Marilyn Monroe, 1962
On August 5, 1962, 55 years ago, we lost her.
Some of us were there. Though only a child, I remember my feelings vividly. So powerful an impact did her death have on me, so powerful an impact did her life have on me, that the following chapter of my novel Holy Days is the first chapter of the novel that I wrote.
(Excerpted from the novel, Holy Days by Patricia Goodwin, all rights reserved.)
AUGUST 5, 1962
Daddy walked on to the porch where his brother, Jake, and some other men were working. Daddy dipped his love curl to light a cigarette - he was already my husband by then - rolling the remains of a pack of Luckies and matches up into his T-shirt sleeve.
“Jake. Did ya hear about the great loss to womanhood?” Daddy asked, speaking into his hands as he lighted his cigarette.
The porch wrapped around one side of the house and cupped its hand around the front where I’d sat on its broad rail at the age of ten and wrote my first story, “The Bright Red Color,” now immortalized in the little book with the star on it given by Mr. Mario Lanza. I loved to sit barefoot on the wooden porch rail with a book or a paper and pencil, feeling paper in my hands, holding the pencil, feeling wood warm on my bare soles. I loved to nest there as much as in a tree, its branches open like a hand to hold me.
The afternoon sun lighted the sawdust round the workmen so they seemed the haloed angels of workmen. I stood at the front screen door, where Daddy had just passed through, watching their hard, white T-shirts aglow with the setting sun. Their cigarette tips burned fiery red; pencils were stuck behind their ears; their belts looped with tools, hammers, T-squares, wrenches. Ma was making them re-do the porch; under Ma’s command, the men were screening in the porch, killing the broad wooden rail with a screen right down the middle, right between my legs where they’d go on the flat railing, my summer home, no more.
Uncle Jake, Paul, Daddy. Also, Uncles Salvi and Sonny, who were good carpenters and good men: out of their league here like priests helping to reform criminals, they lent a hand.
I loved to watch them, softened by the lighted sawdust. In the world of men, I was invisible at the screen door, though I could be seen clearly enough. I was a fat, blonde child bursting her shorts, sticky with sweat, sticky with the black drips of watermelon and popsicle on her unshaved legs, her lumpy, mosquito scabbed legs.
Uncle Jake, reaching for a board, turned his licking mouth grin to Daddy, who sucked on his cigarette, mysteriously holding in his secret a moment longer.
“So, what’s this great loss to womanhood?”
“Marilyn Monroe committed suicide.”
“Ya shittin’ me!”
“Get outta here!”
“I just heard it on the radio.”
Jake wiped his face with his handkerchief.
“Jesus - ya sure?”
“It wuz just on the radio.”
“Well, wa’ happened?”
“She took a bottle a’ pills.”
“Why the hell’d she do a thing like that?”
The men looked down at their feet; they poked the sawdust with their work boots. Jake scratched the board he was holding with his black thumbnail. Uncle Salvi frowned his disapproval of suicide; Uncle Sonny looked impressed. Daddy smoked thoughtfully, mingling grey smoke with clouds of golden sawdust. Perhaps, he considered the magnificence of his message.
“She wuz naked when they found her. Sprawled naked on the bed.”
“Who found her?”
They were silent. Deep lines instantly creased on their foreheads and held there, till Jake broke the silence with his three-toothed grin.
“Wish I wuz on that reconnaissance,” he joked.
The others agreed with a low murmur and a shuffling back to work, which continued in a silent tribute to her made by the concentration of the hammer slowly banging against the nail, the patient saw, the meditative sandpapering of board. I watched their tribute, their hard muscles flexing under their straining shirts, the square asses of men, broad across, leaning into a job, Daddy’s love curl bouncing vigorously as he worked thinking about - her.
They knew her in a way I didn’t. To me, she was flat as a television screen, painted like a doll, sparkling with color and diamonds, which she said, “were a girl’s best friend.”
They were thinking about her white skin, about the heat caught under her heavy white breasts, about the dewy moisture that grew there - and in the other place, like under arms, inside her thighs, wet, warm pockets to slide their hands in and that hard, dry thing always seeking - always - the warm, wet putting place. How they knew her.
But, they did not know her painted red lips; those were less real than the rest. Less real: her white blonde hair. Her bottomless eyes, far less real than her very bottom, their fingertips, their penis tip, quivered every time she turned around.
If I were Daddy, I would have carved her name, MARILYN, into one of the boards and, turning the board inward, secreted her name into the porch forever. But, I wasn’t him and he was not so much like me - reverent. Maybe he wasn’t even thinking about her anymore. Maybe he was thinking about the hot sun burning on his back, about the dry sawdust in his throat, maybe he was thinking about his next ice cold, throat-burning beer.
But, I was thinking about her. Thinking there was more to find out about her, more I didn’t know, but would, soon.
I would think men made her do things. “Put your leg up, Miss Monroe, there, that’s it.” “Smile, Marilyn!” “Yeah!” But, maybe, she didn’t need to be told. Maybe she knew what to do and the men just thought they were in control. She knew how to lift her leg, how to roll in the surf, and bend, pleadingly, from the waist, how to stand over a blasting hot grate so that her skirt filled famously with the wind of trains, so that trains blasted through the crotches of every man who saw her, always smiling.
I would learn she wished she was a housewife, but she wasn’t a housewife. She wished to lean, sleepy-eyed and barefaced out the sunny morning window. She wanted to be on the cover of Good Housekeeping where she said she never would be. She told a serious actress, “Oh, no! Don’t wish you were like me! People respect you!”
As I watched the work of men, I saw much to admire. Their dirty, used tools, black with oil, powdered with wood dust and curly chips, tools that worked so often, they were never cleaned by the kind of men who quit at quitting time. I saw their muscles work and grow big and wet so that their T-shirts melted to the skin of their backs making wide, sacramental rings under their arms and ceremonial wet spots dead center of their hard breasts and between the wings of their shoulder blades. My father’s neck was written with black rings. Black hair came from his nostrils and his red brow dripped black lines down his pockmarked cheek. Jake grinned every grin lasciviously, whether he meant or felt lascivious or not, with only the three, blackened yellow spikes that remained. Paul was there, foolishly lapping up the atmosphere like a little brother tagging along. When Daddy or Jake lit a cigarette (Paul couldn’t light a cigarette worth a damn, he wasn’t bad enough.), and hushed their hands over their mouths in deep communion with the wrapped tobacco bitterly burning their lips, burning a wet hole right through the cool, white paper, I smelled the quick, startled pungency as the cigarette caught fire and Daddy’s head went back pulling smoke like lava into his lungs, letting it pour round his lungs, breathing it out his nose and mouth like a dragon breathing fire and smoke, then, no one had ever lit a cigarette before, no, not James Dean or Robert Mitchum or Marlon Brando - no one.
Sawdust and the slanting, orange sun and smoke filled the porch, now getting smaller and tighter with screen, losing more and more the sweet, green air of trees.
I looked down at my nubs of breasts that were the tiniest tips of icebergs, the very topmost points of pyramids buried in a thousand years of sands, and my fat stomach, as though I had swallowed a balloon that would carry me aloft to wondrous lands, which I saw, at that moment, as my inadequacy and my gluttony and my cushion against the onslaught of the world, and I thought, I couldn’t help thinking, “What a poor substitute I am for Marilyn Monroe in my Daddy’s life.”
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest book is Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author.