The Blakes moved into the neighborhood when I was ten. I remember because there was a knock on the door and Mrs. Blake stood in the hallway wearing black Capri pants, a gold turban on her head and a cigarette dangling from her red lips. She explained that she had just moved in and needed some sugar for her coffee. Would my mother like to come over for coffee?
My mother blinked. She smelled the distinct smell of alcohol wafting in her direction and told her "maybe another time." She did give her the sugar. When I appeared at the door Mrs. Blake asked how old I was. My mother's voice became uncharacteristically chirpy all of a sudden. "She's ten! Double digits! They grow up so fast, don't they?" She closed the door. "Bye now!"
Maybe it was my mother's southern upbringing kicking in. Her voice sounded high and unnaturally chipper when she didn't like you. I knew that Mrs Blake didn't stand a chance in hell with my mother. Her flaming red hair from a box plus her red lipstick plus a turban plus being drunk at 11 am? Mrs. Blake would have had a better chance of finding a friend on Mars than at my mother's door.
My mother had had quite enough of drinkers. We had just moved into this new apartment leaving my father and his stash of whiskey bottles behind. The last thing my mother wanted was a friend who was drunk before noon.
According to Mrs. Blake, her husband had been a famous movie producer. Apparently he'd had some trouble out there in Hollywood and had settled for a little while in our city. A kind of hiatus, she told me. I believed her. I was only ten and still believed most everything people told me. Besides, Mr. Blake wore an ascot and a silk bathrobe every time I saw him. If that didn't prove he was from Hollywood, I don't know what did. One day in the laundry room, Mrs. Blake told me it was called a "dressing gown" not a bathrobe. She also told me that she had been an artist in New York. That explained the turban. I secretly liked running into Mrs. Blake in the laundry room. I learned about ascots and dressing gowns and Hollywood back-stabbing.
Mr. and Mrs. Blake fascinated me. They had vague British accents that usually became stronger the more they drank. While my mother was fixing dinner we heard them arguing about things like whether real talent was found in New York or Hollywood. According to Mrs. Blake, if you had talent you went to New York. Their arguments always seemed sophisticated and intellectual to me. They were never about money or unpaid bills or the things my parents fought about.
I never saw Mrs. Blake go out for groceries. Yet she always had a cigarette and a drink in her hand when she came to our door to borrow something. My mother would turn on her chirpy voice, and I knew Mrs. Blake needed a cup of something. Sometimes she would send Barbara or Connie, her two impossibly thin, impossibly sad daughters to ask my mother for whatever it was she needed. Barbara was the older one. My age actually. I wanted to play with her but I was given strict instructions never to set foot in their apartment.
Barbara and Connie always looked hungry and a little dirty. My mother would let them come into our apartment when they came to borrow something. She didn't make them stand in the hallway.
They stayed for dinner one evening after mentioning that their mother was still asleep. My mother put spaghetti and meatballs in front of them. They ate platefuls of my mother's cooking. Slowly and with impeccably good manners, they filled their stomachs without a word. I concluded that Hollywood must be a terrible place to make little girls that hungry and that sad.
Months went by and I didn't see them or hear anything from their apartment for awhile. Mrs. Blake returned one day to the apartment by herself. They were moving, she informed us. Mr. Blake had died and she was taking the girls back to California to spread her husband's ashes in the Pacific Ocean.
"In fact, I've got him right here," she told my mother, patting the "Chock Full o' Nuts" (the heavenly coffee) can she was holding. She had been drinking more than usual and braced herself against the entry of our doorway. "Are you sure you won't come over for coffee?"
I remember my mother's horrified look. She politely declined Mrs. Blake's invitation but she never took her eyes off the coffee can.
That was the last day I saw her. My mother told me the girls had been shipped off to live with relatives. I watched the movers load Mrs. Blake's worldly possessions onto their truck. The red velvet couch, the beaded lamps, the boxes and boxes of books. I sat on the front steps and watched them load paintings and sculptures I realized must have been Mrs Blake's art work.
Maybe she really had been a famous artist and he a well-known movie producer in Hollywood at one time. I couldn't say for sure.
At ten, I had no idea who Leo Tolstoy was and had never heard of Anna Karenina. But I did know with absolute certainty that every unhappy family really was unhappy in its own way.
Our unhappiness looked quite dull next to the unhappiness of our Hollywood neighbors.