From the Journals of Peter Marshall Bell

12 July 1959, Washington D.C.—14 November 1994, San Francisco

Excerpts from a short story; a letter; a poem; travel notes


A Little Romance—[Davis, 1985 – San Francisco, 1994]

The scene is a gas station in the ungentrified, unglorified Southwest, perhaps somewhere outside of Bakersfield, California. He is the attendant—we’ll call him Cal (although his name be legion under the Texaco star, world without end, Amen). He never answers to Cal, but to “Fill’er up,” “Check under the hood, please,” or “Could you get all those squished bugs off my windshield?” Cal is tall and lanky and speaks with a drawl. He wears a red baseball cap over straw-like, dishwater-blond hair, and is clean-shaven with a bony nose and sunken, dull-brown eyes.

Cal wears a white tee shirt and loose blue jeans held at the waist by a hand-decorated belt which he won at the county fair by shooting a whole row of cardboard ducks. The belt came from some Indian reservation and is now the only force in the world anchoring Cal’s pants over his skinny haunches. Cal’s tennis shoes are oily from gas station grease, car exhaust and tire treads. His fingernails have a permanent accumulation of motor oil under them. An old, dirty rag hangs out of his back pants pocket. Cal smokes Lucky Strikes and has a pack in the front chest pocket of his tee shirt. To refresh himself in the arid heat of the Southwest he drinks about five bottles of coke over the course of a day. He spends a great deal of time under the boss’s old Dodge, a vehicle promised to Cal if he can get the engine to turn over. Cal has been at the car for three years and has not yet given up. When he is under the Dodge his absorption in repairs blocks him from the outside world, and customers resort to honking several times before Cal pulls himself from under the old car. Cal never has to hurry; the next gas station is a tank away and most people drive in nearly empty. No; Cal never has to hurry.

Cal is under the Dodge when she drives up to the gas pumps. We’ll call her Betty because that is her name, although Cal will never know it. Betty is driving to Los Angeles in a late-model, white Cadillac Eldorado convertible with red-leather interior. She is a forty-seven year-old divorcée whose ex-husband will give her all the alimony she requests on the condition that she will just stay away. Betty was a red-head cocktail waitress until she married her ex-husband. Then she changed her hair to sunburst blond and promised herself never to work again. With her alimony she has been able to keep her promise and the hair color, which graces a coiffure piled, teased and bombed with enough spray to defy the worst turbulence which the convertible can offer with its top down. The pink chiffon scarf covering her hair serves merely as evidence of Betty’s talent in accessorizing her wardrobe.

Betty’s face is a little puffy from her predisposition for vodka stingers, a major indulgence since her divorce, and she wears huge, round sunglasses to cover the circles from a relatively sleepless night in the company of an oil field hand who, as Betty will elegize later, “… maybe was dirty but sure knew how to drill.” Betty is actually a little puffy all over but has enough of a figure to dress down for the heat in an amply-filled, chartreuse-green jumpsuit, zipped from the crotch to her sufficiently revealed décolleté. Her step-in gold lamé high heels are tossed to the passenger’s side; she navigates the Eldorado better in bare feet. Next to the shoes, her matching clutch purse contains a roll of bills, some loose change, keys to the house whose locks were changed by her ex-husband, a wallet with an Arizona driver’s license, credit cards whose bills will be paid by her ex-husband, a bottle of Chanel Number Five eau de toilette, dog-collar tags for the dachshund which her ex-husband kept, and a full line of Maybelline products: Shell-pink lipstick, baby-blue eye shadow, black eyelash thickener, and salmon low-gloss blush. Betty is not ashamed of her weight, age, marital status, livelihood, drinking habits, cooking or taste in men. She needs a tank of gas but does not mind if the attendant takes his time. No, Betty does not have to hurry any more….


Letter to Douglas K.

le 25 février 1986

Salut, mon beau garçon—

I’m enclosing a baseball card to complete your collection …

Long live the days when women in white gloves used to buy cans of Spry (“it creams so easily”) at their local grocery. [1] Nowadays everybody uses K-Y jelly or Vidal Sassoon mousse during commercial breaks between Miami Vice or Dynasty.

Speaking of the latter, when I was in London two weeks ago I happened upon a Joan Collins Society meeting. There I found people to whom I could sincerely relate. For a brief, all too brief, moment, it felt like :sniff: Home. Otherwise London was calm under a layer of snow, and I amused myself with an outing to the symphony and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It.

Now of course, I’m back in Paris, which is also covered with snow, except here it doesn’t stay white very long because of the excessive population of dogs, DOGS and more DOGS. The reason the French are so fond of dogs, I decided, is because that is the only way they can assure themselves of being loved.

I am getting over a cold which I try to convince myself doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, the cold’s trying to convince me by waking me up at night choking in a flurry of mucus. What have I done to deserve this? Is this the thanks I get for giving up smoking? I was doing so well, too, going to Aerobics classes and jumping up and down to Loud, Throbbing and Mindless Disco Muzak. I will start again once I get over this cold.

When April S. was here she took me to the Folies Bergère where I saw 20 pairs of breasts which all looked the same. The boy dancers were real cute and all in all nous avons un temps.

I heard there were monsoon conditions in Northern California. Hope your cottage is holding up. Just the perfect weather to curl up to your television and groove on Let’s Make a Deal …

Je t’envoie mes tendresses avec une grosse baiser—


[1] Spry was a popular brand of vegetable shortening.


On New Years 1982-83

African Pastoral

To be read while sifting rice or other grain


Haze lines the horizon

beyond the village.

My lover is far away.

And the bare dry branches

rustle in the wind

reassuring me:

The austerity is only

that of a season.

Soon the dry spell will end

and my lover will ride

over the summits

—like the first rains—

to me.



Forays into nature have never constituted a top priority in my vacation plans. I am not a Field and Stream kind of guy; my wanderlust is best fulfilled in a seat on the terrace of some café which serves decent coffee. A better choice would be somewhere between Paris Match and Interview.

Of course I have a tremendous respect for naturalists who venture through forests and up mountainous ranges for weeks at a time, savoring fresh air, alpine meadows, and all the wonders of flora and fauna. Some of my dearest friends run off to hill and dale with their tents, sleeping bags and compact freeze-dried delicacies. On occasion I have accompanied and surprised myself that I tolerated a sleeping bag with no air mattress, survived getting saturated by camp fire smoke and enjoyed a decent cup of coffee in the brisk, pine-scented morning air. But these were at the most weekend excursions, accompanied by a Coleman cooler stocked with delectable perishables, and a car trunk no further than 500 yards from our camping site stocked with red wine for the evenings around the campfire. Occasionally these outings included the invasion of mosquitoes, and I would bear the oil and gas repellants. Weather blessed these short excursions with an absence of rainfall. Twice I allowed myself an entire week of car-camping in T_


We have arrived late at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, just as the last rays of sun are doing their work of coloring the different angles of the canyon wall. My partner unleashes his camera with his endearing, almost boyish enthusiasm for the rapidly fading pageant before him. I stare at the seeming infinite expanse below and see God’s terrible face, eternal and unrelenting, dwarfing me to the point where I could be a leaf blown by a gush of wind into the abyss. My eyes wander over the vastness where God has made his signature of terrible beauty…



Grand Canyon Sunset—Summer 1993


Filed under Memoir

2 responses to “From the Journals of Peter Marshall Bell

  1. Norman Jacobs

    What we leave behind is our connection to others, our influence on the culture of our society. And a good part of that is our words.

    • Thank you dear friend for your insightful comment. Words do indeed bring people together. Or sometimes, perhaps temporarily, drive them apart. Old friends, former students and colleagues, our children, siblings and spouses, former and current – mine, Peter’s, Jack’s – and new acquaintances all warm the heart, stimulate discussions anew. It would be such an impoverished world without human connection.

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