Life on the West Side

My mother’s lover, Clarence Neff, was a vain, gimlet-eyed, good-looking sonofabitch, with a shock of slick, dark hair combed straight back. He’d-swagger around his apartment with a smoldering look on his face—sweeping my mother up in his arms like he thought he was Rudolph Valentino or something. I’d roll my eyeballs—and head for the toilet.

To this day, I have no idea where they met or how their ill-fated affair ever developed. Even in her later years, my mother refused to talk about it.

Neffs eight-year-old daughter, Gladys, was another story. She was about a year older and about two inches taller than I was at the time. And I was surprised and delighted when she turned out to be a little offbeat and a lot of fun. She had a weird sense of humor, an abiding curiosity, a gangly look, dark bobbed hair and a lop-sided grin. Was it Clara Bow?

We became pretty good pals. Within minutes of our first meeting, she revealed in a dramatic stage whisper that she was going to be a “movie star” when she grew up.

Later, she put on a private performance for me. Wearing one of her dad’s silk shirts, she did an exultant mimic of the arrogant Neff in action. As she swept haughtily around the room in long, exaggerated strides, I thought she was nuts —but interesting. (Looking back now on that bizarre scene from long, long ago, I’d say her performance was more Groucho Marx than it was Clarence Neff—or Rudolph Valentino.)

***

My mother and I moved in with Neff and his screwball daughter. Neff had once been a carpenter, like my dad. Now he was a salesman for some kind of home fixtures company. He really thought he was hot stuff. (Famous Arrow shirts cost about two bucks at that time. Neff insisted on $20 silk shirts as his trademark, every day of the week.)

He had a “furnished” apartment on the second floor of a three-story brick building in the interesting old Lincoln Theater district of Southwest Portland. The apartment was decorated in what you might call cheap moderne—or minimal Bauhaus. Whatever. My mother’s piano looked lonely in Neffs sparsely-furnished front room, jammed up against the bare wall to one side of a bay window.

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