Friday, August 31, 2012

Saving Grace

Grace was in my life before I was. My folks and three brothers moved into the compact, brick house next to her and Mac’s sprawling white one with dark green shutters while I was still in my mom’s belly. The day I was born, Grace asked Mac to drive her to the hospital so she could meet me. She brought me tiny pink booties and a hat she’d knitted. I still have them somewhere even though I don’t have her, except for here, in the space behind my breastbone.
            I think I remember her petting my head on my first day ever and part of me recalls her saying I was special, that I’d do great things if I survived. Now why would she tell a baby girl a thing like that? What did she know of the future? Mine?
            I came to find out Mrs. McAlister, later she became Miss Grace or Gracie if my mom wasn’t around, knew pert near everything. For instance, she could make lace. She called it tatting, but it looked lacey to me. She’d grip the tatting needle in her blue-veined, age polka-dotted hands and as she worked, her knotted fingers were a blur—all white thread, metal, and speed.
            Gracie was telepathic too, like that Kreskin guy on television. She always knew what I had a hankering for. Stewed tomatoes over torn-up white bread, no crust please. Or tapioca pudding. She always laid Saran Wrap on its surface while it cooled so it wouldn’t develop a skin. Inch thick tomato slices with salt and pepper or wilted lettuce with tiny green onion hoops doused with bacon grease dressing. The dense cloud of congealed fat in a Maxwell House coffee can never failed to gross me out, but when Gracie warmed a lump of it in her cast-iron skillet and splashed it with cider vinegar, it sure tasted wonderful. Tangy. Especially on leaf lettuce we’d torn from her garden that morning while it was still damp with dew. Every time I took a bite, my taste buds fairly stood at attention.
            “Chew with your mouth closed, Pet,” Gracie’d say.
            “I’m trying,” I said with eyes shut tight, “but my tongue’s doing a jig.”
Grace reminded me of a scarecrow that someone topped off with steel wool. If she didn’t sleep with her hair wound around prickly curlers, it resembled dandelion fluff. Her eyes were the color of dried cornflowers by the side of the road, had the grey brown tint of gravel dust and everything. Whenever we ventured out in her backyard to sniff the peonies and flick the ants away, if the sun shown just right, I could almost see through her. Least, it seemed that way.
            “Why don’t you move into an old folks’ home?” I asked her that once after Big Mac passed. “Your house is giant, way too big for just you.”
            She rested her hand on my shoulder and waited until I met her gaze.
            “Who would look after you, Pet?”  She always called me that.
            “But what if you die and I’m the one who finds you? I’d be scarred for life.”
            She swatted the air between us. “Pee shaw,” she said. “Don’t you go talking like that. The Lord won’t let me die until you don’t need me any more.”
            I grinned. “Guess you’re gonna live forever then.”
            She dug at something in the corner of her eyes then framed my shoulders with her arm.
            “Let’s go inside and get some buttermilk, Pet.” 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Peace Sign

I remember the day but not the year (Was it ninety-five maybe?) when my husband brought home a newspaper article for me to read, an interview with a pedophile.
            “I drove through neighborhoods in search of Little Tikes cars, bicycles with training wheels, tiny swimsuits hung on porch railings to dry.”
            I was pretty sure he was trying to help but instead his words gorged the panic monster that lived close to me, maybe even inside me, back then. Always it gnawed at my hamstrings, held one or both my Achilles’ tendons in a pincer grip.
            A month or two after, I heard our daughter’s footsteps at the bottom of the stairs. I glanced at the glow-in-the-dark clock dial—one forty three. Moments later I felt her tentative hand on the quilt beside my shoulder. Her quick, moist breaths warmed my cheek.
            “Mommy? A man was in my room just now, next to my bed, and he knew my name.”
            As one my husband and I shot up. I headed for the steps, he for the Louisville Slugger he kept in the closet.
            We found no one, no open window. Still, her dream nourished the beast inside me, made my eyes perpetually round, my ears constantly alert. It fostered in me a fatigue that never seemed to abate.
            I recall thinking, as I tucked her back into her Lion King toddler bed that night, that's  the worst kind of bad guy, the one who knows your name.


It was a late August morning in 1997 when we watched our eldest child climb onto the school bus that would take her over the hill to kindergarten. I juggled waving, nose dabbing, and picture-taking. My husband blew kisses at her grin pressed against the fogged window. Our two-year-old daughter clutched her Tickle Me Elmo and wept.
            “Our life will never be the same,” I said as we watched the bus disappear around the bend.
            My husband nodded as he u-turned the stroller and started back toward the house. 
            “You said that both times we drove to the hospital with you in labor. Remember?”
            I stopped there on the street, revelation in my open mouth. “They’re going to leave some day. Forever, well, for months at a time.”
            My husband smiled. “I know. That’s how it works.”
            I bunched my t-shirt in front of my throat divot and gulped. “I’m not gonna like it. I’m telling you right now.”
            He sighed. “Me either, but it’ll mean we did our job right.”


Our 2010 vacation was quite possibly our best ever—Colorado in early summer. A horseback ride through the Rockies, a white water rafting trip, daily visits to the prairie dog colony near our condo.
            In the airports coming and going, my husband made our eldest do everything.
            “Where’s the check-in desk? Which train will take us to our terminal? Find our baggage claim.”
            She protested, but he was right. In two months she’d need to know these things because she’d fly alone for the first time ever, not just across country, but to the Southern Hemisphere.
            The dreaded (by me) day finally arrived. After she disappeared from our sight in the Pittsburgh airport, I felt as if someone had tunneled me through. Surely a tractor trailer could fit inside the hole in my gut.
            Back home, for nearly 24 hours I endured torment—shortness of breath, a galloping heart, visions from the “Taken” trailer, a film I’d refused to see.
            Near the end of our first day without her, I managed to drive to the grocery store despite my blurred vision. As I parked, the KLOVE deejay asked listeners for prayer requests. I whispered mine as I unbuckled my seat belt, gathered my list and coupons.
            “Please let her be safe, not kidnapped or heaving up a food-poisoned box lunch on the eight hour bus drive from Lima to the mountain school.”
            “How He loves us. Oh, how He loves us . . .” I whimpered as I reached for the volume nob on the radio, twisted it until my eardrums throbbed. It was a sign, surely it was, the playing of one of my favorite songs ever. I searched the sky through the windshield, blew a kiss—a sign language thank you—toward heaven. I placed my hand over my heart and noticed how its jittery rhythm evened out.
             After shopping, I arranged the grocery bags in the backseat then checked my phone. There it was, a text from my husband. "She made it, safe and sound." Behind the steering wheel, I crumpled. Relieved. Thankful.


Two years later, it’s almost no big deal. Her flying here, her travelling there, to this country or that. I am amazed that the impossible has become doable, the unknown bearable. The what ifs are quieter now, paler.
            Why, this summer I didn’t even weep when she took her little sister to her home-away- from-home—the mountain school in Peru.
            In the airport, my brunette middle child vibrated beside me with excitement and fear.  
            “You’re in good hands,” I told her, “hers and God’s. You’re gonna be fine.”
            I gathered the girls close and said a prayer. Then I kissed their cheeks, turned, and walked away without a shadow of a limp or stagger. As I crossed the threshold of the automatic doors, I marveled at my dryness. No moisture coursing from my eyes or nose? No dampness (or panic beast) whatsoever in the basement of me? Surely this is the peace which surpasses all understanding.

Friday, August 17, 2012

*Tamper Resistant*

I woke up early today. Tiptoed downstairs. Rattled scoops of dry food into pet bowls. Slurped yogurt and crunched toast. After that I headed for the calendar, knowing I shouldn't. I couldn't help it though. The days and weeks seem to possess some crazy gravitational power. In my defense, I did white-knuckle-grip the kitchen table but in the end, the calendar won. I counted the squares—27. Collapsed onto a kitchen chair. Pressed a cloth handkerchief to my nose. Lately I've made sure there's one in every room.
            In 27 days you, my oldest daughter, will make like John Denver and leave on a jet plane. Fly halfway around the world. For three whole months. To do good things. You'll come back for 30 or 40 days then off you'll go again. For another long, long time.
            I feel as if I've been diagnosed with something awful.
            "It's bad," the doctor in my mind says. "We're going to have to cut out a third of your heart. The other two thirds are fine. For now. They won't have to come out for, let's see . . . three years and seven, respectively."

After lunch I climbed the stairs. Squinted when I passed your little brother's room. He was flopped on his bed, dressed, a pillow over his face. I went to him, laid my hand on his shin. He peeked out, his eyes small and red.
            "What's up, bud?"
            "They wouldn't let me play Capture the Flag," he said.
            I sat beside him and twirled one of his silver-blonde curls around my finger.
            "I'm sorry."
            He rubbed his nose with his palm. "It's not so much they wouldn't let me play," he said. "It's more that— She'll be leaving soon and . . ."  His voice trailed off.
            "It's what's supposed to happen," I told him (and me) as I stroked his lightly furred, 10-year old limbs. "Kids grow up. They start hanging out more with friends than family. Then they go away."
            He buried his face in my side. I scrunched his hair with my berry-colored fingernails.
            "It's normal but that doesn't make it easier, does it?"
            I felt his no against my ribs. We lingered there for a minute. Silent. He pillowed his face again. I patted his leg and stood.
            Out in the hall my nose burned, then my eyes. It didn't take long for them to give up the tears that seem always ready these days. I know I hurt, but my little guy does too?  That feels somehow heavier. My sadness plus his grief equal more.
"When you left for college, your dad got depressed."
            I'd smiled when Mom told me that a few years back. "Really?"
            That is so sweet. I'd put my hand over my heart. Imagined his light blue eyes. The way they almost disappeared into the nearby crowsfeet when he smiled. He loved me that much?  Awww.
            Now it’s happening to me. I suppose it's that whole what-goes-around-comes-around thing. I thought about it as I made my latte after lunch. I pressed hard on the tamper. "Apply approximately 30 pounds of pressure," the espresso machine directions said.
            “I'd have to apply way more pressure than 30 pounds to tamp down all the stuff inside me right now,” I told the kitchen. “I'd need to practically put my whole weight to it. To hide it.”
            See, I don't want you to notice how close to the surface my tears are. My fears are. Thing is, this is your time. This is the biggest, best thing you've ever done. Going south of the equator? To teach English to golden children with glossy, no moon night hair? You're looking as forward to your adventure as I am dreading it. I don't want you to worry about me. To feel guilty that I'm such a wreck.
            Sometimes I step into the dining room. Gaze into the mirror over the mantle and smile. Well, I try.
            "I toured Europe for a summer when I was 22," I say. "Now it's your turn." 
            I stand there, mouth hitched up on one side until I think of something else.
            "And your cousin, Rachel?  She's been a nanny in England and Spain. Spent a year in Buenos Aires too. If she can do it, so can you." 
            I came up with another one yesterday. "In eight months all your travelling will be done and you'll be home for good." I cupped both sides of my face and grinned. A minute later I had another thought and my shoulders sagged.
            "But then you'll be off to college," I said. "At least there you'll only be four hours away instead of half a world."
            Half a world away. Where I can't fix you supper, pet your Pantene-scented curls, take care of you if you get sick. What if you get sick, baby?
             Then there were tears. Again. I'd dug my fingertips into my wet eyelids and hissed.
            "I'm not going to drink any more water. Ever. Then you'll go away. Dry up. Right?"

Tonight after supper, I phoned my best friend from high school. She has a grown up girl of her own. I hadn’t planned on sobbing but I did.
            “She'll be fine," my friend said. "She’s a good girl. Super smart. She’ll do fine.”
            I sniffed, nodded, hung up. So she wouldn’t hear my crying hiccups. I decided weeping’s like Advil when I have the flu. It helps for about four hours then the symptoms—tears, runny nose, urge to clutch at my heart—return. When I’m heartsick, the tears are always there, simmering, just below the surface. Threatening to uncurl my eyelashes and wend little creeks through my blush.
            Oh, heaven’s. Look at the time. It's after midnight now. You know what that means, don't you?  Just 26 more days.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Pay Day

Two Wednesdays in a row Vandalia tore holes in Mark’s butt via the telephone when he insisted he had no paychecks for her.
            “Come to the warehouse in two weeks, Van,” he said. His hand visored his forehead as he focused on the calendar desk blotter in front of him. “Charlie promised he’d stop by and see us that Wednesday ‘round about quitting time. You can duke it out with him then.”
            Van took Mark up on his offer. Showed up  at five that day with the two kids incarcerated in their car seats from what we could tell when we peeked outside.
            Mom O. tiptoed over to the window and hipped Jason out of the way. Pincer-gripped the curtain and tugged it to the left an inch.
            “What on earth did that girl do to her hair?” she said over her shoulder. “It’s the color of blacktop now. And since when was it that long? How could she possibly think that looks natural?”
             When Charlie finally showed up, Van followed him into the office. It seemed as if Charlie, like Mom O., didn’t know quite what to make of Van’s hair. After she gave him a half-hearted squeeze, he walked around behind her. Grabbed a hank of hair near her part and followed it down to the bottom. Then he just stood there, futzing with the ends. We weren’t sure if the glint in his eye was because he found it attractive or because he thought it silly.
            Van wriggled free then reached into her voluminous handbag and produced a sheaf of papers. She held them out to Charlie.
            “Here,” she said. “I got you some more job applications. ‘Cept these ones are for around here.” She sidled back up to Charlie. Rubbed against his side like a cat. “I want you to quit that fracking job out west. I don’t like you being that far away.”
            Charlie smirked. “Why, Van,” he said, “don’t tell me you actually missed me.”
            Her face didn’t change as she plotted her words. “Of course I did, silly. It’s hard doing everything alone. Plus without you, the kids won’t go to sleep at night for nothing.”
            Charlie’s grin increased. “And then there's the fact the kitchen doesn’t get cleaned, the toys picked up. The laundry doesn’t get folded and put away. The—”
            Van gripped Charlie’s arm so that her violet fingernails disappeared. Her eyes flitted around the room, attempting to gauge our opinions.
            “Charlie, stop that,” she said. “You’ll give folks the wrong idea. Fact is, I do miss you. A lot. And besides . . .” Her voice trailed off as she splayed her fingers on either side of the zipper on her snug-fitting, low rider jeans. She made sure her eyelashes were fanned out just so on her creamy cheeks before she spoke again.
            “There’s more,” she said. “I had hoped to tell you this when we were alone but you’re forcing my hand here.” She raised her gaze. Pursed her lips to redistribute their ruby shine. “I’m . . . We’re . . . gonna have another baby.”
            As one, our jaws dropped. In the next instant, we found ourselves puzzled by Charlie’s lack of reaction. Without so much as a glimpse at her, he dug deep into the cargo pocket down by his knee and withdrew a granola bar. Didn’t speak until he had the package open.
            “Funny you should mention that,” he said. “There’s something I had hoped to discuss with you in private as well. Seeing as how you’re laying things out in the open, I may as well do the same.”
            Charlie lowered himself onto the folding chair beside Jason. Took a bite of his bar. Chewed thoroughly. Swallowed.
            “You know how Davey and Kendra have been trying for years to have a baby?”
            Van leaned on the door jamb, taking care to arrange her straightened black hair behind her shoulders first. She nodded.
            Charlie licked his pinky and used it to get the last bits of granola out of the bottom of the wrapper.
            “Seems their lack of babies is Davey’s fault,” Charlie said. “They told me that the first night I was out in Colorado, at supper.”
            Van’s face remained blank. Like she could care less about Davey and Kendra’s quandary.
            “So they asked if I’d—”
            Van straightened. The sudden intake of her breath made a scraping sound in the hollow quiet of the room. In the next moment, her face reconfigured. Into someone, something, decidedly less attractive.
             “Please tell me they don’t want you—”
            Charlie rolled his trash into a ball, squinted, and arc'd it at the garbage can.
            “He shoots. He scores,” Adam said without enthusiasm.
            Charlie produced a beef jerky stick from his back pocket. Met Van’s gaze as he stripped off the plastic.
            “Actually they do. They wanted me to help them have a baby.”
            It sounded weird.  Charlie using the past tense.
            Vandalia rooted in her purse and produced her pink satin makeup bag. Unzipped it and proceeded to attend to her lip ritual. She lined, primed, painted, blotted, and glossed. When she was finished, Charlie spoke.
            “I told ’em yes. But then in the screening process, Davey and I discovered yet another thing we have in common besides our passion for American Idol.”
            Everyone but Van figured out what was coming next.
            “I’m sterile, Van,” Charlie said. “Just like Davey. Something about us both having mumps real bad when we were little.” Charlie pointed to Vandalia’s stomach. “That baby in your belly? And Jeremiah and Hannah? They’re not mine either. You got any idea whose they might be?”
            Vandalia’s grape-colored fingernails scraped the doorframe as she clutched it with both hands. To keep from collapsing.
            She swallowed before she spoke. “You’re wrong, Charlie,” she said in words that seemed mustard colored. “Of course they're yours. They’re—”
            Charlie studied his hands as he meticulously dissected the jerky wrapper into thin strands. We sat in silence as we waited for him to say something else. Finally he glanced up.
            “They tested me more than once, Van. Turns out, you’re the one who’s wrong.”
            The air in the office felt instantly thick. With a buzzy quality to it. An odd odor, not unlike that of a threatened rabbit, seemed to suddenly take precedence over Vandalia’s Estee Lauder perfume.
            Charlie stood then. Fished in his jacket pocket for keys.
            “I showed the doctor, the fertility specialist, the pictures of Jeremiah and Hannah I keep in my wallet,” he told Vandalia. “He laughed, the son of a bitch, when I swore up and down they were my babies. Advised me to schedule a paternity test. Before he left the exam room, he said the strangest thing.”
            “What?” Jason said. His eyes were wide and eager to know. “What did he say?”
            Charlie singled out his ignition key. “He said, ‘You’re from a small town, Charlie. Pay attention. You see a guy with wavy red hair and blue eyes, that’s your woman’s baby daddy.'”
             Sweat slicked my palms and armpits as the temperature in the room seemed to soar all of a sudden. My face felt like it might combust or even explode. The minute they all turned and stared. At me.

(This is the final installment of a short story. If you'd like to read the whole piece, go to June posts and start with "Vandalia and Charlie.")


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