Friday, January 25, 2013

The Last to Know

“Your dad’s tennis partner introduced us. He told George there’s someone you have to meet. That someone was me.” Mom’s face was wide and open, lit by the after lunch sun.
            I felt my nose scrunch up. “Why did no one tell me Dad played tennis? I played tennis.”
            “After our first date, I told my mother, ‘I’m going to marry that man.’ Mother said, ‘What? You can’t know . . . ”
            Mom laid her head back against the recliner’s grayed lavender upholstery and stroked the cat in her lap, the one that hated me. I tried to imagine the pretty that Mom once possessed. It was my pretty now.
            “The first time I met Granny and Grandad, your uncles Bill and Wirt too, was at Holly River State Park. As soon as we were inside the lodge, Granny grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me to the ladies’ room where she proceeded to take off all her clothes.”
            I gasped. Granny stripped? The first time she met Mom? I didn’t believe it. She was way too proper for that.
            “She had a rash all over and was wiping cream everywhere. She told me, ‘You have to use arnica.’ She was a real health nut.”
            “Arnica?” I said. “That’s like, the most well-known homeopathic remedy ever. Granny knew about homeopathy?”
            “Every day she’d crack open all the windows in that big old house, didn't matter how awful the weather was. And in the winter, she’d make those five boys march around in the snow barefoot. Who knows why.”
            “To toughen ’em up, I bet.”
            “She was a big fish in a little pond when they lived in Mill Creek, but once they moved to Charleston . . .  She didn’t like Charleston much.”
            After that, Mom’s memories seemed to peter out so we sat in silence for awhile. I considered getting up to turn on her fake fire but I was heavy with too many Fig Newtons.
            I patted the sofa next to me, clucked my tongue at the gray tabby cat. “Here, kitty, kitty.” She showed me her fangs.
            “She likes you,” Mom said. “If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have come out of the bedroom at all.”
            I glanced at my hands. Man, did I need a manicure. I used my pinky nail to nudge back my cuticles, remembered how Granny taught me that when I stayed weekends with her.
            “Push till you see little half-moons at the base of your nail bed,” she always told me after my bath, after she towel-dried me and turbaned my hair. “Do that after every bath or shower while the skin is soft and pliable.”
            “Can we have strawberries dipped in cream then sugar for breakfast?” More often than not I’d ask her that.
            “Is that the lady-like way to ask that question?”
            “May we please have strawberries dipped in cream then sugar for breakfast?”
            “Much better, and yes, we shall have your favorite breakfast. I’ll set your tiny table with linen and silver, with tea in your little China tea set, and plenty of cream and sugar.”
            I braced myself when Mom lifted the television remote, cringed at the roar of The Weather Channel’s Local on the 8s. Mom stabbed at the volume down button until I uncovered my ears.
            “Snow on Friday,” she said. She clicked the TV off.
            I checked my phone, no messages, glanced at the clock on the wall—one thirty. The kids would be getting home from school in an hour. Darn it, I forgot to leave a key out. I did the math in my head. I can stay nineteen more minutes, maybe.
            Mom’s eyes were closed and her hands weren’t massaging the cat’s neck anymore. Is she asleep? Should I tell her my news? What if she thinks me foolish, selfish, a spendthrift?
            I cleared my throat. Her eyes stayed shut but her fingers dug into the cat’s ruff once more.
            “I’m going back to school,” I said, “for a master’s degree, in creative writing.”
            Her eyes emerged from their pillowy surroundings, blinked.
            “Really? How? Where?”
            I explained the program I’d applied to. “It’ll take two years then I’ll have an MFA—Masters of Fine Arts.”
            She straightened in the chair, scrambled to find pen and paper in the drawer of the side table.
            “M, then what?” she said, the Bic pen poised.
            Write it down, Mom, so you can tell your girlfriends.
            “F. . . A,” I said. “It’s like a master’s degree in writing. And that’s not all, I’m pretty sure that once I get it, not only will I be able to write better, I’ll also be able to teach, maybe.”
            Mom’s hand looped and lined.
            “The kids think it’s a bit strange, me doing this when I’m almost—”
            Mom’s hand stilled. She peered at me over her smudged reading glasses.
            “Well, they’re wrong. I think it’s wonderful. Why, think how proud your father’d be!”
             I felt suddenly soft and hungry once more for air. “Yeah, you’re right. He really valued education.”
            She ran her hand, over and over, from the cat’s head to the tip of its tail.
            “I think this is great. Good for you. I mean it.”
            I leaned forward, nibbled my lower lip. “Actually, it’s not a done deal yet. They have to accept me first.”
            When Mom snorted, the gray cat hissed and geronimoed off her lap. 
            “What do you mean, if they take you? Of course they’ll take you! Why wouldn’t they?”
            I rubbed my thighs. “Well, it’s been two weeks. I haven’t heard a peep yet. Maybe . . .”
            Mom gripped the recliner arms and hoisted herself to standing, shuffled across the carpet to flip the switch for fake fire.
            “How I wish your father was alive to hear this. He’d be so proud.”
            I reached behind me for my coat. What about you, Mom? Are you . . .

Friday, January 18, 2013

*All in the Family*

My oldest brother rested his hand on my shoulder. “Want my paper route? Since I leave for college in August? The tips are great.”
            I nibbled a fingernail. Regular spending money? Something to do besides watch Gilligan’s Island every afternoon, Monday through Friday?
            I grinned. “Sure.”
The next day, my brother stood so close our shoulders touched.
           “Fold the left side of the paper over two to three inches,” he said, “crease it, then roll the right side toward it a couple times and tuck it inside.”
            Mike stopped in front of our next door neighbor’s house, squinted his right eye, and arced the paper roll onto Mr. Waugh’s porch. I whistled in admiration.
            He gave me a thumbs up. “Rubber bands and plastic bags are for sissies.”
            He heaved the big canvas bag with the wide, bright orange strap off his shoulder and held it out. 
            “You carry it, so you get used to it.”
            Two weeks later he left for Concord College
I perched on the arm of Dad’s recliner as he made his usual Sunday night phone call.     
           “May I talk to Mike a minute?”
            Dad handed me the phone.
            “How often do you miss Ms. Thorn’s paper box?” I said.
            Mrs. Thorn lived on North Queens Court. She had at least eight dogs. Eight dogs and their poo piles, and the reek of their poo piles. There was a chain link fence all around her yard. So the dogs wouldn’t shred her newspaper, you had to lean against the fence and try to throw the paper into a two foot by two foot wooden crate on her porch. If you missed, you had to go into the yard and fetch it. The dogs weren’t mean, you just had to navigate your way through the poo-pile landmines and the gauntlet of wagging tails. I’d pet the pups with one hand and pinch my nose with the other.
“Can I speak to Mike again?” I said to Dad the next Sunday.
            He held out the phone.
            “Guess what, Mike? Mr. Perkins on Green Oak Drive said he’ll give me his antique Karmann Ghia, the robin’s egg blue one not the Atomic Fireball red one, when I grow up.”
            Mike huffed. “Don’t believe it for a second.”
            I pooched my lower lip out. “Really? 'Cause I love it. He says when I get my license—”
            “Does he hold your hand a super long time when he pays you?”
            My eyebrows flew up. “How’d you know?”
            “Be careful with him, okay?” my brother said. “Maybe take someone with you when you collect money. Promise?”
In the summertime, on really hot days, Mrs. Fitzgerald always let me spray myself with her garden hose. 
“That’ll cool you off,” she’d say.
When it was super muggy she’d offer me a glass of sweet tea and while I drank it, we’d chat in the breezeway between her house and garage. When I was done with my tea, I’d cut through her yard to make my way over to Locust Street. Four boys lived in the house behind hers.
            “Woo hoo!” the youngest one would say if he was out. “Wet t-shirt, I like it.”
            When his mom was on the porch with him, he wouldn’t make that remark. At least once I week I’d give her a free newspaper. She always tried to pay me for it. 
            I’d swat at the air between us. “Don’t worry about it. They always put an extra one in my bundle.”
            Sometimes in the fall she’d give me a brown paper Big Bear bag. 
            “Get you some chestnuts, honey. I know how you love them.”
“Hey, Dad,” I said one Sunday, “let me tell Mike about the dogs that almost ate Holly last week.”
            Mike growled. “The black and white Great Danes over on Linden Circle?"
            "Yeah, how'd you know? The lady came outside to write her check but she didn't shut the screen door good. The dogs tore out of the house and they were on Holly like rice at a wedding." Holly was our Heinz-57-mostly-Beagle dog.
            I heard Mike inhale through his nose. “How’s Holly?”
            “Her tail might be broke, but she’s okay. I beat the tar out of 'em with my rolled up newspapers and they backed off. I think the lady felt bad 'cause she gave me a five dollar tip and a popsicle.”
“You calling Mike tonight?” I asked Dad.
            He dialed and pressed the receiver into my palm.
            “I busted my lip on the route on Friday,” I told Mike.
            “You know the last house on the route? The one at the bottom of Locust, before Norway Avenue? And how there’s that bent over fence in between it and the house next door?”
            “I pretended like I was a horse jumping it, but my foot got hung up and I fell, really hard. I busted my knees to beat all, and both my hips are black and blue now."
            Mike groaned. “Bummer.”
            “Oh, that’s not the worst part,” I said. “My bottom teeth went all the way through my lower lip. Mom wanted to take me to the E.R. for stitches but I talked her out of it 'cause I hate needles.”
            “You’re doing a great job with my route, you know,” my big brother said. “I’m proud of you.”
            I handed the phone back to my dad, wrapped my arms around my waist and grinned.

I kept the paper route for years. Blew pretty much all my profits on Certs, candy cigarettes, and wax lips at the Convenient Mart in Gallaher Village. Mr. Perkins never did give me the cute blue Kharmann Ghia. His wife gave him a divorce though.
            Then one day John, another one of my big brothers, said, “Want my job at Tudor's Biscuit World? Since I’m starting Marshall soon? You can take over as the official sausage gravy taster.”
            I tapped at my front teeth with my fingernail. A weekly paycheck? Air conditioning? All the made-from-scratch-biscuits I can eat?
            I smiled. “Sure!”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dead Man Walking

I was standing in line at the bakery waiting to purchase recently roasted espresso beans when I recognized him, sort of. With those giant, super blue eyes, I thought, he has to be related to Charles, has to. Maybe he’s his dad. No, this guy isn’t that old, must be his brother. Wonder what he’s doing here in town, now that Charles is . . .  
            I assumed the woman beside him was his wife. They held their jaws in a similar way, the way folks who’ve been together decades do.
            Right then I realized who the young man was hanging back by the door, leaning against the wall, one foot up against it. His hands were jammed deep inside his jean pockets and as he studied the floor, his pale hair feathered in toward his face directing my attention to the almost glowing zit in the cleft of his chin. Hey, that’s Charles’s boy. Why isn’t he up with his aunt and uncle? Teen angst, I decided.
            When it was his turn, the not-Charles man stepped up to the counter, deliberated over the biscotti selection, then glanced back to Charles’s son, made a motion like he was lassoing and drawing the boy toward him. The boy refused to be drawn. 
            Not-Charles cleared his throat and spoke up. “What flavor biscotti do you think your mother’d like?”
            The boy shrugged. “No clue.”
            Not-Charles stabbed the bakery case. “Two cranberry orange please, seems I remember her being fond of cranberries.”
            His voice was similar to Charles’s, but not quite as deep. More than once I’d complimented Charles on the bass rumble of his words.           
            “You should work in radio,” I told him one day.
            “Nah, being Mr. Mom is good.”
            I’d turned to face him on the park bench that spring morning, reached up and patted his head.
            “Good daddy. Good husband. Sit. Stay.”
            His face had gone a little ruddier than usual.
            “I’m serious,” I said. “You’re a good man. Shelley’s blessed to have you.”
            Not-Charles pointed to the scone selection. “Pick something out," he told his lady friend. "I’m buying.”
            As I watched the two of them, I noticed he wasn’t as tall as Charles either. Charles had been six foot two, at least. This guy wasn’t even close and his upper back was rounded, almost dowager-humped.
            As he moved toward the cash register, I decided to speak. I wanted him to know what a great guy I thought Charles had been before he got sick, went out west for treatment, then dropped off the town radar.
            I pecked the man on the shoulder and he turned toward me, eyebrows raised, face diagonal.
            “You must be Charles’s brother. You have the same big blue eyes, plus  your voice is similar.”
            He squinted at me, seemed to be trying to place my face.
            “You’re wrong,” he said.
            I sagged. “But—”
            “I am Charles.”
            My heart skittered in my chest. Mist formed on my palms and under my arms. I wasn’t certain I’d be able to take another breath.
            Quick, I thought, act normal, make it seem like you knew all along—that he wasn’t dead.
            “You’re Charles?” I said. I stepped forward quickly, desperately really, to embrace him and to buy myself time for the swelling  of my eyes to diminish. “It’s been so long! Why, you look great! I thought you— I mean, I heard you moved away, to some state that starts with an ‘I.’”
            As he launched into a report about the missing years, I couldn’t help staring at his eyes, tried to remember who told me he’d gone blind. I attempted to focus on his words but all I could think was: I thought you were dead, but you’re not, which is great, but you’re different—shorter, and your eyes are buggy now, and your voice doesn’t vibrate my sternum anymore. What kind of drug does that?
            He rested his hand on his companion's shoulder. “This is my sister Jan. We’re here in town visiting my son.”
            I extended my hand, managed to smile even though my mind was galloping about all willy-nilly. She’s your sister? What happened to Shelley? Did she leave you? Good golly! Who leaves a man with cancer?”
            “It was great seeing you,” he said as they headed for the door. “Tell me your name again? You look familiar but—”
            When I told him, his smile increased. “Of course, I remember now. You look different. Your hair’s longer, right?  That threw me off. Hey, nice seeing you. Merry Christmas.” Then he, they, were gone.
            Outside the bakery I took careful steps to allow my heartbeat and breathing to slow. Inside my car I sat with my hands in my lap. After a minute I flipped the rearview mirror down. 
            "I just saw a miracle," I told my reflection, "indeed I did a dead man walking, free.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Imagine Me and You, and You and Me, So Together

1) If you could tell me something, anything, what would you say? Whisper it right now please, into the pale pink folds of my ear. Afterward I will press imaginary snaps on my upper and lower lips and conceal your secret forever. Or if you prefer, write it on parchment with a fountain pen and hand-deliver or mail it to me. I’ll read the words and burn them immediately, inhaling the smoke till I cough.

2) If you were to show me something, what might it be? I’m holding out my hand because I want you to take me there. Or, draw a picture of it. Maybe record it on film. I want to see. Really.

3) If you could give me something to taste, one of the most wonderful things ever or your right-now-favorite-food, what item would you choose? Record the recipe for me, or better yet, deliver the item or culinary creation to my porch in a gift bag, snuggled in shimmery aqua tissue paper. Ring the bell and run, or not. I could make coffee . . . 

4) Is there something you want me to touch—an item sleek and smooth, cool even, or softer than soft, maybe prickly and dangerous? Bring it here please. We should examine it together, side by side.

5) What is the most interesting fragrance you know? Is it sacred to you? Live and yellow as lemons? Smoky and warm like radiant coals sequestered in greyed ash? Perhaps it's cloying but pristine lilies-of-the-valley? Warm and yeasty rolls in a basket under a checked cloth? Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, across from and very close to me.

(Okay now, friends . . . don’t be shy. What are your five things?)


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