The Garden of Edenby John Ridland
During the War, Jim would go up from Flintridge to Spokane for summer vacation. Late in the afternoon, Aunt Daisy would drive him over the hills to the Southern Pacific station in Glendale, give him his ticket and final instructions, and make sure he boarded the right car, checking that the Pullman berth numbers matched his reservation. The train traveled over two nights north to Portland, where he would change for another overnight ride northeast to Spokane. The first time he made this trip, his father had arranged with the British Consulate in Portland for James to be met at the train and looked after until it was time to make the connection. That year it had been the Consul himself, a reddish-haired man in a dark-blue double-breasted suit, Sandy MacGregor. He had played golf and caught salmon with James's father, sealing their bond as Scotsmen.
The stopover between trains had been quite short, and they barely had time to snatch some lunch in a cafeteria before they were hurrying back to the station.
"Tell your father I'm looking forward to casting some dry flies with him before too long!" Mr. MacGregor called out as Jim mounted the step. As daylight was ending, Jim had his first view of the huge Columbia River from the track running alongside.
This time, a year later, the train from L.A. pulled into the Portland station a little after noon, but the Spokane train wouldn't leave until after dark. The porter took Jim's two suitcases, climbing agilely down the steep steel stairs inside the car door and out onto the stout square final step, a stool which he had lowered to the platform after swinging the door open while the train was grinding to a stop, all in one graceful motion.
"Portland Union Station," he announced unnecessarily. Jim gave him the five-dollar bill his Uncle Charles had told him to keep separate from the money he spent on meals. "Why, thank you, suh!" the porter said with a chuckle, tipping his cap.
Mr. MacGregor was nowhere in sight. Instead, an older man, with long gray hair flopping over his forehead and a thick gray moustache like Jim's father's walked up to him. "Excuse me, are you James Moorfield?" Jim nodded suspiciously, but the man reassured him at once,
"Don't worry, son. Mr. MacGregor sent me to meet you. He's tied up all afternoon at the Consulate. My name is Adams. We'll walk over to the Consulate first and let them know you're here safely. Then we can drop in at my flat to leave off your luggage, and my wife will take you to a movie before supper, if that's acceptable?"
Jim nodded, and they set off, Mr. Adams carrying the large suitcase and Jim the smaller one. All through downtown Portland, whenever he spotted a half-smoked cigarette on the sidewalk, Mr. Adams would swoop down, scoop it up, and pop it into his overcoat pocket. The first one he retrieved he lit with a wooden match from a small box and took a deep drag. The smoke had a tired, used odor, unlike the fresh first puffs from his father's and uncle's cigarettes.
"Enjoy your ride?" he asked in a friendly tone, though without much curiosity.
"Yes, sir," Jim nodded politely, but could think of nothing more to say. Mr. Adams must have guessed from the way Jim stared nervously about that he was not interested in the architecture or history of Portland, or whatever else he might be able to show him on their walk.
At the Consulate, the secretary, a tidy middle-aged Englishwoman, buzzed for the Consul. Mr. MacGregor popped out of his private office, behind a door with clouded glass in the upper half like the detectives' offices in the movies, shook Jim's hand and said hello, apologized for being too busy to take him out, and turned him over to the seedy-looking man's keeping for the afternoon and early evening.
"Mr. Adams will look after you," he said agreeably. "And Mrs. Adams." The Consul handed Mr. Adams some cash, which Jim realized his father must have either mailed ahead to Portland, or arranged to repay the next time he was there on consular business. "Just don't take him into any saloons, Jocko," he joked with what seemed to Jim a tone of seriousness. "Cheerio, then, chaps!" the Consul said, repeating his reassurances to Jim, "Adams will look after you," and he ducked back into his private office.
They walked several blocks through the downtown on gently rising streets, Adams stooping frequently to pick up more butts. The day was rather dim already, from the overcast, as it had been when Jim had passed through Portland the year before. Climbing a final rise, "Mt. Hood over there," Mr. Adams gestured eastward, "if the clouds ever lift. For now, you see it only with the mind's eye." He had paused, puffing, and they were standing in front of a modest apartment building.
"Here we are, then," he added. Unexpectedly he did not lead Jim up the wide stairs to the big glass front door, lettered in gold, "Canterbury Apartments," but down some narrow concrete steps at the side which dropped into an areaway with a plain solid wooden door painted an unusual shade of dark scarlet.
"Welcome to the Garden of Eden. My all too humble abode. You first," said Adams. He opened the door onto a small landing two steps above a large basement room. Inside, it was already dark enough for a couple of light bulbs hanging by their dusty cords from the ceiling to be turned on. There were only two small windows on either side of the doorway, high on the wall that faced the street. The other walls were windowless. They left the suitcases on a small landing inside the door and went down another three steps to the floor level. This layout was something new to Jim, growing up in Southern California, where very few houses had basements, let alone below-ground apartments.
The main room was very large and dingy. Out of another room off behind it they were rushed by a couple of little kids, too young for Jim to be introduced to, or to bother with--a girl and a boy--who ran up to Mr. Adams to be hugged.
"Daddy! Daddy! Me first!" they both pressed. Mr. Adams picked up one on each arm, snuggled their necks with his moustache to make them laugh, like Jim's Daddy used to do when he was little, and gave them each a kiss on the lips before letting them down.
Jim saw that the kitchen opened off to the left, and through the swinging doors, their mother appeared. She was short and neatly built, wearing a tight knit sweater and a wool skirt.
"Eva, this is young Jimmy I told you about. His Dad is our new Vice-Consul in Spokane, and we're to look after him and deliver him to his train at a quarter to nine. I thought you might like to take him to that new movie, the musical about Rio de Janeiro." He reached out the bills Consul MacGregor had given him and laid them on the table. Mrs. Adams looked pleased.
"Why of course. I'd love to. How do you do, James?" she said, extending her hand to shake his, which was nearly as large. She had a very slight foreign accent that made her vowels more rounded and musical. Jimmy knew what he should say in reply, but had trouble getting it out, because Eva-Mrs. Adams-was young and without doubt the most gorgeous woman he had ever stood so near to, or shaken hands with. Her smooth blond hair hung straight to her shoulders in Lauren Bacall style, and her face was oval, soft-skinned and slightly olive, but it was her figure that dazzled him. She reminded him of the small white marble replica of the armless Venus de Milo that his parents kept on the mantelpiece in the living room, or the bronze statuette of Diana which Aunt Daisy displayed on an inlaid and polished semicircular table.
People used to say Jim's mother was a "handsome woman," which meant she had a lovely smile and curly dark brown hair, and she was nearly six feet tall and solidly built, "big-boned," his aunt called her, who was more slender, though also tall. Jim's mother was always grumbling about putting on weight, and when she and his father went out for the evening, she would lace herself into a tight corset to look slimmer around the middle. Mrs. Adams wouldn't need to do that. She wouldn't need to do anything to look terrific, Jim thought.
When at last he could take his eyes off her, he glanced around the room and realized he was seeing something unusual, of a kind he'd never seen before. Running the whole length of the longest wall and along the adjacent shorter one, and spreading down from the ceiling for about a yard, was a mural painting of tropical vegetation, a rich green jungle of writhing vines and plants with broad, heart-shaped leaves, and in the midst of them all, a woman with no clothes on, like Venus or Diana in those family statues, except that she was kneeling, and her face was very definitely Eva's.
"That's the Garden of Eden before the Fall," Mrs. Adams explained without embarrassment, when she noticed Jimmy gazing at it. "My husband Desmond is an artist. Quite well known in England before we came over here, but it was hard to sell paintings in wartime and now we don't have enough money to go back. And of course, the children are much safer here, though we'd be better off there, with help from Desmond's family…" Her voice trailed off.
Jim realized she was apologizing for the signs of poverty throughout their living room-- a couple of second-hand armchairs, a ratty-looking love seat, and a flimsy, badly painted, yellow dining table. But it didn't matter. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and she was going to take him to a movie, and so in a sense he was going out on his first "date."
While she went back to the bedroom to change, Jim sat on one of the chairs reading a copy of Punch - trying to understand the cartoons and the jokes - but his eyes kept lifting to the naked woman up in the jungle, who might at that very moment be naked in the room just behind that wall. Oh, for Superman's X-ray vision! He turned quickly back to Punch. Mr. Adams was in the kitchen frying some food for the children, who had hung around for a while staring at Jimmy but were now bored and hungry.
"All right, chaps," their father said in an affected hearty accent, "I'll have it on your plates in a jiffy. Just come and sit at the table. Wash your hands first." While they were away, he asked Jim, "Would you like to eat with them? If not, you can take Eva out for a hamburger after the film." Jim nodded to that. "It will be another treat for her. She seldom gets out of the house to eat, poor thing." Mr. Adams handed him a five-dollar bill and gave a ten to his wife when she reappeared in a bright, warm floral frock with a fluffy hand-knitted sweater draped over her shoulders, her arms folded in front of her. She put it in her purse with two or three dollar bills.
As Jim and Eva were leaving, she gave her husband a warm kiss on the lips, more lingeringly than Jim's parents would do when he was watching, not to speak of doing it in front of somebody else's child.
"Remember you have to walk him to the station later," she whispered, looking him in the eyes.
"We'll walk now," said Eva, taking Jim's hand in hers. "It's not very far."
Taking his hand! Jim felt a tingle he never had before. This really was, he thought, his first movie date with a girl - a woman, actually, a full-grown woman whom he'd seen with no clothes on, "nude," in a painting on the wall. However, he could tell that she was not feeling romantic about holding hands. She was guiding him as she would a younger child, and when they had crossed a couple of busy streets safely and could see the movie marquee at the end of a long block, he let her hand go.
"You don't need to hold my hand," Jim said.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, James, I just automatically do that with our little ones." Aggressively, she grabbed his hand again and swung it wildly back and forth without letting go. "Let's pretend we're out on a date, shall we?"
Jim was blushing but nodded bravely, Yes, yes, please do.
The walk was not very far, as Eva had said, and they soon came to a large movie house where a first-run musical was playing.
"Here, Jim," she said, handing him the five dollar bill, "you buy the tickets--your father is paying for them!"
In the film, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were clowning around, and Bing from time to time was crooning to Dorothy Lamour. Eva kept bouncing her knees in time with the music, distracting Jim's gaze from the screen. At one point she turned and smiled at him, but she never took his hand or encouraged him in any other way to treat her as more than a babysitter - that is, as a real "date." She had said it but she didn't mean it. Still, even if it was all in his mind, Jim loved sitting there in the semi-dark beside a young, beautiful woman, gazing into a phony Brazil made in Hollywood, and decided that he would still think of it as his First Date, even if she didn't. Eva loved the movie, though, and thanked him.
"And please thank your father, Jim. This was a rare treat for me."
After the show, they did not go to a hamburger place, as Jim had hoped. "I'm afraid it's too late for a restaurant," she explained, and they walked back to the apartment where she fed him a late supper—thick soup and brown bread with a thin scraping of margarine. Mr. Adams greeted them briefly, and went back to reading his newspaper, a glass of beer by his right hand.
Eva had made the bread herself, she told him, the way they did in Hungary. (So that explained her accent.) "It's called goulash." Actually, it was delicious.
"This tastes great!" Jim said.
"I'm glad you like it. So many Americans do not like foreign food." Jim nodded, thinking of his mother's English standby, Shepherds' Pie, which his friend Ted had hardly touched when he came over for dinner one time.
They ate by candlelight, which made the nude in the mural glow even more golden than her model, clothed and ladling out soup at the table. Eva was consistently nice to Jim—cheerful and friendly, big-sisterly rather than motherly, but not even a little flirtatiously.
"Hurry up, chaps, it's late!" Mr. Adams said earnestly, "Past eight o'clock." He finished his beer and stood up suddenly, swaying a little. Jim wiped his mouth with the paper towel he had been given for a napkin, noticing that Eva didn't have one. He took his last bite, and they both got up from their chairs.
When he said goodbye he thanked Mrs. Adams as warmly as he was able. He was longing to give her a movie kiss on the lips, when she abruptly stepped closer to him, grasped his shoulders, and pecked him quickly on one cheek and then the other.
"That's how we make our goodbyes in Hungary," she smiled. "Thank you for a very lovely evening, sir." They both laughed, and Mr. Adams said again, "Hurry up, chaps. It's late."
Walking to the station, Jim carried the light suitcase while Mr. Adams muscled the heavy one. It was an easy twenty-minutes to the station, Adams said. Along the way, unlike their previous walk, he never stopped once to pick up a butt. He was sweating when they reached Union Station. He checked the Departures board, found the track for the Great Northern streamliner to Spokane and Chicago. Jim was able to find the right car from the Pullman number on his ticket.
"Here it is." He felt good, doing it by himself.
"Well done, son. Goodbye, and bon voyage!" said Mr. Adams, giving Jim a last handshake, and before the Conductor had called "All aboard!" he was off down the platform, scanning for cigarette butts.
The porter who helped him find his seat was friendly, and Jim thanked him politely.
"I'll make your bunk up in a minute, sir," the porter said, and it didn't take him much longer than that. Jim found he was tired enough to climb up into it and change into pajamas. It was dark out the window, and he was on the wrong side for seeing the Columbia River, so he closed his eyes and began to fall asleep from the rocking of the train.
His mind drifted. He realized he didn't know what word he should use to identify the porters. They wore starched white linen jackets and had much darker skins than the passengers, so they must be "Negroes," although the boys at school would have used a nasty word for them. There were no Negro boys in his school. "Darkies" was in the song about the Sewanee River which they sang around the piano on rainy days when the whole school had to crowd indoors for lunch, but that didn't sound right--he'd never heard anyone say it. Jim's mind was wandering as he lay on the upper bunk, rocking back and forth, and he slept happily through the night, though he was disappointed not to have dreamed of Eva.
Next morning they reached Spokane, where his father met him, gave him a hug, and awkwardly slipped a bill into the hand of the porter who helped Jim down with his luggage. Jim's father carried both suitcases to the poky-looking Austin sedan which he was driving as a patriotic consumer of goods manufactured in Britain. Jim so wished they had a '40 Ford instead, with its V-shaped radiator grill. When he grew up he would buy a '40 Ford.
Summer vacation had begun.