The Susie Bee Bakery.
On her bedside table, there is a photo album. When I open it, a black-and-white image of Susie Bee fills the room. Hands on hips, she tilts her head back, showing off the Suave shine in her chestnut, bobby-pin curls as they roll down her back. Wearing a coquettish smile, she lifts a pinch of hem and fringe of lacy slip - flashing a little thigh - raising the right heel of her leather, open-toed shoe.
At 25, she has glimpsed the immoral wealth of the 1920s, felt the gnawing hunger of the Dust Bowl years of North Dakota during the Depression, known the prosperity that comes with death in a world war. Petite and determined, she is Susie Bee of The Susie Bee Bakery - as the letters on her storefront window announce - with a workhorse fear to secure her future.
The image fades into the elongated shadows from the table lamp. It is then that I see, in her handwriting, "THE BAKERY" carefully centered across the top of the album's front page. These are photographs of pride as I look at a bakery with wooden floors that are rough, hand-scrubbed clean, the freshly painted frame of the pastry display case cannot hide its age; the ovens are small and temperamental. That is The Susie Bee Bakery of 1945 in Billings, Montana.
Billings began as a thrivings spur of the Union Pacific Railroad - romanticized in the writings of Owen Wister, Ernest Hemingway, and Louis L'Amour - intrinsically, it remained a cattle town at the end of the line, only momentarily affected by the oil boom that swept the Rocky Mountain West. By 1962, bottomed - out hopes were the only remnants of Montana's fragile oil industry. Like the town, Susie Bee stayed with what she knew - profiting from a seemingly unending stream of oil-field work - until she was unable to resist speculating in the oil industry, and unable not to be lucky.
Her road to financial security is a collage of snapshots. There had never been a mortgage on "The Lewis Street House - 1955," nor had there been a payment booklet for the shiny green Volkswagen she drove off the showroom floor - waving to the camera - in 1959, the year she closed the doors of The Susie Bee Bakery.
For the next ten years, Susie would continue her morning walks downtown - just as if she were going to work - to photograph the changes of ownership and types of business the building underwent. For most of those years the building housed a pool hall, then followed a quick succession of businesses ending in an antique store, which featured a glass display case much like Susie's. On the night of June 23, 1969, the building was gutted by the flame from an antique kerosene lamp. When a prefab warehouse replaced any evidence of The Susie Bee Bakery she stopped walking downtown.
The section on "THE BAKERY" ends with two photographs, side by side. The larger picture is of the real estate firm's "sold" sign slapped over the letters of Susie Bee's name; the smaller black-and-white snapshot of the warehouse is blurred.
On top of the next page is the name of her sister, "mary," scrawled in tiny, ballpoint pen letters. These album leafs are crowded with life.
Mary knew how to look and she knew how to wear clothes. Just enough taller than her petite sister, Mary's long stride was characterized as "carrying herself well." Her full lips, angular face, and large eyes turned many a head whether dressed in her bakery uniforms, her tailored suits, or her fox furs. Unlike her sister, Mary's chestnut hair had a glint of auburn, giving a natural sheen to her shoulder-length, waved locks.
Three years older than Susie, Mary, too, had worked the beet fields, saving her money for a session with a professional photographer from Rochester, Minnesota. A matte-finished, 8 x 10 photograph of Mary - with cherry red lips - posing in front of a turquoise green ponderosa pine is the sum of her modeling dream.
Happily, she settled for one-third interest in The Susie Bee Bakery, married a truck driver nicknamed Mick, and put her heart and soul into accumulating a steady stream of trophies and patches at Ernie's Bowling Alley.
Ernie's featured bottles of iced-down Coca-Cola, saucer-sized cheeseburgers on toasted buns and shoestring potatoes that curled like a ribbon on a birthday present. The snapshot of Ernie - showing him serving a cheeseburger platter to a customer at the counter - catches the bakery's reflection in the mirror above the grill.
The next few pictures are a precise, black-and-white panorama of the "new bowling lanes - summer 1957" photographed on a late, sunny afternoon as the alley dust rises and the cigarette smoke settles. There is a rhythmic hum of bowling balls dropping from curtained runners atop the right side of each of the four alleys; shiny, AMF balls speed down the runners until they reach the pit cushion that rolls them into the ball rack.
Then, the action fades into the still life of photographs. The last picture in the "new lanes of 1957" series is a snapshot of Susie sitting atop the semicircle of seats reserved for the bakery bowling team, swinging her white-and-gray plaid pedal-pusher legs, showing off her crisp, white anklets and spit-polished saddle oxfords. She is excited, anticipating the championship her bakery's team will win that year, again. The team's top bowler is Mary.
The next two album pages are a shot-by-shot series of Mary's champion bowling form.
Holding the black ball close to her chest, she begins her four-step approach, pushing both arms straight out in front of her as she gracefully genuflects, dropping her left arm and bowling ball almost to the alley before bringing them straight back and up, allowing the forward motion of her body and arm to release the polished ball three inches above the lane, gently guiding it just beyond the foul line.
Mary has turned to search Susie's face for the results of the flying pins, watching the applause she cannot hear.
Susie's smile and lip movement say "STRIKE!"
Mary is laughing, acting as if she knew it all along, as if she'd heard every pin. Her world has been quiet since her 20th year, when an ear infection and experimental surgery left her completely, permanently deaf.
Ernie's Bowling Alley went the way of the bakery, blurred by the prefab warehouse.
White space becomes part of the album as the emphasis shifts to evenings at Mary's home. These are evenings of playing cards or Chinese checkers, sitting in the arched alcove Mary calls her "dining room," a space just large enough for her cherry-wood table and four chairs. Occasionally, there is a glimpse of Mick in the background; he has suffered two strokes and by everyone's account - except Mick's - should be dead. Mary's face does not show the strain of caretaker.
She confines her joy to sharing the evenings with Susie. After game playing, they eat a slice of one of Mary's homemade pies - usually berry, sometimes cream - or blow out the yearly candles on birthday cakes decorated as if they had come straight from the days of The Susie Bee Bakery. It is the special occasions that erase the years and lighten their faces, especially Mary's. Once again, she is bowling champion at Ernie's - engulfed in the silent applause - once again, she is in Mick's arms as he twirls her out the door of the bakery.
The 1970s' photographs are more occasional and less everyday - marking the spring and fall of their birthdays, celebrating Mick and Mary's wedding anniversary, recording the 1972 purchase of Mick and Mary's Mercury - as white space replaces the action and panorama of the past.
In 1975, there are pictures of a frightened Susie Bee in the hospital. Mary has her arm around Susie, holding her hard. The wan smile on Susie's translucent lips is barely visible in the blinding hospital white that dulls her flattened, bouffant curls and fades her pink, terry-cloth robe with the "SB" monogrammed above her right breast. Susie Bee has diabetes, the doctors say. A modified diet and she will be fine, the doctors decide. Mary, too, is smiling.
Susie goes home to her house on Lewis Street, returning to the routine of spending evenings at Mary's. It is so much of a routine there is no need for snapshots, not even on special occasions. The last photograph is of one of Mary's birthdays.
White space and blank pages completely fill the rest of the album, as I search each leaf carefully. Inside the back cover there is an envelope of photographs marked "SepTeMBEr - 1988" with the neighbor boy's name - "stevie's" - written underneath the date.
The light of the lamp shows me what I already know. These are the last photographs of Susie Bee, someone else's image of her - "stevie's." They do not talk to me. As I remove "stevie's" snapshots from the envelope - three photos of Susie Bee watering her flowers - it is the present tense of Mary that talks to me.
When Stevie asks Susie if he may take her picture, she allows herself to smile genuinely, openly. Meticulously, she hand waters the sunburst asters that overshadow the fading four-o'clocks and the thick row of marigolds, not caring about the fan's drought nor the winter's chill.
She hears the wheel of Mary's Mercury scrape the driveway. "Why are you water-ing?" Mary asks, letting the car door slam. "It's gon-na fre-eze."
Susie shrugs, still smiling from the photo session with her flowers. Stevie leaves. She turns off the nozzle, then turns the spigot.
"I'LL GET MY JACKET," she mouths and gestures toward the house.
"Oo-oh, yes. It gets so-o co-old at night. Oo-oh, how I hate to think of sno-ow."
Mary thinks about driving to Mass on snowy Saturday evenings, her fingers like claws, red and swollen. Susie locks her back door and slams the screen door to make sure it latches.
They begin the drive to Mary's.
At the four-way stop sign on Grand Avenue, Mary recites the traffic report, vehicle by vehicle:
"Now, yo-ou go-oo.
"No-oo! Yoo-uu go!
Once again, Mary has maneuvered Grand Avenue traffic.
Inside Mary's house, Susie sits at the kitchen table. Mary cooks. Susie smokes.
Susie Bee yells at Mary's back, then gets up and taps her on the shoulder.
Mary looks at Susie's lips.
"DO I HAVE ANYTHING YOU WANT?" Susie mouths.
"What would I want? Lo-ok around. Whe-re would I put it?
Mary knows what Susie is asking but ignores the obvious. "Just wanted to know." Susie shrugs. "If you knew how I feel . . ."
She doesn't intend her words for Mary, but Mary has read her lips.
"Are yo-uu sick?" Mary tries to preserve routine in the conversation.
"I don't need a doctor," Susie says to Mary's eyes.
Susie sits down again.
Mary continues to watch her.
"I'm just ready, Mary."
"FOR WH-AT!?!" Now it's Mary's turn to talk loud. Her stomach tightens. She envies Susie's calm.
"READY TO KNOW IF IT WAS ENOUGH," Susie Bee screams.
Mary turns away from her sister, not asking her to explain. In her softest monotone she says to Susie, "Yo-uu have enough. Look at us. We do-oo ok-ay."
Mary puts a dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and carrots on the dining-room table. Susie brings Mick to his seat in the alcove. After eating, Susie takes Mick back to the static on his two-way radio. The volume is so loud Mary thinks she can hear it and tells him to turn it down. She clears away the dishes. Susie gets the pinochle deck.
After cards, Mary serves fresh baked pie - made with apples from the tree in her backyard - topped with "dia-tet-ic" vanilla ice cream. The apples are tart. Susie's lips pucker. Mary laughs. Then, Susie laughs.
Memory takes them to the Sunday afternoon in May when they picnicked along the banks of the steel-gray Yellowstone River and found the apple sapling. Warm April rains had brought down the mountain snowpack with such fury the river turned on itself, gouging saplings and century-old trees from it banks, turning its waters to mud brown The sapling, half of its roots swept away in the river's fury, hung from the bank's edge. Mary and Mick had thought of going to the nursery to pick out a fruit tree for the backyard, but Susie convinced them to have a picnic on the river. After all, she had already fried the chicken.
"Ree-mem-ber yo-uu didn't think it wa-as an ap-pple treeee?" Mary asks as she lets her head roll back in laughter.
"WHO WOULD PLANT A TREE OUT THERE!" Susie pretends to scoff.
"I told yo-uu!" Mary can barely talk for laughing. "JO-OHNNY APP-PLE-SEE-EED!"
They both laugh long, hard. The memory ends.
Mary gathers up the pie plates. Susie rinses them while Mary checks on Mick and brings their coats.
In silence, they drive back to Susie's house. It is late. There is no traffic.
As Mary pulls into the driveway and stops, Susie says, "See you" like she means it and gets out of the car.
Mary waits for Susie to open the back door and give her the signal - on/off /on of the kitchen light. Mary backs out of the driveway and doesn't look back at Susie.
Susie puts on a pink cotton nightgown, trimmed in white lace. She kneels in prayer before climbing into her bed. She sleeps.
At 2 a.m., she awakens and goes into the kitchen. She turns on the light, falls to the gray, linoleum floor - one arm outstretched - and dies quickly, peacefully. The kitchen light is still on - reflecting itself in the shine of the red countertop - when Mary and the police arrive the next evening.
I keep one of Stevie's snapshots and put the envelope inside the album cover, closing it.
I hear Mary scrape the driveway with the Mercury. She honks. I get into the car. We drive to the funeral home.
We sit in the viewing room. Mary stares at the casket. "I don't know why-y yo-uu had to-oo go and do-oo that," she says to Susie.
I put my arm around Mary, holding her hard.
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|Title Annotation:||remembering Aunt Susie|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1996|
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