| August 4, 2012 | Comments (0)

Hazel was not an ugly child, but she was homely, deadpan homely. Too thin to be called cute, which was sometimes  the saving grace of  children bereft of any shred of infantile pulcritude, Hazel was loose-limbed and uncoordinated, resembling nothing so much as a rag doll. Even her mousey brown hair was limp and lacking in character, plain as dirt; there was just nothing to be done with Hazel.

An only child, Hazel was born to aging  parents and was the apple of their eye and wanted for nothing. Even when she was still in grade school, Hazel’s mother, Flo, would plan her daughter’s future with meticulous detail as she unwound after work, having a highball – a tall vodka and iced tea – in the family’s living room. As one highball stretched into two drinks and then a third – “What the Hell !” Flo would say,  her drink spilling and her speech  thickening, “Things happen in three’s, don’t they !” – Hazel’s adolescence and then her adulthood would unfold in living color.

First, Hazel would make Dean’s list with her straight-A report cards, then she would be selected as a cheerleader and root for the Dragons, the high school basketball team. Well-fueled with Long Island Iced Tea, Flo at this point would jump to a standing position and weave through several imagined cheer leadering routines on the carpetted living room floor  – Chugga Lugga, Chugga Lugga, Sis Boom Ba ! Dragons, Dragons, Raa, Raa Raa ! Depending on the number of drinks under her belt, Flo would either transition to a Black Foot Indian War dance or simply collapse on the carpet to be scooped up by the two Japanese maid servants who always seemed to be hovering in the wings.

Flo was proud of her heritage and what she had done with her life. She wanted Hazel to follow suit and be a success too.  Being the first white child born in Black Foot Indian territory on the tribe’s largest reservation in Montana, Flo was proud she could speak Siksika, the Black Foot language . In the 1930’s she was also one of the few women of her generation from the West to get a college degree. Her first marriage had ended in disaster and death. Riding in a pick-up truck on a dusty country road outside of Billings, there had been an accident, a collision with a tractor pulling a load of hay and Flo’s husband and infant daughter were killed instantly. On-lookers at the scene of the accident remembered the image of Flo, dis-oriented, sitting in a ditch by the side of the road silently trying to re-attach the severed head of her baby daughter to its decapitated, bloody body.

Ending up in Seattle, Washington in the late 1930s, Flo threw herself into a job trying her best to forget what had happened back in  Montana. In her office she became known as a first-class worker and, after hours, gained a reputation as a good-time party girl who could left a glass and tell a joke alongside any man. Pearl Harbor had just been attacked , Seattle was flooded with uniforms and Flo met a handsome Navy ensign. After a whirlwind courtship they parted company and weeks later she received a telegram from a Navy base in  San Diego containing five words, “Is it yes or no?” Flo fired off a one-word answer, “Yes!” and left for California two days later where she married Herman in a dockside ceremony before he shipped out for the Pacific. Nine months later a child was born. Flo named the baby Hazel in honor of her first daughter who had died five years earlier on a Montana roadside.

Four years later the war ended and Herman was demobilized, landing a cushy civilian job in Japan advising the Japanese on economic recovery. Flo and Hazel joined Herman setting up their household in that golden era when Japan loved the United States, when submissive, hard-working Japanese servants were available for a song and when US government subsidies were so generous that one could practically pocket the totality of one’s salary for that Florida retirement dream  home that lay over the horizon.

Herman was never wild about the name Flo had insisted on giving their daughter. It was not a pretty name like Vanessa or Dolores or Sylvia and there was nothing you could do with it; it couldn’t be modified or tweaked. Unlike Milldred, which was a plain name that could be  shortened  to  the cuter-sounding “Mill”, Hazel was hopelessly Hazel. “Haze” or “Zel” were ridiculous and risible. Imagine, Herman thought to himself, responding to such a handle! “Zel”  sounded more like the nickname for a milking cow than a girl. But faced with his wife’s non-negotiable stance about the name Hazel, “I just want it, Herman, and that’s that !”, Herman acquiesced, being a soft-spoken man who never went against the current. His motto, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, had paid off so far in his life and he had no intention of changing horses in mid-stream.

Flo’s drunken Long Island Iced-Tea plans for Hazel continued apace. One late afternoon alone in the living room except for the household’s  two Japanese retainers, Kazuko and Chioko, who stood silently and dutifully awaiting the rattle of ice cubes in the empty highball glass, a signal that “Mama-san” needed a re-fill, Flo launched into what she foresaw as Hazel’s adulthood. Addressing the two uncomprehending servants, Flo said that first, Hazel would attend college – where she would go and what she would study was not specified at this point. Then she would meet the right young man and they would marry and Flo would PERSONALLY  oversee the  furnishing and decoration of the newlyweds’ household. There would be this and that and so on and so forth, but most particularly Flo insisted that Hazel’s new home be curtained with apple-green drapes. This she repeated and repeated. And even though Kazuko and Chioko hadn’t the slightest idea what Mama-san was talking about, they wisely nodded their heads, bowed slightly, assenting with “Hai SO desu ! (Yes that’s right)!” So it had been decided then and there that Hazel would live happily ever afterwards and that there would, above all, be  apple-green curtains.

Time passed, Hazel did marry, but there were no apple green curtains. Hazel and her new husband, George, Geordie to Hazel, honey-mooned in the Virgin Islands and liked the place so much that they decided to remain. In the tropics there were no curtains, only rattan window blinds to block the sun. If she were still alive Flo would have been disappointed, but what Flo didn’ t know wouldn’t hurt her, Hazel thought.

The years had been kind to Hazel. And it all began with a name change. From the day she arrived at college in Miami, Florida, Hazel’s name had been the butt of jokes. A kindly big-sister sorority friend suggested that Hazel might want to change her name, not modify it but change it 100 per cent. They thought and thought what the change might be and came up with the name Velle. The idea for the new name came from an unusual source. A popular detergent in use at the time was called VEL. While it was a well-known product, it was not so famous that borrowing the name and tweaking it with a modification would be recognized as name theft and open to ridicule. Admittedly it WAS a gamble. Imagine if it had occurred to anybody, what an uproar would have followed ! Ha  ha! That girl’s named after a laundry detergent !  But no one was the wiser,  the gamble paid off brilliantly and Velle it became.

As  Hazel/Velle matured, the advantages of being very plain became apparent. She was an open book, a clean slate,  a tabula rasa.  While at nineteen she had still not developed anything that could recognizably be called breasts, that was not a problem since there was always padding; “falsies” could even be insinuated into a bathing suit. Hazel’s mousey brown locks had disappeared, replaced by a platinum blonde crown.The  bangs created by Jose, her Cuban stylist gave Velle a foxy look. She was definitely Velle now, no longer Hazel. Jose  was also a wizard with make-up. Hands fluttering, he turned her non-descript mouth into a  red, bee-stung pout, naughty and inviting. The final touch was a cigarette. French-inhaling a long, slim Winston, Velle was Bette Davis circa 1940. Men followed her, asked her for dates.

Life was sweet in the Virgin Islands. Both Velle and Geordie had jobs at the premier hotel on the island; before long Geordie rose to be General Manager. Time passed and a son was born.The child was no trouble and scarcely changed the comfortable routine Velle and Geordie had carved out for themselves. They half-joked that the little boy’s real mother was the kindly Caribbean lady who was with him day and night.

Geordie began spending long hours with clients and Velle found herself with time on her hands. As she whiled away the hours having a drink by the hotel pool or sitting alone over coffee in the cafe, she was often joined by the hotel’s strapping young French chef, Phillipe who had recently joined the hotel staff, having fled the frantic cruise ship scene for what he described as the sane world.

Philippe was a sailor from Brittany and a sympathetic listener. Without realizing it, Velle began talking a lot to Philippe. She told him about her unhappy, homely childhood, her eccentric mother prone to drunken Indian dances; the marriage she felt was dissolving as she spoke. Philippe confided that he was a lonely person still looking, at 35 for the right mate who could understand him.

The day before Christmas 1980 Velle told Geordie she was leaving. He could have custody of their child, she said. She and Philippe had planned to buy a yacht and sail the world, navigating the boat to exotic destinations for rich tourists with a yen for the unusual. There was no place for a child in such a life. Geordie said he understood. They had a drink on the hotel terrace and said goodbye as friends. Once plain  and homely, always plain and homely, Geordie said to himself. Velle still had to prove that she was fetching; you could take the Plain out of the Jane,  but somehow the girl would always remain a plain malcontent.

Velle’s adventure with her frenchman was indeed an adventure. She confided to her friends who had clucked disapprovingly of her mad move, when she up and left Geordie, abandoning her three-year old son, that she had absolutely NO regrets at all… none whatsoever… it had all been fabulous.

In 2000 Velle and Philippe undertook the voyage of a lifetime with a six -month trip to Tahiti. They agreed, as they relaxed over sun-downers in Papeete after the sail, that this had been a second honeymoon. Velle had never been happier as she reflected on where her life had taken her, from a mousey little frump to a sea-sailing adventuress with an Errol Flynn-handsome husband. The following day Phillipe complained of a sharp stomach pain as they worked on the yacht’s rigging. Six months later, Philippe was dead having succumbed to cancer. Velle was left with the yacht and nothing in the bank except a note for the unpaid loan  on the boat.

Somehow Velle was unphased by it all, the death, the sudden poverty. In her heart  of hearts she knew the reason: being born and raised plain gave you strength. You had to fight, to struggle, to make yourself noticed, to matter. And she had done that and would continue to do so as long as there was breath in her body.

Six months later Velle found herself on Fifth Avenue in New York City working as an executive house-keeper for the super-rich Hirschorns. Super-rich as in having donated a wing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, super-rich as in having an entry foyer in the their apartment the size of a Wimbleton tennis court.  Dolly Hirschorn’s daughter, Mitzi, had been on a  South Pacific cruise with Velle and Philippe, a customized adventure with gourmet meals prepared  by the chef, “roughing it” in the way the super-rich are entitled to do. Through the super-rich grape vine, the most reliable way to find the best servants and retainers, Velle came to her job at 1030 Fifth Avenue. Velle’s duties were surprisingly light. With so many homes around the world, the Hirschorns were seldom in residence at “1030” as they called the Fifth Avenue place. She was more of a houseguest than a servant, Velle told herself. Mrs Hirschorm had only one iron-clad rule. NO white wine in the house. Spilled white wine, Mrs. H. said, was the enemy of antique carpets and one thing she could not tolerate was damage to her priceless rugs.

Velle laughingly assured Mrs. H. that she had nothing to worry about. For openers, she told her employer, she almost never drank; more important, she couldn’t STAND white wine. They both chuckled and agreed that things would go swimmingly.

The summer passed quickly and pleasantly enough for Velle. With her generous salary, free live-in accomodations including meals prepared by the live-in chef – even though the Hirschorns were not there, they felt the kitchen staff had to “stay in practice” and prepare meals – Velle was well on her way to accumulating a nest-egg. The loan on the yacht had been paid off and Mrs. H’s son had recommended a bundle of mutual funds to Velle that were paying sweet dividends.

Velle was pleasantly tired, having spent the day in Central Park. Returning to  “1030” around 8 PM she greeted her favorite doorman, Irish Johnny, and took the private penthouse elevator to the 30th floor. Tip-toeing barefoot across the priceless antique carpet in the foyer, she headed straight for Mrs. Hirschorn’s master bathroom adjoining the bedroom suite. Giggling, Velle decided she was going to be “naughty” and give herself  a spa treatment. She would run a piping hot bubble bath for herself in Mrs. H’s huge, deep, private tub , the kind of bath Chioko used to prepare for Flo back in Japan; she would get something nice and rare from the Hirschorns’  well-stocked liquor cabinet, have a drink and slide into the soothing, scented water.

Turning on the full-sound stereo and selecting some early Sinatra, Velle savored a rare brandy, the kind of spirit only known to the super-rich. Ambrosia. Yes, the super-rich really knew how to live. Maybe money couldn’t buy total happiness, but it sure came close to it.  Tipping the decanter again, Velle lifted her glass and toasted the golden sounds of the “Chairman.” Sinatra was the coolest, she giggled to herself, realizing that she had become tipsy.

Looking down at her feet she saw a stream of water coming from the master bath. Yikes ! Velle thought. I didn’t turn off the bath water and it’s run over and the bathroom’s flooding. Rushing to the tub she turned off the water then laughed at it all. What the hell, she thought. I’m not spilling white wine on her precious carpet ! Finding herself in a devil-may-care state of intoxication Velle decided to take her bath with her clothes ON ! Like when Philippe would throw her into the pool with her  dress on. What mad fun that was !

Mounting the granite steps to the tub, her brandy glass in hand, Velle  uttered a lusty “Bottoms Up !” As she twirled merrily on the slippery marble, giggling, she fell  with a deadly thud, hitting her temple on the sharp corner of the tub. Sinking into the warm water, a lovely pattern of scarlet encircled Velle’s smiling face. Sinatra was in high form; the superlative sound system made it seem that the Chairman was right there singing to Velle.  He was. He was crooning her favorite song, “For All We Know, We May Never Meet  Again.”








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