Sherry Shahan has been facilitating writers workshops for three decades. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing class for UCLA for 10 years. Her novel in verse PURPLE DAZE: A Far Out Trip, 1965 features a tumultuous time in history. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared widely in international magazines and literary journals.
THE RABBIT DIED
The year was 1948, in the Southern California town of Long Beach.
Sylvia Jean Brunner had just turned sixteen when she met my smooth-talking father, Frank, Webb, Jr., who bragged about being an actor, even producing eight-by-ten black-and-white glossies stamped with the signature of his Hollywood agent.
My Midwest-born grandparents, Kiki and Art, were ultra conservative, the odd couple at the beach in wool suits, hats, and gloves. Imagine their horror when their only daughter missed successive periods.
Poor Mom was rushed to the family doctor so fast she scuffed her black-and-white saddle oxfords. After peeing in a paper cup her sample was injected into a female rabbit.
“The rabbit died.” Finger-pointing whispers ensued, a euphemism for a positive pregnancy test. But that’s misleading since all rabbits tested died. A few days after the injection, they were surgically sliced open for an inspection of their ovaries, which would
change in response to hormones secreted by pregnant women. No one took the time to stitch up the poor bunnies. They were simply tossed out with the trash. Later, frogs took their place in the lab.
No birth control pills until 1960, though various forms of the tortuous IUD had been around since the 1600s. Mom’s rabbit wasn’t the last in our family to die. Mine bellied up 17 years later.
While writing this I wonder why Daddy wasn’t charged with ‘unlawful intercourse with a minor,’ more commonly called statutory rape, since Sylvia Jean was under eighteen. And why didn’t the jerk-off use condoms? Like, No balloons, no party!
My parents had little in common other than his sperm swimming through her cervix and up her uterus. Maybe she wanted to escape her overly strict parents? Maybe he believed being married would help him clean up his act?
In January 1949, my grandparents loaded and aimed the metaphorical shotgun. There aren’t any photos of their wedding. But in pictures around that time, Mom looked like a young Sophia Loren with dusky cat eyes and naturally full lips. She wore fashionable dresses with snug collars and formfitting bodices. Her hair was drawn up on the sides in an auburn jellyroll, the back cascading in waves.
Being married didn’t keep her from being expelled from Long Beach High School. Her condition was too visible, evidence that she’d done the dirty deed. Apparently the principal didn’t want other students imagining wild fun in the backseat of a convertible.
My soon-to-be parents moved into a shabby little motel that proclaimed “efficiencies,” such as a kitchenette. Grandpa Art arranged for my dad to work on the assembly line at a factory that built aircraft.
My teenage mom did the only thing she could and shut herself in the motel room, absent from friends and family. Other than sporadic visits from her best friend, she was alone, bored, and humiliated by her situation. So she turned to greasy burgers and fries from the joint across the street. Her enviable five-foot-six, one-hundred-twenty pound figure blew up by 70 pounds.
I arrived mid-August, 1949. Seven-pounds-thirteen-ounces, twenty-one inches long. I probably would’ve been taller than my adult five-foot-three if I hadn’t started smoking in fourth grade. They named me Sherry Jean Webb.
Around this time one of Daddy’s drinking buddies offered cheap rent—a furnished one-room cottage that shared a spacious corner lot with his family’s rambling ranch house in San Fernando Valley. A newly painted white picket fence hemmed the cottage, but I imagined beware to all who enter whispered from the flowerbed.
Our new landlords Margaret and Bill, whose last I name I’ve lost, had a son my age, an insipid goody two-shoes, named Michael, who refused to be my accomplice when I snatched an unopened box of brown sugar from his parents’ kitchen. I crouched on the side of the house, eating the entire box on my own, which is likely the reason I’m not all that fond of sweets.
Margaret and Bill also had a teenage daughter, so Daddy had a playmate, too.
My grandparents adored my mom, who had also been a “surprise,” born ten years after her brother. And they adored me, spoiling their first grandchild. But they abhorred their son-in-law, recognizing a snake-charmer when they saw one.
Grandpa Art had comb-marks in his thinning hair, narrow furrows of silver. Old-school stern of German heritage, he’d moved to California after his European tour in World War I. I never felt close to him, felt more like he was a far-flung relative to occasionally visit, though his pipe-smoking ritual fascinated me.
I’d sit at his feet, watching him unzip the soft leather pouch that held cherry tobacco, tapping the dried leaves into an ornately carved meerschaum pipe bowl, a souvenir from the war. He’d wink at me before making an O with his mouth and pushing out A-1 smoke rings. It wouldn’t be that long before I’d be practicing with borrowed cigarettes or packs stolen from the drug store.
Daddy portrayed the characters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—an entertaining, loveable guy when sober, and a cruel, remorseless Hyde after drinking the poisonous potion. Instead of building up a tolerance, as happened in Robert Luis Stevenson’s allegoric tale, it took less and less poison for Daddy’s dark switch to flip.
Daddy rarely endorsed a paycheck after being fired from the aircraft factory for ignoring the hours of his shift and continued to feel misunderstood. He considered himself an artist, an actor of mythical scope, later adding playwright to his imaginary résumé.
More than a decade before the Motion Picture Association volunteered a film rating system, Daddy swept me off to a matinee of Tennessee Williams’ film, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), adapted from his Pulitzer Prize winning 1947 play.
Muscled in a tight white t-shirt, Stanley Kowalski (played Marlon Brando) brandished a bottle and treated his wife and sister-in-law like shit, so I believed Daddy might be a movie star after all.
As if further descent into drunken debauchery should be part of my education he thought I should see Williams play-to-screen adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). I smacked Sugar Daddies, enthralled by Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie-the-Cat because she had the moxie to sashay in her silk slip and rocket cone bra in front of all of us in the theater.
Maggie’s handsome husband, Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) was also weighed down by the bottle. I wonder if Daddy’s matinee playdates were subconscious efforts to justify his own degenerate-self, as Freudian as that sounds.
During our occasional Sunday drives to Long Beach we’d gather at my grandparents’ house, before making sure the neighbors knew we were going to church as a family. I fidgeted in a starched petticoat and a dumb dress with pink roses on it.
Afterward, we drove to a coffee shop and waited in the lobby for a table. Grandpa Art questioned Daddy about job prospects. “Fathers and husbands provide for their families.”
Everyone knew about Daddy’s allergy to time-cards, though he did have a short-term pool cleaning business. It didn’t require much—a long-handled skimmer, chemical tester, and the correct ratio of chlorine to muriatic acid. A stiff brush to scrub the tile coping, if you were ambitious.
Daddy’s clients weren’t home during the day, so he took his time hanging out in backyards in fancy neighborhoods, drinking beer from their fridges, and getting a George Hamilton tan. He bragged about having film star singer Debbie Reynolds as a client. That’s the story he told, though never in detail.
The next we heard he’d lost Debbie Reynolds’ account, because she filled in her pool with dirt. No one bought it. Then, in her 1988 autobiography Debbie: My Life, she wrote about digging up her backyard and putting in a swimming pool while her father was out of town. She had the words “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” a hit from the movie Singing in the Rain written on the steps in colored tile.
Debbie’s father disliked it so much that he had the pool filled in, in 1955, when his daughter, his second child, married Eddie Fisher. Later, Eddie Fisher dumped Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor and Mommy dumped Daddy, so I hoped Daddy and Debbie would get together.
Back to that Sunday afternoon at the coffee shop. Daddy was about as interested in Grandpa Art’s lectures about getting a job as he was in the $1.99 pancake specials; mostly because he couldn’t get away with ordering beer for breakfast.
Grandma Kiki wedged herself between Daddy and Grandpa under too bright lights, a reluctant referee in a pillbox hat secured with pins long enough to scratch their eyes out.
Daddy chain-smoked Winston’s, even sang the slogan with the two-beat claps near the end by flicking his cigarette lighter. Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. Fred Flintstone did the same thing with his lighter in a 1960s TV ad.
Too proper to smoke in public, Kiki steered me down the narrow corridor to the ladies room. Standing by the sink, she peeled off her white gloves and plucked a filterless Camel from her handbag. “Our little secret, okay?”
I nodded. I was good at secrets.
Grandma Kiki reapplied peaches and cream lipstick with the same hand that held her cigarette. She had a fair complexion and steel gray hair permed in waves. She never learned to drive, squirmed restlessly as a passenger, and rarely left the house without her husband. I vaguely remember her stoic-looking parents from old photos and tales of their journey to California in a covered wagon.
My grandmother had an endearing habit of dabbing tobacco off her tongue with her pinkie finger. It seemed so Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. She and I shared the same shady half-moons under our eyes, though hers looked more romantic, less like messy smears. Our gray-green irises were genetic glue. I liked that.
This may seem an ordinary family story but I’m not sure that’s altogether true.
Implementing Objective Correlative
I recently helped facilitate a writing workshop focusing on revision. Most of the participants had agents and were widely published. Yet brows furrowed when I mentioned the literary device Objective Correlative.
Simply put, an objective correlative is an object in a story with a symbolic purpose. It can be an everyday item or action that evokes an image—or an emotional response in your readers that implies a larger meaning.
The following example is from my novel, Skin and Bones (A. Whitman & Co.), a quirky love story set in an Eating Disorders Unit of a hospital. Early in the story, the main character “Bones” puts on latex gloves before he eats; he believes calories can be absorbed through his skin. Later, he forgets to put on gloves at mealtime. Without saying so, readers understand that his recovery has begun.
Near the end, Bones tosses the gloves in the trash. It’s a purposeful act, so readers know he’s becoming healthier. I never had to say it. Latex gloves did it for me.
Here’s an example from the TV series Vinyl, a period drama produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese. The main character Richie is a record producer who’s forced to sell his Lear Jet to make his company’s payroll. The camera lingers on the plane’s tail number (18) one last time from Richie’s viewpoint.
Later, at a Vegas floorshow, the camera zooms in on a table placard: No. 18. The following day, Richie is forced to take a commercial flight. He drowns his sorrows in a couple of stiff cocktails and then sets the empty glasses on the book he’s been reading. He adds the stir stick.
The flight attendant picks up his trash and we see: The rings from the two glasses have formed an “8.” The stir stick is a “1.” The number 18 is a clear reference to his jet.
Richie didn’t have to verbalize how rotten he felt about being crammed into a commercial flight, instead of being on the private jet he loved so much. The audience recognizes it in the telling details, in the objective correlative.
Objective correlative turns an object, event or character into an emissary that asks a question not directly on the page. It’s laid down intentionally and at purposeful intervals. The repeated use of objects to mirror events allows readers to identify them as something greater than the sum of their parts.
The object becomes a beacon guiding us toward a larger, thematic meaning in the work. They our stories unfold more quickly, because the object takes the place of wordy explanations.
The two examples presented an object three times. But there aren’t any rules here. Longer work might need more repetition. Trust your gut.
Well-known objective correlatives:
The red hunting hat in Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The car in Stephen King’s Christine.
The face Tom Hanks paints on the soccer ball in Castaway.
Rosebud in Orson Well’s Citizen Kane. Any time I find myself telling readers what’s going on I pause, put an object on the page, and let the feelings it evokes do the work for me. I get my point sooner and with more subtlety and heightened tension.