For those of you who have read the below chapters, the book is finished, cleaned up, and published on Smashwords. Please let me know what you think.
Hope you enjoy!
Enjoy my imagination.
For those of you who have read the below chapters, the book is finished, cleaned up, and published on Smashwords. Please let me know what you think.
Hope you enjoy!
Life gradually got back to normal. At least as normal as it can be when you wake up with a cockatiel perched on your headboard, a dog staring into your face, and a cat curled snugly next to you. The cat I was used to; the others struck me as quite odd. As soon as Miguel became aware that I was awake, he started singing at the top of his lungs. I suppose Cockatiels have lungs. Then he would fly around the room, and out, and I would hear Minerva calling out to him to get right back to his perch immediately, that he knew better than to bother our guest, and who did he think ran this house anyway. I smiled, stretched, scratched the heads of both Winston and Maria. Their owner never seemed to sleep. When I went to bed, she was up doing something, and when I got up, she was bustling around the kitchen.
Our routine had become quite predictable. I would stagger out of bed, go downstairs with the accompaniment of Winston and Maria, say good morning, have tea, respond to Minerva’s question about what I had read the night before, return upstairs, get ready for work, and leave. At least that was Monday through Friday. The weekends were either a trip to a museum, a hike, cooking lessons, or my own retreat into the Pickland library to prepare for my school work. On occasion we went to the movies, but not in Pickland where Minerva didn’t want to run into any of the local people. We had not had the conversation about why she had chosen this town. In my gut, I felt that was off limits, and if she wanted me to know she would bring it up. We both worked hard at respecting each other’s boundaries. I think this was the first lesson she was teaching me. Still, I yearned to understand why a woman of such style and grace was living in a rather dilapidated house next to a high school in a hick southern town. That information would have to wait.
When I returned to work after Lily’s funeral, Bert was predictably sympathetic. I am being sarcastic.
“Took you long enough to come back,” was his first comment to me on the Tuesday morning that I returned.
“Glad to see you too, Bert.” I walked towards my office.
“Janie.” I stopped not turning around.
“I’m sorry about your aunt.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
“Hey. I’m trying to say something to you here.” He was getting offended that I wasn’t taking his rather late condolence very well.
“I heard you, Bert. You’re sorry. Now can we just get to work?” I didn’t want to play these “lets pretend I care” games that were Bert’s forte. I knew he didn’t give a shit about anyone but himself, and I preferred to keep it that way.
“You know, when your friend called to tell me about it, she wasn’t very nice.”
“Hmmm.” I wasn’t going to apologize for Mercy being an asshole to an asshole.
“She told me off,” he chuckled a little. “She’s feisty. I’ve seen her at Applebees. Hey, you think you could introduce me?” Good ole’ Bert. Only thinking about what was in his pants. I reached out and grabbed the clipboard out of his hand.
“What’s on schedule today?” I tried to keep the venom out of my voice, but I didn’t do a very good job. Of course, Bert’s attention had no moved onto Mercy, and I needn’t have worried.
“What? Oh, that. Yeah. Well, if you get a chance. You know. Anyway, let me see? Oh, yeah. I wanted to mention to you also that I know you’re going to school.” I paused feeling the creepy-crawlies start on my spine? What?
“Yeah. So?” I could be as dismissive as he was.
“Yeah, well, if you want to take some accounting courses, I think Sandy could use some help here. Between you and me, I don’t think she knows what she’s doing half the time.” I just stared at him. Surely he didn’t think I was going to school so I could continue my job at Burns. Surely.
“I’m not taking accounting courses.”
“But if you did…”
“I’m not. I have no interest in accounting. Bores the bejesus out of me. So thanks, but no thanks. And I don’t think Sandy would appreciate knowing you think that.”
“I wasn’t planning on telling her. Just thought I’d give you a headsup. What are you studying?”
“Just stuff,” I lied. I wasn’t getting into chummy conversations with a man I despised. He hadn’t made any comments about where I was living, and based on the fact that he thought I could introduce him to Mercy suggested he didn’t know I had moved. I picked my check up at work every other Friday so there was no need to mail it. I had filled out a change-of-address at the post office, so I didn’t have to do that at work. I was avoiding any discussion about Minerva with anyone as I truly believed it was none of their business. Once we were past Bert’s pretend caring, it was time for work. The receptionist who had been there the day Lily died was gone, and in her place, we now had a woman of about 60 who appeared to suffer no fools. Perhaps she could straighten this place up.
Several weeks after Lily’s funeral, I was back at work at the library. Pickland County Library was not a major hub for those looking for research information. But it was quiet and felt scholarly, so I enjoyed taking my books there and spreading out on a table. I tended to be a bit more organized when I could surround myself with my stuff. Plus, I had access to the computers, and since I didn’t own one, this was a prime opportunity to use as I needed. I had also gotten to know the librarians, Mrs. Michaels and Miss Monarch, and both were eager to help a fledgling student. I got there at close to 1:00 and planned to stay until 6:00. They would have to throw me out. Around 3:00, I stood to stretch and as I did so, I noticed a man lounging in one of the plush chairs, looking at me. This stopped my stretch in midair. That almost hurts. Stretch, and catch, and then wonder how to continue without seeming obvious. I sat quickly, and looked into a book, having no idea what book it was or what I was seeing. I glanced up again, and he grinned broadly. I looked down again, and began furiously studying the letters I saw in front of me, realizing that I no longer knew how to read English. I sat there wondering if I should gather my belongings together, push them into my two reusable grocery bags, and get the hell out of the place. As I was still pondering, I felt a tap on my right shoulder. Glancing up, I saw the man standing there in all of his olive green glory. He had on an old pea coat, olive jeans, and an olive t-shirt. His hair was longish – not quite to his shoulders. His smile was wide and I refused to give it back in return.
“What?” I whispered loudly.
“Sorry if you felt like I was staring. You just seemed so intent on absorbing the book. I was wondering if you were reading or just letting the information seep into your head.” He laughed like he was funny. I just frowned in response.
“What?” I whispered again. Before I could stop it, I felt a deep flush heading from my neck into my chin, and on through my face and forehead. I despise blushing. It just isn’t my style, and to be caught in embarrassment with this man was embarrassing me even more. He laughed again.
“Do you ever stop?”
“Stop studying and reading. Have some coffee. Or a beer. Or just relax a little.” He watched me squirm. I tried to sit very still.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“I can see that, but you do have to eat on occasion.”
“I already ate today.”
“Oh, so you only eat once a day. Interesting. I would think you would need a little more. Just to keep the brain cells moving. Wanna grab a bite? I just sat and looked at him. I glanced down at my books and realized that I thought he was enormously attractive. His eyes were grey with a speck of black smattering in the color. Who was this man? In a town the size of Pickland, and a mother like mine, I was usually aware of any immediate available men. Then I realized I hadn’t spoken to my mother in three weeks. Anything could have happened. Anyone could have moved in during these past three weeks. Suddenly, I realized that there might be some value in my mama’s meddling, not that I was going to call her and ask anything.
“I have work to do.” He regarded me a moment, then shrugged.
“Okay, no problem. Just thought you would enjoy some company. I need to eat. Enjoy your work.” With that, he turned and sauntered out. I watched him go, mentally chastising myself, but also reminding me that I was on a schedule. I could almost feel the devil and the angel on my shoulders fighting each other. The angel won, and I turned back to my books. There would be time someday but not today. Today I was going to finish my work. I forced my attention back to the history book I was reading but the afternoon was lost. Anything I attempted to read from that point forward was lost in a swarm of estrogen that surged through my body. Damn. Men could mess things up so quickly.
Once I returned to Minerva’s house, I headed upstairs to store my books and to change into something more comfortable than my ratty jeans and old Abercrombie shirt. I didn’t even know where this had come from. Probably a bag of clothes at work that people sometimes dropped off for others to cast through for crappy shirts in which to work. Ink was not a forgiving substance, and we were constantly offering each other old clothes. This one was pretty nice, and I loved hanging out in it when I just wanted to be casual. Who was I kidding. I was always casual.
I didn’t know if I would ever refer to this as my house. I rather doubted it. This was Minerva’s house. I would never have a home like this even if I could someday afford something. Her house was much too feminine for me. Part of the reason I had such respect for what she had done in “my” room. The sheer austerity of it brightened my day. No leftover sheets or dusty end tables. The room was always clean as if by magic. I was doing a pretty good job of cleaning up after myself – especially in the bathroom. But the floor in my room always sparkled like it had gotten a cleaning from my cleaning angel every day. I was gradually losing the desire to tiptoe around it for fear a bunch of dirt fell off my clothes onto the floor. When I came in from work each day, I was especially careful to make sure there was no ink anywhere that might damage or mark Minerva’s furniture or walls. I had even begun wearing an old lab coat at work so that I could take it off before I left each day. Some smartass had started calling me “doc”, but I found that I rather enjoyed it.
Sometimes Minerva was home and sometimes she wasn’t. I suspected she may have a “friend” but I didn’t ask any questions. Her life was hers and anything she wanted to share, she was welcome to do so. We had gotten in the habit of sitting down around 8:00 to chat about any special events during the day, but it began to dawn on me that I did much more of the talking than she did. Tonight, I heard the front door open and close, and steps coming up the stairs. She knocked, and I invited her in.
Sticking her head in my door, she said, “I had company today. Your mom came by to the visit.” I felt the hackles on my neck, and I jumped off the bed.
“What did she want?” I knew my mama and her showing up at Minerva’s was likely not a good sign.
“She wanted to know how you are doing. She wanted to meet me to see if I was crazy. Or a lesbian. Or a person who may have cooked her daughter and eaten her for Sunday lunch. She just came by to visit.” She smiled at me, and closed the door.
“Wait!” I bounded after her, and followed her light footed walk down the stairs. Sometimes she looked as if she were floating instead of touching the ground. I marveled at her movement, transfixed by her very lightness of being, and followed her into the kitchen.
“She only wants to create problems,” I complained.
“You don’t know that, Janie. Perhaps she is genuinely worried about you. And she just lost her best friend and only sister. Along with a daughter who refuses to speak to her.” She held her hand up towards me before I could defend myself. “I’m just saying.” I shook my head, wondering if my mother had managed to get to Minerva as well. She was really that good.
“No, Janie. She didn’t convince me of her angelic like tendencies. I know what you think of her. And you are probably right, for the most part. But likely you are much too close to her to see her for who she really is. Maybe, just maybe, on occasion you need to give her the benefit of the doubt.” I stopped the words that were aching to pour out of my mouth. I made myself count to ten.
“Okay, then. What did she want?” I sat at the counter and looked at my fingernails. This was a highly uncomfortable conversation for me. The one person I felt was finally on my side was now cozying up to my mama. Minerva was putting away groceries, and straightening her kitchen. She didn’t look up at me. She had perfected the waiting game. I looked around and felt rather lost and helpless. After about five minutes, a good three weeks in emotions, she looked up at me.
“I’m on your side, Janie.” I gulped at the mind reading. “I truly am. But part of my job here as your friend is to make you think about what you are doing and saying. Words and actions. Which are most important to you?” I drummed my fingers on the counter top. Words or actions? I had never thought about it quite that way. Words are easy, yet they can hurt so badly. I had taken my mother’s beatings much easier than her condemnation and criticism. Any day of the week, I’d prefer to have her hit me than tell me that I was never going to be better than I was, and that I was fooling myself to think so. But when it came to Bert, he better by-god not touch me. The concept was interesting. I saw children who were hit by their parents but given loving words. They were in Publix all the time. I had seen it growing up in The First Baptist Church. I had also seen my mama tell me how much she loved me while sitting in a pew where everyone could hear and then pull the hair on my neck because I was fidgeting. Words or actions. Mercy told me how much she wanted me back yet wouldn’t take her share of responsibility when it came to paying rent or cleaning up the house.
I looked up at Minerva. “Actions, Minerva. I’ll take actions. I like nice words. I like to hear that I’m loved or I’ve done a good job. But I think a hug beats words. Most of the time.” She just smiled. I wondered if there was a grading point here somewhere and if I was being considered passing or failing. I reached for a handful of pistachios and carefully pried one open. Minerva was not only introducing me to new ideas but also to new foods. I had never held a pistachio before meeting her. Now I munched on them regularly.
“So, what did she say to you?” The curiousity was killing me.
“You really want to know?”
“I do.” With that, Minerva turned and sat down next to me.
“She wanted to know how you were, if you were going to work regularly and were you going to school right now. I assured her you were fine, and that you were doing both. She said she knew you weren’t coming home anytime soon, but she hoped you would come to your senses and realize that you can’t depend on the charity of strangers all of your life. As I said, she wanted to meet me. Thinks I have some great influence on you, and she wants to be sure I’m not a devil-worshiper. I assured her I wasn’t.” I continued studying my fingernails. I had wondered on occasion if she was a devil-worshipper, but knew it was none of my business if she was. I didn’t care. She was kind to me, to her animals, and stayed out of everyone else’s business. That was plenty for me.
“I am paying you rent.”
“Janie, you wanted to know what she said, not what I think. So I’m telling you.”
“Did you tell her that?”
“It’s not my place to tell her anything. That’s up to you. Tell her or don’t tell her. Not my call.”
“Okay.” I chewed on a hangnail a moment, until she patted my hand to discourage the habit. “Anything else?”
“She wanted to know what I did all day long. I think she was very curious to see the inside of my house.”
“She can be deadly curious.”
“She’s an old country woman whose whole life has been based on gossiping about her neighbors. If she talks about me awhile, then someone else is safe. Besides, it doesn’t bother me. She has no influence in my life. Let it go, Janie.” I bit down on my hangnail again. She patted my hand.
“Okay.” I said again. I wasn’t being spectacularly brilliant in this conversation.
“Oh, and Mercy stopped by yesterday.”
“WHAT?” I almost fell off of my stool. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I haven’t really seen you in a couple of days. I too have a life.” She smiled at me.
“This is too much. What did Mercy want?”
“Basically the same thing that your mother wanted. To know if you are okay. Wondering if she was going to get you back. She seems rather lonely.”
“Mercy? She has all the men in the world bowing down at her feet.”
“Janie, that doesn’t keep one from being lonely. We all need someone to really talk to. Deeply. Someone we can share our feelings with. I imagine having all the men in the world wanting sex from you does not keep you from being lonely.” I pondered that a moment. Mercy had always seemed so happy, so at ease in her shallow world of sex and money. She actually missed me?
“May I ask what you told her?”
“Same thing I told your mother. You were welcome to be here as long as you wanted. Or until I moved out. And that we were good companions who kept each other company part of the time but that we each had our own lives.” I jumped at the part of her moving out.
“You’re thinking about moving out?” I felt my breath fail me a moment.
“I’m always thinking about things. I came here because I needed a break from my life, but some point I need to get back to it, I suppose.” She sighed in a way I had never heard before.
“I really know nothing about that life, Minerva.” I spoke softly because I wasn’t quite sure what I was allowed to ask.
“Not much I want to share right now.” She smiled a sad smile. “Perhaps someday. My home is in London, and I may go back eventually. But for now, I’m happy here.” It had never occurred to me that she may be a refugee of sorts. Or running from something. I hadn’t given her past life much thought at all, assuming that she was basically eccentric woman with some kind of attachment to Pickland. But hiding here from a life in London? That was curious, but I knew that unless she offered the information to me, the subject was closed.
The next month was a series of repeats. Work, school, helping Minerva in her house and yard, study, read, sleep, then do it all again. On a Saturday late in October, I came home to voices in the front room. Minerva referred to this as the Drawing Room. I had not yet seen her drawing there. I peeked around the door from the hallway, and saw the olive drab man lounging on the couch. Jumping back, I cracked my right ankle on the door frame. “Yeow,” I whispered loudly.
“Janie, is that you?” Minerva called out. Shit. Caught by my own clumsiness. I limped back to the kitchen, and yelled, “Yes. It’s me.” I leaned to rub my ankle and jumped at the blood I found. Grabbing a paper towel, I ran it quickly under some water and dabbled at the cut.
“Come in here! I have someone I want you to meet.” Shit again. Just what I needed today.
“Coming.” I dabbed and limped, straightening right before I entered the room. When I glanced at the library man, I again felt a flush start low on my neck. What was up with this damn blushing routine?
“Hi, Janie. This is Mack. He works on the house on occasion. Might be better to say he tries to put Band-Aids on this century old collapsing monstrosity.” She laughed at this. Mack stood. He was even more handsome than when I saw him several weeks ago. He reached out to shake my hand, a rueful smile on his face.
“I think we’ve met.” His hand had the combination of delicate softness and rough patches, sending a shiver up my right arm.
Have we?” How stupid of me to try to play coy. I despised it when I saw other women do it, and it was even less appealing on a woman wearing an ink stained pair of jeans and an old Abercrombie shirt. All I needed was a straw hat filled with holes. “Oh yes, in the library. You were in green that day.” He laughed and I blushed harder. Minerva watched me with a smile playing around her eyes. I felt myself getting angry. “Yes, well…” I pulled my lips together tightly, and forced a straight non-grin. “Well, nice to officially meet you. Mack, was it? Okay. I’m Janie. Okay. I’ll leave you guys alone to chat. Got work to do.” I pointed stupidly upwards. “Upstairs. In my room.”
Minerva patted the couch beside her. “You can take a break. Sit down and talk with us.” Mack watched me squirm.
“Hmmm, Okay. I have a little time. Okay.” I wondered if I started counting how many times I said the word “okay” I may reach some kind of record. Likely Guinness would come calling. I sat.
“I’ve been telling Mack a little about you.” I looked at her and frowned. I thought our unspoken agreement had been not to do that. “Nothing personal, Janie. Just your drive and determination to go to school and get an education.” I felt the thin lip line forming again.
“Impressive, Janie. It’s a hard thing to do. I know because I did it as well. Still going to school, in fact. I was using the computers in the library too on the day that I saw you.” He nodded in my direction. I tried to unseal my lips but there seemed to be a force beyond me keeping my mouth tightly closed.
“What are you studying?” What was I studying? Right now, I was studying those grey eyes with black specks. Minerva placed her hand on my arm.
“Janie has been working so hard she can’t remember. Right now, she’s taking a history class and a math class. Aren’t you, Janie?” I nodded mutely.
“Do you enjoy the classes?” Mack smiled and sat down in one of Minerva’s over-stuffed chairs. I nodded mutely. What the hell? Was I a complete idiot?
“What are you studying?” I finally blurted. Minerva squeezed my arm slightly, and let her hand fall away as if to tell me I was now on my own.
“Computers. I’d like to be a programmer. And I’m studying landscape architecture.” His laugh was warm. “Can’t quite make up my mind. What do you think you want to do?” Before I knew it, we had been sitting and sharing for over two hours. Mack came from Greenville, but had taken a tour of duty in Iraq. He didn’t want to elaborate much about that, but talked easily about his younger brother and sister, and his German shepherd. I wondered why an attractive, driven, kind man like him was still single.
Suddenly I peered at my watch, and startled, I jumped up. “Damn, I’m late. I was supposed to meet Wanda at the library twenty minutes ago. She’s not working tonight. Damn.”
“Do you mind if I join you?” Mack’s question stopped me cold. I looked at Minerva, and wondered what Wanda would say if I showed up with this handsome stranger.
“Go on,” Minerva said. “There can never be too many people at the library. Especially on a Saturday night.” She rolled her eyes. Mack laughed and groaned at the same time.
“This is what my life has turned into. But I do need to do some work on the internet. Do you mind, Janie?” His eyebrows rose in a sexy way at the arches. This was not good.
“Well, ummm, sure. I think that would be okay. I mean, I’m supposed to be tutoring Wanda. Me. Tutoring. But, yeah, okay. Umm, I was just going to walk.”
“No problem. I like walking.” Minerva shooed us out, and I ran upstairs to get my book bag. What the hell was going on in my life? Together, we left the front door, and turned left on the cracked sidewalk. At that moment, my mother drove by. I looked at her expression while I noticed the only thing she saw was Mack. Here we go.
When I pulled into Minerva’s driveway for the first time, I noticed how abandoned the front of it appeared, but driving around the back, the lushness appeared out of nowhere. What had started out as an ugly unkempt drive had evolved into a paradise of flowers, fruit trees, and greenery. I stopped, backed up to make sure that I had not somehow turned into the wrong driveway. On the porch, Minerva was standing with Winston, waving both at me and in the direction of the drive. I shrugged, put the car in drive, and headed back to the surprising backyard that was completely hidden from the folks of Pickville who may happen along the sidewalk in front of Minerva’s house. Minerva was standing at the back door, waiting on me. When I got out, she smiled, and walked down to join me and retrieved one of my suitcases. Before I could ask, she said, “I’m not really the garden club type. I’m under the illusion that if those women – and there may be some men – saw this, they would be after me to join or to offer them the opportunity to tour my gardens.” She smiled. “As I said, I’m not the garden club type. And you, Janie, may be wondering what ‘type’ I am. Am I correct?” She was smiling at me with an indecipherable expression. Type?
“Ummm, no, Minerva, I wasn’t really wondering that. Mostly I’m stunned at the beauty of your backyard and seeing flowers I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. And I am trying to recover and understand the conversation I just had with Mercy. I’m sorry. The garden club or your type wasn’t part of my thoughts at that moment.”
“Oh, Janie. Forgive me. Here I go on about what I think the people of Pick land expect of me and you are experiencing a hugely unexpected change in life. I really am sorry. Here, let’s get you settled inside. We can have a cup of tea, and you can talk, or not talk, but just let yourself begin to absorb the different direction that your life has taken.” With that, Minerva stepped up the stairs to her house, and with me right behind, we entered her world.
To say this physical space was different than any I had ever experienced before is so vast an understatement that I hesitate to think it. We walked into what was part of Minerva’s giant living room. It was stuffed with oversized chairs, pillows of all colors, shapes and sizes, shimmering scarves covered many of the thirty or more lamps, and pools of light fell on the darkly varnished floor, on the bright colored fabrics of the pillows, and the many gilded frames of the people whom Minerva had once known. Glancing closer at the photographs, I saw no one I knew, until I came to the wall next to the stairs. There was Minerva with The Iron Lady, smiling in another shot with Elvis Presley, then sitting cross-legged on the ground holding a child while Mother Theresa stroked the child’s head. It crossed my mind that Minerva may be very good with PhotoShop. When I glanced back at her, she just shook her head and said, “Memories. The stuff of life. Let’s get your luggage upstairs and then we can see about that tea.” I couldn’t guess at her age. She could have been 55 or 105. There was no way for me to know and no polite way to ask. I decided I would do some research on Sunday at the library. Perhaps something about her would turn up.
We headed up the stairs. At the top, all the doors were closed. She walked to the 2nd one on the right, and opened it. I followed her in, and found to my delight, that the room was rather sparse. Based on what I had seen downstairs, I had been a little concerned that the room would be filled to the brim with stuff. Instead, I had a double bed with four pillows, all in yellow; a quilt covering what appeared to be a plush mattress, likely much better than I had ever slept on. There was a small rug in front of the bed, laid on an oak colored wooden floor. One dresser stood to the side of the bed, and one closet. The dresser had a picture of Winston, the dog, Maria, the Cat, and Miguel, the cockatiel. There were two night tables on either side of the bed, with simple lamps. On the wall opposite the dresser was a bookshelf packed full. I couldn’t wait to see what titles were there.
“I hope you will find this to your liking, Janie.” She was watching me casually as if assessing what size clothes I wore.
“It’s perfect. Thank you, Minerva. How do I ever repay you for this? Minerva fanned her hand as if ridding herself of a pesky moth.
“Someone once said to those whom much is given, much is expected. I have been given much. One day, it will be your turn.” Her eyes sparkled. “Now let me show you the bathroom.” We left the bedroom, and walked straight across the hallway to another closed door. “I keep these doors closed because all three of the other inhabitants think they can roam at random, and I do tire of finding their little gifts here and there.” I suddenly realized she was talking about Winston, Maria, and Miguel. The bathroom had an ancient claw footed tub with a shower head above it and a curtain in the round. The vanity was a mixture of red and black granite, with white antiqued cabinets below. The mirrors above two sinks were rimmed in what appeared to be black rock. I stood stock still knowing I had never seen anything like this bathroom, and likely never would again. When I glanced in the separate toilet room, I was surprised to see two there. I looked back at Minerva. She pealed with laughter. “It’s a bidet, Janie. You are going to be such fun to educate.” She laughed again, but I didn’t feel the pain of being laughed at as I did my mother. Instead, I laughed with her, and wondered just what one did with a bidet. “Come, let’s have some tea.” She led me down another set of stairs, this one found at the end of the hallway. The steps took two turns, and ended up in the kitchen of this grand house. She moved to the stove, placing a teapot of water there to heat, picked up two teabags out of a jar, deposited them in two tea cups which she took off of a tea cup stand, and then sat. She patted the chair next to her.
“Okay, Janie, what questions do you have?” I sat there a moment, looking around at the huge well stocked kitchen, wondering why it needed to be so well-stocked considering one woman lived there, and it occurred to me that I did not know what the hell I was doing. A frown played across Minerva’s eyes, and she drummed her fingers on her lips.
“Are you thinking you made a mistake?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what I’m thinking. This has been the craziest weekend of my life, and trust me, I’ve had some crazy ones. What the hell have I done?”
She watched me a moment, got up to pour the now steaming water into the tea cups, and brought them to the table. I didn’t even drink fucking hot tea. She prepared the tea bags, dropped a couple of sugar cubes in the cups, and then stirred them.
“Hmmm. I think you need some time to adjust. Just sit and think about what is going on in your life. Perhaps write about it.”
“I think what I need is to go tell my mama what I’ve done. She’ll come looking for me, and I swore to Mercy that I would be the one to tell her before the gossip machine got going. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Good idea,” Minerva responded. “I don’t need any further bad encounters with Blanche.” My head shot up when she said this. She waved away the question. “Nothing to do with you. I’ve had a few encounters with several of the old guard here in Pickland. They tend to think my purchases in Bi-Lo’s to be a tad odd. Happens at Publix too. I’ve taken to ordering most of what I want online. No matter. You go do what you need to do. One thing I do want you to understand, Janie, is that while you are here, this is your home. You have the rights of the home owner. Refrigerator rights, cooking rights, cleanup rights. If you are going to bring anyone here, I just ask that you let me know beforehand. There is a washer and dryer on the porch behind the kitchen. Yours to use as you need. I have a service so you won’t see me there. But there is detergent and softener – all that you need. Feel free. When you are ready to move on, I would like to know. No harassment, no pleading, I’m happy to have you here, and I’ll be happy when you are ready to find another home. We,” and she spread her arms to include the animals now resting close to her,” are your resting spot. Hopefully your encouragement spot. And most importantly, your educational ‘take charge’ spot.” She smiled the most luminous smile, and patted each animal in turn. Maria purred loudly and Miguel chirped. I could swear that Winston smiled. I just nodded my head, and got up to look for my pocketbook. I found it inside the front door, and when I opened it to get my keys, I found cash stuffed inside. I knew this wasn’t mine, and I was fairly sure that Mercy would not have given me any money, so I turned to Minerva. She shook her head. “It’s just a loan until you start back to work. I imagine getting by right now must be pretty difficult. Just a loan.”
“Do you have a piece of paper? She nodded as if she expected this, and pulled a small notebook out from a drawer in an end table. A pen was attached. She handed it to me. I opened it, wrote the date, $150.00, my name and IOU. I handed it back to her. She smiled. I was not going to be owned by anyone. I didn’t believe she was trying to own me, but I was going to be very sure this was the situation. That money would be paid back with interest.
When I pulled into the backyard of my mama’s house, she was sitting on the steps, shucking corn.
“Lo, Janie. Where’s Mercy?”
I stopped the engine, and sat there a moment. She uncharacteristically waited for me to speak. I wondered what she knew.
“Hey, ma. Don’t know where she is.”
“Why dontcha? You two always know where the other one is.” How she managed to know this or why she thought it was a mystery to me. Mercy sometimes had called me when she disappeared with a new man for a few days. Sometimes she didn’t. The first time that happened, I called 911. They service found Mercy and her married boyfriend in a cabin somewhere close to Lake Keeowee. I was informed forever afterwards that if she disappeared, I was to assume she was safe until her body floated to the top of the lake. And then I was to make sure she was in full makeup before they buried her. I got the message loud and clear.
“Not here to talk to you about Mercy, Mama.”
“Lord how, you sure has been wantin’ to do some talkin’ lately, Janie. What’s got into you? Turning into your Grandma Beam again?” She was going low to see if she could head off any bad news I might be telling her. I ignored it.
“I’ve moved out of Mercy’s house, mama.” She didn’t miss a shuck.
“That ain’t Mercy’s house. It’s yours and Mercy’s.”
“Actually, mama, it belongs to Mercy’s grandpa. As you know.”
“That old coot. He don’t know what to do with all the houses he owns. Its your’n’s as long as you want it. You both know that.”
“I don’t want it anymore mama.” She finally stopped shucking. I got one of those low stares she gives when she decides the person she is talking to is a complete idiot, and she is weighing whether or not she needs to waste anymore of her short breaths on him or her.
“Sure you do, Janie. You love that old house.”
“I’ve moved in with Minerva Boatwright.” The shucking not only stopped, but the cobb which she was working on clattered to the ground, missing the bucket by an inch.
“You done what????” Here it came. I knew this was going to get ugly quick, so I was prepared quick.
“Mama, this is what I’ve done. You have no say so in the matter. I’ve made my choices. I’m here to tell you before the gossip mill turns this into something it isn’t. I moved in today and that’s all there is to it.” I could see the angry spittle beginning to build up in the corners of her mouth, so I turned to get back into the car.
“Now you just wait a minute, Missy. I’ve got a reputation in this town and I’ll be god-damned if you are going to ruin it.” She reached to grab my arm and with my other hand, I slapped it away. She looked up at me stunned.
“Don’t even think about grabbing me or hitting me, Mama. I came to tell you this out of respect. As I said, you have no say-so in this matter. I’m not asking permission. I’m informing you.” She stepped back as if I had slapped her.
“You little ungrateful bitch. Everything I done for you, and you are doing this for me. You will not move in with that queer-ass English wannabe. You will get your stuff and come to my house. You will do it right now. I’m not puttin’ up with this kind of treatment. You listen to me right now!” Mama screeched out the last few words in a manner that I knew was supposed to reach the next five neighbors. Predictably, I saw Mrs. Black stick her head out of her door a few houses away. I shot her the bird, and she quickly ducked her head back in her screen door.
I took a deep breath. “Mama, I’m going now.” I heard the swish of the bucket before I felt it in my back. The hit wasn’t terribly hard. Even my mother has a hard time swinging a bucket full of corn kernels. I turned around, grabbed the bucket and threw it on the ground, yellow and white kernels spilling like jewels on the dirt.
“Look what you done did!” She screamed while pulling her hair. I grabbed both of her arms and jerked them down to her sides, stunned at my own strength.
“You listen to me and you listen to me good, mama.” Her eyes were rolling around in the sockets as if someone had spilled a fortune of gold among the hungry. “You will never ever hit me again. Do you get it? You will NEVER hit me again. I am not that little girl you once had and could beat into submission. I could crush you with my bear hands right now.” Briefly, I saw in my mind’s eye my ability to throw the wooden screens around at work while getting new jobs ready. I don’t think I realized just how strong this had made me.” But I won’t do that. I’m not you. However, what I will do is have you arrested for assault. And I will do that, Blanche Bulick. I will have you arrested, and I will see you go through the court system, and by god, I will see you put in jail. You will never hit me again.” Her eyes were still rolling around wildly, but I could tell she was calming down. She was now making fists and releasing them, which was a warning that she was getting ready to swing. “I see what you’re doing. Relax your hands right now.” Her eyes calmed, and she glanced at her right, then left, hand.
“Well, missy, I reckon you’re gonna have to hit me to keep me from hitting you.” She stood there in all her 5’ 4”, 110 pound, sixty-six year old glory, threatening me, her 32 year old, and 5’7” 145 pound daughter. I actually managed to laugh. She took a step towards me.
“Stop right there, mama. You’re pathetic. Most mothers would love to have an independent strong daughter. At least, I think most mothers should love to have one. You on the other hand, want me to be totally dependent on you. You want to tell me what to do, where to live, whether or not I can go to school – all this to a 32 year old woman. You’re pathetic. I’m going now, mama. I’m going to Minerva Boatwright’s house, a house full of books and music and art. Where I won’t hear any gossip about you or your friends or the hypocrites down at The First Baptist Church. Who is Margareet’s father, by the way? Does she ever ask you?” I laughed, and climbed into the driver’s seat. I was trying desperately not to look at her, because I didn’t know if I would see my mother or a demon come to drag me to the depths of hell for my insolence. But I couldn’t help myself. The woman to whom I had looked for safety and with fear pulled my eyes towards her. What I saw instead was an old, lonely woman wearing a raggedy dress with an even older apron pinned to the front of it. Here hair was slipping out from under her baseball hat, and her mouth was slightly open. I felt a well of emotion inside of me, but I had no idea whether it was love, pity, fear, or disgust. Probably a whole lot of each of them. I started my car, and looked backward, determined that I would no longer head in that direction in my life. If she wanted to get on the sideboard and go forward, then I would welcome her to join me. Same went for Mercy. I had no illusions about either one.
When I got back to Minerva’s, I parked the car, and wearily climbed the back stairs. There was a note on the door with a key taped to it. “You probably need some alone time and I need to run errands. Here’s your key. Keep it for as long as you need it. I will enjoy the company.” That was it. I opened the door, and walked in, grateful for the time alone. There was a glass sitting on the counter with ice water and a note next to it. “For you.” Is this what it was like to have someone take care of you? I climbed the stairs, entered my room, kicked up my shoes, rolled up into the quilt, and fell into a deep sleep. Right before I went under, I thought, “I have an essay to write.”
I slipped back into Mercy’s house at 8:00 PM. Damn, I was already thinking of it as “Mercy’s” house. I wasn’t sure how she was going to handle my moving out, where I was sleeping tonight, or how to move into Minerva’s house. Hell, I wasn’t sure if I should move into Minerva’s house. But My brain was boiling with worry.
“Hey.” I almost jumped out of her skin.
“What the fuck? God, Mercy, you almost scared me into next year!” I bumped into the metal chairs that acted like dining room ones. “What are you doing here?
“I think I live here.” Mercy spoke quietly. I glanced back at her, and flipped a light switch on. Mercy’s face was bright red and for a change, she had on no makeup.
“I know that. I meant why aren’t you at work?” I moved away from the chair, and stood stiffly at the door. I didn’t know what to expect. Glancing around, I peered outside to see if I had failed to notice Gramps’ old truck. Maybe he was here to move me out.
“It’s just me, Janie. I was too upset to go to work.” Mercy sat with her chin down.
“Are you sick?”
“No, I ain’t sick. Jesus, Janie, you and I don’t fight.” I stood there a moment, and scratched my head. I ran my fingers through my hair, and massaged my right temple. This day was getting stranger and stranger.
“I don’t get it, Mercy.”
“Really? Really! You don’t get it. Shit, am I such an a-hole that you don’t think this bothered me. Shit, Janie.” Mercy shook her head violently, and rubbed her eyes.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You’re here…I mean you didn’t go to work…because of the fight?” Mercy pushed lower in the chair.
“I didn’t mean it, Janie. I didn’t. I don’t want you to move out. You’re my best friend. I was being awful. Worse than awful. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Mercy took a hard sniff just to prove she was still sad. “So…ummmm…everything’s okay now?” I stood a moment longer, and then pulled the metal chair out to sit. Staring at the floor for a minute, I drummed my fingers on the table. This had become complicated. Even though I had left Minerva’s terrified about my future, somewhere between walking from there to here, I had calmed down about it. Changes felt right about now, even if these were very odd changes. One thing I knew for sure, if I kept doing things the same old way, I would get the same old result.
“I think I found somewhere else to live.” Mercy looked at her hard.
“Really. This afternoon. You found somewhere else to live. Come on, Janie, I’ll do better paying my bills.”
“No, Mercy, you won’t.”
“What is this? I stayed home because I was so upset. I know I said awful things. I won’t do it again.”
“Yeah, you will.”
“Nooooo, Janie, I won’t,” she dragged her words out for emphasis. I stared at her.
“Where’d you get the money?” At that, Mercy looked quickly away.
“I think there’s some things we gotta agree not to talk about. I know you ain’t a goodie two shoes. That was mean. But I also know that you’re…uhhhhh…standards are somewhat different than mine. I ain’t hurtin’ anybody, if that’s what you mean.” Mercy smiled like her words were gonna carry weight.
“You see, Merc, that isn’t what I mean. I mean what I said. If you’re involved in something illegal or wrong, I can get in trouble too. Even if it’s just a man,” she drug her words out too, “I can get in trouble cause he might get mad at you. He might want to get back at you. Hey, I live in the same house. So what happens to me?”
“Damn, you like to make up stories. Nothin’s gonna happen to me, or to you. Let’s just get back to how we were before this morning. I got the money.” Mercy leaned sideways to pull the wad out of her pocket.
“Mercy, you don’t get it. And that’s okay. You don’t have to get it. I have to get it. This isn’t a way for me to live anymore. It just isn’t working. I don’t want to worry about my safety – or yours – so I need to go.”
I stood up. “You don’t really have anything to say about it. I’m going. That’s it. Your grandpa will give you a break on the rent. Won’t be any problem. I need a change of surroundings. We had our time here, girlfriend. It was fun for the most part. Hell, we’ll still be friends. Maybe better friends. We just won’t be housemates,” I knew as I said it that it wasn’t true. This was going to be a parting of the ways for the two women. Life was moving on and I was ready to move on with it.
“Where you going?” Mercy’s question had an edge to it. “Found a man?”
I smiled slightly. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“You know I’m not looking for a man.”
“So where you going?” Mercy was relentless. It didn’t really matter. The whole town would know by tomorrow. If only they cared about their own business as much as others. Might enable them to get a life. I smiled slightly.
“Ain’t nobody’s business, but I’m going to live with the rich crazy lady who lives next to the high school.”
“Yeah, right. Where you going? Your mama’s?” I turned, and headed toward my room. It was human nature to believe only what you allowed yourself to believe. Mercy would never believe that I was going to live with the crazy woman. Living with my crazy mama made more sense to her. Shee-at. Life was confusing. I wasn’t going to try to figure it out tonight. Packing up my stuff wouldn’t take long. Anything else I needed I could get later.
Mercy followed me to hover outside my door. “So that’s it, huh? One lousy fight, and you’re done. Throwing in the towel. Giving up on this and leaving all by my lonesome.” Mercy was determined to drag out all the guilt she could. But it wasn’t going to work this time. I didn’t even turn to look at her as I gathered my clothes.
“Mercy, you ain’t ever…” I caught myself, thinking of Minerva. “You haven’t ever lacked for companionship. The moment I’m gone, you’ll have a handful of people asking to move in with you. Most of them married men. There never has and there never will be any lonesome about you.”
“Janie, you know what I mean. Those others,” she threw her hand out like she was tossing garbage in a can. “They don’t mean nothing to me. Just play things to keep life interesting. Not like you. You’re a real friend.” Then she mumbled something I didn’t quite catch. I turned and looked at her. A tear was falling from her right check which she quickly smoothed away.
“I saiiiiidddddd nobody else makes me try harder. I need you, Janie.” I stood there looking at her for a moment, and then I just shook my head.
“I can’t believe you said that, Mercy. You don’t like to try hard. You like to skate. You tell me that nonstop. No reason trying so hard, Janie, you’re just gonna end up right where the rest of us are. Why are you studying? Why don’t you get a job with me at Applebee’s? What is all that?”
“I don’t know. Okay? I DON’T KNOW.” She yelled this last part. I just watched her for a moment, and for the first time in her tiny little brain, I saw ambition and desire trying to escape the horrors of her overwhelming desire to settle. To be no better and no worse than those around her, not including me. And I watched the tiny fight, and turned my back to continue packing. I was done saving others. I had been doing that in one way or another my whole life, and it was my turn. I was going to take responsibility for me, and keep moving forward. There was a window of escape for me now. Hell, it was a wide open garage door. And I was going to fly through it and damn the consequences. It was time to go.
I closed my suitecases, all two of them. I had always been a light packer. I turned to Mercy. “This is going to be a good thing, Mercy.”
She sneered at me, and I could see the old anger resurfacing. “I cain’t wait to hear what your mama says. She’s gonna come jerk you out of that insane asylum as soon as she finds out. Just you wait.” She sneered again, imagining the battles that would be fought between my mother and me.
“No, she won’t Mercy. And do you know why? Because I’m going over there right now to tell her what I’m doing. You’re not going to get the pleasure of spreading gossip around this town the minute I’m gone because I’m gonna beat you to it. That’s the way I’m making changes.” With that, I picked up the two suitcases, almost throwing them over my head with the adrenalin rush I was getting from my discussion with Mercy. I took a deep breath, and lowered the suitcases. Mercy smirked.
“She’s a queer, you know. Soon’s you get there, she’s gonna only want one thing for rent. You ready for this, miss change your life? Huh? You think you’re gonna become queer too? Or are you already there? That why you wanted to live with me? So you could see me naked.” I stopped, with my back to Mercy. I took another deep breath. And turned around.
“Mercy,” I said with a knife in my voice. “If I ever hear that you’ve said that about Minerva – or me – I will personally come back and beat you to a sliver of your life. And then I will beat your cat. After that, I will shred every bit of clothing that you own.” She physically gasped at that.” I will pour all of your assortment of pink fingernail polish all over the driveway, and then I will go to your grandpa and give him the journal of every man you have had sex with in this house, in the backyard, in your car outside, and beside the car. I will make sure that he knows you aren’t the angel he always believed you to be. I will in fact make sure he knows you are the whore of Babylon. Are we clear?” I stared directly into her eyes, daring her to turn away from me. She stood defiantly for ten seconds – Mercy was big on counting to ten when she stared people down. This included customers at Applebees. Then she caved.
“You wouldn’t,” she whispered ferociously.
“I would,” I reached into the side pocket of the first suitcase, and pulled out an accounting journal. “I did.” I waved it at her, fully knowing it was filled with every penny I had spent on my education, and every manner of earning more money for said education I could devise. What she didn’t know, she didn’t know. “Every man. Right here. Dates, times, names if I knew them. Every single one.” I waited. The bluff would work or it wouldn’t. She stood staring for 10 more seconds. I could visibly see her toe tapping as she counted down.
“Okay. Okay.” She swung her shoulders around, spinning her dirty blonde hair in a circle. “Go live with that old bitch. You think you’re gonna have fun? She don’ look fun to me. You think you’re gonna be happy? You don’t know how to be happy. Go on, get out.” I gripped the case handles harder and began walking towards the door. She stepped aside. “You’ll be back cause this is where you belong. You know it and I know it. But you’ll have to crawl and beg.” At that point, Mercy was crying so hard I could barely understand her. I kept moving. Once outside, I opened the back door of my old Toyota, and swung the cases inside. I opened the drivers door, and slipped in. Sliding the key into the ignition, I allowed myself to look up, fully expecting to see a shot gun aimed towards my head. Instead, no one was there. All I saw was a small white house with white curtains moving slightly inside in the breeze. Mercy was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t know if that was a blessing or not, but I took it that way, threw the car into reverse and backed into my new life.
I rolled over in her bed. Squeezing my eyes open, I focused on the clock. 6:30 AM. Even on Saturdays, my work brain woke up. I sighed, and rolled over, squeezing my eyes closed again. A moment later, Bob Dylan jumped on her bed, and began stretching and licking her paws. She clasped her back paws into the bed, and caught my behind in her curling. I yelled out, and smacked the cat off the bed. Screeching and dropping to all fours, Bob ran out of the room. I shook her head, and reluctantly climbed out of bed, headed toward the kitchen.
Mama was standing there. I blinked, and looked again.
“Mama?” My mother turned and looked blankly at her. I felt a little fear creep into her heart. “Mama?” I moved toward my mother, and reached out for her arm. Blanche jumped, and smacked my hand.
“Who are you?” she whispered lowly.
“Mama. Mama! It’s me, mama. I’m your daughter. What are you doing here? How did you get here?” She squeezed my arm harder than she meant, and then Blanche cried out.
“What are you doing to me, Janie?” The pain seemed to bring her back to herself.
“Mama, why are you at my house at 6:30 in the morning?” Blanche looked around curiously, then a bit of alarm flared in her eyes.
“Did you bring me here, Janie? Why am I in your kitchen? Oh, god, have I been sleep walking again?”
“Again?” I stood still watching her. “Again?”
“Yes, damnit, again. Don’t make such a big deal of it, girl. I sometimes do this. But I never came to your house before. What the hell,” she looked around, and began walking toward the back door. “Why ain’t your door locked?” She opened the door and stomped out. I stood there shaking her head. Mercy stuck her head out of her bedroom.
“What the fuck,” she started, but I just held my hand up, and retraced my path to her my bedroom. It was too early to think about these problems, and I wanted to spend her day on homework. Climbing back under my quilt she saw that Bob Dylan had returned to the bed and was curled on my pillow. This time, I stroked him warmly, and closed my eyes. Life was a conundrum.
Rising for the second time that day at 8:30, I again entered my kitchen. Mercy sat by the table, holding a steaming mug of coffee.
“You made coffee?” I scratched my nose, and glanced around.
“Yeah. I can make coffee,” Mercy took a sip and glared a sleepy glare at me.
“I just didn’t know. I’ll keep your secret.”
“Thanks. Don’t want all the men in Pickville racing over here to have a cup.” Mercy shook her head.
“I’m sure that would happen.” I poured a cup for her, and moved to the table. “What are you doing today?”
“Gotta work tonight. My nails look lousy. Need to wash some clothes. Unless you want to do it?” she looked hopefully toward me. I answered with a curled lip.
“I didn’t think so. What was your mama doing here so early this morning?” Mercy took a sip and stared at me.
“I don’t know. She said she was sleep walking.”
“Do you think that’s really it?”
“Why you asking me that? Do you think she’s loosing her marbles?”
“You’re being ugly, Janie.”
“What? I’m being ugly? Get out. You think I’m being ugly about Blanche, the bane of my existence? I’m the one being accused of rudeness when it comes to my mama? Get out. Really, just get out.” I stood up to walk around the kitchen.
“Would you look at that,” Mercy whistled. It was a talent that made me nuts. Mostly because she couldn’t do it herself. “You are really worried about your ma.”
“God damnit, Mercy, why do you have to start the weekend like this? I don’t know what is wrong with her. Aunt Ruby died, and she’s losing it. You might lose it if I died. Don’t you think it may be difficult for you if someone real close to you left you for the other side?”
“Yeah, probably. I don’t think about that kind of thing too much.”
“Maybe you oughtta. Maybe you oughtta just think about others on occasion. Maybe you need to wonder just how the rest of us are coping with pain and loss and all that shit that comes along with life. You ever think about that? Huh? Do you ever?”
“Man, you got pissed off quick like. Wanna tell me what’s going on in your head?” Through it all, Mercy remained calm, watching this early morning drama like she was some kind of psychologist. I gazed out the window, letting my anger deflate like an old balloon. I was surprised at the aggression that had blown up in my own head, not aware of the feelings which I must have been harboring about her aunt.
In truth, Aunt Ruby had been much more of a mother to me than Blanche had ever been. She had even been more of a mother even to Blanche than their mother had been. In their family, grief didn’t get much play. Mostly, they were supposed to bury their cousins, and keep on keeping on. Life was about living, and when someone passed, you just let them go. That didn’t appear to be happening for Blanche, and not even for me.
“I just changed my mind. About what I was doing today. I had planned to get my paper written for my English class. I think instead I will spend the day with mama. I think she might need it.”
“You’re fucking kidding me. You. Spend the day with your mama. By choice. Okay, I’ll see you at the loony bin tomorrow.”
“Shut up, Mercy.” Mercy just grinned at her cup, and shook her head. I headed toward my bedroom, straightening things as I went. Time to grow up a little. Maybe I had learned something from Aunt Ruby after all.
At 9:30, I knocked on Blanche’s door. Not hearing any movement, I walked around the back, and found my mama hanging out clothes.
“Hey, mama,” I called out. Blanche turned to see her daughter striding toward her.
“Hey, Janie,” she called back. “Whatcha doin’ here?”
“Came to help you clean up,” I said, reaching the basket of wet bedding and pulling out a pillow case.
“Huh? Ain’t you got our own chores to do?” Blanche was big on getting chores done, and mornings were for chores. You weren’t supposed to leave anything undone for the afternoon. That was for naps and soaps.
“I don’t have that much. Besides, I thought I would spend some time with you.” Both mama and I looked at each other with surprise. Neither mother nor daughter had ever intentionally thought to plan time together. Family didn’t do that. You just showed up and did, and then left. Suppers meant you dropped in and there was always plenty. Because if there was an extra mouth, someone might have to eat less. Usually there was plenty. Someone needed help, you just showed up. Painted, raked leaves, did whatever it took. Then left. Plans were for work or when you just had to be social. In the south, at least in Janie’s south, that was something for the high minded folks.
Both women got busy quickly, hanging out the clothes.
“Ma, do you miss Aunt Ruby?” I was looking into the clothes pin bag as she posed this question. It was a chance that might backfire on me, but I wanted to know what was going on in my mama’s mind. Something that might make her sleepwalk to her daughter’s house. Or perhaps it was really something else going on in my mama’s mind.
“Ain’t that a silly question,” Blanche kept on working.
“You didn’t answer me, mama.” Blanche stopped long enough to give me a hard look, but I kept working, not giving her the satisfaction of looking in her direction.
“Well, shit, Janie. Of course I miss her. She was my sister. We lived together off and on our whole lives. What do you think,” she almost hissed the last sentence.
“I think, mama that I want to know how you feel. I think I want to know if you are hurting more than you let on. I think I want to know if your sleep walking has to do with your being sad or if you’re losing your mind.” Again, then we looked at each other in surprise. There was a moment of unrecognizable faces, and we both looked quickly away.
“Janie, ain’t you being a little brave? You thinkin’ cause you’re in school now, you can sass your mama? Ain’t you thinking a little outside of your rights here?” I felt cold chills creep up my spine, and I knew that in some ways, my mama was right. But something told me I had to keep this kind of questions going, and I had to know because in the very pea center of my brain, I was terribly worried. Worried that my mother wasn’t safe, or that she was going to do a bad thing. Worried that her mind was going, and with all the eccentric behavior of her past, she may finally leap past the worst and commit a terrible crime. I didn’t understand where this fear was coming from or even why I had the worry, but there it was and I wasn’t going to back off just because my mother had gotten that strange piercing look she got when conversations were stepping over the line too far.
“What are my rights when it comes to you, mama? Don’t I have the right to know if you are doing okay?” I turned my back on my mother, aware that when I had done that as a child, a close by weapon could be unleashed on my head, or shoulders. When I sassed as a teenager, the physical beating afterwards accomplished my mother’s goal of pushing her far away emotionally so that I would not try the sassing route anytime again soon. Spare the rod and spoil the child. My family bought into it entirely. Part of the reason that I didn’t want children. Not unless someone somewhere could help me avoid beating them. That didn’t seem like the natural way to raise a child, even if it was the only way I had ever seen it done.
“Doing okay? Whatcha mean by doing okay? You think I’m going off the deep end just because I came to your house this morning? That don’t mean nothin’. I been walking in my sleep for years.” I turned toward her mother and saw that she was bent over the clothes basket. Next to the basked was a huge stick. I wondered if my mother had put it there, or if it had already lain there without her noticing. Blanche glanced up at me, but her eyes were veiled now and the piercing look she had seen earlier was gone.
“Mama, is there a possibility that you and I could ever really be close? I know you shared something with Aunt Ruby that was important to you? I don’t know anything about your feelings about yourself, or the men in your life, or even me. I don’t know nothin’. I’d like to know more. I’d like to spend time with you that wasn’t painful and filled with hard words. Do you think that is possible?” I noticed that my cheeks were damp. I brought her hands to her face, and fiercely wiped.
Slowly, Blanche stood up, and faced me. For a single moment, her eyes softened slightly, and then she sucked her lips into a straight line.
“I don’t need this from you right now, girlie. You ain’t my sister. My sister’s dead. The one person who shared my life from the beginning. Not no man was ever truer to me than she was. Life is lonely, Janie. That’s it. Just lonely. There ain’t never gonna be enough people in your life to fill all your holes. You just gonna have to find a way to accept that. Go to college. Learn all you can. But it ain’t gonna work. You just got this big hole that I wasn’t ever able to fill, and your husband didn’t do it neither. I cain’t do it for you now. Yeah, Ruby’s gone, but at least I had her. So don’t worry none about me. I will be okay, til I ain’t. And then I’ll join Ruby. But there ain’t no feelings I can share with you that will help you know me, or become my friend. We ain’t gonna be friends because I’m the mama, and you’re the daughter, and that’s just how life is. You keep trying to change it by changin’ you and maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t. Now go take care of your own chores.” Blanche reached to pick up the basket and turned toward her kitchen steps.
“Mama, just cause you say its that way, doesn’t mean it is. I’m real sorry for you, mama. I don’t know, and now I don’t guess I ever will, what turned you so hard and mean. Ruby told me a few things, but mostly she did as you wanted and kept everything to herself.” I could feel myself shaking, wondering just why I would put myself in the position to get hurt like this. Why stick my hand out on this damn hot stove when I had gotten burned by it every other time I had made this attempt. Still, I fought on.
“I love you, mama.” The screen door slammed, and the back door closed. I stood there a moment, wondering if anyone had heard what had just happened. I spun around looking to see if there was anyone watching me, and yelled loudly, “I love you, mama! I love you, mama! I love you, mama!”
The back door opened a crack, and my mother hissed, “Either come in here or go home. You’re embarrasin’ me!” I laughed out loud, and headed toward the kitchen door. I would help her mother clean her kitchen, and then get the hell out of there. Something had been accomplished, but I wasn’t sure exactly what yet.
I got paid every other Friday. When I first went to work at Burns, I thought that was a good thing. I could focus on paying my bills twice a month, but I soon discovered that was quite a challenge for my fiscally ignorant self. When the check was first deposited, I felt on top of the world. By the end of the first week, my finances were dragging and damn pitiful at the end of the second. It didn’t help me that Mercy usually didn’t have the right amount of rent or electric bill at any time of the month. Her checks were absurdly small, with most of her income being tips. Those, unfortunately, were cash in her pocket, which didn’t translate to income for Mercy. That was money to blow. On beer, nails, a new hair color, tops at Kohl’s which often disintegrated in her wash. Woe be to the man who would someday be responsible for her credit cards. She also tended to eat most of her meals at Applebee’s, where she would steal from the plates. That didn’t help the grocery bill seeing as she would drink a half a gallon of milk in one setting without ever thinking about who bought the bill.
“For God’s sake, Mercy. Don’t drink the whole fucking gallon.” I just shook my head at her insensitivity.
“What’s it in here for then, Janie? Huh? You savin’ it for someone?” I just shook my head more.
“Mercy, you don’t buy a damn bit of groceries in this house. “
“I don’t eat here much either.”
“Damnit, Mercy, you’re eatin’ here right now.” I flung the dish towel I was squeezing down on the floor for effectiveness. Surely that would let her know how frustrated I was. She jumped up, pulling a wad of money from her back pocket.
“Here’s five fucking dollars! Take it! God, you are so unreasonable! Why do you live here with me if I’m so terrible?” Mercy’s breathing was coming out in spits.
Suddenly, I burst into tears, and plopped into a kitchen chair. “Shit.” I began sobbing into my hands, rubbing furiously at my eyes. Mercy stood stunned. She had only seen me cry a few times, and this took a moment for her to absorb.
“What’s wrong?” her question was hard. The battle over milk had unsettled her. Mercy wasn’t used to anyone asking anything from her. She took what she needed from others, and gave little in return.
“What’s wrong? What’s WRONG? I’m broke. I have some tuition to pay. My mother hates me. You are difficult to live with and don’t have any idea how much I support you. I have no boyfriend, no time to find one or spend with one if I did find him. My aunt died, and she was one of the only people who ever said kind things to me. I hate my job and my boss is an asshole. I should be making twice as much as I do for what I do, but without a degree, I get the crumbs from a shithead who knows I will take it because I need the job. I’m miserable.” I finished with a huge sniff, wiping my nose on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. I glanced at it, and realized it was the same one I had worn yesterday. Possibly the day before. I just didn’t care what I looked like anymore.
“You want a boyfriend?” Mercy sat down next to me, finally showing attention to the one thing she knew about. Men.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I just feel like there is something big missing from my life. I want this education. I want to be a writer, a teacher. I want to inspire others. But who inspires me? Who keeps me moving toward my own goals? Hell, half the time, I forget what those goals are. Is there a man in this town who I could relate to? Talk to about this shit? When did I ever want a man to talk to, anyway? I’m just in a funk. And the financial troubles don’t help.”
“Let’s go shopping.” Mercy hopped up with the eternal western answer. “Let’s do it. Go get you some new clothes so that you feel special, and get your mind off all this crap. I know just the place, and they’re having a big sale today.” Mercy grinned like a 2-year-old who had just been given the biggest present under the tree.
“Mercy, are you listening to me? I am broke. Flat broke. I have another week to get through before a paycheck, I have to pay tuition, I haven’t even bought all my books, and you want to go shopping?” Mercy grinned again, as she pulled another wad out of her left back pocket. Unrolling it, she pulled several one hundred dollar bills out. She jerked them toward me and my mouth fell open.
“Where did you get this much money, Mercy?” I didn’t move to take the money. Instead, I stood up and took a step backwards. Mercy looked confused and pushed the money further towards me.
“Take it. Let’s go shopping. What’s wrong with you?”
“Mercy, you never have that much cash on you. You work at Applebee’s for God’s sake. Where did you get it?” I stared hard at her friend. I knew that Mercy was weak, too dependent on material things, and that her outside mattered a whole lot more to her than her inside did. That was just something I had accepted about her. I didn’t like being judgmental toward my family or friends, but the rippling feeling in my stomach was warning me that this could get ugly quick like.
“Damnit, Janie. You are so higher-than-mighty. You always try to make me feel like I’m the bad one. I don’t know what I’m doing. I get in trouble, when I don’t. Not really. You are just a goody two shoes who doesn’t enjoy the finer things in life. I ain’t going to college like you to try to get no big degree to make a lot of money with. I’m just not able. I don’t want to spend time with those nerds, and not especially with old nerds. Maybe I woulda liked it had I gone when we were supposed to go. But that time is over. You’re just making a plain ole fool of yourself, and you know it. Nobody thinks you will get much further than you have with a college degree. I’m trying to better myself in the way I know how. So just shut up trying to make me feel bad about it. Here I was trying to help you. Shit.” She finished and crumbled the money back in her hand.
“Mercy, this is scaring me some. You live here with me, which would make me an accomplice if I know you are doing something illegal. Tell me where you got that money.” I looked fiercely at Mercy, glancing down at the floor where several one hundreds had dropped. Mercy looked down, and quickly dropped to pick them up.
“It ain’t none of your business. It ain’t nobody’s business how I make money. You just shut up and forget I told you any of this. Just shut up.” Suddenly, Mercy was the one crying. “I ain’t ashamed or sad about this. God, what you do to me. Maybe we can’t live together no more. Maybe your college degree has set us too far apart, and you can’t see the rest of us. We are all stuck, Janie. All of us. We were born stuck. Can’t you see that? Nothing that you do can really change that. You are stuck just like I am, and you are who you are. Your birth determined that. Don’t think you are that much better than me. You ain’t.” Mercy stomped toward the back door and I quickly grabbed her arm.
“Mercy, you can’t do this to me. I refuse to be stuck. I won’t be stuck, especially not in jail because I have an idiot friend who has either decided to sell drugs, or worse, to get all that crap that you consider so important to being you. I’m not going down with you, Merc. Trust me on this one.” Mercy jerked her arm away from my grasp, and rushed toward the door. Running down the stairs, she yelled over her shoulder, “You are an uppity bitch, Janie. I never would have let you move into my grandfather’s house if I had known how you was gonna be. You used to be fun. Now you’re just a pain in the ass!” I stood at the screen door and watched her grab open the door of her Mustang. A relic from high school, but a classic. “You get outta this house before I come back. I ain’t living with you no more.” She revved the engine, and spun tires backing out of the gravel drive.
I stood there awhile. Looking out the back door, at the yard that I had learned to love in the past couple of years. What had just happened? We fought over milk, and now I had no place to live. I just stood there wondering what the hell I had done. There was the chance that Mercy would calm down, and forget what she said. At least, she would ignore it. But there was also the chance that she was now involved with drugs. Or prostitution. That would come as no huge surprise to me. I watched several cars drive by, and suddenly realized she was cold. My phone beeped with a text message. When I glanced at it, I saw it was from Mercy. “I mean it. Done called grandpa. He agrees.” The problems I had this morning were now much deeper and more serious.
I walked out into the yard, grabbing my coat first, and headed toward my mother’s house. No need to drive. I could use the outdoors to clear her head, and I could save a few dollars this way. As I traipsed north on Pendleton, I kept my head down against the wind. There were apartments in which I could move. But they were too expensive. I had only been paying $350 a month, which included water and trash pickup. The cable bill had gone a long time ago. Of course, Mercy was supposed to be paying the same, but she was aware that many months, she begged off to her grandfather, saying she had medical bills and the like. I wondered if he ever checked into her lies, or if he was just another convert enabling her to be what she was. There were also mobile homes for rent, but I had decided long ago that I would never live in one of those again. My Aunt Ruby had lived in one of those for years, and the nights I had to spend there depressed me greatly. I knew that the newer versions were much nicer, but there was something about living in a uniquely southern type home that displeased me greatly. I could remember the cold winters and the leaks around the doors. Ruby would scream and curse the Duke Power for the huge winter electric bills, but she never seemed to realize that she was heating her outdoors almost as much as she was her home. The tiny hallway meant that two people could not pass each other, and I had received more than one pinch from her aunt’s dates. No mobile home for me.
Pulling my collar up to block the wind on my neck, I turned left, and almost bumped into a woman walking a dog.
“Oops, I’m sorry.” I stepped aside as the feathered woman pulled on the leash of the strangest dog I had ever seen. He was a series of grays, with hair that looked human, groomed carefully, and skimming the sidewalk with a 60’s style flip. His head came to my hip, and he turned his nose toward me. I assumed he was looking in my direction, but as I could see no eyes, I wasn’t completely sure.
“It’s quite alright. Winston and I are just taking a little walk. Trying to get some of this beautiful sunlight in our system. Please do excuse us.” The woman’s voice was a lilting British accent. If I had been familiar with British accents, I may have thought the woman’s voice somewhat affected, but I wasn’t so the voice captivated me.
“No, excuse me. Really.” I stepped aside for the large cousin-it dog to make his way past me. The sidewalks in Pickville had long been neglected, with huge cracks and various roots often tripping up walkers. Ivy was also another source of difficulty when it came to attempting to maneuver the old concrete. I stood a moment and noticed that the woman was gazing at my face. I reached up to wipe under her eyes, and discovered lots of black mascara there. I apparently had been crying again, without realizing it.
“May I ask?” The woman stood very still, looking at me.
“It’s…I…life stuff,” I stumbled hearing her own uncultured voice. I sounded so damn southern next to this lilting melodic voice.
“Life stuff. Can be hard. Would you like a cup of tea?”
And so began the most extraordinary relationship I would ever know. I followed rather meekly along behind the huge dog and the tiny woman, as they walked single file to a large southern mansion, sitting next to the Pickville High School. The mansion in which many said lived a crazy woman. A woman with more money than brains. More money than God. More money than me, or even Mercy with her wad stuffed in her jeans. But it wasn’t going to be the money that made a difference in my life. It was the encouragement, the daily education, the books. Ahhh, the books.
Hours later, I was still sitting at Minerva’s dining room table. We had made it through a pot of hot tea, chocolate scones, which I had never heard of, and troubles of our lives. Besides Winston, there was a sleek Siamese cat and a cockatiel who kept asking Janie who she was.
“You have chosen a hard road, Janie,” Minerva commented softly, as she poured more tea. I waved my hand to indicate she had enough, and continued stroking Winston, who lay over the chair next to me. Occasionally, one eye would peer out of the hair-covered face, and he would gaze at me Cyclops-like with a compassionate expression. “You are choosing to separate yourself from your past.”
“I don’t see why they think that. Why can’t I still be part of them but with the changes I want to make? My education, my need for more in life? Not more stuff, but…just more. Why can’t they accept that? Accept me? I accept them,” I finished furiously. Minerva sipped her tea, and watched my hands. Glancing up toward my face, she offered a small smile.
“Let me tell you a little about my life, Janie. Perhaps that will help you to understand. You are still so young. So non-worldly. I mean that as a compliment. Believe me.”
And so the relationship between Janie and Minerva began. An hour later, I sat pondering the things Minerva had shared. Hesitantly, I looked up and around.
“Do you think, Minerva, that I could stay here awhile? I don’t have much money, but I can pay you something. I can give you what I pay Mercy. I’m not looking for charity. I just need a place. Just a short while. Until…Until…”, I faltered at that and wondered how long I would need a place. Where was there a livable apartment that would only cost three hundred bucks a month? Not counting power, water, groceries, gas. Shee-at . Life never stopped hitting you back.
Minerva smiled gently. “Janie, you can stay as long as you’d like. You are welcome here. But you will want another path. Rest here. And you will figure it out.” She rose, took the teapot and the plate with her, disappearing into another room. I looked around. Another tear rolled down my cheek. God, I hadn’t cried this much since Lily died. What the hell? The day had been hard, and I still wasn’t sure I could move in here. What would my mama say? Damn, what other choice did I have?
Funerals in small southern towns can take on a momentum of their own. Before we had returned to Mama Blanche’s house, there was a line of cars parked around the block. I stumbled out of the car, moving slowly around to her mother’s door, and opened it. Mama looked up at me blankly. Tears were oozing down her face. I knelt down by the car door, and put my head against the running board. Sobs exploded from my chest and I felt a soft hand patting my head. After a few moments, more hands reached around me, lifting me up and turning all of us toward the house. Somehow I managed to climb the stairs with unseen arms holding me gently. Once inside, I lay down on the couch and passed into blessed unconsciousness.
Hours later, I awoke to the dusk. My mama was sitting at the table in front of massive amounts of food, nibbling at a chicken leg. Four of mama’s church ladies were bustling around the house, cleaning and moving, fretting over mama, pouring her more tea.
Nancy Baxter saw my eyes open, and rushed over to me.
“Janie, chile, you need to eat. What do you want? Some potatoes? Slaw? The chicken is Bessie Dellinger’s best recipe. Want some of that? Or would you rather have some cherry pie? I made it and it’s pretty good. What can I get you, Janie?” Nancy stood in front of me clasping her hands and fretting over the choice of food. I blinked. Looked away, and then back at the table. I felt her stomach curl with the thought of anything to eat, and shook my head.
“I need to call my boss.”
“Oh, law, honey, we done called him. Can’t say he’s very nice or nuthin, but we talked to him. Mercy called him and told him you would be back when you could get back. She was downright hard on him, but I think the man deserved it. You don’t have to worry about that right now, honey. You just eat. And rest. Your mama’s going to need you for awhile.” Nancy’s smile was more of a frown and her eyebrows turned up in the middle. She reached over and patted me on the head, just like the good little girl she thought she was talking to. I shook my head again, and lay down on the couch, falling into the feeling of numb relief called sleep.
I was stuck in a canoe, lying face down, with the sound of water slapped the outside. Wind was coming, and the canoe began to rock. First slowly, and then with more firmness. I jumped. The canoe was going to turn over, and I couldn’t get my eyes open. Finally, I jumped hard enough, and felt myself swimming up out of the dream. Close to my face, I saw mama peering hard at me.
“Wake up, Janie. You’re scarin’ me.” Mama was shaking my arms, pulling me out of the blackness I had sunk gratefully into.
“What?!” I barked. “Stop shaking me.”
“You gotta get up, Janie. You can’t sleep this away. I need your help. Lily needs your help.” It all came rushing back, and the thought of dealing with mama through Lily’s funeral grabbed at me, wrapping me tightly in the futileness of the next three days.
Lily’s funeral was a production. In the countryside, they generally are. I always thought that if a body could get one-tenth the attention during their lives that they get during their funeral, we would all be much healthier mentally. But this is the way we do it in South Carolina, probably the entire south. We forget anything bad or unseemly that a person has done. Once you are dead and in the casket, nobody can remember anything that you ever did wrong. Lily certainly had made some very poor choices in her life. But for this funeral, we would honor St. Lily, and all that she had endured in her life. Even in the First Baptist Church, even though two of Lily’s kids were born out of wedlock, even though she was once convicted of shop lifting, and could drink like a fish, and had turned her own 12 year old daughter out of her house for flirting with her boyfriend, Lily would become Lily the grand for these next three days.
And, oh, how mama could moan. I would listen to her moaning and groaning for the next three days, as well as anytime a visitor stopped by to express their sympathy at the loss of mama’s younger sister. Interestingly, Lily’s children, all four of them, didn’t get too much sympathy. Somehow in the train wreck that had been Lily’s life, she came out smelling like the rose among the, shall I say, manure. It had always been my feeling that the parents took some of the credit or responsibility or even the blame for how kids turned out. Yeah, sure, I know some bad ones who came from good families, and good ones who managed to crawl out of lousy families. But when you have an alcoholic mother who willingly chose not to marry the father of her first two children, and apparently knew enough about what caused pregnancy to do it a second time, and then offer very little in the manner of raising them, why then I think that the blame should be squarely placed. Lily was 17 when her first girl was born and 21 when the second one came along. The daddy, an alcoholic himself, had wanted to be involved in their lives. At one time, he threatened to take Lily to court so he could get custody, but then the poor broken man was killed in a head-on collision while leaving Chief’s one night. Lily didn’t skip a beat, didn’t take the girls to his funeral, and battled the family to get some money from his pitiful estate, which ended up being an old truck and a decent set of tools. Also, he had a gun collection that his mama had wanted to keep in his memory, but Lily managed to hire a badass lawyer who pried the gun collection from his grief-stricken mother. I think Lily got about $500 bucks from it. I think she also got laid by the attorney.
But there she was, squeezed into a large-size coffin, looking angelic and dead, with a lacy blouse that mama thought had to be her outfit in heaven. Cousins came whom I had never met. The preacher of the First Baptist Church brought the women of the First Baptist Church to provide food. It was a feast. Lily must have really hated missing that. I glanced at her several times to see if she could drool in death. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, butter beans, country fried steak with gravy, creamed corn, biscuits, chocolate cake, cherry pie, marshmallow slaw, green beans, and fried chicken, baked beans with plenty of molasses, tenderloin, pork chops, and baked ham. The food was endless. Mama had to check each dish and pronounce her approval or cock her right eyebrow and comment that this coulda used more salt and that coulda cooked a little longer, or Lily would certainly have loved to eat this whole casserole. Just sitting with her while she moaned and groaned and reigned supreme was almost more than I could bear. In between her queenly comments, she would stroke Margareet’s hair, and ask her to stand and sing a song for her loving Aunt Lily.
Eventually, I realized she was for the most part ignoring me. That would have been just fine, but I couldn’t quite get an understanding as to why unless it was because I was there when she found out. Or maybe because I realized it before she did. Mama prided herself on her ESP abilities, and if the story got around that I knew before she did, well, we might be in for a minor history revision.
In the south, it is common for someone to stay up with the body at the home for three nights before the burial. Usually in most families, there are a number of people willing to do this. Aunt Lily’s children were not even showing up until the funeral, so they were out as possibilities. I wasn’t terribly surprised. Except for the fact that they were even coming. That was a surprise. But Lily, in the last decade of her life, and become more and more removed from Pickland society. And I use the word quite broadly. She didn’t attend the First Baptist Church like mama did, although that was to my mama’s chagrin. She bowled on occasion, but once she had gotten terribly fat, that was too hard on her knees. She mostly spent time alone, or with her beau of the week, or with my mama. Suffice it to say that the people showing up were doing so for the love of mama. Or perhaps more for the obligation. My mama was good at showing up at everyone’s place with a pot of beans or some fried chicken in the times of troubles. That makes her sound like a real good person. Mostly she liked to be where she could get the direct gossip of the people in trouble. Feed their problems, in a manner of speaking.
The outpouring of people and food was a testament to what she had done for others, bad reasons or not. My Aunt Lily must be very surprised at all this. The crowd turnout was good. That was important in Pickland.
I woke up to the alarm ringing irritatingly in my head. Glancing at the clock, I could see that I was already late. Damn alarm. I didn’t hear it anymore, like the noise was just part of the background of my life. I resolved once again to buy a new clock, rose wearily from the bed, and looked around. I wasn’t a grumpy morning person, just an incoherent one. Even my eyesight was foggy in the morning. I was too young or so I thought to be experiencing myopia (a word my mama threw around regularly – she had been told that at an eye checkup five years ago, and we were still forced to hear regularly about her dreaded disease, myopia).
I headed toward our only bathroom, to hear Mercy humming while she soaked. She was never up this early in the morning. Waitressing required late nights, and this was too out of character for me to even speak at first. I stood there contemplating what this would mean for my day if she was already in the bathroom.
“Merc,” I knocked loudly. No response. I leaned in to the door to listen directly with my ear. I realized that the humming was not feminine, and indeed was not Mercy.
“Hey,” I knocked a little more loudly. The water stopped running, and I heard a cough.
“Yeah,” the response from behind the door was distinctly male.
“Who the hell is in there?” I got a little louder and stepped back from the door. For some reason, I felt naked, even though I was in boxer shorts and a t-shirt. I took another step back and glanced to my left toward Mercy’s room. I could see a leg thrown over the bedspread, which meant that someone – probably her – was still in the room. I walked rapidly inside it, and saw her blonde hair sprawled all over her face and hanging off of the bed. One boob peered out over the top of the bedspread. I stepped to the side, jerked the spread up to cover her more appropriately, and yelled in her face.
“Mercy!” Her eyes popped open and she responded with a small yell.
“What the hell…Janie, what are you doing?” She demanded, and sat up, revealing even more than I had been protecting.
“Yeah, Merc, what the hell? Who is in the bathroom?” I was getting madder. Some strange man was in our bathroom.
“This is not what we agreed on,” I pointed my finger at her and shook it. She began to giggle a little, and pulled the covers up. Not like we hadn’t seen each other naked our whole lives, but I was totally confused as to who was in the bathroom. I couldn’t have cared less about her naked body. We weren’t supposed to bring home strange males without the approval of each other. That had been the rule from the beginning. Mercy had a hell of a reputation, and I didn’t want to get stabbed in the middle of the night by some strange drunken customer whom she had taken a fancy to.
“I met someone, Janie,” she smiled at me with her best forgive-me-and-let-me-get-away-with-anything look. I had seen it too many times.
“No. No. No. This is not what we agreed on. Fuck. Look at the time! I’ve got thirty-two minutes to get to work, and some asshole is in our bathroom. I could kick you out for this.” I was turning red I was so angry.
“You aren’t listening to me, Janie. I met someone. Really special. Really. I think this is the one.” Mercy could not conceive of anything in the world not being about her. She was the single most selfish person I had ever known. Yet, I loved her and wanted her as my housemate. At least, I had at one time. The housemate part.
“Mercy, I don’t care right now. You don’t have to go to work at 8:00 AM or be fired. Get whoever that special man is the fuck out of the bathroom so I can get dressed!” I was screaming at this point, and happened to glance over to the door.
Americo stood there in all his Latin glory. Literally. I gaped, and he looked down, realizing that his interest in the scene before him meant that he had forgotten his towel.
“Jesus!” I whipped around before I could allow myself to stare. “Mercy!”
“Americo!” Mercy was as shocked as I was basically because she never trusted any of her men around me, especially naked ones. I waited a moment before I turned back to Mercy.
“Now I have 24 minutes. Shit. Get him outta here!” I turned and stomped to my room cursing loudly the whole way. In about 30 seconds, I heard Mercy’s bedroom door slam, and I sprinted into the bathroom, to jump in the shower, wash my hair, shave my legs, and jump out.
Twenty-eight minutes later, I arrived at Burns Screen Print Shop. I saw my fearless boss, Bert, standing in the doorway with his wrist held up.
“Late, Bulick. Late again.” I pushed past him, mumbling.
“Gonna fire me? Send me home?” I kept going without looking up, heading to my desk and the day’s production schedule.
“I got a business to maintain here, Bulick. Get your shit together.” He turned and walked out the front door, running down other proletariats who were in his kingdom. I had worked for the man two years, and I learned at the end of the first that the best way to handle his contrariness and abuse was to give it back to him. Part of the reason I returned to school was because of the depressing way he treated his employees, me being the one with seniority. Only two years. Shit. I was convinced that whatever I did in life, it had to beat working for the biggest asshole in town. Yet, I was glad to have a job. I knew that if I looked hard enough, I could find another. But employers of good employees understand that looking for a job isn’t a great deal of fun. And changing jobs generally isn’t either, unless you are at a higher level of employment. I supposed that going from one law firm to another wasn’t such a big deal, but when you made less than 50 grand, in this case 27K, there wasn’t much difference from one lousy job to another. I was intent on changing that.
Mindy, our newest receptionist approached my desk, smacking her gum.
“Janie, can I take fifteen extra minutes for lunch today? I have a nail appointment but my nail tech couldn’t get me in until 12:15. Sometimes she takes longer,” she stopped and glanced at her two inch nails. Mindy was apparently still under the illusion that I really was the office manager and could grant her reprieve for extra minutes off. She had no idea who the boss really was. He had met her at the local Irish Pub, and of course, was now trying to get into her pants. This was a standard with Bert. He loved to hire his newest girlfriend, until he tired of her or she didn’t grant him the boss status he believed he deserved. Or until he had his way with her, which confused me, because it seemed he only hired young women with whom he had already slept. His wife, who worked as our accountant, didn’t seem to mind or to notice. As long as the newest hires worked hard, told her she was exceptionally beautiful, and didn’t file their nails at work, she was happy with the situation. It was a very strange situation, and the marital fights, which didn’t seem to revolve around any newest girlfriend, could be horrendous. I tried to do my job, and stay out of the drama.
“Mindy, I don’t have the authority to give you extra time. You have to ask Bert or Sandy,” I peered back down at my work schedule. She didn’t move. I sighed. Not a good way to start the day.
“Ummm, I thought you were the Office Manager.” She stood there staring at me.
“Ask Bert.” I wasn’t willing to get into this battle this early, but she wasn’t budging. “Mindy, how long have you worked here now?” I couldn’t keep up with the swinging door of employees who came and went. I was good at what I did, and didn’t want the bother of the newest lay.
“Six weeks. I think.”
“You haven’t been here long enough to ask for extra time off for lunch. Besides, who will answer the phone?” I still refused to look up.
“You could do it for me.” She was whining now. Her finger nails must be in terrible condition.
“No.” I took my schedule and walked out into production. What a fucking morning.
“Janie.” The loudspeaker here at Burns left a lot to be desired. Talk about Charlie Brown’s teacher voice. Sounded more like “meanie”. In fact, it might have been.
“Janie, you have a call on line 1.” Cute. We only had one line. That was a tired old joke, but tired old jokes don’t go away. They are the number one recycled item in the world.
I walked to the wall, punched “line 1″, and answered.
“This is Janie. How can I help you.” More a statement than a question. How indeed. Leave me the fuck alone so I can get my work done.
“This is your ma. I need you to come here right now.” The usual drama that tried to invade my life on a daily basis. With ma, it could be a moment-by-moment basis. Except I had declared a “drama-free” zone with her. No rescuing, not offering advice. Too bad she hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet.
“Ma, I’m working. You know that. Some of us have to keep a job,” I glanced in the direction of the front office, knowing that Bert the Bad would show up and scream at me if he heard I was taking a personal call. Shit.
“Your aunt’s suffering a stroke.”
“Ma, this isn’t funny. I gotta go,” I turned to hang up.
“Janie, she’s blue. Been blue for 30 minutes.” Mama’s voice was shaking with fear, which wasn’t anything I ever heard regularly. I understood instantly that she was serious.
“I’ll be there in five.” I hung up, ran to the front, and grabbed my coat. I yelled at Mindy that I was outta there, and almost ran headlong into Bert.
“What are you doing?” he asked as I sidestepped him.
“My aunt Lily is having a stroke. Call an ambulance, Mindy! 112 Mt Forest Circle. Do it NOW!” I ran toward my beat up green Honda with only 178,000 miles on it.
“Janie, we have a lot to do today!” Bert was running behind me. “What the hell?” I flung the door of my car open, and looked up at Bert on the other side.
“Bert, this is my aunt. My family. I know that doesn’t mean anything to you. But I’m going to take care of her. There isn’t anybody else to do it. Fire me if you have to, but I’m going to the hospital.” I angrily slammed into the car, missed the ignition three times, and finally got the engine blaring. He stepped away from the car, and I could see his mouth was still angrily moving, the words lost in the noise of the engine. I shook my head, shot him the bird, and careened out of the parking lot. When I glanced in the mirror, I could see that he was gesturing wildly. I shook my head, and kept going, wondering for a split second what I would do about paying my bills. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. I was tired of my life revolving around how many ink colors could go on a t-shirt, but I knew that even having a job right now was a big issue. How could I possibly dump this one when so few in my family had a paycheck of any kind? I shook my head again, and pressed a little more firmly on the gas pedal.
When I got to the hospital, small by most standards, I could hear mama wailing in the distance. The ER, so I sprinted there. She was standing in the lobby with her arms around a handsome nurse, crying like all get out. I patted her, and tried to pull her off of the poor guy. Trust mama to use any situation to touch a man.
“Mama, what the hell is going on?” I pulled her hard. She was hanging on like she was drowning in Lake Hartwell. “Mama, let this young man go, and talk to me.” I spoke more firmly this time, and pulled her arms off of the hard-bodied nurse. At least she could pick ‘em.
Mama was snuffling and rubbing her eyes, and I found myself surprised that she seemed genuinely upset. “She turned blue, Janie. Right before my eyes. Just as blue as your shirt. And keeled over. Just keeled over. I smacked her hard, but that didn’t seem to do nothin’, and she lay on the floor. I thought she was playin’ with me but…lawd, lawd, lawd,” she wailed again.
“Mama! What is it? Did the doctor tell you what is wrong?” I knew that the wailing drama would have to run its course before I could get anything out of her. I turned to the well muscled young man in the scrubs.
“Do you know?”
“I just walked in the door to come to work.” He shrugged like the idiot he obviously was. The muscles stopped at his neckline.
“Do you think you could find out?” The tension in my voice was rising, and I knew I would shortly be cussing this idiot out, which I also knew was not the best way to get people on your side in a hospital situation. What was it Groucho said about idiots being idiots?
“Sure, sure.” He rushed off in the direction of the ER rooms, disappearing behind a curtain.
“What was she doin’, Mama?” I pulled her in the direction of the chairs alongside the window, and managed to get her to sit.
“I think she was eating peanuts. Just sitting there, shelling them, and popping them in her mouth. We was talking about our plans for the day, and I asked her somethin’. She didn’t answer, and when I finally turned around, I saw that she was blue. She was blue, Janie! She was blue!”
“I get that part, mama.” This was the point at which I knew that I wouldn’t get any further with her, so I sat back with my arm around her, waiting for someone to come talk to us. We waited two hours.
Finally, a nurse came out looking for us. By that time, there was the usual assortment of kids with runny noses, old people with patches on various parts of their bodies, and someone trying to hack up a lung. Even though our hospital was small, the general customer base was similar to what I had seen at larger ER’s. At least in the morning, you didn’t have to run into too many gunshot victims. Or suicides. People didn’t tend to want to kill others or themselves early in the day.
The nurse walked over towards us. “You the Bulicks?” I nodded. “Please come this way.” We looked at each other, and stood to follow the nurse. Mama began to snuffle again, and I squeezed her. Somehow I didn’t mind being the caretaker in this situation. I knew I had only so many hours before Mama would be her irritable conniving self.
Trailing behind miss pink outfit nurse, we traipsed through the waiting sick people. No one looked in our direction. Everyone had their own misery to contend with. That seems to be the way of life mostly. Just focus on your own ills, and don’t take any notice of what others are feeling.
I had a moment of clarity in which I could see what was going to happen next. This had happened to me before, actually since I was about six. If someone I knew was about to die, I could see a foggy cloud around my vision. I shook my head, this being a “gift” I had never wanted, but that didn’t seem to be the way of gifts. They didn’t do what you “wanted”. They just stuck around and forced your attention on them, whether or not you desired to have them. This time, the vision sent chills up and down my spine, and I stopped right where I was. Mama bumped into me, and then bumped into me again.
“Janie?” At least she knew who I was. I stood stock still, cause I knew where this was going and I didn’t want to say. Perhaps it was because I was in a hospital and there were death all around me. I knew that wasn’t it, but I kept hoping.
Miss Pink Scrubs turned to look at me, and then a helpless feeling flew across her face. Instantly, I could tell this was not part of the job for which she had signed up, and telling people bad news was not among the daily chores she wanted. I looked at her and shook my head slightly. She motioned for us to come, but I couldn’t manage to do it. I began to back up. The last time I had seen a dead body was when a young black boy had been hit by a car in front of our house while riding his bike at dusk. It had taken years for that body to leave my dreams, and I wasn’t about to let Aunt Lily replace his ghost.
Miss Pink Scrubs called out for Dr. Hope to come out of the room. I thought how odd it was that his name was hope, and here I stood with none. I began to laugh uncontrollably, until Mama actually slapped my face. I felt myself coming back into focus and the hysteria began to calm down. I blinked and looked at her, wondering just where I had gone, and then remembered the vision and reached to hold her. Tears sprouted from my eyes, and she looked at me wonderingly. My thoughts finally dawned on her, and she began to shake her head no vehemently.
“No, Janie, no…” she pushed away from me to keep my truth from becoming hers. “No, you’re wrong. Ain’t she wrong, doc? Ain’t she wrong? This is just Janie’s drama, just her over-reaction. She cain’t see nothin’. Right, Doc?” The doctor looked down at the floor, and then back at me. He was not the one to tell my mama that her only sister was dead, died choking on peanuts. He had no ability to understand the careful balance that existed between my mama and her sister, and that life had always meant that they stood on the opposite side of that see-saw, keeping each other in sight and protecting one another from the realities of a world that did not care if they stayed balanced. My mama was falling off of that see-saw right now, and there was no one but me to step on the other side. I just couldn’t do it. To maintain that balance with her was to buy into her ideology of the world, to decide that I couldn’t do better, be more, grow further than her. Lily and Mama had a careful agreement that neither would be more successful than the other. Even Lily’s sheer size had been a testament to Mama’s thinness – her one rebellion against her older sister’s choices. I knew in that instant that mama was on her own. And I knew what that meant. Life had been difficult enough with Lily for her to lean on. Now what was she gonna do?
Mama sat down on the floor right there in the hallway. She just plopped. I reached to grab her arm, and only managed to turn her over sideways as she hit the floor.
“Mama!” I yelled as she tipped over. Her eyes had rolled back up into her head and her skin had turned an ashen grey. Dr. Hope yelled for help, and knelt on the other side of her. Pushing her back onto her back, he grabbed for her pulse, and reached around his neck for his stethoscope. Shaking his head at me, he said, “She’s fainted. Let’s get her comfortable. She’s gonna have a heck of a bruise on her backside.” By that time, a nurse had shown up with a gurney, and another male nurse appeared. I stood to get out of their way, and they lifted her up onto the rolling bed, fluffing the pillow underneath her head.
“I’m so sorry, Janie. I handled that very badly,” Dr. Hope was shaking his head. “Your aunt…well she…well…” he trailed off like he didn’t understand what exactly had happened to her.
“I knew she had died, Doctor. I knew it as soon as we turned into the hallway. Felt it clearly. What happened?”
He stood a moment, hands in his pocket, greasy black hair that suggested he had been working long hours, and reached up to rub against the grey stubble on his chin. “She choked to death, Janie.” I stood stone still a moment. Glancing over at my mama, who appeared to be still out on the gurney, I walked away from her, taking him by the arm and pulling him out of her earshot. She may be out and she may not be.
“She choked to death?” I whispered ferociously. I had spent a few years trying to get my mama and my aunt Lily to take CPR classes. Where I think they cover the Heimlich maneuver. I stared hard at the doctor.
“Yeah. That’s what caused it. She apparently had swallowed several peanuts at once, and I think her esophagus spasmed. There were three peanuts in her throat.” I tried to grasp this thought, wrap it around my mind that it had been possible that mama could have saved her if she had known how. I was afraid to ask. I looked at him, and saw the misery in his eyes.
“Janie, everybody in this town knows how close your mama and your aunt were. I never saw one without the other. I know what you’re thinking. You can’t ever tell her that. I didn’t want to tell you. But I’m bound by law. What you tell your mama is up to you. I won’t say anything.” His mouth twitched all over his face and I realized just what a chance he was taking. He was effectively giving me permission to wrap a lie around Lily’s demise, and to save my mama great suffering by doing so. But that meant the burden would be on me. To carry this secret for the rest of my life. Fuck.
“I’ll have to think on this some, Doc. You know my mama. She’ll want to read the death certificate eventually.”
“That can get filed in a place that makes it hard to find.” I studied his face. Wondered how many times this happened on a daily basis. Did any of us really know how our family members had died? “I need to know, well, rather soon. Your mama’s gonna wake up and one of us will have to be there. She’ll think this was all a nightmare and none of it really happened. I know you and your mama are not the best of pals, but she’s gonna need someone to help her for a little while.” I laughed a little at that. His face showed disapproval, but I only shook my head. He didn’t know mama as well as he thought he did.
“I’ll take care of it, doc. She had a heart attack, right? Lily was 80, 100 pounds overweight. She smoked. She continued to eat more than anyone should be able to. A heart attack would be likely with her health. She had a massive coronary that took her onto her beloved lord. I’ll take care of it, doc.”
I turned to walk back toward my mama, and noticed that she was moving a bit. Glancing back toward Dr. Hope, he offered me a pitiful smile. He really was a kind doctor, and wanted the best for his patients. But lying to someone because of their own guilt was not a good practice. Still I agreed to do it. I didn’t know why at the time, and it would come to bite me hard later, but it is interesting how easy it is to make a small decision in the stress of the moment without having any clear vision of what the issues will involve years down the road. Eventually, I would be blamed for the death of Lily, and nothing I could do or say at that point could change the protective lie I was so willing to take charge of to protect my mother. The one who had never protected me because God knows pain and fear and hurt and failure are the four prongs of maturity. At least, that was what my mama believed, based on how she raised me. Maybe I thought I was just a little better than her. And maybe I was wrong.
Class had been scary at first. I was old. I knew I was old, but when I walked into the first math class I took at Tri County Tech, I found to my surprise that I was among the youngest in the crowd. The recession had knocked many people out of jobs, and the need to improve skills was ageless. There was a 73-year-old man there learning algebra. I should not use the word “learning.” He did his best. I was stunned at the people who were trying to improve themselves. Not like my Grandpa Sorrels. He wasn’t about to start getting educated after he had built his pride on working in the mills all his life. By god, the government owed him that social security check, and there warn’t nobody gonna tell him different. He had learnt everything he ever needed right there at the First Baptist Church of Liberty, and that was that. I shook my head to get my grandpa out of it. It always amazed me how quickly my family could climb into my thoughts and just take over from there.
I was in the beginning of my 6th semester. I suppose if I had been able to do it the way Margareet was doing it that would be the beginning of my junior year. Provided two semesters is one year. I worked hard not to think of that too much. That didn’t make it so, though. Margareet was going to Clemson with her way paid. She had academic scholarships and grants, and money from The First Baptist Church. She was doing it the right way, and I was doing it my way. Don’t look backwards, Janie. The only way you are headed is straight in front of you. I could hear my Grandma Beam saying that to me. My daddy’s parents had always been a part of my life, even if he had taken the low road out of our lives. She was a feisty eighty-something grandma with a survivor’s spirit that didn’t exist in my mama’s family. . The worst words I would get from my mama was saying I was just like Granny Beam. Secretly, they were the best compliment I could get from my mama. That was just my mama’s words. Somehow, she felt that Granny Beam had been responsible for her lousy husband’s disappearance. Perhaps she was right. My mama is not easy to live with.
For me, the sixth semester meant that I was only on my sophomore year. Maybe. I was sometimes afraid to count the credits, because for my first four, I didn’t take it seriously, and I tried to take classes I might like just so I would stay in school.
When I first started, I didn’t tell anybody. That would have been too much of a commitment. I took Art Appreciation in the first semester, World Religion in the second. I then thought that I would probably head in the accounting direction, because being in the business world made sense to me. That was where I could make the big bucks, but I forgot that I hate and refuse to balance my own checkbook. Credits and debits were the most damned confusing ideas I had ever heard, and after struggling through the next four classes of that crap, I decided it wasn’t for me.
Of course when that happened, that meant I had lost two years. My advisor didn’t tell me that, but I could see it in her face. Then again, her face rarely changed, and perhaps what I was reading was her disappointment in her own life. Mrs. Childress had been an English teacher for sixteen years, had two children in college themselves, and her passion, if she ever had any, was long gone. For her life, her children, and her husband. Her office was a fake cheery bright blue, a color that could seep into your bones and your mind while you waited for her to finish emails and get off the phone. It was almost blinding. I was tempted to wear sunglasses, but figured she would think I was some kind of weirdo if I did. Her clothes said she was a fan of the ninety’s and her hairdo seconded it. When I had appointments with her, she would look up at me with a kind of surprise and despair as I knocked on her door. She would then push aside the papers she was painting in red ink, and ask me to sit down. Each semester, and sometimes twice, she would ask me my name. The fact that she couldn’t remember one student’s name was not an ego flattener for me. I didn’t believe I was anything special to her. It was just that her first name was also Janie, and so was her big-haired daughter who stared out from her junior class picture in an orange frame. Looks to me like that might stick, but I guess it was too much to expect.
After those two years of part-time classes, I realized that what I really wanted was to go to Clemson. I wanted a BA in arts, and I had no idea what I would do with it. Couldn’t make much money, and since I never intended on marrying again, I did have to keep that in front of me. But I made the decision one night while slurping and boo-hooing over the Clemson catalog. I would do this. I had no idea how, or why, or when, but I decided that shit simply didn’t matter. I would do what I had to if it meant prostituting my body. That’s what my mama said when she was determined that I would go to dance classes or learn to play the piano. I want this for my girl if’n I have to prostitute my body. I can’t dern near give it away, but by god, I’ll get the money. There it was. I opened a crack in my brain, and now my mama climbed in. Time to go to class.
I pulled into the campus parking lot, and cruised for several minutes, looking for the best parking spot. Hell, looking for any parking spot. I finally spotted smoke from an old pickup truck, and slowed to see if he was pulling out. He was, and as he backed, I watched him staring at his phone and heard the crunch when he touched the fender of the car across from his rear end. He jerked to a stop, threw it in first, and lurched in my direction. As he passed me, he grinned, and put his finger to his lips. Who was I gonna tell?
I pulled in the spot, grabbed my books, turned off the engine, and stepped out. This was a world that I had come to wallow in with great gusto. I loved it here. The comforting feeling of school as it surrounded me continued to surprise me, but now it was finally a familiar home for me, and I headed toward the side door of Building 1.
As I entered the classroom, I saw that Dr. Standridge was already there. He was my idol. A professor in his early 60′s, he had a head full of silver hair, and a sparkle for the English language that made me want to giggle. Me. I had taken his comments and corrections as meaning I was meant to be a writer in the biggest way, and I did everything I could in his class to win his approval. He smiled without looking up, an expression which I knew he gave to every student. Still, it threw me slightly off-center to feel the warmth of his look, and I smiled widely back.
The room was filled with mostly non-traditionals – meaning old – and they each had their books piled on their tables. We had only two traditional students and they were absent as often as they were here. I particularly enjoyed reading each other’s writing, and learning about the lives, which these people had lived, while now trying to improve their lot and get ahead in their world. I wasn’t quite sure how struggling through an algebra class would move them forward, but I felt great respect for their desire to find a path that would work. I was doing exactly the same thing.
The person closest to my age was Wanda, a flamboyant black woman who was trying to escape the waitressing route. So far she had made it from Waffle House to Applebee’s, but even that was a huge step up for her. She had to learn to write before she could do that. In the stories that Wanda wrote for this class, she talked about being at the Waffle House at the age of 16, and not being able to write the orders. Didn’t hurt her real badly because she got to yell out the orders to the cook, and she went home every night and copied exactly what the menu said – over and over and over. When the customers told her what they wanted, she would have them point to the picture, and then write exactly what she remembered. She didn’t know what it meant at first. The letters were just pictures to her. But gradually, “smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, and country” became her formative writing words. Hell, any word’s a good word to learn to write with. She won an award once for her perfect penmanship in writing those orders. If they had compared her writings then to her orders three years earlier, they might not have been so impressed. The human spirit continues to amaze me. Her ability to get that Waffle House job is something which I cannot get my mind around. She went in there, with a hungry houseful of brothers and sisters waiting to hear about her interview, and convinced the manager that she was the perfect Waffle House waitress. She wasn’t old enough, she couldn’t write, had to find a way to work every single day of the four and one half years she worked there, and nobody ever knew any better. She kept her own secrets, did the job, didn’t hassle the other women who were white and highly jealous of her ebony beauty, made enough tips to pay for food for her two sisters and three younger brothers, and kept her nose to the grindstone until she could move up in the world. To Applebee’s.
I don’t know about this American Dream thing. In our classes, we talk a lot about our lives too. That’s because we are in class for three hours and just doing class room stuff can get frightfully boring mostly for the teacher. This is my third class with Wanda. I am astonished at her willingness to work. She might leave Applebee’s and get here within 20 minutes, uniform and all, smelling of the kitchen, sometimes spilled booze, and looking like a queen. How can you always look like a queen in the midst of her life? I have never heard her utter one complaint about her life but I’ve heard her complain plenty about men and politics.
“That damn low-life August. I swear. My mama lets him back in our house, and he eats everything that I bought.” August was her stepfather, father of at least three of Wanda’s siblings. He had come and gone in the past dozen or so years and Wanda’s crack addicted mama just let him in. “When I’m done with this degree, I’m moving fur away. If I have to take Waterloo with me, then I’ll just do it.” Waterloo was Wanda’s youngest sister, a frail thin girl of 12. She was the only child in the family who wasn’t healthy. Most of the rest of them could stand to lose a few inches, but Waterloo was Wanda’s special project. Wanda was convinced that with her influence, she could help your youngest sister to a life of success in whatever Waterloo wanted to do. I was afraid that she was really trying to recreate her own life, and handing Waterloo the kind of loving attention she wished she had got. That’s not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. But Waterloo ain’t Wanda.
Wanda was a different sort, not one given to taking a handout of any kind. Better than any that I had seen come outta West Greenville, whites, blacks, or Latinos. I admired her intensely, and she scared me to death. White women in the south are taught to fear strong black women, even if most of our ancestors were raised by strong black women. I was attempting to challenge that fear by getting to know Wanda, but I surely wasn’t there yet. Still, having her in class was a trip and she always offered a viewpoint that no one else could see. Her vision took her above, and sometimes below, the Blue Ridge Mountains that appeared outside our windows. She was an eagle, who had transformed herself from the world of groundhogs, and it was something to see her learn to use her wings.
“Who wants to read first?” Dr. Standridge rarely took roll. You want an education, you show up. He’ll help you once you get in the door. But he suffers no fools, as he likes to say. He also doesn’t suffer bad grammar, too many commas, incomplete sentences, and missed deadlines. I found that out during my first class of the semester. He looked around at the classroom. “This wasn’t a difficult assignment. Pick someone in your life, turn them into fiction, and write about them. How many of you think this can be done?” A wry look passed over his face, and I thought he was making fun of us. I glanced at my paper, and thought about the people there. Perhaps I wasn’t the writer I thought I was. Self-doubt is like helium. Once it finds its way into your brain, it begins to fill every opening. Make you light-headed with second thoughts. Seep into your neck, and force the veins there to expand to the point that your face gets red, and you know if you open your mouth, something horrible like “fuck this class” might escape. Even worse. You might say something about the chili stain on the front of your instructor’s shirt. Did he think we couldn’t see him? Then you feel yourself wondering what the hell is going on, why are you doing this to yourself, and can’t you see that this is impossible? I know war is hell. Self-doubt must be in the downline somewhere. I had such envy for people who knew themselves, knew what they were capable of, took the bull by the horns and created life based on those beliefs. Damn, this was worse than my family creeping into my head.
Wanda’s hand shot up. Standridge looked at her a moment. “Okay, Wanda, this oughta be good. Give it to us.” She sat up higher in her seat. “Why don’t you come on up to the front, Wanda. That way everyone can see and hear equally.” All fifteen of us who could hear Wanda’s every move in her seat. He wanted to not only teach us better writing skills, he was after improving our speaking abilities. I sank lower in my seat. I hated being in front where people would analyze my movement and my clothes. But this didn’t slow Wanda down. She stood up, straightened her spine and stomped up to the front. Smiling at him, she took a breath.
“Wait.” Standridge held his hand up. I heard her deep breath escape her mouth, as she visibly deflated. “I would like to remind you that this essay – this very short one and a half page essay is not to be about a real event in your life. You were supposed to take a ‘real person’ and put them in a situation that you would not expect. Not for them. Real person, imagined scene.” He stopped and gazed at Wanda. I could see that there was something lying beneath his meaning, but I couldn’t quite grasp what it was. I felt my respect for Dr. Standridge slip a notch. This appeared to be some kind of game playing with all of us but then maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it wasn’t quite the trap that it appeared he was creating.
“Ok. Got it, sir. Can I read now?” Wanda was getting tickly in her shoes and wanted this over with.
Wanda began. “August was a fine man. The kind of man any woman would want to call her own. He stood tall with intelligence and self confidence. He exuded an aura of love and acceptance.” Wanda had created exactly the man she would want her mama to be with. In the story, he bought Christmas gifts, came home with flowers and candy, and made her mama feel like a queen. Feeling like a queen was what we had all been taught that every woman wants when she grows up. She finished her reading, and nodded to Standridge. Striding to her seat, she turned and eased herself down, the look on her face clearly saying she thought she had done a great job.
Standridge looked around the class. He held his hands out as if inviting comments. No one said a word. We were beginning to learn how this worked, and opening ourselves to criticism by our peers felt strange. “Okay, this is how this works. You listen, and critique. That means you offer positive feedback. You tell Wanda what you liked about her story, and how you thought it could improve. That’s what we will do with each story – peer critique.” He, of course, looked in my direction. “Ms. Bulick, are you willing to go first?” I saw him reach for his grading book and I gulped. I wasn’t supposed to feel this way at thirty-one. I felt my Adam’s apple jump. Do girls have Adam’s apples?
“I admire Wanda’s writing.” I stopped there.
“More,” was all he said.
“Ummm,” I glanced at her. She sat there with her head down, scribbling on her paper.
“Ummm, I know the character in her story, so that makes it a little harder for me to criticize it.”
“Not criticize, critique. And you don’t know the character, Ms. Bulick, because this is a fictional character. Is that right, Ms. Lords?” Wanda nodded.
“Okay. I don’t know how this really works. Ya know, here in the south we have a hard time criticizing people right to their face,” I paused. “Critiquing people, I mean. So I’ll give it a shot. I didn’t take notes, I was just listening to the reading.” I looked down and around as I frantically searched for something I could say that wouldn’t piss Wanda off. “Stories is what life is made of. I think you said that, Dr. Standridge.” He nodded. “And there are only so many kinds of stories. Although everyone’s story is different. I think that Wanda created a man that she would like to know. I don’t think there was any particular ‘event’ in her story. Just a man who reminds me a little of Santa Claus, he is so good. And I guess that says a lot more about Wanda than it really does the story.” I stopped, and stared at the whiteboard in the front of the room. “That’s all.”
“Well, Ms. Bulick, you have certainly hit on a central tenet of writing fiction. In general, it says much more about the writer than it does the story. But we don’t usually get into that kind of ‘writer analysis’. In this class it will be tough enough to learn to improve our writing. So, we’ll go with that, and see how we can make each of you write just a touch better than you could when you walked in this door.” I was off the hook. He was moving forward with his teaching and when I looked at Wanda, she was smiling at me. I wasn’t quite sure what had just happened but I managed to pull it off without offending anyone else. Maybe I wasn’t destined to be just like my mama after all.
Mercy and I snuck into the back of the auditorium. She giggled, and sat quickly on the last aisle. I breathed into my hand, and took a whiff. Tequila had a distinct odor, and I was worried those around me would pick up on it. Mercy stuck me with her elbow, and giggled again. Mrs. Howell turned from three aisles up and frowned. We were in our 30′s, and still being shushed by our former 4th grade teacher. Mercy stuck her tongue out at Howell, giggled more while hiccupping in the process.
“Mercy, stop it!” I whispered loudly. “You’re gonna get us kicked out.”
“So what if I do,” she shrugged. “I don’t care that your sister is graduatin’ high school.”
“Hey. This is important. To me. Stop it.”
“Yeah, so,” was her response. Mercy wasn’t big on education. Not her particular mode of life. Make some money today, and pay for tonight’s party. She believed that tomorrow would take care of itself. So far, she had gotten away with it.
“You can’t be a waitress all of your life, Mercy.” We argued about this regularly. I was trying to move up, and I wanted her to go with me.
“Can too. I make more money than you do. As you know,” Mercy took her purse up from her lap and began scrounging through for lipstick. I just shook my head and nodded fiercely toward the front. We had made it in time to hear the Valedictorian. My sister. The value of graduating and the honor of the senior class was once again a leading reason as subject matter for the speakers, and this included Margareet. I had heard her practicing the speech, and knew she was trying to make it different. Not just another smart kid telling the audience how they were going to change the world. But how many things can be said about another senior class embarking on the next leg of their life, and having no understanding of what that can possibly mean. Change the world. Discover the cure to the common cold. Hell, just try to pay your own bills. That was hard enough. How difficult it had to be to make the speech sound original yet play to the audience. Always remember your audience. I looked around. Maybe she ought to talk about the virtues of fast food instead.
“Hey!” Mercy poked me again with her elbow. “Look over yonder.” She nodded her head in the direction to her left. I frowned at her, and looked in the direction.
“What?” I knew better than to ask her to come to a high school event. She always turned into the head cheerleader she had been in our junior and senior years. My god, if I had to hear one more time about what a great accomplishment it had been for her to be head of the squad in her junior year. Some people never get past high school. Mercy loved to talk about how much she had hated it, but she loved to talk about it.
“There. Look. God, you’re blind,” she pointed in a vague left direction. At that point, I saw who she was looking at. David Stevens turned as I leaned into look. I sat up straight, almost bringing a hitch to my side.
“Shit, Mercy.” I shook my head and frowned deeper. She giggled again.
“You’re still horny for him.” I glared at her.
“I never was. Do you know why we are here?” I trained my eyes toward the stage, attempting to force her into looking in the direction which I was, although all I could truly see was one half of the grey teased bob in front of me. I didn’t let that deter my attempt to control Mercy’s buzzed behavior. Whose idea was it to stop for a few drinks and why had I agreed to it? There was no figuring out the rest of human behavior when I couldn’t even figure out my own.
“Yes, ma’am. I do. Your precious Margareet is getting herself out of high school so she can go to college at Clemson, graduate as a complete prick, and take over the South Carolina governing system. Am I close?” I chose not to respond, continuing my determined gaze at the stage. She shook her head, smiling sadly. “She’s such a geek. And she could be so hot.”
“No one says geek anymore, Merc. People are proud to be geeks now. Hell, you married one.” She hated to be reminded that she had married the high school nerd, even if he had provided her a good living while he endured her insults. Mercy would never get beyond a pretty face, which meant she was likely destined to be a waitress for the rest of her life. Eugene had not been a pretty face. He had been a great brain, and my understanding was that he was burning it up in the new Google facility close to Myrtle Beach. But that hadn’t been Mercy’s scene. She wanted partying, hot muscles, and a man who had to stray. At least that was what she had ended up with. Many times over.
Finally, she pulled out a nail file, and sat there filing while shaping her already perfectly shaped fingernails. Mrs. Howell glared backwards in her direction once more, causing the grey bob in front of me to glance back with a thrust out bottom lip, and then we were finally still, listening for the same words delivered at high school graduations all over the country. Onward and upward. Sometimes just onward was enough.
We had walked this stage eleven years earlier. Mercy and I had been best friends since we were in the 4th grade, and our choices afterwards had been similar. We each married high school boyfriends one year after graduation. Her marriage had lasted about 18 months, mine three and a half years. Although we had lost contact during these brief commitments, we had found each other again shortly after mine had ended. Johnnie, my ex, had never been a fan of Mercy’s, believing her to be a bad influence on me. Go figure.
We now shared a house together, which meant that I was doing a lot of paying and cleaning. I reminded her monthly that I was not Eugene, and not impressed with the firmness of her tits. One half of everything was her responsibility. It was her grandfather’s house, which he normally rented to young vigorous couples, but Mercy was the apple of his eye, and we had gotten it for a steal. $300.00 a month. I think he usually got double that, but maybe it was worth it to him. I felt guilty about using him in this manner, but Mercy said it just prevented him from handing over money that he normally gave her. I doubted if that was true.
Mercy added the spice and excitement to my life that helped me to feel alive, but she drove me nuts at the same time. Once again, I knew better than to ask her to come to something like this. She was jealous of my relationship with Margareet, my younger sister who had come along as a great surprise to my mama. Considering Mama wasn’t married nor in a relationship. Growing up in a small southern town provided us with eccentric people who other people loved to talk about, my mother being one of them. In fact, some southerners only live to talk about people. All you have to do is go to a local beauty salon to find that out. One like my Aunt Sue’s. Really quite interesting. Mama claimed that Margareet was a virgin birth. Yeah, we knew better. But no one had ever seen her with a man. Not since my daddy had hit the road and that was when I was ten years old. She didn’t date. No dinners with men, not to the movies, not in our house where I lived. I would have seen or heard something. I didn’t think she had the ability to hypnotize me. I could be wrong.
Her pregnancy was a complete mystery, and mama’s First Baptist Church had eventually accepted it. Of course, that was after she was called before the deacons and put on the hot coals of sexual accusation. You need to know my mama. I don’t think those deacons ever wanted to talk to her again about her life, nor theirs. If there was anything my mama knew well, it was just exactly what was happening in everyone else’s life in Pickland, South Carolina. Whatever she said happened must have happened. She was visited by a spirit and since Margareet looked just like mama did so it must be virgin, or God had simply meant for her to have this brilliant daughter who would bring our family great glory. Or else one of those deacons was a proud papa to our Margareet, which was always my suspicion. She’s a trip, my mama. There’s nothing like seeing a group of Baptist women come together over the supposed sins of one of them, and circle the wagons like nobody’s business. And that’s what they said it was. My mama wasn’t asking for a handout, she wasn’t drinking or smoking, and she was in the church door the minute it was unlocked. In fact, she was in charge of the extra set of keys in case of fire or other bad things. We lived one block from the volunteer fire department, and they knew that anytime they suspected there might be shenanigans going on at the First Baptist Church, they could come right to her and get in. Maybe my mama had shenanigan’s right there in The First Baptist Church. My mama’s a trip. We don’t get along most of the time, but I know she’s my mama.
Mercy leaned her head on my shoulder, and pretended to sleep. I pushed her away in time to see the 126 graduates stand up, and throw their caps in the air. Rising slightly, I could see mama and her sister two rows behind the graduates, and I knew she was beaming from one ear to the other. Margareet was our hope for the future.
“Can we go now?” she moaned in my direction.
“We can go in a minute. We gotta go to Denny’s for the celebration.”
“What? Denny’s? Really?” She drug “really” out a long time. When Mercy wanted to emphasize an idea, she simply dragged the word out for a long time. It beat having to improve her vocabulary.
“I told you this, Mercy. Just come on.” We stood, and at the same time I saw David looking in my direction. He smiled, and I grimaced back in return. The older women in our congregation would be whispering tomorrow that David and I were finally getting together. Not me. Not no way, no how. My life had been dictated throughout elementary school as to who could be my friends and who could not, and, through high school, it had been no different. Once I was divorced, I was finally accepted as tainted goods, which satisfied me to no end. No more pushing to marry the quarterback, or the lead trumpeter, although the band was definitely not in the same league as the football team. I was free to be the sinner I had become, and I intended to enjoy it. I was supposed to marry David. Destined in fact. All I could see was that was a dead end to staying right here in Pickland, South Carolina, and that wasn’t happening to me. Even though I was at the spinster old age of thirty-one without a prospect in sight for a husband, I was just fine with that. I didn’t want kids to pull me backwards. God knew I had done my share of dirty diaper changing and potty training when my aunt moved in with her four kids. Being a mother wasn’t anywhere in my near future, and I was gonna make sure of that. No dating allowed. No David for me.
I was attending the local community college, and had five semesters under my belt. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with my education, but I knew it didn’t include selling t-shirts for the local screen printer for the rest of my life. And even though I was between husbands and David was between wives, I didn’t have any intention of becoming a step-monster to his two young children. Even if they did still mostly reside with the homecoming queen he had divorced. Nope, not me.
I made a quick move to head out. Pulling Mercy by her arm, I headed to the right, which meant getting past the thirty or so sitting in the aisle. She hissed at me, which meant she wanted to go the other way – just step out on the aisle, but that way spelled disaster for me. The David way. I didn’t look in her direction, and kept pulling. Those still sitting grumbled at our leaning on their fat knees and pushing our over their laps on our way quickly out.
“Where you going in such a hurry, sister?” I kept my eyes down, kept smiling, and apologizing. I glimpsed more than one obese man ogling Mercy’s tight jeans. God, would this world ever change? I kept pulling. I felt like all I did in my life was push and pull. Push myself to work, go to school, do homework, keep our house up, and try to live my life without stepping on other people’s toes. Damn, I stepped on somebody’s toes. Push and pull. Pull those around me to keep them going and keep them working. I believed that the lazy folks around me didn’t deal with life like I did. Surely there was an easier way to being successful, but I didn’t know what that path might be. When we finally got to the side aisle, I saw Margareet waving from the end of it, motioning me towards her, where she stood next to the stage. I waved back, and plastered a smile on my face.
Right at that moment, I could see into the edge of her life. I could see the endless options that lay ahead for her, the nights of studying with friends in college, the feeling of leaves falling on Clemson during her first semester, the opportunities of discussion about great and wonderful things. Tears sprang quickly to my eyes, and I blinked hard. I had made my choices. This was Margareet’s night. I would wake up tomorrow and go to work, and then to the library in the evening to do homework for my Monday night class. Tonight I would not feel sorry for myself, and I wouldn’t allow my own fears to interrupt Margareet’s joy. I waved, and this time my smile was real.
“Mercy, let’s go celebrate with Margareet.”
“I’m gonna write a book.” I sat there after offering this explosive statement. Sounds simple enough, but I knew what I was unleashing. The tiger would wake up and begin pawing the cage. And I was the one with the trumpet.
“Shee-it.” Mercy kept peering at her teeth, admiring the perfect whiteness that almost blinded her in the mirror. Occasionally she would look closely at her pore-less skin, and dab at it with some homemade solution she was currently using. Probably peroxide based.
“You gonna do what?” My aunt Lily looked up from her Glamour magazine and stared at me. Lily had been a beauty once as well, but she now embraced her age with tent like dresses to hide her ever-growing girth. She kept her beauty queen pictures close by so that she could delude herself into believing she was that same gorgeous twenty year old.
“What did you say, girl?” My mama’s eyes were boring into me like nobody’s business. I didn’t even have to look up to know that her eyes had that deadly glare which, in my childhood, had immediately preceded the whack on the head I would shortly receive. She didn’t hit me anymore, but her glares were almost as bad, penetrating and burning as she stared towards my head.
“I’m gonna write a book.” Mercy made her same “shee-at” comment, and Lily looked back down at her magazine.
“I could write a book. Now that would be innerestin’,” Lily wasn’t one to spend too much time talking to anyone else about their dreams and desires. The world revolved around her, as she would quickly tell you.
“You can’t write a book.” This was one of mama’s comments that closed the door on subjects. Except now I was thirty-one and she couldn’t control my actions quite like she had done when I was eight.
“I am. I’m going to write a book,” this time, I actually emphasized the ending of my words. The hard “g” sound was a new one for me, and I knew that eventually someone in my family would say something about it. This was a result of my recent English 101 class at Tri-County Tech, and I had found that making that “guh” sound at the end of the words felt real good. Felt like I was finally loosening myself from the chains of my upbringing. There was nothing like talking correctly and with emphasis on sounds that irritated southerners around me. Nothing like it.
“Really.” Mama grunted. “Hmph. What you gonna write about. Your poor upbringin’? Your mama’s lack of education? Your daddy who run off early and didn’t help me? Gonna be one of those ‘confess my sins to the world’ Dr. Phil kinda thing?” She wasn’t looking at me now, which could mean she was either too mad or too scared to let me see her eyes.
“I don’t know exactly,” I now dodged, wondering why the hell I had brought this up anyway. Sometimes my plans backfired and burned me the most. ”I just know I can write.” Lily and mama looked at each other and grinned. “Okay, forget I said anything. I’ll do it on my own. And if I make a bunch of money, don’t come to me asking for your share. This is like the Little Red Hen, and you won’t be getting anything that you don’t deserve.” Lily’s smile changed suddenly. She wasn’t one to turn down a handout, even if it hadn’t even been made yet.
“Oh, come on, Janie. You don’t have to be like that. You know that you wanna share with your poor family members. Surely you do. Why, I can help you. Instead of writing my own book, I’ll help you. I can cook while you write.” It was my turn to laugh. The idea of Lily sitting and writing her own book was too strange to contemplate. She had never kept a job for more than a few months at a time, claiming no one ever used her intellect and talent well enough to keep her there. Her intellect and talent combined were frightening to consider, except for the fact that she was a great cook. Give Lily four ingredients, and she could whip up a gourmet meal like nobody’s business. Might be a good deal for me.
“What you gonna write about, girl?” Now mama wasn’t telling me my life, she was dangerously curious, but I knew mostly because she wanted to know if the book would reflect badly on her. Of course it would, but I wasn’t going to tell her that yet.
“I’ve started it. My English professor said the beginning was good. And he’s published three books. So.” I ended the sentence with a weak word. I knew the English professor would not be impressed with that part. Now I had to sit out the words that my mama would throw in my direction, and wonder for the 87th billionth time if I enjoyed bringing pain upon myself.
Mama avoided a direct lob by directing her attention to Lily. Her defense was going to be an aggressive offense. I didn’t date the quarterback for nothing.
“What you got on your agenda for this afternoon, Lily?” Sugar wouldn’t have melt in her mouth right now.
“Well, let me see. I was thinking I would put up some good grape jelly. Billy brought home a bunch of grapes last night, and I know we ain’t gonna eat twenty pounds of grapes. So that’s what I was thinking about doin.” Lily kept her eyes fixed on her magazine and didn’t look up at either one of us. She was familiar with this game, as she played it a lot with her own kids. Don’t acknowledge dreams of changing, or growing, and they’ll stay right there under your thumb. Your kids will then recreate the life that you have led, with the same money woes, the same slightly-above-minimum-wage jobs, the same griping and complaining about every political office holder, and then you will feel completely justified in how you lived cause your kids picked the same road. No reason to have big dreams or big ideas. In fact if you do, we will either make fun of you or completely ignore you. Either could be equally effective and devastating. I had seen enough fat kids hanging around with their fatter parents to understand this dilemma.
“Okay, you don’t want to know anything about my book,” I directed the statement to the air right in front of my face seeing as no one was willing to ask or show interest. “You never want to know anything about my education, or why I am trying to improve myself by going to school and juggling a fifty-hour-a week- job, for which I get paid for forty, and practically paying for this household myself because Mercy never has any money. Don’t ask anything, don’t expect anything,” I felt my blood pressure rise. This was likely not the way to get them to be on my side. It was equally likely not to work to get them to show interest. It in fact would most probably piss them off more than the fact that I was trying to grow. Don’t talk about it and it will surely go away. I stood up, preparing to leave. And this was my damn house.
“Yeah, I knew I was gonna get dragged into this. I’ve got money for you, Janie. My god, why don’t you embarrass me in front of the whole town and not just the two most important women in your family?” Mercy glared at me above her makeup mirror. Typical. Mercy could brown nose with the best of them.
“Yeah, right, Mercy. Nobody ever expects you to be late with your part of the rent. These two have never heard that.” She rolled her eyes at my sarcasm, and reached for her pocketbook. Taking out a wad of money, she tossed it in my direction.
“There’s 300 bucks. I was planning on surprising you with new towels and shit. But you just take it.”
“Do me a favor, Mercy. Don’t surprise me with anything. Just take care of your part of the bills.” She stuck her tongue out at me, and I stuck mine back. Mama laughed.
“You girls sound so grownup. Maybe you ought to just go back to your mamas’ houses.” She grinned at me. Like that was gonna happen. Mama just wanted my money.
“You know, Janie, I want to talk to you about your schooling. But sometimes you get so damn eager about it. Makes it hard for the rest of us to want to bring it up. Once that door is open…ya just cain’t shut it. Besides, this is your education. For you to do the learnin’ and the work, and the readin’. Cain’t you just keep it there and be happy?” Mama got out of her chair, and stretched her back. Like an old feline, she pretended that she was getting on in years, but underneath that head of grey hair lay a spry brain that was itching to prove itself smarter and quicker than the others around her. Nobody was gonna get mama’s goat. I knew that my attending school was some kind of threat to her, but I couldn’t get it in my head that her fear meant I couldn’t talk about what had become the most important thing in my life. I couldn’t tell her, nor Aunt Lily, nor even Mercy. They thought this was just something I needed to get out of my system. For god’s sake, mama couldn’t understand why I hadn’t stuck with hair-styling school that I had begun in my marriage. That was surely the most advanced I could hope to be. And they made good money. Good money. I had never known exactly what good money was. Enough to pay your bills? To get your husband out of jail once or twice a year? To pay for your kid’s rehab? Why was she so scared? Why couldn’t she be a fan instead of a drag on my enthusiasm?
All I knew was that as I tackled different subjects, I felt like windows of knowledge and awareness were being opened in my brain. And flowers were sprouting. Every time I learned a new skill, or read about something I had known absolutely nothing about, I could feel that seed of wonder being planted. There was so much to know, so much to study, so many books to read. I knew I would not live long enough to enjoy everything that I wanted to know, and it drove me nuts that the people closest to me would not share this with me. It never occurred to me that for them to enjoy may have taken some of the joy out of it for me. Having insight into yourself can be quite revealing.
I didn’t know it then, but the changes that were taking place inside of me would eventually create the need for me to reach out to others, and neglect or even give up the relationships on which I had depended for my first thirty years. What happens to a person when she realizes she has outgrown most of the people in her circle? For one thing, she can choose to go backwards. She can choose, like the little fat kid, to embrace her parents’ fast food choices just so they will continue to love her. She can choose to go back to the bars and high school football games that peppered her youth and absorbed the people with whom she grew up. Or she can continue the path of growth. The path to self-realization. The path to self-discovery. The path to loneliness. What do I most want in the world? Growth or people? Education or connection? Do I really have to choose between the two? What lousy choices.
The boy picked up the bat. I could tell by the way he held it and turned it in his hands that he had never touched one before. The expression on his face was a combination of curiosity and wonder. How could it be that he had never held a bat before? He appeared to be about ten or eleven years old.
Tentatively, he swung it. He almost lost his balance and looked around quickly to see if anyone noticed. I averted my eyes to a hangnail on my left thumb and waited a moment before I looked up. He had both hands on the neck of the bat and was slowly turning the bat as though he was caressing a loved pet.
He took a few more swings and I could see that he was getting more comfortable. He stepped away from the path, and leaned down to pick up a small stone. Tossing it in the air he clumsily swung and missed by a large margin. More determined he picked up another rock, missing again. He didn’t look around this time, so intent was he on hitting the rock. After a dozen or more tosses, he finally smacked one. The bat cracked loudly. The excitement surged through him, and he leaped, pumping his fist in the air.
I turned my head away and covered my mouth, afraid my whelp of delight would burst from my mouth. I didn’t want to frighten him. I wasn’t a pedophile although in today’s world I may quickly be suspected of being one. I was just an old man who came to the park daily to read and who missed my own baseball days.
Several weeks earlier, I spotted the boy angling through the park, stopping at the creek to skid rocks across the surface. His pattern was to appear around 3:00. I guessed he was a latch key kid.
I brought a bat abandoned by my own son once baseball was no longer a part of his life. I got there a little before three, dropping it next to the creek bed where he stopped for rock throwing. That’s where he found it, slightly hidden in some overgrown grass.
After a few a moments longer, I stood and stretched, picking up the objects next to me. I walked slowly in his direction trying not to attract his attention. This worked as he was engrossed in the bat. Once I stood next to him, he looked up at me with a startled expression.
“Nice bat.” I smiled.
“I didn’t steal it,” he croaked at me. I stopped a moment, taken back at his quick defense. Why would he assume I thought he was a thief?
“I know. I’m giving it to you.” I stared at him a moment. “You might need these, too.” I handed him a black baseball glove and a baseball. He just looked at them as if I had asked him to eat them. I felt like I had cornered a wild animal. “Go on. Take them.” I waited a moment for him to respond. He still looked frightened.
“Excuse me. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m giving you the bat. And the glove. Oh, and the ball. They’re just sitting around my house. Somebody ought to use them. Bats aren’t any good if no one swings them. Same thing with gloves. Zero. No good. But you’re gonna need more baseballs. I saw how you started hitting those rocks. Pretty good eye. Balls will be flying everywhere. Somebody will have to shag them for you.” I stopped. “That means pick them up. In the outfield.” I looked around. “Or in the park.”
He was holding the glove gently, looking at the stitching. “Here.” I took the glove and his left hand and slid the glove on. “Ever worn a glove before?” He shook his head. “Well, now you have. I think you’ll be pretty good at this. Just got to get used to it.” He finally smiled. I noticed a slight dimple in his left cheek. His dark eyes glistened and I felt my own tears well up.
“Well, now, well, now…don’t do that. No reason. I just had this stuff lying around and I figured….” I stumbled off at the end of the sentence. He took the glove off and tucked it gently between his left arm and his side. Then he stuck his right hand out. I glanced at it, then up towards his face. I suddenly realized he wanted to shake my hand. Smiling broadly back at him, I did exactly that.
“If you ever want help. I mean here in the park. I come to read most days and I can show you how to hit. Throw the ball to you. I have lots more baseballs.”
He picked up the bat, grinning broadly at me. With a quick salute, he said,”I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned to dart away from me but stopped, and turned back shyly towards me.
“Thank you, sir. What do I call you?” I felt a swelling of love inside of my chest. My heart beat strangely, and I mentally chided myself. Don’t love him. Whatever you do, don’t love him. There was too much pain in loving children who grew up to leave you and lead their own lives.
“You can call me Robert.”
“Okay, Robert,” he said softly. “I’m Jose. I’ll see you tomorrow, Robert.”
With that he darted off along the creek bank and disappeared under a bridge. I stood a moment longer, then shook my head while walking back towards my bench and the forgotten book lying there.
“Robert, you old fool,” I said under my breath. “Just what you need. Another baseball progeny.”