Friday, September 30, 2011

Playing Favorites

I follow Mom out to our car.  When we're both in and buckled, she glances at me in the rearview mirror.
            “We’re not going to stay long,” she says. “Maybe five minutes. He’s bound to be exhausted.”
            I nod, blow on the window, and draw a smiley face in the condensation. Then I sit back and consider how the five minute visit might play out.
            I want to show him how much I love him. How much I miss him, even though it’s only been a week. A void happens when seven days pass without someone you're used to seeing every day. Feels like there’s an empty bucket in my belly. And it’s blue.
            My plan is to show him my fingernails. How I stopped biting them. Just for him. I haven’t nibbled all week. They don’t yet touch the tips of my fingers, but I painted them anyway. Borrowed Mom’s Avon polish—Peppy Poppy—without asking her. The color reminds me of the cherry hardshell coating you can get on your twisty cone at the Dairy King on Route 60. I lick them. To see if maybe they taste like-- Naw. They're bitter. Chemically. Shiny though.
            Hopefully, Mom'll leave us alone. In the hospital room. So I can hiss to John, “I hate them.” The boys who did this. Because of them, I’ll never sit behind him on his motorbike again. My arms strapped around his midsection. My cheek flush with his shoulder blade. I never really felt safe there and where I hadn’t had a tangible excuse before (besides I’m chicken), now I do.
A week ago, a whole car, a Lincoln Continental, had slammed into John and his Honda. Tossed them both into the air—him left, the bike right. When I picture it in my mind’s eye, I imagine he bounces, then falls back to earth. The black top receives him none too gently.
            The Lincoln was stolen. The driver ignored the red light. All the guys in the car were drunk. High too.
I change my mind. I'm not going to hiss. I intend to yell.
            “I hate those boys!” Maybe even, “I wish they were dead!”
            My mad words'll ricochet off the almost pistachio green walls (or will they be make-you-squint-bright-white?) and he’ll be satisfied. John will. That I'm on his side. When ninety per cent of the time, I'm nothing but a pain in his butt. That’s how he always introduces me. Never, “This is my little sister.” Instead he usually says, "Her? She's just a pain in my butt. That’s all.”
            After “I hate them,” I 'll say, “It’s too bad.” That he won’t get to do his Steve Martin imitation at his high school's talent show. Not too long ago I’d stood outside his bedroom door, my face smooshed to the wall just out of sight, while he practiced in the mirror. I peeked in and saw him flop a pillow case on his head. He watched himself sing. “King Tut, Tut. Funky Tut, Tut.” I stole another look. Giggled into my hand as he shimmied and crowed. “I’m just one wild and crazy guy.”
            When he finished, I pounced through the doorway with a grin. “You’re the funniest guy ever! For real! They’re gonna love you.”
            That earned me a beating. For being a spy.
            Maybe I’ll apologize too. For the whipping he’d taken that night on account of me. And for all the other times. More than once I’d lied. To my dad. I told the truth that night, but I didn’t always. Sometimes I squealed just because. Truth or no, it didn’t matter. Daddy believed me without fail. For no other reason than I was the only daughter, the youngest child.
            Dad’s face would get super red, especially his nose, and his eyes would go all squinty.
             “How could you do that? She’s just a little girl for crying out loud.”
            John would glare at me. Mouth two words. “Spoiled brat.” That was his favorite thing to throw at me. Besides a fist.
            Whenever I tattled, Dad would grab John in a Vulcan nerve pinch and steer him to another room. In the minute before I heard the siss of Dad’s belt speeding out of its constraints, I’d grin. Snicker. Enjoy a certain satisfaction. But when the thwack sounded--cow skin on boy butt--I winced. Regretted. Power didn’t seem so cool then.
John isn't my only brother, but for some reason, I like him best. I have no idea why. He did, after all, try to kill me once. On the chocolate milk-colored sofa in the basement. After I told him no way he was going to my ninth grade prom. He was too old (two years and three months my senior) and besides, it was my school dance, not his. And did he not know what Tammy Carter did with Joey Howard behind the Convenient Mart? Did he really want to go out with a girl like that?
            He launched at me, hands all T-rex clawed, his metal mouth gleaming through a froth. Crammed my head into the arm of the couch. Choked me until I saw stars, then nothing.
            “Mom,” I yelled after I came to. “John tried to murder me. I blacked out. I’m serious.”
            She didn’t answer. Turned out, she was out back picking zinnias and cherry tomatoes.
I think maybe John and I are like Dad and our cat, Ginger. Dad's forever grouching about what a nuisance she is. All the time honking into the handkerchief he keeps in his front pant's pocket.
            “That blankety blank cat is single-handedly making Benadryl rich.”
            Whenever Ginger perches on the sill outside the living room window, I take the screen off and let her in. Not Dad. He talks to her real nice so she thinks maybe—Then schwing! He cranks the window open super fast and she goes flying into the yard with a yowl.
             And when she sits by the front door, daintily grooming her pumpkin paws, Dad'll stroll up to her and point to his Hush Puppy oxford.
            “Here, kitty, kitty. Let me introduce you to the number nine shoe. I don’t believe you all have met.”
            Once again, she goes flying. With a yowl.
            Ginger loves Daddy anyway. She arches her back under his hand whenever he falls asleep in his Ethan Allen wing chair during the nightly news. She's not stupid though. When he's awake, she holes up under his chair, her twitching tail the only evidence of her presence.
            I think he must like her a tiny bit because one time I saw him give her an empty tuna can to lick. When he thought no one was looking.
            So, yeah. Ginger's just like me. Wants to be around the person who likes her least. Is okay with getting one pat on the back for every hundred times she goes flying with a yowl. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but she doesn’t care and neither do I.
            I pull out the picture I brought of Ginger. To show John. In case he misses her.
On the elevator Mom tells me John's right arm will be in a sling and his left leg will be casted and in a pulley gizmo over his bed. I roll my eyes. I know, Mom. You’ve said that  a hundred times this week.
            “He may be out of it,” she says. “What with the pain meds and all.”
            My lower lip pushes forward. “I sure hope not.” I glance at my hands. “I want him to see my manicure.” Want him to hear me say, I hate them. And, I’m sorry. And maybe if Mom leaves the room, I’ll grip the side rail of his bed and lean close. "Don't tell anybody," I'll whisper. “But you’re my favorite brother.” Then I'll watch his face, especially his mouth. To see if maybe, just maybe, he'll say . . .

Friday, September 23, 2011

+Like Salt to French Fries+

I live to hear the words, "Can you fill a food order, please?"  In my mind, I see myself going down into a lunge.  Left knee touches the ground.   Right arm comes back like I'm starting a lawn mower.  "Yesssss!"
            I run up the stairs, two at a time, to the top floor.  I stand in front of the shelves and fill old grocery bags with pasta, peanut butter, soup, and fruit cocktail.  I can't stop grinning because this makes me happy.

It was almost four years ago.  I was headed to BB&T.  I watched my feet on the sidewalk.  "Step on a crack, break your mother's back."  After awhile, I looked up and instead of being in front of the bank, I was in front of a building that said loving in big letters and furniture in little letters.
            I reckon it had something to do with Isaiah 58:7.  It'd been on my mind for almost two years.  "Share your food with the hungry.  Clothe the naked." The words were a shish kebab skewer that poked me under the ribs every time I heard or read them.
            I'd been praying.  Waiting.  Looking for a burning bush.  All of a sudden, there it was.    But it wasn't burning, and it wasn't a bush.  It was Christian Help, Incorporated, founded in 1975.

Every Tuesday, more often than not, I drive down Grand Street to town.  To Christian Help.  I look through the blue part of my windshield.  "A parking spot right in front would be awesome, God."  Usually it's there.  Especially if my trunk is full.
            I walk in the front door and say, "Howdy," to whoever's at the front desk.  Used to be Glinda, before she had a stroke and went to assisted living.  I always hugged her and whispered into her steel-colored curls, "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?" 
            She'd cup one of my cheeks with her cool, dry hand and smile up at me.  "Good to see you, girlie."

I love 'em.  All the ladies.  I'm going on year four of volunteering and they've put in twenty five or more.  I work two to three hours a week.  Some of them are there every day.  They're all in their seventies, at least.  And Spud, who moved here from Jersey, to live with her daughter?  She's ninety something.  Looks like a grey-haired Jack in a deck of cards. 
            There's also Rose and Annie.  Sis and Carol too.  Ethel and Erlene come on Tuesdays, like me.  Glory hallelujah when Ethel brings one of her pound cakes.  Thank you, Jesus when we have a pot luck lunch and Erlene brings her sauerkraut with little, tasty shreds of pork. 
            I love the shining, antique faces of the ladies.  The way their eyes and teeth flash white when I spring through the doorway of the clothes sorting room.  Their smiles say they're as glad to see me as I am to see them. 

I've seen staff come and go in four years.  That's the nature of Americorp Vista, usually paid a pittance, workers.  But Cheryl, the executive director, has been there since before me.  God bless her because running Christian Help requires managing chaos.  Reassessing the greatest need, the greatest good, Monday through Friday, plus the first Saturday of the month.
            Cheryl's radiant.  Maybe she goes to a tanning booth.  Or she could be part Native American.  Just between you and me, I think it's because she loves the Lord.  Moses glowed when he came down from the mountain of God, you know.
            I stopped asking the younger volunteers why they're at Christian Help.  Usually it's because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In this town that means community service--bummer to them, blessing to us.  Now whenever I see them, I just smile real big and say, "Welcome!  We're so glad you're here."
            One time a handsome guy, who filled out his t-shirt sleeves, asked me why I volunteer at Christian Help.  I'd been waiting for this.  For the chance to give the reason for the hope I have.  I had paragraphs prepared, but they evaporated. "'Cause I love Jesus."  My voice sounded tiny.  He looked at me, head tilted.  "Cool."

To me, serving, volunteering, whatever you want to call it, is like that line in the Jerry McGuire movie.  It completes me.  For years, I went to Bible study every Friday morning.  Learned all kinds of neat stuff.  But one day, someone's opinion changed my life.  "Bible study is all well and fine, but sooner or later, you have to start doing what Jesus told you to." 
            I think serving is to life, what salt is to French fries.  I understood that the first time I filled an emergency food order.  It was a religious experience.  Spud's the unofficial queen of the food pantry, but she wasn't there to hear me say, "I'm doing it.  I'm feeding Jesus' sheep."

I sure hope I'll still be driving down Grand Street to town, to Christian Help, for another couple decades.   After that, much as I love to hear, "Can you fill a food order?" or, "Can you help someone with an interview outfit?" what I long to hear is, "Well done, good and faithful servant."  But not yet.  Not until I'm at least as old as Spud.

Friday, September 16, 2011

No Longer Certain

It confounds me how your love can exist so comfortably beside your secret. A radiant warmth snuggled next to an abysmal darkness. A pool of green water. Still. Absolutely unaffected by earthquakes all around.
            Eyes wide, I peer into your shine. Try to gulp it in. I’m almost blinded. A moment later, off to the right, the shadow of your mystery arrives to abduct your brilliance.
            I think I can live right here. In this space—between my karate chop hands held a foot apart--if I pretend the lack of light is a lie. A miscommunication. Soon after though, I become sure of your misdeeds. They nip at my ankles. Draw my feet (and heart) down like quicksand.

I could not for the life of me stop thinking of Adam and Eve. Eve mostly, though I wondered why Adam didn’t rise up. Be the man. Do the right thing. Stop. Eve.
            I felt, for the second time in my life, a bit like God. Foolish, I know. But similar still.
            We were perfect, weren’t we? But really, we weren’t. The lie, the what if, had already slipped in. Tainted paradise. Infected glory.

Now I understand how the worst thing that can happen is doubt. Mine. Yours. And now I live as though someone stepped on my eyes. That shape on the horizon, is it beauty, or evil? And the form to the left of it. Tell me. Is it kindness or deception?
            I think that’s what I miss most. The certainty that what I know is what I know.
            And yet I love you still.

Friday, September 9, 2011

*To Make Her Smile*

Tawny was rolling silverware when the two of them walked in.  Mother and daughter.  She'd watched their white Honda Civic circle the diner three times, looking for the door.  She rolled her eyes.
            "Smile, Tawny," Sue Ann said.  "You get way better tips when you smile."
            The mother tapped the point of her big, rainbow-striped umbrella on the floor as she and her daughter walked beside the row of booths.  They didn't sit until they found a clean one.  Tawny kept rolling.
            Sue Ann bumped Tawny with her hip.  "Tawny, they're in your section."
            Tawny winced.  "You want 'em?  It's five minutes to close."
            "Nah.  I gotta do the bathrooms.  Now get on out there."

Tawny tossed two menus on the table.
            "Evening," she said.
            The mother beamed.  "Howdy."
            The girl smiled too.
            "My name's Tawny.  The specials are on the inside front of the menu."
            The mom tilted her head.  "Tawny?  That's a neat name.  I like it."
            Tawny resisted the urge to sneer.  "What can I get you to drink?"
            "Do you all have sweet tea?" the mom said.
            Dumb question.  Tawny clenched her teeth and nodded.
            "Oh, boy!  You know you're in the south when you can get sweet tea."
            Tawny turned to the girl.
            "Water, please." 

Tawny headed back to the kitchen.  Tawny's a neat name?  No, it's not.  A long time ago she'd looked it up.  It meant a light brown to brownish orange.  Nothing about her was tawny.  Her hair and eyes were the same color as the used coffee grounds she dumped out of the Bunn coffee maker umpteen times a day.
            She filled red plastic glasses with ice.  Let the tea and water overflow.  I should tell them how I got my name, my whole name.  Tawny wished she didn't know.  Wished her mom had never told her.  Her mom had seen "Tawny Port" on a bottle at the liquor store and that's how Tawny Port Blevins came to be. 
            Tawny went to the library a few years back and checked out a baby name book.  Someday when she got the time, she planned to change her middle name to Portia.  Tawny Portia Blevins.  Sounds classy.  Like a movie star.
Tawny took her order pad out of her apron pocket and headed back out.  The mom and girl were leaning across the table.  Their foreheads almost touched. Tawny cleared her throat.
            "You ready?"
            The mom looked at the girl.  The girl shook her head. 
            "Give us a minute, Tawny," the mom said.
            Tawny huffed and returned to the kitchen.  She grabbed a bus pan, rag, and the bleach water spray bottle.  She walked back out.
            "Country ham or pot roast?" the mom was saying.  "I can't decide."
            "Me either," the daughter said.
            Tawny folded the rag in half twice.  She sprayed and wiped a two top and its chairs.  You rich chicks are killing me.  If I'm not home by nine o'clock, Mr. Skoal Bandits, spearmint-flavored, will have my butt in a sling.  She refolded the rag.  Sprayed and wiped again.
            --Do you know how beautiful you are?--

            Tawny stopped wiping.  She let go of the rag and held her hand up to her mouth.  Again?
            --Do you know how I dread each day coming and going?  Knowing it makes the day you'll be gone forever come faster?--
            Tawny looked at the two of them from under her lashes.  The girl didn't answer.  Tawny knew why.  The mom hadn't spoken out loud. 
            It was the one thing special about Tawny--her ability to sometimes hear people's thoughts.  She couldn't do it until two years ago.  Until Randy drove his fist into her right ear.
            Everything had felt slow motion as she crumpled to the floor.  The room seemed tunnel-like.  The lights far away and small.  The noises all echoey.
            --You're nothing special.  Never will be.  I'd treat a good woman better.  But you're not, so I won't.--
            Tawny had struggled to prop herself up on her elbow.  Her head wobbled. 
            "Shut up!  I didn't say nothing.  Get me another Bud."
            Tawny squinted over at her mom.  She didn't look up from her People magazine.  Tawny pulled herself up using the coffee table.  Headed for the fridge.
Tawny stood in front of their booth, her pencil an inch from the pad.  The mom grinned and pointed to her selection on the menu.
            "I'd like the pot roast, green beans, and mashed potatoes, please.  I'd also like an order of coleslaw.  I don't care if it's extra.  I love coleslaw."
            Tawny gritted her teeth, nodded, and wrote.
            --I'm sorry you're so sad, Tawny.--
            Tawny didn't look at the mom.  She bit her lip and turned to the girl.
            "Open-faced turkey sandwich please.  Mashed potatoes and gravy.  And mac and cheese.  Thank you."
            The girl looked up at Tawny.  Tawny pursed her lips.
            --Why don't you smile?  Ever?--
            Tawny took their menus and walked back to the kitchen.

"Order in," she said to Hugh.
            She got the coleslaw container out of the walk-in cooler and scooped some into a side dish bowl.  She wiped her nose with her wrist.  I'll tell you why I'm sad, Mrs. Wear All Black and Lots of Rings.  My mom's lived with us ever since the roof on her place sprung a leak back in October.  Do you know how much that woman eats?  And Randy comes over every night 'cause we have cable.  Says he'll leave at eleven, but he never does.
            Tawny spooned macaroni and cheese into another side dish bowl and stuck it under the heat lamp.  He's there beside me at midnight when my daughter comes in to tell me she wet the bed, again.  And he's there in the morning when I wake up.
            Tawny walked along the stainless steel work surface, pulling a washcloth beside her.  And my daughter?  She won't ever go to college like your girl there with her perfect curls and shy smile.  I won't ever hear her say, 'Mom, I'm scared and excited all at once.  I'm gonna miss you a lot, except for your annoying habit of talking way too much to people you don't know.'
            Sue Ann came over and put her arm around Tawny's waist.  Tawny sniffed and pulled away.  She looked to see if Hugh had put their plates in the window yet.  He hadn't.
            She crossed her arms and stood with her back to the dining room.  That'll never happen to me, 'cause my baby, she'll probably have a baby.  Just like me.  Just like my mom.  And they'll all live with me forever, and I'll have what?  Five mouths to feed?
            "Order up," Hugh said.

Tawny unloaded the tray, dish by dish.
            The mom rubbed her hands together.  "Thank you so much," she said.  "It looks delicious."
            Tawny put the empty tray on the booth bench behind them and started spraying and wiping the table.
            "Good food.  Good meat.  Good God, let's eat." 
            Tawny paused her wiping, then resumed.
            "Oh.  And thank you so much that we didn't have to go over the New River Gorge Bridge."
            Tawny fiddled with the salt and pepper shakers.
            "Oh, and a little less rain tomorrow, please?"
            Dang!  She talks to him like she knows him.
            Tawny turned around.  "How's your supper?"
            The mom looked up.  Stopped chewing.  Swallowed.
            "Oh my goodness," she said.  "This is the best pot roast ever.  I don't even need a knife.  You are such a good cook."
            --Will you smile now?--

Tawny went back to the kitchen.  She glanced at her watch.  Won't be long now.  She emptied the coffee pot into a go cup and pressed on a lid.  She walked back onto the floor and over to their table.
            "You all want dessert?"  Please say no.
            The daughter shook her head.  Tawny looked at the mom.
            "Oh, my heavens, no," she said.  "I'm as full as a tick on a bear's back."
            One corner of Tawny's mouth went up.  Ever so slightly.
            --There.  I almost got you.--

Tawny picked up the empty side dish bowls and carried them into the kitchen.  The coleslaw bowl looked like it had been licked clean.  That's when she got the idea.  Maybe I can do it back.  She rested her elbows on the work surface and squinted at the mom across the divide.
            --Your eyes twinkle.  Like the crystal thingy I have hanging on the rearview mirror in my Dodge.  Randy says all the flashing is gonna make someone wreck some day, and they'll sue me.  I don't care.  It makes me happy and well, not a lot does these days.--
            The mom's eyes searched for and found Tawny.  She smiled and the room seemed brighter.  Tawny put her hand over her heart because it felt like it was coming out of her chest.  She pretended to look down, but then she peered at the mom again, from under her bangs.
            --And I wish--  Never mind.--

Tawny walked out and handed the mom the check.  "You can pay at the register."
            The mom's eyes narrowed, but not in a mad way.  "Thank you."
            Tawny gulped and looked at her shoes.
            --Thank you?  For what?  Did you hear me?  When I looked at you?  And thought real hard?--
            She lifted her head slowly and looked at the mom.  "For what?"
            The mom put her mouth on the straw and sucked the dregs of her sweet tea. 
            "For making us such an awesome supper."
            Tawny looked over her shoulder, toward Hugh and the grill.
            "I didn't--"
            "I know," the mom said.  "I'm just teasing."
Tawny watched the big, rainbow umbrella protect the mother and daughter as they walked out to their Honda.  She couldn't hear their thoughts through the glass.  When they got in their car, she moved to bus their table.  The tip was twice the bill.  Under the girl's plate was a note.  "You are special, Tawny.  You are."  She'd underlined are both times.  She'd dotted the i with a heart.
            Tawny looked out into the night.  The Honda was there.  Right outside the window.  They were looking in at her.  She put her hand over her mouth.  The mom grinned.  Flashes of light came into the diner, even though it was night.  Even though there was glass between them.
            The mom and girl waved.   Tawny rolled her fingers.  Her eyes filled and spilled over.  Then she smiled.

Friday, September 2, 2011

In the Beginning . . . Again

I couldn’t sleep. For the voices in my head. One voice really. One voice plus two words equal insomnia.
            “Start over.”
            I clenched my teeth. “No.”
            “Start over.”
            I set my face like flint. “I won’t do it.”
            I made a head sandwich with two pillows. Silence. At last. I removed the top one.
            I whimpered. “Are you kidding me? You seriously want me to flush 92,000 plus words? I’d rather—“
            “You’d rather what? Write less than your best? “
            I applied the pillow to my face again. Huffed. It’s right. He is. The voice. I’d heard it before. More than once. Several times actually. For what, one year? Maybe two? Always stuck my pointer fingers in my ears. Na-na-na-nah. Unstopped them. Is it gone yet?  Good.
            I lifted the pillow a half inch. To breathe. But I love the part where . . . And how I wrote that one scene . . .
            The voice found me. Inside my down-alternative hiding place.
            “You’re better now. Different. I’m doing a new thing. Trust me.”
            I slipped my hand under the top pillow. Wiped my nose with my wrist. Mouthed one word--how?
            “What did you tell that young man last week? The missionary?”
            I scrolled through memories. Found that one. Spoke inside my mind. How is a faithless question.
            “What are you afraid of, really?”
            I tossed the pillow to the floor. Rolled onto my side.
            “I’m scared it’ll take years. That I’ll be old before it’s finished.”
            I pictured Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Her papery, age-spotted arms cradled a chubby-faced baby boy. She’s too old to—
            “Let me ask you this. Would you rather your hands be empty? Do you want a babe that ceases to breathe in its second month?”
            I shook my head. Pressed my knuckles into my eyes to stop the burn.
            “No, sir. It’s just . . . It’s so big. Huge really. I’m—“
            “My grace is . . .” The voice paused.
            I opened my eyes. Waited for him to finish.  Oh, he wants me to say the rest.
            I listened to my quivery exhale. Tried to find something to focus on in the darkness.
            “Sufficient. Your grace is sufficient. ‘Cause your power’s made perfect . . . in weakness.”
            A breeze blew across the bed. Even though no window was open.
            “Get some rest, beloved. Tomorrow’s a big day. The day you’ll—“
            I shivered. Pulled the covers under my chin.
            “I know. The day I’ll start over.”


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