an excerpt from The Irish Sextet
posted Dec 14, 2010
The Hollywood Department of Motor Vehicles was not a happy place. If you were there, you were waiting to explain—a failed smog test, a lost pink slip, trouble with the law. In Cyril’s case, it was a problem with his driver’s license. Worse, it was self-imposed. He didn’t have to be there.
He had spent much time these last weeks in government offices. Employment, Social Security, Immigration and now for the second time, the Department of Motor Vehicles. The offices were all the same: a wide expanse of scuffed linoleum with louvered banks of fluorescent lighting above, divided by a long barrier counter. Desks and interviewers were behind the counter. Supplicants sat in folding chairs outside the barrier.
He had been there nearly an hour, and all the sour faces that had greeted him had been called. He was fairly sure he would be next. A tall black woman stood up from her desk with a paper that might have his name on it. She was laughing, responding to something her deskmate had said. She came to the counter, looked again at the paper in her hand and lifted a heavy ribbed microphone to her lips. “Joseph Cleary. Mister Joseph Cleary!” She spoke with practiced assurance and crisp enunciation. Cyril detected elocution lessons and a bit of church in her voice. He rolled his sporting pages and stood up. “Joe Cleary,” she said, “Are you out there Joe? Let’s go Joe.”
Cyril sidestepped through the narrow row formed by folding chairs to reach the aisle and raised his hand and the rolled newspaper. She lifted the microphone like a trophy and pointed at him with her other hand; her voice was ebullient and welcoming.
“Joseph is here. Come on up, Joe!”
A few of the remaining petitioners, scattered in the rows of chairs, gaped at him and Cyril felt as though he’d been singled out from the audience at a quiz show.
Cyril approached the counter where she waited, and smiled at her with some wonder.
She smiled back and waved him though the portal. “Let’s go, Joe,” she said. Cyril followed her, with some wonder. It was the first time he had encountered any merriment in a government
office, any merriment at all. She wore a tailored pants suit, olive, sharply creased, with crisp shoulder pads. Lovely hips.
They reached her desk, which faced another desk occupied by a thinner, younger, lighter black woman who had scrutinized their approach.
His counselor indicated a chair for him, a light dipping wave of a hand, and introduced herself while he settled. “I’m Mrs. Johnson,” she said. “How can we help you?”
“Well, it’s complicated,” Cyril said.
She smiled at him. “Wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t.” Her deskmate lifted an eyebrow.
“I got my new driver’s license some months back and I need to change the name on the license,” Cyril said.
“I thought you told me this was going to be complicated, Joe. Or do you prefer Joseph?”
“Actually, it is Cyril.”
The deskmate lifted the other eyebrow. “I see,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Start at the beginning and tell me the story.”
“Well,” Cyril said, “I got my new driver’s license a month ago, in my birth name, Joseph Cleary.”
“And you don’t like that name?”
Cyril sat straighter. “It’s not that I don’t like the name, it’s that I don’t answer to it. It doesn’t sound right. I’ve had another name for twelve years.”
Mrs. Johnson took a harder look, to see who she was dealing with, and Cyril registering the look, tried to explain. “Up until three months ago I was a Brother.” Mrs. Johnson’s eyes widened. Her deskmate snorted and swiveled in her chair. “Wanda got another one.”
“I was a member of a religious order,” Cyril said. “I was a Patrician Brother for twelve years.”
Mrs. Johnson had listened carefully to what Cyril had said, and she reacted in a way that Cyril felt was kindly. She leaned forward toward her deskmate and said, “Manners, Estelle.” Estelle straightened, picked up a pencil and opened a file, and then Mrs. Johnson reached out her hand and patted Cyril’s. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Please go on.”
It was the first human touch—aside from those he’d paid for and interview handshakes—that Cyril had felt in months. This touch was different, and Cyril, prepared to be irritated by the spread of his business to an audience, was warmed. He became very still and she finally had to prompt him. “So you left the monastery?”
“We weren’t cloistered,” Cyril said. “We are a teaching order.” He paused again, realizing that he was speaking as though he still belonged.
Mrs. Johnson filled the silence. “Didn’t work out, huh? Well, don’t worry about it. You can always go back if you want. My minister, Pastor Gordon, quits on us about once a year. Says he gives up on us backsliders! Won’t come back until we’ve pledged enough for new carpets, or a roof, or an organ, or something.” Her speech had changed; there were no hints of elocution now and Cyril understood he was being favored and made comfortable.
“What is it you need? You’re okay with the last name? Cleary?” Cyril nodded. “So you just want to go back to your religious name?” Cyril thought of denying his religion, but it was the truth, religious also meant exact and it was his exact name. He nodded again. She smiled. “So it’s Cyril Cleary you want on your license. Am I right?”
“I thought you said this was complicated. This is California. You can put any name on there that you want.”
Estelle, who had been obviously listening and running a pencil through her hair like a comb could no longer contain herself. “Any name. We had a God Shamgod in here last week. Not the real God Shamgod, not the basketball player, another guy just liked the name. We had a Bunco Haynes and he changed his name to Bunco Squad. He did.”
An eavesdropper two desks over, a tall bald white man with a turkey neck and a turkey egg for an adam’s apple, turned in his wheelchair. “Remember Frick and Frack?
“Frick and Frack Taylor,” Mrs. Johnson said. “She loved the Ice Capades. When her husband died, she changed her first name. She just wanted to.”
Estelle held up two fingers. “We had a Tom N. Jerry and a Heckle N. Jeckle the first week I came to work.” She looked to Mrs. Johnson, “What was that one? The woman who works at the World News Stand on Cahuenga, the one with the ten colors of nail polish?
Mrs. Johnson laughed. “My favorite. Rootie Patootie. She changed it from Molly Bubiuch, which I personally thought was a great California name.”
The bald man wheeled over, “And my personal favorite, Plenny Wingo, Junior.” He nodded to Cyril, “Mrs. Johnson can fix you right up.”
“This is Mr. Sheridan, our Supervisor,” Mrs. Johnson said.
“Phil,” the man said, waving a hand at Cyril. “Plenny Wingo, Junior. This was a man who admired Plenny Wingo, who was the World’s Champion Backward Walker. Justin Chen was his birth name. The day Plenny Wingo died, Justin came in here.”
Estelle stood up. “I remember him! He backed in here with these little dental mirrors taped to his glasses. So he could see behind him. He looked like a guy on a motorcycle backing up on you.”
“He hadn’t got the hang of it,” said Mr. Sheridan. “Said he was going to set all new records, but he was falling down a lot and whenever he fell down he would stand up and then walk forwards until he remembered.”
Cyril felt slightly dazzled by their collegial company, but wondered whether they would return to his purpose any time soon. Mrs. Johnson apparently sensed this.
She opened a desk drawer and extracted a triplicate form with serrations and carbons, which she handed to Cyril. Mr. Sheridan and Estelle withdrew.
“All you need to do,” she told him, “is fill out the form with the name on your present driver’s license, the driver’s license number, and the new name you want on it.”
“Just like that.”
“You also have to pay the cashier eight dollars. It’s no different than if you get married and then divorced and then you want to go back to your married name. Why should we make it hard on you? This is California.”
Cyril smiled, “It certainly is.”
Mrs. Johnson stood up. “You’ll learn. My mother lived most of her life in Louisiana. When my daddy died she moved here in 1941 and went to work at Lockheed. Emma Thibedoux was as proper and formal as any Church woman for her time but California had its way with her. Before she died, she took tango lessons at Arthur Murray, she saw Duke Ellington in Val Verde Park, she roller skated at Venice Beach, she took a trapeze class and she ate avocado soup. She had a date shake in Laguna Beach, she had a Margarita in Rosarita and she wore a two piece bathing suit too.
“You better get used to it, Mr. Cleary. You’re a Californian, like it or not.” Mrs. Johnson shook his hand.
“I know you’re right,” Cyril said, “but I still have a lot of Irish in me.”
“You don’t have to give up anything you really want to keep,” she told him.
He hated to let go of her hand.
© 2010 Lou Mathews