mother shouting then screaming, a drawn out howl weaving its way through the sound of tearing metal and breaking glass as the car was flung over on its side. He had tried to hold onto the floor, to dig his fingernails into the thin carpet. It was impossible. He let go. Something hit him on the side of the head.

    He was lying on the road. He could feel pieces of gravel digging into his back. Otherwise there was no pain. There was little sensation at all. Flashing red lights, men shouting, sirens. The picture faded. He was staring up at the man in the white coat.

    "Where's my mom? Dad?" he asked, panic blurring his voice.

    The man didn't answer. He studied Harold's medical notes. After a couple of minutes he hooked the metal clipboard to the end of the bed and smiled at Harold.

    "You just rest now, son. Dr. Mason will be in to see you in a little while."

    "Where's my mom?" Harold shouted, as the door swung closed behind the man in the white coat.

    Almost immediately the door was swung back the other way and a nurse came into the room. She was very short, her muscular legs encased in thick white stockings. She marched over to Harold's bed.

    "Now, now what's all this shouting, Harold? We don't allow shouting in here. This is a hospital, you know, not a playground."

    "But where ..." Harold began to say.

    He didn't get any further. A cold thermometer was thrust under his tongue.

    "Um, ah, mu," he spluttered.

    "Under your tongue, young man. Close your mouth. No talking."

    Bristles of black hair poked up from the side of a large reddish wart on the nurse's upper lip. She was so close to him that he couldn't not stare at it. He looked up from the wart and straight into the nurse's flinty-dark eyes. They glared at him over the top of the wart. He was too startled to look away. He was caught in the glare of her eyes like a jackrabbit on a nighttime highway.

    After a couple of minutes she yanked the thermometer from under his tongue.

    "Fine," she said. "Good."

    "My mother. Where's my mother? My father?"

    The nurse looked away. She straightened the sheets, took the clipboard and wrote something down.


    A cold knot took hold in his stomach. He knew something terrible had happened. The chill spread into his chest.

    "Doctor will explain everything to you. You've had a nasty bump on the head. Just rest now."

    Why did everyone tell him to rest?

    They nurse left the room. He was alone again.

    They were dead. They had to be dead. Or at least very badly hurt. Why else would nobody tell him anything?

    It was his fault. He had willed it. In fact, his daydream fantasy alternated between everyone feeling sorry for him because he was an orphan and his parents standing over his grave, guilty for all the times they had yelled at him, punished him. All their injustices repaid with his death. But, he was alive, they were dead.

    Half an hour later an older man in a white coat came into the room.

    "Hello, Harold," he said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I'm Dr. Mason."

    Dr. Mason's cheeks were deeply creased, his eyes sad. Years of giving people bad news. Harold knew his bad news was on its way.

    "How do you feel, Harold?"

    "OK, thanks."

    He didn't want to ask the doctor about his parents. Maybe if he didn't ask they would be alright. He wanted them to be alright. After all, he did love them. At least he supposed he did. They were his parents. He knew that deep down, below the day-to-day stuff, everyone loved their parents. Only, sometimes he had wondered whether they really were his parents.

    "You got red hair in your family, Sylvia?"

    "A hundred times, Norman, a hundred times the same question. I got the same answer. No. No red hair. Satisfied?"

    "Yeah, but listen, I suppose it happens sometimes?"

    "Sure," she said, "it happens, sometimes it happens."

    Both his parents had dark brown hair and brown eyes. A red-haired green-eyed son led to lots of jokes about the iceman. Harold had never seen an iceman.

    The doctor took a pencil flashlight from his pocket.

    "Now look straight ahead please."

    The light shined deep into Harold's eye.

    "Right, now the other one. Uh-huh. Thank you. Well, Harold, I think you're going to be 100%. A little concussion and some cuts and bruises. You're a very lucky boy. You remember what happened?"

    "Uh, sort of. Not much of it though."

    "You know it was a serious accident, don't you?"

    "Yeah, I suppose."

    "Well, I'm afraid it was much worse for your mother and father, Harold."

    Harold looked down at his hands. They were soft fat hands. Red freckled hands. He didn't like his hands very much. They reminded him of his body, which he also didn't like. Puppy fat, his mother said. It would go in time, she said. That didn't make him feel any better about the rolls around his middle or his thick white thighs. It was definitely not the body he wanted. Not athletic, not built for dancing or surfing or getting a tan or most of the other things kids his age were doing. Of course, he knew that he didn't actually want to dance or surf or waste time getting a tan because it was all pretty dumb stuff, but he also didn't want to be too white, too fat and too slow. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the pillow.

    The doctor cleared his throat.

    "You know they're dead, don't you, son? Your parents."

    Harold nodded. He didn't look at the doctor.

    "I'm sorry. Really sorry. There's nothing anyone can say to you to make it right."

    Harold was numb. He didn't know where to begin. He felt completely empty.

    The door opened. He looked up. It was Aunt Enid. She'd been crying. Harold burst into tears.

Excerpted from DESERT BLUES by Bill Albert. Copyright © 1994 by Bill Albert. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.

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