Nancy Lane tells the life story of a hard working Irish immigrant in America at the turn of the last century.
Michael dropped his duffel bag to the dusty floor. "No, no, you scrawny kid, you're not bunking in this room. Adult men, Americans, stay in this room. You belong in the basement with the Italian boys," Mrs. Arnold snarled. "They all look alike. But you'll stand out with them blue eyes. You best be stronger than you look so you can do the work I tell you. You can't live here free. You'll pay me with work and sweat 'til you have coin in your pocket from the bakery. Miller's gonna work you harder than me. You best be happy now 'cause you won't be too happy next week."
Michael Rourke was small but smart, having earned a university degree in accounting in Dublin at age seventeen. Post-Potato Famine Ireland was still in deep economic depression. Michael's father wanted his only son to find the prosperity and happiness found by others who had emigrated.
Michael worked in Miller's Bakery six days a week, making bread in the hot ovens from four until noon, filling in for Miller as cashier while Miller took lunch, then cleaning ovens and sweeping the floor until Miller dismissed him.
Upon first meeting Jack Miller, Michael showed him a priest's letter of introduction referencing Michael's accounting degree. Miller threw the letter on the floor and kicked Michael in the shin. "That's what I think about Paddy University. I know 'bout you Micks. Thank God you nearly speak English. I-talians can't wait on customers."
The boy worked hard, and Miller noticed business picking up. Women came with their young daughters to buy baked goods. The girls all stared at Michael as he tallied the mothers' orders. Michael told Miller sales could be predicted somewhat based on regular customers' habits. Soon Miller asked Michael to plan the daily baking. Michael noticed the glances of the young ladies and started flashing smiles their way after the mothers had turned away from the counter. Within two months, Miller gave Michael a raise, promoted him to full time sales, and hired another Irish lad to do all the baking, cleaning, and sweeping.
Michael had fallen away from the Church, not attending services since the last time in Dublin with his family. He felt like his own man in America; and the longer he stayed away, the longer the path back to the Church stretched. He told himself there would be plenty of time in later years to go back to his Catholicism. He didn't miss his Church, but he did miss his family. He sent a letter home so his mother would have his address in America. The postmaster told him not to expect a reply soon; letters took two months to cross the Atlantic and longer during winter.
Michael's raise at the bakery gave him money to squander. His Italian bunk mates took him to taverns where he met girls, many of whom were American-born children of Italian immigrants. Michael didn't think about their nationality, but about their soft skin and deep brown eyes. He even learned a few Italian phrases to impress the young ladies. The Italian boys introduced him to drinking, flirting, and escorting tipsy beauties to the grassy knoll behind the bandstand in the park. Michael celebrated his eighteenth birthday with a multi-national group of revelers: several Italian-American girls, two Italian boys, a Swede and two Scottish brothers.
"War? Sure!" A headline burst from a newspaper one of the Scots had spread on the bar top. The Scots wanted to go to war as an adventure. The party ended with them escorting drunken Michael to the boarding house and Michael agreeing to sign up with a New York State company of volunteer militiamen, rallying to avenge perceived wrongs perpetrated by Spaniards.
Michael's company reached the bay at Santiago de Cuba at the end of May, 1898, staying aboard ship as the US Navy executed a blockade of the Spanish ships. In June, Michael's company disembarked and joined a camp of militiamen on the city's outskirts. As the weeks dragged on, the would-be combatants heard more news reports than gun reports. Camp conditions were primitive. The men feared getting sick more than getting shot. Word spread of victories at Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. By the end of July, Michael's company was sailing back.
It was midnight. Michael and Charlie had just completed a grim task ordered by the company's captain. They stood together on the ship's upper deck and waited for the new day to replace what had become for each the worst day of a short life. Many onboard the homeward bound vessel had taken ill. One had died on the ship as it slipped out of the bay. The captain ordered a burial-at-sea, requiring Michael and Charlie to wrap the body in blankets and secure it with ropes and anchors. Michael whispered the Lord's Prayer as he and Charlie hoisted the dead man overboard.
"You know, Mike, that wasn't a real war." Charlie Bauer said.
In his transition from bakery boy to Spanish-American War veteran, Michael had also transitioned to "Mike."
"We faced real dangers on foreign soil while carrying the American flag. How can you say the war wasn't real?" said Mike.
"We were in real danger. No lie. But the war was started to sell newspapers and give Teddy Roosevelt more clout, not to free the Cubans," Charlie persisted.
"You came all the way from Nebraska to fight for America. Why if you thought the war was contrived?" Mike asked.
"I didn't know at the time. My father insisted I volunteer. But some of the boys from Chicago said the news reports they heard didn't square with what the New York Journal reported."
"I don't know 'bout that," said Mike. "I just want to get back to New York."
"I'll go back to Nebraska," declared Charlie. "But from there I'll head to San Francisco. Fortunes are to be made on the West Coast. When you settle, mail me a letter to San Francisco, General Delivery."
On Mike's return to New York City, Mrs. Arnold handed him a letter postmarked from Dublin. Mike tore the envelope excitedly, finding that his sister, not his mother, had written. Mike wept as he read. Mike's father died shortly after Mike left for America, and his mother passed a few months later. Mike had realized he might never see his father, but expected someday to return and see his mother. Now he had no reason to return. His sisters would be fine. The older girls had married well and would look after the younger girls.
In his last year in New York City, Mike partied in the taverns each night. Depending on the mood or dynamics of the tavern-goers, Mike might end an evening by fighting, flirting, or fleeing.
"I heard you fought in the Spanish-American War." The woman slipped into the stool next to Mike. "So which are you, Spanish or American?"
"American, of course. I'm Yankee Doodle. But you can call me Mike." He had noticed the blonde when she entered the tavern. Her ample red lips and powdered white complexion impressed as she looked intently into his blue eyes. His affair with Marlena Wolfe started that night and continued for several months.
"My father says he will come after you with his gun if you don't do the right thing," Marlena declared one night. "My father and I will meet you at the courthouse steps, noon tomorrow."
Mike felt like a caged animal as Marlena told him how his life would unfold and unravel. She told him they were having a baby and that she would be Mrs. Rourke the next day. Mike questioned she was having a baby. She slapped his face. He questioned she knew for sure it was his. She slapped him again.
The next morning Mike fled, boarding a Boston-bound train. At nineteen, he didn't feel ready to marry. If he knew for sure Marlena was with child and if he could be certain the baby was his, he would have married Marlena. The threat of Marlena's father coming after him made it so Mike had no time to think or discuss matters with Marlena. He felt she should have told him before getting her father involved.
"Where can I find work?" he asked the first Boston bartender he met.
"Everywhere," answered the bartender. "Boston has lots of work. 'Course most of you Irishmen get work in one of two places, the priesthood or the police department."
"Not me. I'm too sinful for the priesthood and too short for the police force," Mike replied.
The Boston Terminal Company hired Mike as an accountant. At night in his apartment, Mike wrestled with guilt and loneliness. Without family in America, he felt lost. He reached out, sending a letter to Charlie.
Charlie replied quickly, "Mike, I've so much good news. I married a gorgeous artist. I'm the happiest fellow in the world. I now belong to Bessie and Southern Pacific. You've got to hire on to the railroad, Mike. There's so much fortune to mine in a railroad career. I'm in sales. I sign clients to move freight along the West Coast and inland too. Tracks are being laid everywhere. Great opportunities. Write soon."
Mike knew at once he was San Francisco-bound, not because of fortune's lure, but because, with that letter, he began to treasure Charlie as the brother he never had. Charlie was the closest thing he had to family on the continent. Charlie, just a couple years older than Mike, had spent the last year and a half well. Mike felt Charlie's friendship and counsel should be sought.
Mike hired on at the Southern Pacific office in San Francisco. Dinner with the Bauers became a monthly routine. Bessie would invite an additional dinner guest, seating an unmarried lady next to Mike at the table. Bessie's friends were proper ladies with fine manners. Mike didn't warm to any of them. After Bessie ceased her matchmaking efforts, Mike would ask if he could bring a friend with him to dinner. He seldom brought the same lady twice.
Prohibition curbed Mike's drinking and brawling. Bessie said the Eighteenth Amendment helped Mike grow up. Mike, now clear-eyed, was clear-thinking. That proved more curse than blessing because Mike became introspective. "I can't figure one damn reason why I'm here in America. Where am I going? What's the purpose?" His purpose would not emerge until after a move to Los Angeles.
In 1928 the Bauers moved to Los Angeles. Charlie wrote, "We bought an automobile because no one can live in Los Angeles without one. You must see it - a De Soto Six! We got a house north of downtown. Now I drive to work. The company offices downtown are sprawling, just like all of Los Angeles. Reminds me of milk spilled on a floor, the edges going out in all directions. You must visit. Bessie says hello. Regards, Charlie."
Mike moved to Los Angeles early in 1929. He collected rents from first floor retail spaces in Southern Pacific's downtown buildings. Mike bought a De Soto Six as Charlie had. Boulevards lined with palm trees rolled out to golden beaches under cloudless skies and to foothill canyons sporting wildflowers year round. On weekends Mike fanned out, searching locales he had read about. Hollywood topped the list. Mike imagined life as a movie celebrity.
Mike asked neighbor Joseph about good places to go. One Saturday morning, Mike encountered Joseph in the apartment courtyard.
"Mike, there's a bathing beauty contest in Long Beach this afternoon. You should go," Joseph suggested. "You'll meet ladies there."
"I don't know. How many ladies will enter the contest, and how many men will be there trying to get a date with them? Don't like my odds, Joseph," replied Mike.
"Man, I thought you were smart. I'm not talkin' 'bout meeting contestants. Think about it. If a lot of men go there to meet ladies, a lot of ladies will go there to meet men. Your odds won't be bad," Joseph winked.
Mike found a seat in the bleachers as the contest began. Many in the audience had never seen the modern bathing suits: colorful wool tank tops with swimsuit legs extending to mid thigh.
Mike noticed a woman sitting alone at the end of a bleacher row. He waited to see if anyone joined her. Nobody came. The woman finally turned her head and then turned away. Mike continued to stare. The woman turned again, this time sticking her tongue out at Mike.
"Please excuse me, Lady. I didn't mean to stare," he said.
"Yes you did. And I caught you at it," she replied.
"You're right. I stared because your red hair reminds me of two of my sisters in Ireland, Brigit and Corey."
She didn't reply.
"I have seven sisters," he continued. When she did not respond, he turned to walk away.
"My name's Anna. What's yours?" she said.
"I'm Mike Rourke. Glad to meet you, Anna. It's almost evening. How are you getting home?" He was concerned about the lady walking home in darkness.
"I took the Red Car here. I'll go back the same way," she replied.
"I could drive you in my De Soto. Have you ever ridden in an automobile?"
"Yes, of course," Anna said. "My brother-in-law owns a Model T."
Mike drove Anna to a house owned by her sister and brother-in-law, where Anna, a thirty-six year old spinster, lived in a back apartment. She worked as a seamstress, making clothes and doing alterations for neighbors and friends.
"Where are you from?" Mike asked.
"No you're not," he challenged. "I met boys from Detroit. They didn't talk like you. Say 'wash,' like washing clothes," he coaxed.
"Warsh," she said, finally smiling.
"Now say, 'I like Mike and want to know all about him.'"
She giggled, "I like Mike and want to know all aboot him."
"Aha. You're from Canada. I'm right, aren't I?"
"I was born in London, Ontario. When my folks passed, my brothers stayed on the farm and we girls moved to Detroit. Lizzy and I moved here aboot ten years ago," she said.
Anna and Mike began a relationship. He took her out to eat most Saturdays and visited with her family, Lizzy and Bill. He took her to meet the Bauers, who were surprised and pleased he continued the relationship throughout the summer.
The mellow summer of 1929 in Los Angeles was a great memory to cherish even as the stock market crashed and a decade of business uncertainty and mass unemployment began. But Mike and Anna had more immediate concerns in the autumn of 1929.
Bill and Lizzy were attending church as Mike and Anna sat in the parlor of their home. "I'm going to have a baby," Anna announced.
Now at forty-nine, Mike felt like a caged animal as he had at nineteen when Marlena had made the same announcement. But that was Marlena, not Anna. And now he was a man, not a boy. Mike thought, "What would Charlie do?"
"Anna, will you marry me?" Mike asked, getting down on one knee as an afterthought.
Mike and Anna married. Margaret Rourke was born in April, 1930. The family moved to Tujunga, not far from Charlie and Bessie. Although the Great Depression made life hard for many neighbors, Mike continued supporting his family well with his job at Southern Pacific. Mike and Anna were generous, delivering boxes of groceries to folks having a hard time. Mike brought fabric home from the garment shops downtown, and Anna sewed clothes needed by families who couldn't afford them.
Margie befriended a Jewish girl on her first day at school. The girl's father had emigrated from London, her mother from Lithuania. Just as Mike had endured ethnic ridicule, so did this Jewish family in Tujunga. Mike felt a kinship with every man who came from somewhere else.
The Twenty-first Amendment ended prohibition and restarted Mike's drinking habit. Mike spent Saturday afternoons and most evenings at the local tavern. Anna took Margaret to the picture show matinee on Saturdays.
"Mike, you can get a divorce ya know. The movie stars get divorced. Why don't you divorce Anna and marry me?" Nellie worked at the tavern and lived in a room in back. She and Mike were having an affair.
"Sorry, can't do that. I'm Catholic. Divorce may be legal, but it's not allowed if you're Catholic."
"Catholic, you? I've known you for five years, and you've never gone to church in that time. You may have been born Catholic, but you're not Catholic now."
"Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. It doesn't matter if I don't go to church," Mike replied.
"You're not going to Heaven. I tell you right now."
"Oh yes I am. St. Peter will stop me at the gate because he'll smell my singed coat. But when I tell him my name, he'll wave me through. God forgives sinners named Michael."
"Then just leave Anna. Come away with me. We don't need to get married," Nellie implored.
"I'm going to tell you something, Nellie. Listen. I don't love Anna. But I will not leave Margie. She is the love of my life, the purpose of my life. She needs me to protect her and guide her. I didn't become a father until late in life. I must see Margie grow up and get married."
Margaret proved to be a child of worries. "Daddy, the president said we will be in war against Germany and Japan. I'm so afraid." Margaret, at age ten with wide set green eyes and curly blond hair, sat on the floor next to the radio and listened to Roosevelt's Fireside Chats.
"The war will not touch a hair on your head, my angel," Mike promised Margaret. As it was, except for shortages of some goods and periodic air raid siren practices, the war had no effect on the family.
By the time Margie finished high school, she was tall and willowy, a head turner. In his last year with the railroad, Mike took her with him on days he ventured away from downtown on railroad business. Margie kept her head down, not seeing the admiring stares of young men. Mike knew Margie feared conversations with strangers because of her stuttering. Afflicted from early childhood and teased mercilessly throughout her school years, Margie believed her impediment worse than it was. She stammered slightly on words beginning with "s." Margie didn't stammer around those she knew, just around strangers.
"Margie, here's a dollar. You can get out here. There's our favorite ice cream parlor. Order what you like. I need to talk to Mr. Joiner about rent contracts. I'll park along the boulevard. Joiner's office is two blocks. Meet you shortly. Don't leave the shop."
"Yes, Daddy. I love coming with you to Santa Monica," Margie said.
At the counter, Margie ordered vanilla ice cream. She wanted strawberry, but the girl behind the counter was new, not one of the girls Margie was familiar with. Margie sat at the crowded counter, not wanting to take a table, as she was by herself and didn't know how long Mike would be. The young man at the counter seat next to hers turned toward her.
"Good afternoon, Miss. Lovely day for ice cream," he said.
"My name is Paul. Paul Murphy that is. What's your name?"
Margie kept her head down as she told Paul her name.
Paul continued trying to start a conversation, getting only a head shake or nod out of Margie. He was still trying when Mike walked in and introduced himself.
"Are you a military man, Paul?" Mike asked the young man.
"Army, Private First Class, honorable discharge. I served in France during the war. Was sure glad to get home," Paul said.
"Do you live nearby?"
"Rampart, near Wilshire, Mr. Rourke."
"Are you working now?" Mike continued his questions.
"Yes, Sir. I work nights in the shipping department of a supply company. Been there six months now." Paul said.
"Good for you, Paul. Here's my business card. I sure appreciate you boys serving our country. Telephone me. You are welcome to come for dinner anytime. My wife makes terrific beef stew," Mike said.
Paul thanked Mike, said goodbye to Margie, and left to catch his bus home.
Mike took the counter seat next to Margie. "That's a fine man, and he likes you," Mike said.
"No he doesn't. Nobody likes anybody who stutters. I'll never get a boyfriend or a husband," Margie said.
"Don't say that, Margie. Did you see Paul trying to meet any of the other girls here? Your shyness intrigued him. Our flaws, like me being short, make us more attractive because we're more approachable."
Margie smiled. Mike always made her feel better.
Paul accepted dinner invitations to the Rourke home and became Margie's steady boyfriend, frequently taking her roller skating, bowling and to Saturday movie matinees.
"Daddy, Paul talks as if we'll marry someday. I don't think we should. He's the only boy I've dated. How will I know if he's the right one?" said Margie.
"Oh, my dear, he's the right one. Don't think you have to date others. These days, young women aren't safe in Los Angeles. You might meet the Black Dahlia murderer. The police still haven't caught that monster, maybe never will. Stick with Paul. He's safe," Mike replied. "Marry Paul and have children while you're young. I waited too long. But at least I've been here to see you grow up."
"Daddy, shouldn't I find a job before I get married?"
"Women don't have a chance at a good career, Margie. You see how the classified ads are divided up, only a few jobs, like babysitter or switchboard operator, are offered to women. Men can be radio repairmen, store managers, car salesmen, truck drivers, accountants, policemen - no limits. I predict someday women will have the same opportunities, but not now."
Mike regarded Margie's pensive look. "You know what else I predict, Darling?" Mike's smile teased something intriguing.
"Men will go to the moon someday, Margie. And women will go too, not at first, but after the men build a base camp. Like the pioneers, men will blaze the path and women will join them to make a colony on the moon. You wait and see."
Margie tried to imagine Paul on the moon, sending for her to join him once their house was completed.
Mike had an eager audience in Margie on the many occasions they went for ice cream and he shared his thoughts on what the future would hold. As he retired, two years after Charlie did, Mike felt optimistic about future opportunities for all.
"Mike, Bessie telephoned last night while you were out," Anna said as she poured Mike's morning coffee. "She said Charlie is in the hospital and wants you to come." Anna was tight-lipped as she delivered the message. Arriving home after the tavern closed, Mike had once again plowed down the rhododendrons Anna had planted next to the driveway.
Bessie and her sister Glenda sat on a couch in the hospital waiting room. They clung to one another, sobbing together. Bessie told Mike of Charlie's inoperable brain tumor, and that Charlie had only a few more days to live. Mike patted Bessie's shoulder and asked if he could go in and see Charlie. Bessie told Mike to wait, that another visitor was with Charlie.
Mike spun his hat on his finger as he paced and waited. In a few minutes, a scowling, heavy-set man dressed in a wrinkled gray suit emerged from Charlie's room, glaring at Bessie and regarding Mike quickly as he bounded to the corridor and pounded the elevator button as if he wanted to break it.
Charlie's gaunt appearance surprised Mike. Charlie's eyes were dark ringed holes, his mouth a lipless, dry slit. Mike knew he was looking at Death.
Charlie's voice belied his appearance with its clarity as he spoke. "Mike, we have been friends since the night we had to hoist that dead boy over the side of our ship. I have to tell you something."
"I'm listening, my friend."
"Mike, I'm homosexual. I never told you." Charlie's ringed eyes seem to search Mike's face for reaction.
"Wait now. You and Bessie have been happily married all these years." Mike thought Charlie must be out of his head, saying something ridiculous.
"Bessie is homosexual too, a lesbian. Her lover is Glenda. We've always introduced Glenda as Bessie's sister. Our marriage is one of convenience and necessity. We each would be ruined if the truth came out. As a married couple, we have been able to hide our lifestyle. If Southern Pacific had found out, I would have been fired, blackballed for immoral conduct. Bessie too, no gallery would have shown her art."
Mike remained silent as he regarded his dying friend.
Charlie continued, "Frank Peretti, the man who was just in here - he has been my lover for the last twelve years. He's an LAPD detective, four years from retirement. Imagine him getting caught - a homosexual cop. He wants me to change my life insurance, make him the beneficiary instead of Bessie. Says he deserves it for taking the risk. Mike, Frank doesn't need my insurance. His county pension will be enormous. I want Bessie to receive the life insurance. She's been my best friend for nearly fifty years."
"How can I help, Charlie?" said Mike.
"Please just watch over Bessie for me," said Charlie.
"I will, Charlie. Don't you worry," Mike told him.
"Mike, now I've told you my secret, do you feel differently about me?" Charlie said.
"Yes, Charlie. I feel closer to you. I never knew that much about homosexuality. I still don't. But you will always be the brother I love, no matter how you have lived your life. You and Bessie have always been there for me. Now I've learned what you've been going through. I love you both more."
Charlie died six days later.
Bessie and Glenda dined frequently at the Rourke home as the nineteen forties tumbled into the fifties, and Bessie's artwork continued adding modern designs and uniquely bold perspectives in private and public spaces throughout Los Angeles.
In the autumn of 1951, Margie and Paul married in a small ceremony at the Rourke home. As if the responsibility for watching over Margie had suddenly lifted, Mike surrendered to illness, taking several ambulance rides to the emergency room over the coming months.
"I met your daughter during visiting hours. She's a lovely young woman," said Nurse Louise.
"Yes. I raised her and the old lady raised me," Mike quipped. Then he added, "Raising her to be the lady she is was my purpose in life."
"Shall I telephone your wife or your daughter?" Louise asked. She had been told by the attending physician Mike would die shortly.
Mike gazed at the window, seeing only the reflection on the glass: he in a hospital bed, Louise sitting beside him, and the clock, in reverse image, on the wall behind them.
"Don't, please. I don't want them on the road this time of night. I promise to hold on 'til morning."
As dawn broke over the City of Angels, Margie ran into Mike's room. "Daddy, don't die, please. I need you. Paul and I just found out we're going to have a baby. You must be here when your grandchild is born. Daddy, you must," Margie squeezed Mike's hand and laid her head on his chest. Paul and Anna stood at the foot of the bed.
"Margie, my dear, you needn't worry. I'm not going anywhere. I'll always be with you." Mike stroked Margie's curls. "I'll go shortly to meet St. Peter, but after that I will be in Heaven looking down on you and smiling, always smiling. I'll stand on the moon for you so I can wave, and you can wave back at me. What are you and Paul going to name your baby?"
"We thought Paul if it's a boy and Mary, after your mother, if it's a girl."
"Maybe a different name if it's a girl. I like the name Elaine. I dated a beautiful woman named Elaine. Of course that was years before I met your mother." He glanced at Anna.
Michael Rourke died in a Los Angeles hospital in the summer of 1952.
Los Angeles, 1957
Voices in the backyard awaken Elaine. She clambers out of bed and steps to the back door. Through the door glass Elaine sees two figures on the back porch. They talk in low tones and, with light shining through the kitchen window, cast long shadows across the lawn.
"Keep watching, Margie. We may see Sputnik yet. It's just going to look like a star, except it will move across the sky," Paul says.
Margie buttons her sweater as the autumn night air chills her. "Russians shouldn't be sending satellites. They may get to the moon before we do. My father said men would reach the moon. He never said they would be Russians and not Americans."
Margie and Paul both jump as Elaine taps on the glass. Paul opens the door.
"Honey, you should be asleep. Did we wake you?" Margie asks.
Elaine nods. "What are you doing, Mama?"
"We're looking at the sky and the stars. See them all, Elaine? Isn't the sky beautiful?"
"Where's Grandpa? You said he's on the moon. I don't see the moon, Mama."
"Tonight it's just a sliver moon. You can only see a little bit." Margie points toward a crescent moon in the clear sky. "Grandpa Mike is there. He's waving at you. Wave back, Elaine. Then we must go inside and go to sleep."
"Good Night." Elaine waves to the night sky. "I love you, Grandpa Mike."