Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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I had always thought of us as a model family. My mother taught nursery school. My father was the high-school principal. I was a twirler, which meant that on game days or national holidays — and especially Founder’s Day, the Founder being our direct dead relative — I’d put on my Temperance Wildcat outfit and throw the baton with eleven other girls, mainly girls like myself: not pretty enough to cheerlead, not smart enough to do none of it at all.
My father is a good man. He’s never done the things I’ve heard and seen and read that other fathers sometimes do. When asked by the school board for a defense of his behavior at the Howard Johnson’s, my father would say he had no defense, and the school board would forgive him. He was in the Vietnam War, and is an Elk but not a Hawk, because they don’t really let in blacks or Jews, which bothers him.
She’d gotten to telephoning him a dozen times a day. “I miss you,” she’d tell him from the pharmacy and the hairdresser’s, the nursery school and home.
“We’ve been married nineteen years,” he’d say. “You miss me too much. It’s crazy.”
Once, I overheard the school secretary tell the home-ec teacher that she’d found my father at his desk with the receiver to his ear long after my mother had hung up, just staring into a snake plant.
Which reminds me of the way I’d find my mother just standing in the middle of a room, one time at three in the morning when I’d gotten up to pee. Or the Saturday afternoon I heard her say, “You must think I’ve just stepped off a spaceship or something,” which for her wasn’t too odd, but then she started singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” like she was teaching her nursery-school class.
She ended up on Barton Barber’s windshield out in front of the Liquor World. She’d seen a dog straddling the double yellow line and had run out to save it. It was Friday, the traffic in front of the Liquor World was heavy, so Barton’s new Corsica hadn’t been going fast, and my mother wasn’t badly hurt. Barton got rear-ended, though, and had to wear a neck brace for a month. There was no dog, as far as Barton could tell.
The police came, and an ambulance, and they took my mother to Baptist Hospital, where she was released with rib guards and stitches on the soft spots just below her thumbs. No dog was ever found.
I’d seen things before: fathers who beat their kids; the son of the pastor in the church graveyard torturing birds; a woman who’d lost all her hair from worry. And I knew the stories we’d read in school, some of which involved behavior I’d call crazy. But none of it had ever had anything to do with me.
The accident wasn’t the first time my mother had caused trouble, but it was the first time anyone had gotten hurt. Out of respect for my father, the judge held the commitment hearing in her home.
I’d known the judge’s daughter Marcie, who’d died the previous winter. She’d never had many friends, and when she tried out for the pep squad, her junior Wildcat emblem bunched up on account of her having overly large breasts, which I think hampered her balance, as the baton was always falling to her feet, bouncing off her shins. In the locker room, girls elbowed each other about her, and she read a book until the rest of us were done with our showers.
The judge had made a shrine on a sideboard pressed up between the kitchen doorway and the stairs. It was unsettling to see such a personal thing on prominent display: baby pictures; Marcie’s bike-a-thon ribbon; the Holy Bible; her twirler’s baton. A silver crucifix where the good plates might’ve been. And a photograph of Marcie and the judge, their faces pressed close, Marcie the age she’d been when she’d died. Marcie wasn’t smiling in the picture. I’d never seen her smile.
Marcie drowned. An ice-skating accident, officially, though no one saw her go through, and her body came up fifty feet from where the ice was thin.
My mother sat beside me on the judge’s sofa. My father and the judge faced us, in matching chairs of a floral design, the judge’s picture window between them, so that they were lit from behind, their faces darkened. A Manila folder lay unopened on the coffee table between us, next to a glass dish of hard candies and a silver dish of nuts.
There was talk of outpatient programs. There was talk of family history. There was talk of resting. There was mention of the baby that, in the end, never arrived.
“That’s not the state’s business.” My father had a hand flat along each chair arm, his legs squared to the floor.
The judge said she wanted to get a sense of where things stood.
A sky blue Trans Am rolled across the picture window, its cherry-bomb muffler rattling the window frame. My mother’s left foot began to tap. It tapped along the fringed edge of the judge’s u of t throw rug. It tapped all the way to the left, then all the way to the right. The Trans Am soared around the corner and was gone.
“Why did she care so much about the dog?” The judge’s voice was quiet. If I looked up, I knew I’d see her: her stiff, collared shirt, her pleated skirt, the shrine to her dead daughter behind me. My mother’s toes were open to the air, and her toenails were painted Paris red.
“If there even was a dog,” the judge added.
My mother suddenly stood and said, “I want a witness.” She shielded her eyes and squinted into the window’s glare. “I want some hard evidence that I’m nuts.”
My mother was always bursting in and out of places. A year earlier, she’d burst out of her nursery-school class and come to school on Founder’s Day. My father and I were at the pep rally in the gym. I was with the twirlers, behind the cheerleaders and the band. My father stood at a Wildcat-draped podium, announcing the varsity players’ names. The players ran through a corridor of cheerleaders as the student body yelled.
I had just tossed my baton when I spotted my mother entering the gymnasium through the far set of doors. She wore a yellow rain hat and a red silk scarf. She was heading straight for me.
I broke from line, not wanting to make a scene, even though the whole school was watching by now anyway. She took my arm and hurried me toward the podium. Five steps from him, she left me, her red flats slapping as she ran. She threw her arms about his neck.
The rally stopped.
Her lipstick smudged his cheek. “C’mere,” she whispered to me. The microphone hissed as the vice-principal covered it. We huddled there, wrapped in her yellow, slickered arms.
“I wanted to say that I love you.” She kissed his neck. “And you.” She tugged at my skirt. “I really, really do.”
Her eyes widened. My father tried to smile. She untied her rain hat, her gold hair tumbling, and fit the hat onto my father’s head.
The crowd went wild.
“I really, really, really do.”
When the hearing was over, my mother sat on the judge’s porch swing, crying. My father stood with his chest at her chin, his hands curled around the chains that held the swing. My mother wrapped her hands around his on the chains. In the living room, the judge and I sat as if we were waiting for someone to emerge from the kitchen and serve us tea.
My mother lifted her feet onto the swing and stood. He gave her one warning: “Alice, you get down from there.” And then he stepped a foot hard onto the swing and she let go and he caught her in a big dip, her forehead scraping the chain links, her dress wrapping him in yellow.
He carried her back into the judge’s house, sat her on the sofa, pressed a handkerchief to the cut on her head, and held her hand. The judge was on the telephone, and my mother saying over and over, “Gotta get a witness, gotta get a witness.”
She was to be “improved on” for ten days, with no visitors for the first week. That was the deal. That’s what the papers said, the ones she signed, or the ones they made her sign.
I started watching a lot of movies about people going crazy. My father would be upstairs reading. My father was always a reader, but while my mother was away at Stanton, he began to read ceaselessly. His eyes seemed less and less clear, and our conversations shrank to talk about the weather.
In contrast, my boyfriend Hector and I found lots to talk about. Hector would strap movie snacks to the back of his motorcycle seat: ice cream, Mexican candy, Jiffy Pop. We’d pop big foil turbans of popcorn and settle in to watch Hollywood actresses go nuts: Betty Davis, Sally Field, Mary Tyler Moore.
In the movies, the person going crazy always had a reason. It got so it was a kind of game. Munching popcorn, drinking Coke, Hector would point at an uncle or something and say, “I bet he did her wrong.” Or I’d see a house with a broken front step and predict some future beating of the wife. It wasn’t a fun game, although we laughed sometimes at the worst of things.
My mother did not seem to have a reason. She burst from places, but, as I’ve said, she burst into places as well. I think now that this was simply her condition in life: bursting, her heart in endless overflow. When she died — just a year after she saw or didn’t see the stray dog — on a patch of black ice, in a collision with a minivan whose driver was not harmed, she was on her way in the snow to the Optimist’s Home with a carload of children’s clothes. When her soul finally burst from our known universe, her body was buried in wool jumpers, snowsuits, and winter hats.
That first Sunday, when she’d been away for three nights, I was standing in front of my mirror looking at myself, wondering how much I resembled her, when my father entered my room without knocking.
“Hurry up,” he said. “We’re going out to Stanton.”
The drive out to Stanton was not pretty. It was a gray day, and the country roads were lined with poverty and neglect: trailers with junk parts strewn across unkempt lawns; farmhouses with collapsing porches; tobacco sheds rotting from disuse. In Stanton, the old firetrap houses seemed held up by clotheslines and phone wire. The hospital itself looked out on an abandoned railway siding. The parking lot was chilly and full.
Inside, the hospital was like our school: gray and green and dreary. We hurried past an official-looking desk, past a skinny old guard with a styrofoam cup, and into an elevator that opened as we reached it.
“Five,” my father said to the uniformed elevator operator.
The operator slowly shook his head. “You have to check in.”
“My wife is up there.”
I watched the operator’s hands rub around each other. “You know who I am?” he asked my father, rocking forward on his chair. “I’m Andy Little: class of ’86.” The operator extended his hand. My father took it.
At the fifth floor, when the elevator doors opened, my father grabbed my sleeve.
“Run,” he said.
He pulled me into the hall. “Look down. Don’t make any eye contact. Run.”
I followed him down the blue corridor. He stopped the first nurse he saw. “Atkins, Alice,” he announced. “I need to see her, fast.” My father is not a large man, but he is squarely built, with a thick, low brow, and the fierceness of his gaze has been known to bring confessions from the most hardened juvenile delinquents. He was a platoon leader in the Vietnam War.
The startled nurse pointed down the hall. “She’s in the orange room, I’d guess.”
Buzzers sounded as my father burst through the orange doors. He sprinted across the room and lifted my mother high off her feet. The doors eased back toward me. He set her down. Her hair was heavy, her skin seemed to sag. Her lips looked oily and cracked.
My father did not retrieve her that day at Stanton. He left her there, at the insistence of three doctors, for seven more days. On the drive home, he played an oldies station, and then the news. There were reports of a pit found in Bosnia filled only with legs, and of a science teacher in Henderson who’d covered his car in bugs. My father asked about my twirling, and then he was silent. And for the next seven days, I’d find him standing alone in rooms, or cleaning places that did not need to be cleaned. He lived as if time were something to be gotten through, as if there were no distinction between night and day.
A week after our trip out to Stanton, I sat at the HoJo’s counter and waited for my mother’s return. My mother loved HoJo’s, a place filled with children and color. She brought her students there on their birthdays, so they could eat orange sherbet and scoop their own. She and my father had gone there on their first date. The decor never changed. Tom Smith had owned it since they were young. It was a place in which, my father must have felt, she would feel at ease.
The sounds of a kid’s party escaped through the cream blue doors in the back. Tom Smith refilled my Coke. Our car pulled into view.
My father parked in front, along the curb. He blew a breath in the cold air, fixed his coat collar, and opened the car door for my mother, who put one stockinged leg out, then stood tall. From the counter, she looked unchanged. Ten days suddenly seemed the short time that it was. He took her arm and ushered her through the double doors.
“Hello, Alice,” Tom said, and he kissed her cheek.
She was whispering, “This is my town. How many years have I been coming here, Tom? Tom?”
My father held on to her arm protectively. “Alice?”
“Banana splits,” she said. “Right, Tom? How many years?”
An eight-year-old boy in a birthday hat pushed through the cream blue doors. He was holding a messy sundae saucer. When he saw my mother, his former teacher, he grinned, though her eyes were shut tight, her lips forming words soundlessly.
The boy ran back to tell his friends.
“Hey, now!” Tom called to him.
My mother opened her eyes and smiled. And then I heard the children behind me, coming through the blue doors.
“Not now!” Tom Smith said, but it didn’t make any difference.
They hurried to her, their favorite teacher, racing past me, crowding around her, hugging, pressing in, hats on heads, balloons in hands, calling out my mother’s name.
A boy jumped up under her chin. A girl was pulling at her wrist. Looking to Tom, my father tried to coax them all out. His hands were everywhere: peeling off a boy here, a girl there, opening a space around her. My mother folded her arms up across her chest. She shut her eyes. Tears squeezed from them. My father swept another boy from her, and the boy stumbled and fell back. His cheek struck the corner of a metal newspaper dispenser. His wool cap covered his eyes. His balloon floated up to the ceiling.
My father had decorated our kitchen table with daisies to welcome my mother home.
She was making faces, raising her eyebrows, puffing out her cheeks. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, you two!” She looked right at me. “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees. . . .”
I’d been crying in the car, and I did not want her to see. My father sat down beside me at the kitchen table. She leaned into him. “Oh, you. Sometimes I think if we just held each other . . .” She rolled her face so that her forehead pressed into his.
My father drew back. He hadn’t taken off his coat yet. On the way home, he’d said nothing. “You all right?” he asked her.
“I just need air,” she said, and she hurried back outside.
My parents lay in the cushionless frames of our summer lounge chairs, the lines of their breath rising into the porch light. My mother was almost smiling, her lips just curled, her eyes opening and closing softly. I thought about the photograph of Marcie, the judge’s daughter, who was not smiling in the picture taken the year she’d drowned. The enshrined photo; the best one the judge could find. And I wondered then, standing on the patio steps up above my parents, looking at my mother’s fingers woven through the chair’s metal netting, her face flat to the stars, her half smile, if the judge might have missed how unhappy her daughter was. I wondered how much of Marcie’s sadness, in the false name of loving, the judge might simply have chosen to ignore.
I moved down the steps and pressed into my mother’s chair. My arms around her, her hair bunched about me — tumbling gold from rain hats, spread across my pillow when I was young. My face against the warmth of her neck.
Through her coat, I felt her quick, short breaths. I took her cold hands. I wish now that I had touched them to my face: the scars in her palms from the stitches.
Metal scraped the flagstone.
His charcoal coat, the blackish blue night, the early stars and a tangle of branches. My father knelt beside our chair. He set a thick arm across us and leaned in. His cheeks were wet. Their lips just touched. Our breath twined and floated in the triangle of space between our eyes.
Jeff W. Bens