Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Yes, No, Maybe So--Part IV

When Robbie first started sniffing, I was fairly certain he was admiring my Love’s Baby Soft perfume so I didn’t say anything. I just sat real still letting him like the aroma of me. I pondered whether or not to go upstairs and change into my favorite sundress for my Dancing Queen number. After a couple minutes though, Robbie’s huffing and puffing started to seriously get on my nerves. I squirmed to look him in the eye.
            “Do you have a problem?”
            He cocked his head and took in air yet again. “Do you smell something?” he said. 
            I sniffed. “No,” I said. “Like what?”
            He lifted his chin and squinted. “Not sure.”
            I nodded toward the back of the basement. “Well, in the corner back there, there’s a toilet,” I said. “And the guys miss a lot. Maybe that’s what you smell.”         
            Robbie scrunched his face and shook his head. “Naw, that’s not it.”
            I stood and inhaled deep. “Oh, I know what it is,” I said. “Last winter our cat Ginger had kittens in the cabinet beside the dryer. She made a cave inside Dad’s World War II blankets and I swear, it has smelled like Campbell’s Chicken and Stars soup ever since.”
            I looked down at him. “Is that what you smell?” I said. “Chicken soup and old wool?”
            When he glanced up I noticed his eyes didn’t just have super long lashes, they were a nice color too. Maple leaf green maybe. And he had whiskers also, blonde ones. No guys I knew in the eighth grade going into ninth had facial hair yet. That was kind of cool. But under his stubble, his face had taken on an odd color. Kind of like gravel.
            Jude heaved himself off the couch and onto all fours.  “Hold on,” he said.” We all leaned forward and gawked as he stuck his arm under the couch.
            “I know what it is,” he said.
            The three of us waited for his revelation.
            “Dad’s brother visited last weekend,” he said. He peered up at Robbie. “You know, the schizophrenic one with the big lips I told you about. Dad always hides Ginger’s kitty litter box under here. Hoping it’ll make Uncle Will cut his visits short.”
            Once the container was free of the sleeper sofa’s hem, Jude used his feet to scoot it back under the stairs, in between the furnace and water heater. He came back around and leaned against the fireplace.  
            “Breathe deep,” he said to Robbie. “Better?”
            Robbie took a tentative breath and gagged. He immediately pinched his nose and mouth breathed.
            “You guys really don’t smell that?” he said. “Dang! It’s like something died.”
            I let a breath go in and out through my nose. “Smells normal to me,” I said. “Maybe we’re just used to it.” I turned to Katie. “Do you smell anything?”
            Katie shrugged. “I’ve got a cold,” she said. “I can’t smell a thing.”
            That’s when Jude’s face went all funny. “Oh, no,” he said.
            I tensed. “Oh, no what?”
            Jude stepped between Mom’s extra refrigerator and the TV to get at the shelves against the wall.
            “We forgot all about it,” he said.
            “Forgot about what?” I said.
            He pointed toward the top shelf. I stood so I could check out what he was talking about. Back in the corner was a Cool Whip container, its lid half on, half off.
           Katie and Robbie got up too. Rolled up on their tiptoes to see what they could see.
            “What the heck is it?” Robbie said. He kept his nose pinched and took a step toward the shelves. “Good Lord, Jude. There’s steam coming out of it.”
            “Ham salad,” Jude said, without turning around. “Six month old, unrefrigerated ham salad. We thought it would be cool, my brothers and me, to make our own catfish bait. Supposedly catfish like stinky stuff.”
            Robbie’s face contorted. “Aw, man! That’s nasty.”
            Katie cupped her hand over her mouth and nose. Her eyes were huge.
            “You gotta get that stuff outta here, Jude” I said. “If Dad finds it, I'm not kidding, he will jerk a knot in your tail.”
            When we couldn’t find the stepladder, Jude squatted low. “Get on my shoulders,” he said.
            I shuddered and moved away. “I’m not touching it.”
            Jude turned to Katie. She spoke from inside her hand. “No way.”
            Robbie pretended not to hear.
            “Fine!” Jude said. He grabbed the fireplace poker and headed for the corner. Inch by inch he nudged the Cool Whip container toward the shelf edge. He dropped the poker and reached up. Rolled his fingers on the side of the container, attempting to get a grip. Suddenly Ginger, our cat, came careening down the steps and slammed into the back of Jude’s legs. The Cool Whip container flew out of Jude’s hands, sailed through the air, and landed with a splash. In the cooler of beer. The ham salad, now a gelatinous, blue-furred lump, floated to the top of the iced water. Looked like some sort of  animal pelt. Jude picked up the fireplace shovel and approached the mess.
            We all froze as Dad's steps thundered toward the basement door. “Jude!”
            Jude set down the shovel and walked over to the bottom of the stairs. “Yes, sir?” 
            “Bring up some cold beer, son.”
            Jude grinned and did a mock salute. “Yes, sir!” he said. “Right away, sir!”

Friday, May 25, 2012

Yes, No, Maybe So--Part III

Every night after supper, Dad camped out in the living room. Over the course of each evening he’d nurse two bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and polish off an entire can of salted peanuts, the Spanish ones with the skins on them. I never got why he liked those kind. The skins made for a tooth flossing nightmare. Dad didn’t mind though. He wasn’t much for dental hygiene. Come to think of it, he didn’t care much about personal hygiene at all beyond combing his hair and Abraham Lincoln beard. I knew for a fact he rarely used deodorant and Mom and I had to beg him to wear aftershave whenever he treated us to supper at Shoney’s.
            So while Dad would fold himself into the floral Ethan Allen wing chair under the picture window and devour peanuts and guzzle beer, Mom would arrange herself and her muumuu-looking housecoat, usually a pastel blue floral, on the couch. She’d puff on her cigs—Benson and Hedges Light—and sip Tab diet cola from a glass she got in a box of Tide laundry detergent. I’m fairly certain she washed it first. Maybe. She wasn’t Suzy Homemaker or anything. In fact, one of her favorite sayings was, “You’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
            Most nights my parents watched television or read. Dad was a big time reader. Mom too, but she usually went for paperback romances. Dad read smart stuff because he was that kind of guy. He had three degrees including one from Harvard. Yep, my daddy was smart, but he sure didn’t know everything.
            More often than not at night, some or all four of us kids would be in the basement glued to the tube. Sometimes we had friends over, not because Mom was the Kool-Aid mom or anything. Just because.
            If communication was necessary between us and the folks, we yelled up or they stood at the top of the stairs and hollered down. If Dad was worn out, he just roared from his wing chair.
            “You kids pipe down!” Or, “Stop horsing around! Don’t make me come down there. I swear. I'll tan your hide.”
            Only when we got really loud would he stomp down the stairs. It was never Mom. She didn’t scare us. That particular night, the one with the Rolling Rock, Jude made sure we didn’t make too much noise. He was good at that.
After two minutes of whispering in the kitchen, Katie Lynn and I tiptoed back down the painted gray steps. Tried to keep from creaking the stairs. All three of Charlie’s pistol-packing Angels darted hither and yon across the TV screen but the boys didn’t pay any mind. They were too busy hawking loogies at the fireplace. Without opening the screen. Viscous, pale green gobs stuck and slid. Smeared and clung. Left shiny trails in the charred mesh.
            “Ga-ross,” I said.
            Both guys whipped around at the same time, swiping their wrists across their lips. I saw Robbie puff into his hand and sniff. A corner of my mouth lifted. He was cuter than I remembered.
            Jude patted the couch. “Why don’t you all come down,’ he said. “Sit a spell.”
            I started back up the stairs. “I don’t think—”
            Katie Lynn gripped my wrist and tugged. “Okay,” she said. “We should sit boy girl, boy girl.”
            I grumbled under my breath as I wedged myself into the space between the sofa arm and Robbie’s leg. Katie made herself at home between the guys. Robbie reached into the styrofoam cooler and lifted out a green bottle. Wiped the wet off with his t-shirt. Jude tossed him the bottle opener. The cap catapulted across the room with a sucky sound. Robbie grinned and handed the icy beer to me. Repeated the process for Katie.
            I hovered my nose over the bottle top. “Smells like hamster pee.”
            Robbie chuckled “Try it,” he said. “You’ll like it.”
            I sipped then wrinkled my nose. “Tastes like it too,” I said. “Jiminy Christmas! How do you all drink so much of this stuff?”
            Jude leaned forward. “See?” he said. “I told you we shoulda bought Boone’s Farm.”
            Robbie huffed. “Who doesn’t like beer?”
            Jude stood. “I’ve got an idea,” he said. “Be right back.” He took the stairs three at a time. Returned with two straws. “Try these,” he said as he tore their wrappers away. “And hold your nose.”
            Katie Lynn juggled the tasks. “Seems complicated,” she said.
            “The good thing about straws,” Robbie told me, “is they get you drunk quicker. That’s what my science teacher says.”
            I think Robbie was onto something. After my first two sips, I felt very confident and way braver. Was that what being intoxicated was like? Wasn’t too bad. In fact, I figured if I had one more gulp, Imight just  jump up and perform a lively rendition of Dancing Queen. I squinted at the fireplace tools and considered how I might use the fireplace poker as my microphone. No sooner did the idea form in my brain than it was shot all to heck. By ham salad.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Yes, No, Maybe So--Part II

Like every other guy in town, Jude had the hots for Katie. After all, she did resemble a cross between Cher and Brooke Shields. Even though Jude was pretty good looking, he was strange, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. Jude had this theory that if you didn’t shower for a day or two after you sunbathed, the dirt would sink into your skin and increase your tan factor. He brought this theory up every time he lay out with us.
            “Ooooh, ga-ross!” we’d squeal. Gross was our favorite word and we always said it as if it had two syllables.
            I blame Jude’s weirdness on illegal pharmaceuticals. He didn’t take Nancy Reagan’s advice to just say no to drugs. He smoked a boatload of pot. In fact, he grew it in his room. Mom thought it was a really pretty houseplant.
            “I never would have guessed Jude had a green thumb,” she said.
            His grades weren’t great but I reckon he was a little smart because he figured out how to fashion a pot pipe out of a salt shaker. It was shaped like a catfish and the one time I walked in on him getting high, he looked like he was kissing a thumb-sized sea creature or giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The room he shared with my oldest brother Matthew often smelled like a fall burn pile.
            Jude liked to brag about sniffing glue to Katie Lynn and me. I knew he was telling the truth because I saw the squeezed tubes of model glue in the woods whenever I walked our dog over that way. He also told us how he and his buddies did acid every day during their high school years. One of his friends dropped so much it damaged him forever.  He never made it to college. Heck, he never even made it out of his parents’ house. He was like the poster child for that commercial that showed an egg being cracked open: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.” And then they’d show the egg frying.
            Jude was always getting into trouble. Like the time the police called the house and informed Mom they’d nailed him shoplifting. She gave me the job of phoning my father at his office and telling him. Man, was Dad honked off. Right after he picked Jude up at the police station, he drove him to a barber shop and told the guy to shave Jude's head. Mom boohooed for days. I don’t know which bothered her more—his criminal record or the removal of his pretty copper curls.  I found them one day when I was snooping through her dresser drawers. Dad must’ve had the barber put the hair in a baggie for her. I snuck outside with them. Stuffed them into a garbage bag inside a trash can. Just because.
            In addition to being a klepto and a druggie, Jude consumed scads of beer. In fact, the first time I ever got drunk was with him. Jude and his friend Robbie had snuck a case of Rolling Rock into the basement. Katie Lynn and I walked downstairs to watch Charlie's Angels, and there they were—the boys and the beer.
            “Want some?” Jude asked.
            “No,” I said.
            “Yes,” Katie Lynn said.
            I have no idea how my folks never figured out two college boys were getting two ninth grade girls tipsy in the basement. I take that back. I do have an idea.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Yes, No, Maybe So--Part I

I’d eaten my bowl of Cheerios with a spoonful of sugar. I’d fed the dog, the cat, and my hamster, Houdini. I couldn’t wait any longer. It was time. I dialed Katie Lynn’s house. Her mother Caroline answered the phone.
            “Morning, Mrs. Carver. It’s me, Dana.”
            “Good morning, Dana. You’re up early.” I loved the way her Southern accent spilled out like Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
            “Yes, ma’am. Is Katie Lynn up yet?”
            “No, but I’m happy to wake her. Else she’ll sleep the day away. Hold on.”
            I heard Mrs. Carver put the phone down. A minute later came the clank of porcelain on metal. That was probably Katie Lynn knocking the handset of her princess phone off its cradle.
            “Mmm . . . hello?”
            “Wake up, you sleepy head. Get your hiney out of bed.”
            Her words came pillowy and slow. “It’s summertime. We’re supposed to sleep in.”
            “They’re here, Katie Lynn! They’re here!”
            “What are?”
            “The space age tanning blankets. The ones I told you about. I ordered them from the Sunday supplement and I got you one too, ‘cause they were buy one, get one free.”
            “That is exciting. Can I go back to sleep now?”
            “No. It takes you forever to get ready so you have to start now. Be here by ten. For real.”
            “Oh, all right. Which suit should I wear?”
            “How ‘bout the white one?”
            Katie made a growly noise. “Naw. I don’t have a base tan yet. I’ll look pasty.”
            “Um . . . Bring the rust-colored one, the one you made in Home Ec.”
            “Naw. It’s a one piece. I want to get sun on my tummy.”
            “For crying out loud, Katie Lynn,” I said. “The fact of the matter is I really don’t care. Just pick one and get over here. The blankets are supposed to maximize our time spent in the sun. I want to get started.”
            After I hung up, I closed my bedroom door and stepped into my suit. Shivered because it was still damp from yesterday. I wiggled and adjusted in front of the mirror. “I wish I had five or six suits,” I told my reflection. “Like Katie Lynn.”
            Outside I grumbled as blades of wet grass licked my calves. “You’d think with three boys in the house, our lawn would be perfect,” I said to no one in particular. I dragged two aluminum chaise lounges into the middle of the back yard, lined them up with the sun’s position in the sky.
            On the screened-in porch, I deliberated in front of my mother’s tanning product collection. Coppertone, Bain de Soleil for the San Tropez Tan, or Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Lotion? Or, I could mix up some baby oil with iodine. I twisted the top off the Hawaiian Tropic, inhaled, and grinned. It was the first day of summer break. We should celebrate by smelling like coconuts.
            Back in the house I gathered several issues of Seventeen magazine and two Rosemary Rogers’s romance novels. Katie Lynn always begged me to read the love scenes out loud. I grabbed my hand mirror at the last minute. In case she wanted to practice kissing.
            In the kitchen I peeked over Mom’s shoulder as she scanned the newspaper and smoked, according to the ashtray, her third cigarette of the day. The weather section said it was going be a scorcher.
            “Better get the hose,” I said to myself as I headed back out. 
             "Dang it!" I said, hose in hand. I backtracked to get Mom's kitchen timer. Katie Lynn and I always set it for thirty minutes. Half hour for our fronts, half hour for our backs. Katie Lynn also spent time balanced on each side so she wouldn't have white stripes under her arms but I wasn't that dedicated.
            True to her slower than molasses in January track record, Katie Lynn arrived an hour late. I’d anticipated this and was already tanning.
            I slid my sunglasses down my nose. “Aren’t the tanning blankets cool?”
            “Are they Reynold’s Wrap?” she said. “’Cause that’s what they look like—tin foil.”
            I rattled my blanket. “I know. And when you move, they crinkle. Am I dark yet?”
            “Nope. You’re still super pale.”
            I shrugged. “No big whoop. By Friday, I’ll look like the little girl in the Coppertone ad with the white butt.”
            We spread Katie Lynn’s silver sheet on her chair and she greased up. Just as she was settling in, I heard the window in Mom and Dad’s bedroom crank open.
            My brother Jude hollered out. “Hey! You all mind if I join you?”
            “Yes,” I said.
            “No,” Katie Lynn said.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Then I Saw Her Face

“Hey lady, did I yank you away from a hot date?”
            That's what I wanted to ask the nurse midwife. She was supposed to be rubbing my back. Spooning ice chips into my mouth. Instead, she leaned against the wall in her periwinkle scrubs. Kept snapping her gum.
            "For crying out loud,” I said. “I’m almost all the way dilated. Think you can get over here and break my water or something? So we can get this party started?"
            She uncrossed her arms and shrugged. "Sure."
            The long crochet hook-looking instrument felt cold against my thigh. The urgent rush of fluids almost burned me. Within moments, hard labor ensued and I wished I hadn't been so eager for the party.
            The tears came. Then the cussing. I gripped the bedside rails. Spoke through the fence of my teeth.
            "I know I said I didn’t want an epidural,” I told Frosty the Snow Midwife, “but on second thought, I do. ’Cause this feels like I'm pooping out a globe."
            My husband petted my hair. "There, there. Won't be long now."
            I heaved myself up on my forearms. Flung eye knives and words in his direction.
            "Get your face out of mine. You're stealing my breath."
            Twenty minutes later, twenty minutes after Mother’s Day 1995 was over in fact, you slipped into the world. Looked like a mini golden buddah. Except you weren't bald. You had heaps of black hair that stood on end once they wiped you dry.
            Later, when I was alone with you, I plucked off your pink pompommed baby cap and twisted your hair into little Billy Idol, standup spikes. Whispered into your wee and warm, almost purple ear.
            “I have no idea what you’re gonna be when you grow up, Flower Doll, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be awesome.”
For some reason, when you hit six months, you stopped growing.
            "Is there a history of growth disorders in your family?” The young doctor asked me that. Didn't rest her hand on my shoulder, pat my knee, or anything.
            I lifted you off the exam table. Clutched you close to my heart.
            "I'll ask around,” I said, “and get back to you."
            Thing was, you were such a mellow baby. You never yelled. You didn’t pitch fits. Not for a diaper change. Not because you were hungry. I just fed you whenever I remembered.
            After that appointment though, I did everything everyone told me. Drank fennugreek tea. Set an alarm for every three hours to nurse you. Guzzled a shot of Guinness Stout every day. Bit by bit, you grew. Not a lot, but enough to smooth out the ditches in the young pediatrician's forehead.
When you were two, you wore a dress every day. And a high ponytail. That's the way it had to be. And those red glitter Mary Jane shoes from WalMart? You wore them out because you loved Dorothy. And her little dog too.
            You didn't talk much until you hit three and then it was like your mouth was a river and someone released the locks and dam. There was no way we could stop the words from gushing. Sometimes we sat you in the dining room while we ate. To give our ears a rest.
            Right before you started kindergarten, I cut your hair. I couldn't get a brush through it without you needing a timeout, so I located my big, blue sewing scissors and sheared off six inches of brunette shine. I still have it. In a jar, on a shelf, in the TV room.
            When you were in first grade, you let me know where babies come from. Some ornery boy had told you all about it on the school bus. Right after he kissed you, French style. I heard that and thought, "Oh, so this is why some people homeschool."
            I remember your first sleepover. “She’s so funny,” the mom said when I picked you up. “We videotaped her. In case cable ever goes out."
            You’d informed her of your plans to adopt a Chinese baby girl someday.
            "'Cause I know where babies come from, and no sperm’s getting in this body!"

 For five years you wanted to be a marine biologist. "I’ll take my pet rat down in my sumbarine every day and I'll live with you and Daddy forever."
            "Sub-marine,” I said as I tucked the covers under your chin. “And just so you know, sweetheart, there's no ocean in West Virginia."
            "I don't care."
            One day you didn't want to be a marine biologist anymore.
            "Drama's my thing," you assured us.
            That didn’t surprise us one bit, but five years and a dozen plays later, you squirmed out of the grip the stage had on you.
            “I’ve decided to get a PhD in history,” you announced one night at the supper table, “with an emphasis on World War II, specifically The Holocaust. I’m going to be a history professor.”
            My gaze met your dad's and we grinned. I leaned toward you. Secured a hank of your brunette shine and twirled it around my pointer finger.
            “Whatever you end up doing, Flower Doll, making history or teaching it, I’m pretty sure you’ll be awesome.”


Friday, May 4, 2012

*The Secret Weapon*

Shhhh!  Don't tell anyone but this season I'm the secret weapon. On my softball team. And I've never even played before. I take that back. I've played a little. I subbed as needed last summer, but I wasn't any good. Failed most at bats. Never got anyone out. It wasn't my fault though. No one would throw me the ball. Ever.
            This season though, I've only struck out once. See, I use the Think System. You know, like Professor Hill in
The Music Man. If you think you can play music, you will. If you think you can hit the ball, you can. It helps that I warm up real good. I swing the bat ferociously and chant Bible verses like, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," and, "Be strong and courageous.” Visualization works too. I pretend I'm that chick in the Old Testament who pounded a tent spike through some war hero's skull. Nailed him to the ground, literally. That's the kind of spiritual and girl power I try to channel.
            This summer I've found it helpful to suck up to the umpires. So far, it's working for me. They've all been very nice. They try really hard to teach me the rules. And heck, they throw more balls back to the pitcher than I do. Plus, they give me grace when I throw the bat after I hit.
            "I'll have to call you out for that next time, sweetie."
            I blow them a kiss from first base. "Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Umpire, sir!"

My coach, Corey, says I'm much better at defense this season. It might be because I talked my husband into giving me twenty bucks every time I get someone out. I've caught a couple of pop-up fouls and I tagged a girl who didn't know her tee tiny hit was fair. I hoot and holler and jump up and down when I get people out. Even climbed the backstop once.
            I've always been super good at psychological defense. No one had to teach me that.
            "You're talking smack," my husband said.
            "No, I'm not," I said. "I'm killing 'em with kindness, with sugar."
            First off, I determine to learn everyone's name on the other team. Then I use their names, or their nicknames, as often as possible. When they're up at bat I give a running commentary of what I know about each hitter.
            "This is Rebecca. She's a math teacher at the high school. She hit a line drive right to Corey last time she was up, but that's way better than striking out.” Or, "This is Samantha. Isn't she adorable? Not everyone can pull off a side ponytail. She's engaged on Facebook, aren't you, darling?"
            My chatter makes some people giggle. Others get mad. Usually the guys. I see their shoulders tense up and if I step in front of them to get a ball, they often have furrowed brows and small eyes. Mad or glad, it tends to throw them off. Bad for them. Good for us.
            I always cheer for everyone who gets a good hit, either team. And I praise anyone who makes a great play in the field.
            Evan Almighty, our right center, says, "If it weren't for you, all the teams would hate us."
            I tilted my head when he told me that. "Why?"
            "'Cause you're nice to everybody," he said.
            Evan's a pagan but I love him. He can't run very far because he smokes a boatload of cigarettes. His one and only bit of facial hair looks like a fuzzy thumbprint under his full, cherry-Kool-Aid-colored lower lip.
            "You guys are all Jesus freaks, aren't you?" he asked Corey.
            "Yep. Pretty much.”
            "I don't mind," Evan said. "You all are cool.  You don't stuff him down my throat."
            I pray for Evan to kick his ciggy habit. And for him to get a honey of a wife. He was engaged awhile back but unfortunately, it turned out his fiance was from the Isle of Lesbos.

One of my favorite things about playing softball is breaking down the hardcore, rough tough cream puff, winning is everything players. They're not always guys either. I'd have to use a hammer to get some girls to crack a smile.
            Once they get to know and like me though, some teams let me get on base, just because. One time, I even got hugged.
            "Thank you so much," I said when I pounced on third base. "For dawdling, just so I could get here."
            "Girl, you are the cutest thing ever," the third basewoman said. "Give me a hug."
            I grinned and leaned into her arms. "Your lips look a little chapped," I told her. "Want some lip gloss?"

Besides making sure everyone has a good time, I really enjoy the hand pat line we do when the game's over.
            "This was fun."
            "You all are really good."
            "Great game."
            "Good luck the rest of the season."
            "You, Missy, are the MVP of your team.” A big, tall guy with three white zeros on his blue jersey told me that one Friday night.
            I glanced behind me then back at him. I pointed to my chest.
            "Are you talking to me?"
            He huffed. "Uh, yeah."
            I pulled him aside. "I'm not a MVP, Triple Zip," I said. "I'm a S.W.."
            He swept his sweaty bangs over to the side and squinted down at me. "A what?"
            I stood on my tiptoes, cupped my hands around my mouth, and whispered in his ear.     
            "Secret weapon."
            He grinned and thumped me on the back. "That you are, Missy. That you are."


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