GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One) — Chapter 5, 9 July 1964 (“Second Letter Home, Part 2: ‘The Zeller Clan: Avice, Ben — and Fritz'”)

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Thing is, not much happens in Gas Hills – in Valle Linda generally, for that matter – and this got a write-up in the local newspaper. It’s just the kind of weird event that’s a centerpiece of small talk at parties.

So, the mystery of what happened to me soon became the latest favourite pastime and parlour game, bringing a conga line of new visitors to the house.

Then again, we’ve just acquired a colour tv (yes, they have that here, even if ours is only one for blocks – eat your hearts out, mates) so maybe they all used this as an excuse to come over and watch it. In any case, most only turned up once or twice.

But then again, there was Avice Zeller.

What a talker – the Champ! Dad calls her “a tidal wave of garrulous sociability.” I don’t think he means it as a compliment. She pitched up on our doorstep day after my last letter, chocolate cake in hand, to welcome us to the neighbourhood.

She lives on Leighton too, five blocks further up the hill and across the street. She’s 5’1”, still voluptuous in a Jane Russell “va-va-voomy” sort of way, but starting to get a bit thick at the waist and hips. She was once a chorus girl who occasionally dabbled in acting, and is still rather larger-than-life.

She has a head of luxurious blonde hair that she usually wears in a beehive, where it looks like solid gold cotton candy. I like it better when she wears it down; she has a curtain-like wave Mum says looks like Veronica Lake (I think she was a big movie star or something a long time ago, but I’m not sure). Dad smiles to her face, but rolls his eyes when his back’s turned. Mum thinks she’s “lovely.”  

Mum returned Avice’s visit, meeting her husband and sons, and now they get together for coffee, tea or something every two or three days.

I think she’s alright – her hemlines and heels are a bit high, her necklines a bit low, her blouses a bit tight, and she’s loud, rather over-the-top, with a laugh I think you can hear all over Gas Hills (including the golf course) – but she’s fun, a laugh-a-minute, and quite upbeat

I wasn’t real keen about meeting her sons, though – not at first. Nothing to do with them, but I’ve been making a muck of it socially ever since we arrived, and I didn’t want to foul matters up for Mum.

At first, I thought I was like some space alien or other creepy thing to them when I first got here.

That’s not entirely untrue, but the real explanation is a bit more tedious. I‘ve found that, contrary to what a lot of Europeans think, Americans do irony rather well. It’s just they have a different perception about when to use it. They see it rather like silverware and fine china, to be used only on very special occasions, not for every day. Use it every day, they see you as a ponce, blowhard or crank.

Meanwhile, “taking the Mickey” as a form of humour is used even more sparingly, and only between closest of friends. It’s otherwise somewhere on a continuum between setting off stink bombs and pelting someone’s house with egg and toilet paper when it come to winning friends or influencing people.

So bit of a culture clash then, but who knew what else I was doing that was alienating people Needless to say, I haven’t become Mr. Popularity, and tend to tiptoe around when meeting someone, afraid I’ll mess up without meaning to.

Dad and Mum have tried hard to compensate, since we’ve come home.

The first weekend, it was a trip to Malibu, where I had my first dip in the Pacific, and saw real surfers in action (impressive, but rather stuck up). Next day we were in Venice(California), which does have canals around some once elegant houses now going to seed, and a boardwalk – crazily garish, falling apart – with artists, beatniks, bikers, surfers (folksy, friendly, if older ones this time) – and heaven knows who else – which leads to a cheesy but fun amusement zone called ‘Pacific Ocean Park.’

Next weekend, it was to Marineland of the Pacific, an aquarium with performing seals, whales, porpoises and such, but which also has a number of levels where one can observe various species of fish, and along with a number of marine biology exhibits. Some surfers helped Dad and Mum make a bonfire on a nearby beach thereafter. We pooled food, song and stories and a good time – as near as I could tell – was had by all (ever since I bought that Beach Boys album, surfers have fascinated, me, but now I truly like them). But, I was still very much on my own during the week.

Then came 26 June and everything associated with that. In care for 48 hours, laid up and knocked out for a week after that.

Then, just one day later, not just Avice, but the whole Zeller clan arrived, en masse, for the first time.

There’s “Fritz” Zeller, family patriarch, known to Dad and me only by reputation only up to that point. ‘Fritz’ isn’t his real name, but it’s what everyone calls him, even Avice.

He’s a “troubleshooter” at various projects for some aerospace company or other. He’s exacting, meticulous and obsessed with detail – in other words, nitpicky. Dad’s taken to him in precisely the way he didn’t to Avice.

He seems ridiculously plainer and older than Avice, though Dad pointed out that his ‘age’ could well be attributable to demeanour and mindset. He’s rather retiring and doesn’t say much, although Dad says that, the way Avice carries on, he probably just can’t get in a word edgewise – Mum tends to throw small objects and paper wads at him for that.

His hair – what’s left of it – is frizzy and thin. Thin would also be a diplomatic way to describe his scrawny build. He wears coke bottle glasses and rather on the short side for a grown man:  five foot three or four.

Overall, he looks like a giant, amiable insect, a cross between Gregor Samsa and Jiminy Cricket. But, like Jiminy Cricket, when you were with him, it’s impossible not to feel you’re in good hands – that somehow, despite it all, things’ll work out all right.

Ben’s the older son.

Dad says he’s 14 going on 25. Ben’s a month and a half from his 15th birthday, but he seems much older, like someone about to graduate from college – already old enough to drink, drive and vote. He’s tall, six foot two, and lanky – traits he says he gets from Avice’s side (although one would never know it from looking at her), almost like an elongated, serious, bookish, introverted, masculine version of her (except for his nose, which is Fritz’s), especially his hair (at least if he’d grow it long enough), which is clearly like hers, only somewhere between golden brown and sandy.

But he’s also inherited Fritz’s meticulous temperament and wretched eyesight (the latter corrected, for now, with thick horn-rimmed specs).

Any kid on the block whose age has reached double digits “adopts” Ben as de facto big brother. Since onset of summer, he’s been preoccupied a bit with building a harpsichord from a kit (with considerable help from Fritz), but not so busy to exempt me from his affable counsel and guidance. He’s a proficient, accomplished pianist; everyone (except Ben himself) is certain that he’s headed to Julliard or the New England Conservatory.


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