Riley’s Old Lady

by Pat Morris

Riley’s old lady put a pot of soup on to simmer and lit a candle in deference to Bubbe Malka, but the rest of her Friday night ritual was uniquely her own.

Liter of vodka, pitcher of ice, bowl of cut limes, tumbler, two packs of cigs, lighter, the ashtray she’d made at Camp Winterspring—all placed on the left side of the rotting steamer trunk that served as her coffee table. Check.

She laid the scrapbooks, the “times of his life,” on the table in order by decade and color of the spectrum: Blue for the ’60s, green for the ’70s, all the way up to purple for the second decade of the new millennium. End of the rainbow.

She eased onto the sagging sofa, lifting her gouty right leg with her hands, then wrapped herself in the old yellow comforter to fight the draft. She poured a drink, lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply of each, and would keep that up all evening.

She picked up the blue volume.

The ’60s began with Polaroids of Sherri Birnbaum and Dan Riley clipped from the Washington Middle School yearbook: singing “Cranberry Corners” with the choir, looking thoughtfully at their experiments at the Science Fair, dancing the first dance, crowns on their heads, as King and Queen of Homecoming.

The Jewish kids and the Irish Catholics didn’t mingle much, even in school, and both sets of parents were horrified, but they’d stayed inseparable all the way through high school.

 Just like Romeo and Juliet.

She turned the pages. Riley as lead singer of the Dynamos at the weekly high school dances, all Beatle bobs and collarless jackets. The Dynamos at gigs in Roselle Park, Scotch Plains, as far away as Allentown and Cherry Hill.

Then, right after graduation, she and Riley on the first album cover, doing their best to look like Dylan and Suzy Rotolo, with the other Jung Turqs and their old ladies: Dave and Barbara, Erik and Donna. The band members wore turquoise Nehru suits. The old ladies had jeans and peasant blouses and flowers painted under their eyes.

There was a second album cover: everyone in turquoise crushed velvet, just the thing to wear for a sunset beach stroll. Polaroids had given way to clippings from fan magazines: The Montvale Six, as they thought of themselves but no one called them, dragging on Gauloises at The Village Gate, The Night Owl, the Bitter End, Ondine’s. Riley looked like an Edwardian poet; Riley’s old lady—now his wife, thanks to a quickie Vegas, familyless wedding, and rechristened Cherie—looked like Catherine de Neuve.

Teen Scene magazine had devoted two pages—“Jung Turqs ‘Let It Hang’”—to the band’s 1969 vacation in Mexico. Dan and Erik and their new old ladies—they’d traded up to British models Valerie Gianetti and Jenny Sexton—and Riley splashed in the water, tossed Frisbees, and fed one another chunks of mango while Cherie watched from a chaise under the shade of an enormous sombrero.

The photo captions failed to mention that Cherie was in Mexico not for a “holiday,” but because Dan wasn’t ready to be a family man and Roe vs. Wade was four years away.

By the beginning of the green scrapbook, the Turqs had dropped the peacock pretensions along with the “Jung.” Dressed as Jersey badass sort-of-bikers, they developed a social conscience and headlined concerts for flood relief, drought relief, famine relief, NORAID. Each concert supported a new album, and the money kept rollin’ on in.

It bought the apartment on Central Park West, the house in Montauk, the condo in Aspen, the ranch complete with recording studio outside Austin. The touring schedule was relentless, but strike while the iron is hot and all that, and when things died down, as they were bound to someday, the homes would all be in place and they could start a family.

She was decorating the Long Island beach house the summer it all went south.

Idly thumbing through a tabloid at the checkout line, she’d come across the photo now carefully pasted onto the page she was holding. Riley was walking through the airport in Rome, copper ringlets falling past the broad shoulders of his burgundy leather jacket. In his right hand was a guitar case. In his left was the elbow of Lady Eloise Buckingham, whose face was also gracing that month’s Vogue.

A month later Lady Eloise was a member of the band, shaking her ass and a tambourine while Riley sang, strummed, and dry humped her.

Within a year Eloise had given birth to twin girls and redecorated the apartment, the beach house, the condo, and the ranch.

Cherie moved into her Uncle Harry’s old hunting cabin in the Jersey Skylands and tended bar at Brannigan’s on weekends. She could walk to the bar, there was a bus to the supermarket, and her divorce settlement, $500 a month for ten years, took care of taxes, water, and heat for now. Cherie didn’t worry about later—you didn’t see anything coming anyway, so what was the point? She sure hadn’t seen Lady Eloise on the horizon, or the news that the Mexican doctor had ensured she would never be a mother. It was enough just to get through the day.

The ’80s scrapbook was neon yellow, and the decade had started out just as sunny for Riley—now the name of the act as well as the man—if not for Cherie. He wrote the score for an animated children’s film and won an Oscar, sang at a royal wedding.  He toured the world seemingly nonstop, ever trailed by Lady Eloise and a growing brood of disheveled, sleepy-looking children. Their seldom-visited homes included a castle in Wales, a villa in Tuscany, the American properties, and a whole island off the coast of Vietnam.

Cherie’s alimony ran out. She applied for SSI and home heating assistance, and failed to report her tips from Brannigan’s.

Fade to orange, and 1993. That was the year Lady Eloise discovered Riley’s fondness for teenage hookers. The divorce spanned half a decade and two continents. Eloise emerged with the castle, the island, the villa, the city apartment, the Montauk house, half of everything Riley made since 1972, and full custody of their three children who were still minors. Riley got the ranch and a court order to pay $25,000 a month per child in child support.

At midnight as the clock chimed in the new millennium, he married a 24-year-old Swedish masseuse.

The photo in People magazine showed Riley, thin gray strands tied into a ponytail that came halfway down his back, duded up in a ruffled shirt and fringed suede jacket. The bride wore couture maternity and carried a bouquet of something ferny. Cherie looked closely at her face: Elke Sorensen could be Eloise’s daughter. Or, come to think of it, my daughter. Our daughter. I should have had a daughter. Riley stole my daughter, and then married her.

Cherie pulled the comforter closer as wind rattled the windows, and she paged through the red scrapbook more quickly now, drinking and smoking with her left hand while she turned the pages with her right.

Riley and Elke bringing home baby Deevah. Riley, Elke, and Deevah bringing home baby Mungo. La familia Riley on the ranch at dusk.

Turqs’ rumored reunion tour unlikely as former band members battle over song rights, royalties.

Riley performing an acoustic set at a local campus hangout. Talking about taking it on the road.

Riley’s mug shot after he drunkenly smashed his Lexus into an Austin food truck and injured, but not too badly, six people.

Riley goes to rehab, leaves rehab, goes to rehab, all the way up to the end of the decade, when Elke Sorensen Riley marries a 30-year-old French pop star and moves with her children to a fishing village in Brittany.

Riley wanders naked through hotel lobby, asking for directions to Saint-Suliac.

Riley enters hospital for indeterminate period.

Tabloid headline: “Riches to Rags!” Creditors descend on the Austin ranch.

Cherie closed the red volume, opened the mostly empty purple one.

Two paragraphs from a music industry magazine noted the release of Daniel Riley, former frontman of the rock bands The Jung Turqs, The Turqs, and Riley, from Shady Haven Addiction Treatment Center near Hot Springs, Virginia.

Susannah Riley, daughter of Lady Eloise Buckingham of Gwynedd, Wales, and the former pop star Daniel Riley, of the United States, married Sir Reginald Humphrey of London, a commodities trader, at the Church of Our Lady and St. James in the bride’s hometown. Her uncle, Lord Leo Buckingham, gave her away in the absence of her father, who could not travel due to illness.

March 19, 2017, marked the 45th anniversary of the Concert for Eritrea. Music World ran a spread: six pages of photos from the concert, Turqs taking center stage, and an equal number of “Where Are They Now?” updates. “Dashing Dave” Robertson wrote commercial jingles and ran a recording studio in Nova Scotia. “Erik the Red” was a philosophy professor emeritus.

Riley’s whereabouts unknown.

Nothing more to look at here. Cherie shut the last scrapbook closed, poured herself another long one, and took a drag from her Maverick. When the glass was drained, she squished out the butt and grabbed her bad leg with both hands, gingerly placing it on the ground. Shedding the comforter, she shivered a little but stopped as she neared the soup pot, which had filled the tiny kitchen with steam. She ladled some soup into a cereal bowl, crumbled in some no-brand crackers, and placed it on a tray with a large spoon and a folded paper towel. Feeling a little less stiff, she carefully carried the tray into the bedroom, moving the lamp on the bedside table to make room. The TV was blaring a rerun of Law and Order SVU, but the occupant of the bed stared straight ahead, unhearing and unseeing.

She pried his lips open slightly with the spoon and slid in some soup.

“Here you go, Riley. That’s a good boy.”