Friday, June 29, 2012

Vandalia Arrives Bearing Gifts

The next day Vandalia paid us a surprise visit. She stood outside the screen door to the office and kicked it lightly. Jason hustled to let her in. Van entered bearing a gift. A shiny silver cake pan draped in a pretty checked cloth. She kept her eyes on the fabric as she walked over to Mom O.’s side of the desk and deposited the baked good on top of her phone message pad.
            “This is for you, Mom O’Dell,” she said. She still didn’t make eye contact. Instead, she caressed the perimeter of the pan with a lacquered fingernail.
            It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Mom O. or us. Mom seemed to sag all of a sudden. Become slightly smaller. The flesh under her eyes resembled tiny chalk-colored hammocks.
            As we awaited Mom O.’s response, we studied Van. Noted with substantial regret and some astonishment the high neckline of Van’s shirt. We found comfort though in its snugness. Discussed later how mystery has its own appeal.
            “I made these for you myself,” Van said, her voice smooth. “They’re brownies ‘cause I’ve heard how you’re partial to sweets. I wanted to let you know again how much I value the concern you showed me yesterday.”
            Mom O. finally found some words to say. “I thank you, Van. This is very sweet of you. It wasn’t necessary, but I appreciate it all the same.”
            Jason wheeled his chair backward toward the shelving unit where the coffeemaker sat. Located a plastic knife. Rolled in the direction of the treat pan. Van wagged her pointer finger at him, its dark shine flashing like air-brushed blood.
            “Keep your mitts off, Jason,” Van said. “Those are for Mom and Mom alone. She’s earned them, indeed she has. Putting up with you boys and all.” As she finally regarded Mom O., her scarlet-slicked lips slid back to reveal her very white but in need of orthodontia smile. “Honestly, I don’t know how you do it.”


None of us could remember Mom O’Dell missing a day’s work ever but when we arrived at the office the next day her seat was empty.
            “Had to call 911 last night,” Mark told us. “Mom had a terrible bout of diarrhea. They’ll discharge her later today. Remind me to pick up Gatorade.”
            Jason positioned himself in front of Mom O.’s candy dish. His eyes fairly gleamed, probably at the thought of a day without Mom limiting his sweet intake.
            “That’s awful,” he said, as he ferreted through the confections. “Do they know what caused it? Is it—”
            Mark didn’t glance up. “No, Jason. It is not contagious,” he said. He twisted in his chair to rummage in the trash can. It was an effort to catch his next sentence. “Seems it may have been something she ate last night.”
            In concert, our mouths gaped. Adam spoke first.
            “It was them brownies, wasn’t it?”
            Charlie moaned. “Aw, man,” he said. “I should’ve known.”
            As one, we turned to face him. Waited.
            Charlie reached in his back pocket, produced a granola bar and a tube of salted mixed nuts. Ripped the bar's packaging with his teeth.
            “Van’s a horrible cook,” he said. “Can’t think of anyone worse.” He wrestled with the slit on the bag of nuts. Spoke again once he got it open. “Her mother died when she was young so she never really learned her way around a kitchen.”
            Mark smacked the desk and we all jumped. “Why the heck didn’t you warn me, Charlie? Mom could’ve dumped ‘em and pretended to like ‘em. No one’d be the wiser.”
            Charlie waited to speak until his mouth wasn’t full. “She told me she found the recipe on the Internet. Said it had five stars. I figured . . . figured they’d probably be okay.” His probably sounded weak.
            Mark’s exhale made his lips flap. “Well, at least some good came of it. They found out Mom’s heart’s terrible.”
            Our chins all stuck forward at the same time.  Adam spoke first. “I'm sorry to hear that, Mark. Will she be okay?”
            “Lord willing, she will," Mark said. "They put her on a half dozen drugs. Hopefully one of ‘em’ll do the job. But let’s make an effort not to rile her up, okay?”

            (To read the first part of this story, click here.)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Vandalia and Charlie

Charlie once told us it wasn’t Vandalia he fell for so much as the way she applied lipstick. When he described it, he sounded like he was in church.
            “She lines, primes, paints, blots, glosses.”
            Fact is, the making of Van's candy apple lips mesmerized us all. Every day she drove to the warehouse at 5:15 to pick up Charlie. As soon as we heard the putter of the Escort’s engine or its door slam, we’d make our way toward the office to watch her do it, paint her lips.  
            Vandalia wasn’t a beautiful woman by traditional standards, but something about the way she held herself felt compelling, magnetic. Come to think of it, it was more gravitational. Like she was a sun and we were her planets.
            There in the beginning, Mom O’Dell was the only one who recognized Van for what she was.
            “I’m telling you,” Mom said after Van and Charlie left one day, “that female is a strumpet. Someday, hopefully soon, Charlie’ll regret joining up with her. Mark my words.”
            Jason leaned forward on his folding chair. Reached toward Mom O’Dell’s candy dish.
            “Mom O?” he said. “What’s a strumpet?”
            Adam flicked his eyebrows up and down. Spoke under his breath. “A gal ya wanna strum, or pet, or both, I'm thinking."
            Mark, our boss, rarely engaged in our end of the day banter. That afternoon, like every other at 5:25, he snapped his fingers.
            “Paperwork,” he said. “Now please.”
            “A strumpet,” Mom O said, as we fished in our cargo pockets for the day's sales slips, “is a woman of ill-repute. A trollop.”
            Jason tilted his face and squinted until Mom-O produced another option, two in fact.
            “A hussy, Jason. A tramp.”
            Jason perked right up. “Oh,” he said with a grin. “Got it.”
            Mom O shook her head and returned her attention to her calculator. “And the boy wonders why he still lives with his parents,” she said softly to her ledger.
            Jason relocated his Fireball to the space inside his lower lip. Fixed his eyes on Mark.
            “Why’s Charlie get to go home before the rest of us?” he said. “Every daggone day he does.”
            Mark didn’t glance up from the stack of receipts he was perusing. “Because, Jason, Charlie’s numbers are perfect,” he said. “Every day. Without fail.” He paused to pin each of us with his gaze—me, Jason, and Adam. “You all would do well to learn from him.”


After they’d been married approximately one year and a baby, Van only entered the office on Wednesdays, payday. She’d perch on the edge of the folding chair there by the door, cross her legs, and rock Jeremiah’s pumpkin seat with her foot while she shined her pout.
            Pregnancy had significantly increased the size of Van’s bosom, a fact she took full advantage of. The office air fairly crackled the day Mom O, in a roundabout way, addressed Van’s near indecent exposure. Mom stood, walked around her desk and over to Van. Without a word, she removed Jeremiah’s traveling blanket and draped it across Van's chest. She used her cupped hands to pat Van's shoulders simultaneously, firmly, as if to make the cloth stay put. Forever. 
            “It appears, Van,” she said when she returned to her seat, “that you are chilly. You best cover yourself so you don’t take sick.”
            Recently Van had begun to line her eyes like Marilyn Monroe and when she narrowed them that afternoon, we fully expected her to hiss.
            “Why, thank you, Mom O’Dell,” she said, her mouth barely moving. “I do appreciate your interest in my well being.”
            Van then proceeded to pinch a corner of the covering and draw it away, revealing her impressive creamy expanse once again.
            “However,” Van said as she tucked the pale blue fabric around her sleeping child, “I am more concerned for Jeremiah’s health than my own.”
            Mom O’s pleated face compressed in on itself. Her lips seemed almost to disappear. We would say later that her face resembled an ancient sow’s.
            “That’s touching, Van,” she said. “It most certainly is.” She hunched toward the floor and yanked her bottom desk drawer open. Jason had informed us not long ago that Mom kept a secret stash of peanut butter cups in that very drawer.
            We held our breath as Van leaned toward Mom’s desk, her cleavage straining the fabric of her top considerably. It reminded us of a dam, perilously close to bursting. We felt suddenly strained ourselves.
            “My mother named me Vandalia, you know,” Van told the hump of Mom's back. She spoke with her chin thrust forward. “It’s really what I prefer to be called.”
            When Mom O didn’t respond, Vandalia’s gaze traveled from one of us to the next. She held her face as if someone was taking her photograph. Lips forward, her cheeks indented slightly, eyes wide. Adam inspected the ceiling. Jason moved toward the candy dish. I retrieved my Swiss Army knife from my pants pocket and went to work on my fingernails.
            Charlie entered the office from the outside. Smiled and waved. “Have a good night, you all,” he said as he held the door wide to accommodate the baby’s safety seat and Van.
            After they left, Mom O handed Jason his paycheck which he folded and creased and tucked into his breast pocket.
            “Not to change the subject,” he said, “but tell me again why we get paid on Wednesdays?”
            Mom O’s fingers flew over the calculator keys. “Van can’t seem to make money last Friday to Friday so she had Charlie beseech Mark to change payday to Wednesday. Apparently she thought that’d help.”
            Jason rooted through the candy dish and made his selection. Bent a Tootsie Roll in two and popped one half in his mouth, twirled the other between his thumb and middle finger.
            “You’d think if Charlie’s so good with numbers, he’d pay their bills his self.”
            Mom O swept pink eraser bits from her ledger page. “You’d think now, wouldn’t you?”
            Mark snapped his fingers. “Paperwork. Now please.”

(Want to read more? Please check back next Friday.)

Friday, June 15, 2012

*I Shut My Eyes and Think of You*

I'm pretty sure you’re the reason I'm afraid of heights. If I shut my eyes tight, I picture you flinging me in the air. I clutch the collar of your white dress shirt to keep from going too high. My wispy, almost-white, baby hair brushes the ceiling and I whimper. Gentle and close you gather me, make my chest flush with yours. You indent your fingers into a spot near my heart. Your beard tickles my neck and I feel the bones beneath your skin.
            "There, there, honeypot," you say. "Everything'll be all right."


Most nights, you tucked me in and told me a tale. My favorites all  started with, "Once upon a time, many moons ago, there lived an Indian girl named Mini Haha.” I wanted to be her because I liked the way you spoke her name—with awe and tenderness. I wanted to be you because you made up the best bedtime stories ever.


Three years in a row, in the spring, we attended  the Campfire Girls' Father-Daughter Banquet at the Field House downtown. I wore my navy blue Campfire Girl get up and you'd still be in your suit from work. We'd stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken with eleven herbs and spices and buy two box dinners and Dr. Peppers. You ordered regular chicken. I requested extra crispy. You always asked the gal at the counter for an extra wet wipe. Because you knew how much I loved their Fruit Loop fragrance.
            Of all the daddies, you were usually the last to finish eating, but I didn't mind. It meant we had more time together. Alone.

Monday through Friday in the summertime, Mom and I went swimming at a hotel pool downtown. Sometimes you walked over from Marshall on your lunch hour and joined us.
            As I raced to hug your hips, Pat, the super tan lifeguard, would blast his whistle and bark, "No running!" 
             I'd perch on the smooth, red-tile edge of the pool, breathe deep the Coppertone and chlorine aromas, and witness your get-wet ritual. You proceeded gingerly down the steps until the water's reflection cast a wash of blue up your thighs. The minute the water licked the hem of your swim trunks, a tremor would skitter from the top of your body down. You'd scoop up water and skim your arms with it. Collect more coolness and pat it on your chest and fish belly-white tummy. I liked to imagine I had a magic marker. Then I could connect the dots of all your chocolate brown and strawberry-colored moles.
            You'd tread water near the rope between the shallow and deep ends and watch me go off the board.
            "Do a jackknife," you'd say. "Now a swan dive."
            You clapped when I attempted my first flip, even though it was more of a flop.


At the end of every summer you and I always cooked up a batch of homemade V-8 juice. First we plucked all the tomatoes off the vines in the backyard, even the ugly ones. Then we tucked them inside Mom's jumbo-sized pressure cooker. Added carrots and celery, salt and pepper. Simmered the concoction to death. After it cooled, we hooked Mom's foley mill onto her giant, baby poo-colored mixing bowl. You ladled the limp veggies into the mesh. I rotated the red-handled crank and watched the vegetables bleed out. You poured us each a glass, drizzled in some Worcestershire sauce, and stirred. You took a sip, smacked your lips, and grinned. I did the exact same thing because I knew it'd make you laugh.
You walked me to school every day—first through sixth grade. I was sure that meant you loved me more than the parents who put their kids on a bus. In between Green Oak Drive and Gallaher School, you addressed me like I was a grown up. Told me about B.F. Skinner and Pavlov's dog.
            "Remember how I taught you and your brothers to pee when I whistle? It's the same concept," you said.
            When it came time for seventh grade, I mourned . Beverly Hills Junior High wasn't on your way to work.
Year-round, school or no, most evenings I'd sit with you and Mom out in the living room. You'd nurse your Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and plow through half a can of Planters' Spanish red-skinned peanuts. I'd sneak some nuts when you weren't looking. Pinch 'em one at a time to make them slip out of their greasy, rosy little husks. Suck the salt off my fingers. Just like you.
            You devoured words while Mom and I laughed at the Carol Burnett Show or Sonny and Cher. You were especially fond of your Morse code magazine, Time and Newsweek, and books about the Civil War. You knew a little bit about a lot. I always thought that was cool. Still do. You reading all the time? More than likely, that's the reason I've adored books all my life. 
            And remember that spot near my heart? The one you pressed into me when I was wee tiny? The place where you both created and rescued me from my fear of falling? I can still locate it. Right here. Like my first chicken pock, it'll mark me forever.

Friday, June 8, 2012

What If?

How can this be commonplace? The giving away of my child to other countries, other cultures, another mother even, on the other side of the world.
            It seems to get easier each time but really, it just takes me longer to arrive at what if. What if . . . What if this is the last time I see you? Ever.
            Why do you never glance back after you pass through the metal detector? From that far away you can’t see how damp my face is or hear my sobs. Besides, I’ve gotten to where I can cry almost noiselessly. Really.
            Between the security queue and your email saying, “I’m here,” I hold my breath. My lungs become shiny with pressure, I’m sure of it. When I glimpse at last your Skype smile, I unclench. Sag. Exhale. Turn away for a few seconds to press my shirttail to my tears.


Does she offer you coffee in the morning? Your host mother? Or perhaps she already discovered your predilection for cocoa. Has she reached across the table to twirl the gleam of one of your Popsicle curls? Or run her finger pads over the inside of your arm—to check if North American skin feels the same as South American?
            I wonder if she will ask about me? Or Papa? Has she inquired if you have siblings? Perhaps you’ll accompany her to a quaint, open-air café in a square that looks out on a centuries-old, stone-cobbled thoroughfare. You’ll open your compact pink computer and display us, your home, your life.
            Let her see the picture of you and me, silly at two in the morning the night before that one Thanksgiving. Counters and floor littered with saged croutons. Grins smeared with brown sugared sweet potatoes. You know, the shot you won’t show anyone because it makes your left eye seem slightly squinty. I love that photo. I look young. And so in love. With you.


What if you meet him there? The love of your life. You could come face to face with him any day now. Maybe waiting in line to pay for a mug of boiling milk and a chocolate bar to melt into it.
            We’d have to wait, let’s see, fifty some days to meet him. Or you could Skype us with him beside you. The blush of your cheek would rest against the wide-open friendliness of his face. And maybe he’d pick up your hand and press it to his lips or heart. Papa and I would grip each other’s legs under the computer desk, where you couldn’t see. I’d try very hard not to say anything to embarrass you in front of him.
            Really, it could happen. Just last week Grandma said, “She’s going to come back with a husband. Just you wait.” Sometimes those random odd things she spouts come to pass.


I’ve noticed lately that when you come home, it’s to visit, not to live. Not anymore. It’s as if we, your family, dwell in a prison of the ordinary. This house, this street, this town. There’s no mystery here. Just the constraint of familiarity. Fast food joints, banks, and carwashes. Mountains like hills when compared. Here there’s no four-mile wide waterfall or beach a morning’s stroll away.
            It’s odd and uncomfortable, the feeling of your life eclipsing mine. Forgive me, daughter, for I have sinned. I covet your every-day-is-different, fascinating life. I long to be the exotic minority—with fair skin and light eyes—not the mundane majority. I want to sample things new and savory—ruby and emerald sauces, dissolve-on-the-tongue protein sources (Don’t tell me what it is. Please don’t. Shhhh!). I want to caress handpainted creations in the marketplace and say, “¿Cuánto?” Instead, I purchase toilet paper, write out the mortgage check, and load the dishwasher.

The fact of the matter is that this giving away of children is commonplace. Every day young men and women leave their parents to make their way in the world.  Even so, at each major point of departure I don’t think I’ll ever stop my almost noiseless weeping. Or my asking of what if.

Friday, June 1, 2012

*My Summer as a Street Walker*

I remember my summer as a street walker. Just about every night, I took a super long stroll. On the chance you might drive by. I always went the same way. To make myself easy to find.
          My heart would do a do-si-do the second I heard your car. I knew its sound. Could make it out a block away. Sometimes two. I’d count the seconds ‘til you pulled alongside me. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi.
          “Want a ride?”
          I always made it a point to raise my eyebrows and O my mouth. “Well, hello. What are you doing over this way?”
          “Just cruising around.” Liar. You were searching for me.
          You leaned over and opened the door. I slid in. Rubbed the maroon velour upholstery with my cheek. I flicked the yellow Christmas tree-looking air freshener that hung from the mirror. Eventually the pine scent wafted its way to me. Over by the door.
          I thought you’d never kiss me. You'd take me on a tour all around my neighborhood and into the surrounding ones. I just sat there, leaning against my door, the arm rest poking into my kidney. I wondered what it would be like. When you finally did. Kiss me.
          Then came that one storm. It’d been threatening all day. Bubbled dark clouds came and went. The air felt still, yet crackly. I could smell the rain before the first drop kerplopped on your windshield. The downpour came hard and fast. Sounded like a million marbles dropped on your car roof. I cowered in my corner.
          You pulled under a big oak tree, shifted the car into park, and patted the center of the seat.
          “Why don’t you scoot over?”
          So I did. I half sat, half reclined. Rested my head on your shoulder. It was awkward though. I knew I’d probably have a crick in my neck in the morning. I didn’t care. You smelled clean. Like Prell  and Irish Spring. I wanted to lick your arm, the part that supported my left ear. Just to see . . .
          Thunder cracked. I jumped. Lightning lit the inside of your car. I buried my face in your t-shirt. And then you did it. You kissed me. And I didn’t like it.
          After a moment, I pulled back. “Kissing you’s like kissing a Tang jar,” I said. “Don’t you ever shut your mouth?”
          You flinched, like I’d smacked you, so I put my hand over my lips. Tried to stuff the words back in. You put your seat belt back on and started the car. I went back to my place. Over by the door.

I kept on street walking. Went out every other night ‘til school started up again. Thought, maybe . . .  But you were a football player and I was a nobody. I take that back. I wasn’t a nobody. I was a ‘tweener—in between the popular kids and the grits. I liked everyone and everyone seemed to like me. Then we all graduated and that was behind us.
          You found me at Myrtle Beach. Couple days after graduation.  I was beach walking, not street walking. Me and my girlfriends invited you to join us. We were on our way to whatever hotel it was that had that James Taylor sound-alike. In the bar on the top floor, you made sure I always had a cold beer in my hand and a warm arm around my waist. You grinned at my girlfriends and me as we sang harmony to “Carolina on My Mind” and “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You.”
          The next night, you accompanied us again. After the guitar guy sang, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” you leaned over and blew in my ear. I wriggled. And giggled.
          Your breath  stirred my hair. “Let’s go see if it’s high tide.”
          The log we sat on felt like it’d been under the sea for a decade. I knew my butt was getting damp, but I didn’t mind. You played with the fringe on my jean cut-offs.
          “Those your car wash shorts?”
          I nodded. “Yep.”
          I’d told you how my shorts and I  had caused a car wreck at a four-way intersection the month before. It was for a good cause. The car wash.
          I dug my toes into the beach. Down to where it was cold and smooth. You started piling sand up in great handfuls ‘til all that showed was my knees. I tried to move my feet, but they were stuck tight. I tugged so hard I fell backward off the log. You joined me.
          I shivered as a breeze came off the ocean. The warmth of too much sun undulated off my chest. You balanced on your elbow beside me. In the lightshine of a nearby walkway, your hair appeared blue black. Your teeth flashed as you smiled at something I didn’t know.
          Then it was like my mouth was rainbow sherbet and you wanted to taste all the flavors—right, left, center. I reached up and touched your curls. To see if they were soft from the South Carolina water or crisp from the salt air. Your neck was warm. Hot even.
          I nibbled my bottom lip. “Oh my.”
          You squinted down at me. “What?”
          “The Tang jar’s gone.”
          One corner of your mouth lifted. “Yeah?”
          Sand found my scalp. It itched, but I didn’t scratch. I closed my eyes so you couldn’t see them.
          “Um . . . maybe I should doublecheck.”


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