Thanksgiving cactus, photograph by Suzanne Cottrell


I am lying on the Murphy bed in Herb’s dark living room, having finally acquiesced to his reasoning, pleading, and emphatic swearing that he would not ejaculate in me. Because I would kill him. “Are you positive you can do this?” I ask.
“I most certainly am,” he assures me in his soft country accent, maybe thinking I’d called him old. “You can trust me, Hon. I would never hurt you.”
His slim body feels good. His confidence does too. And then —pow— I feel that familiar twinge and slump. I hear my own screaming “NOOOOO!!!” and watch myself push him up and throw him off. Herb lands like a rag doll at the foot of the bed. Looking up at me in pure confusion, he says “Hon! Why’d you do that?”
“Why?” I am screaming. “I told you I was off the pill! You promised!” I grab up my clothes, run the two feet to my next-door apartment, and slam the door.
I had never had to worry about an unwanted pregnancy. At the age of 15, my father and uncle told my sister and me that if anything got in the way of our living our lives, they would see to that we were fine, even if it meant a trip to Puerto Rico. “OK,” we said, thinking, “Whatever that means.” The very next year, I had a boyfriend too old for me, and my mother told us about a new pill that would stop us from having menstrual cramps. It took a while after I was sexually active before I realized what she had done.
Now, at 28, I had decided to take a break from hormones and switch to that new IUD. Suddenly, it was off the market. Its claws had attached to some uteri. “No sex,” I had said, but now I found myself giving in. Of course I could trust him.
Why was I attracted to Herb MacMurtry? I guess, after knowing all those sensitive, left-wing intellectual boys in San Francisco, he just seemed refreshing. (Ladies! Watch out for “refreshing.” If a guy refreshingly reminds you of the boys you left behind in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, he may have certain limitations.)
But Herb was in his mid-fifties.
After five years living in a huge apartment with my friend Zoe, we decided to try living apart. I told my friend Anne. The next day, she called back. There was a studio apartment across her street for $240 a month, freshly painted. Call “this guy Herb.”
Linda St. is one of the cutest streets in San Francisco, more of an alley, with a Greenwich Village-like curve, and 28 was its cutest building, yellow Tudor style, and right on the curve. The apartment was equally cute. A cheerful living room with a huge avocado tree in the window, an eat-in kitchen, a walk-through closet, a little windowed bathroom.  I hardly noticed the middle -aged man who showed it to me.
When I returned to look at the paint job, he became sort of noticeable. First, he had a strong hillbilly accent.  “Why don’t I just put the Murphy bed back in the closet, Hon? You can make this room a living room.” I didn’t want a Murphy bed. “But, Hon…”
“Hon?” Men in San Francisco did not call girls “Hon.” We wouldn’t have stood for it. Refreshing!
It was hard not to notice that Herb was handsome. He looked twenty years younger than his age, with thick brown hair combed back, wide deep brown eyes, a disarming smile, big dimples, and a cute “physique.” And more impossible not to notice was that he was entertaining, both when he wanted to be and when he didn’t. To me, and also to Anne, his very existence was entertaining. How had Herb McMurtry, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, ended up on Linda Street?
I had never cared about a man’s level of education, race, ethnicity, job, financial security, or marriage prospect. I always fell for nice-looking guys who loved what they did and offered me something, anything, new. Ideally brilliant, adventurous, smart, cheerful, funny, and good with words. And we should have chemistry. And they should want me. Why was I having such a hard time finding a boyfriend?
Herb’s third-floor apartment was right next to mine, and he was always thrilled to help carry things up and down the wide wooden staircase. Once, he asked to see how my place looked. He walked around, unable to comprehend my arty posters and my empty kitchen cabinets. The next day I came home to a huge pile of groceries: Ritz crackers, American cheese, white bread, grape jelly, Jif peanut butter, and a huge bottle of Pepsi. It was almost scary. I began to laugh. “My God, Herb” I said. “Thank-you so much, but I never eat that stuff!”
“Hon!” he exclaimed, amazed. “What’s wrong with it?” I couldn’t explain, but immediately called Anne over, who cracked up, said, “But it’s so sweet,” and helped me eat it.
Being the super, Herb got the garage and was always outside, shining up his car, the love of his life, a black Pontiac Trans Am with a huge painting of a firebird on its hood. He wanted us to ride in it. “I won $500 yesterday in Reno. Why don’t you girls come to Reno with me?”
“No, that’s okay,” I said, face-to-face with my own classism. I wouldn’t have minded a trip to Reno. But Anne would never go, and what if someone saw me in that car?
As he stood in front of the garage in his cheap pleated pants, shining white T-shirt, and black apron, he regaled anyone who would stop by with stories. Anne, our friend Lanie, and I learned that Herb was the “Mayor of Linda St.” Everyone loved him.
Months passed. I left my little theater company and took a “real” job with the California Conservation Corps doing arts and education with the young Corpsmembers in the evenings. It was an hour away, so I didn’t see much of Herb, but if he was in his garage, I would stop by for stories. Every trip to Reno was rococo drama; his children were great-looking, but useless; his sister Niecie in Novato was rich and stingy. But what he described best was his job.
Herb worked nights at the loading dock of the Consolidated Freightways terminal in Hayward, and loved to describe the shenanigans that went on there. We felt like we knew every character: Dawg, Moose, Rocco, and Ricky. We started to love them, as Herb clearly did. We fell apart laughing at their conversations and mistakes. Finally we couldn’t resist. We looked up the address and directions and headed off to Hayward after midnight. I parked in a dark corner of the parking lot, and we watched for an hour. Where was the humor and camaraderie? It was just men unloading trucks.
When I told Herb we had gone, he was really flattered. “Hon! You girls didn’t have to do that. Why didn’t you come over? You should have.”
So there it was. Herb could make a night at the dock of Consolidated Freightways more entertaining than most comedians could make a monologue. His rhythms were a joy. Perhaps his children were not good-looking, perhaps Niecie was not rich. But his descriptions were not only brilliant, they were full of love. Was I starting to fall for him?
The new job, which had seemed so promising, turned out to be dry and rule-bound. Worse, the long, reverse hours were making me lose my place in the arty world of San Francisco, as well as my entire social life. I decided to save every dime and, if nothing improved, move back East. Running into Herb’s cheer and dimples came to feel more and more pleasant. Refreshing.
My first trip in the Trans Am was to Niecie’s tract house in Novato. I hid under the dashboard so no one would see me, but really to tease him, until we got to Golden Gate Park. Niecie barraged him with criticism, and he laughed it off until she joined him.
Had I ever shot a gun? Never? We took a ride to a meadow past Daly City, Herb placed a soda can on a rock, and taught me to shoot. It took all my strength to pull the trigger, and the backlash practically knocked me over. I got nowhere near the can. Then he practiced, and I got bored. I got bored with his music as we drove back. But he still had that charm. A week later, I slept with him. It was strange seeing the subtle softness of age on his skin. Clearly, we both knew it was a fling.
We went to Reno. I had never been to a gambling establishment, and never heard a good word about one, but Herb’s enthusiasm was contagious. He had stories for every casino. Reno turned out to be flat, hot, and dusty, full of ugly buildings with gaudy signs. Inside, it was cold, very dark, and utterly depressing. Obviously poor people, smoking cigarettes, sucking down weak free screwdrivers, and feeding loud little machines with piles and piles of quarters. I leaned toward Herb, starting to say, “What a travesty.” But he was in heaven.
He convinced me to exchange five bucks, and put the quarters into slot machines. Nothing happened until I stopped by a bigger machine and won $300. Oh my God. I could put $200 in the bank and still get a television. I turned it immediately into cash. Herb was shocked. “Hon, you’re on a roll. You can never give up on a roll.” I tried one more quarter and won $10. “See? Hon, you’ve got to change it back.” I knew it was stupid and was annoyed at myself for listening to him. We went to another casino and I lost it all. Now I was annoyed at both of us.
Herb’s car, his music, his velvet clown hanging, and lack of books, newspapers, and knowledge of anything I cared about were starting to get old. By the time I couldn’t have sex due to the faulty IUD, I was ready not to have it.
Is it rape if someone swears he won’t come and then does? It sure felt that way. I stopped speaking to him. My period seemed late, but they are when you stop taking estrogen; and also, thanks to that estrogen, I had never kept track of it. I was always running, and more weeks passed. And then I woke up nauseous. The next day as well. Oh no. I drove straight to the woman’s clinic at SF General.
“Yes, you are pregnant.” I was furious. There was no way I was going to have a child with this silly old hillbilly, whom I never wanted to see again. Not while persevering in a job I needed so I could save every dime and find myself a future.
My appointment was for the next day. They were calm and welcoming. They said they would insert a piece of seaweed to make it all go smoothly, and the procedure would be the following day. When I got home, Herb was there. “What’s wrong, Hon?”
“Don’t call me Hon. You made me pregnant, and I’m having an abortion.”
”Well, why would you want to do that?” No “I’m sorry” or “Are you okay.”
Herb was not against abortion, just this one. His baby! At 56! With his “little hippie”? For the next two days he tried flowers, logic, and begging to convince me. He would take care of it, we’d get married. “Think about it, Hon, a little baby.”
The next day, I lay on the table, trying to tell them that Novocain affects me slowly. “Take your time,” I said, “Please wait until I’m…” and woke up saying, “Really out.”
“It’s over,” they smiled. “You’re fine.”
I felt an enormous sense of relief. I could breathe again. I was Laurie. My life was my own. My friends Juan and Gwen came over that night with three kinds of ice cream. I slept for ten hours.
When I got up the next morning to go to work, Herb was lying drunk in the hallway. He looked at me like a baby cow, and I helped him open his door and enter his apartment. His maudlin self-pity only assured me I had done the right thing.
A few months later, I was driving near the zoo. On the corner was a skinny, intrepid-looking, six-year-old boy with dark brown hair and bright brown eyes. I pulled over and cried for five minutes. Then I kissed the air, opened my eyes, put the car into gear, and kept going.
Someday I would surely want a baby. But not without real accomplishments by me, so I would be ready to be a mother. Not without financial security and a kind man I loved and knew would be a wonderful father. As Planned Parenthood used to say, “Every child a wanted child.” I would never have a child I could not do right by.


Laurie Harriton taught high school English and drama, and served as an assistant principal, staff developer, and principal in the New York City public schools. Prior to that she worked in San Francisco as an actress, circus performer, and publicist. Since retiring ten years ago, she has focused on her own writing, mostly memoir, and been published in small journals.

Suzanne Cottrell writes poetry, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction. She’s the author of three poetry chapbooks: Gifts of the Seasons, Autumn and Winter & Spring and Summer, and Scarred Resilience. She is an outdoor enthusiast and retired teacher, who enjoys reading, hiking, gardening, photography, and Pilates.

One Comment

  1. Laurie: Your piece was a ride into our past, and I appreciate the care and craft you put into this slice of your life. b sure to copyright this piece. I am looking forward to reading the whole memoir.

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