Thursday, May 14, 2009

Absolutely Average, Chapter I

This is some writing I've been working on for a while, on and off. It's semi-autobiographical, semi-fictionalized. Martin, the only one who has read it so far, thinks it's rather dull. I kind of like it. Let me know what you think.

The first time I saw the tiny blue and silver trailer, I thought it was adorable; it looked like
something my dolls would live in. Momma, I could tell, hated it. Being five at the time, I didn’t understand the connotations:. We were moving from a tidy brick house on a shaded street called Red Leaf Lane into a shabby mobile home in the middle of a field on a dirt road that led to nowhere.

Momma and I had driven the forty miles from our old house to the new-to-us trailer in her big old ’69 Cadillac Eldorado that we called the Silver Submarine. She always liked to joke that it was the Discount Elvis model. It’d rained the whole way, pounding cold rain, punctuated by thunder and the wind bending the trees nearly sideways.

Momma wasn’t a steady driver in any type of weather other than a perfectly still day. The huge car dwarfed her tiny four foot ten frame, and she had to sit on the Detroit Yellow Pages and with a cushion behind her back to see over the steering wheel and reach the pedals. I could tell she was nervous because she kept both hands clamped on the steering wheel and the pale freckled skin on her hands was even whiter than usual. The only time she took her hands off the wheel was to light another Pall Mall Gold.

When we finally got to the trailer, I still thought it looked cute, even through the rain, but Momma just sighed. She left the car on and the wipers going until the windows fogged up. Finally, she grabbed her purse and told me it was time to go in.

The trailer had a screened front porch. Already, some of our boxes were there, stacked in an enormous puddle of rain. Momma gave the soggy boxes a grim look as she unlocked the door.

The trailer smelled musty and looked even tinier than I remembered. I walked from one end to the other, inspecting. A living room, a kitchen with a built in table, a bedroom with built in shelves and dresser, a tiny bathroom and another bedroom, slightly larger than the first with a built in dresser and a tiny closet. The doors in between the rooms were wood, and slid back and forth, very clever to my five year old mind. The bathroom still had plastic curtains in the tiny window. The floors were all dingy yellow linoleum, worn black in spots. I wondered where Momma was going to put our big dining room table and her china hutch.

Momma was trying to turn on lights and muttering under her breath. I finally asked her what was wrong. The electric hadn’t been turned on and Momma complained about competency and utility companies and monopolies, all of which went right over my head. The only Monopoly I knew was a board game I was too young to play.

The rain stopped and the sky was a murky gray green color. I decided to go out into the overgrown yard and explore. I could tell Momma was going to have one of her fits and I knew it was best to make myself scarce.

Daddy and his buddy Junior were driving the moving van out. They left hours before Momma and I did, but they weren’t here yet. When we learned about opposites at school, I thought about Daddy and Junior. Daddy was tall and broad, with dark wavy hair and deep green eyes. He was always neat in appearance and careful with words. He was gentle and soft-spoken and still had that funny mixture of a hillbilly Italian accent, even though he’d lived up north for years. Junior was short and skinny, never shaved, and started drinking Carling Black Labels as soon as he woke up. He talked all the time, laughing at his own jokes. He was married to an incredibly fat woman named Peggy who bossed him like he was dog. Junior was from down south, too, Kentucky, and you could hear the holler in his voice. Daddy was a GM man, and Junior was a Ford man. It made for lively discussions between them.

I was peeking in the windows of a tiny building and trying to figure out what it was when Momma grabbed my shoulder.

“Come on baby, come on! Tornado!”

Having just watched The Wizard of Oz, I was eager to hang around and watch the tornado, half-hoping it would pick us up and toss us into Oz. No such luck, though, since Momma was tugging me toward a strange looking door in the ground.

One look at the rickety ladder disappearing into that foul-smelling place, and I was having none of it. I was pretty sure there were spiders in there, and who knows what else. When I stopped, and looked at Momma to protest, her bright red hair was whipping around her face, and she was pale as a sheet. Her freckles stood out like polka dots.

“Go, Lisa, now!” Her voice was lost in the wind, but I knew what she was saying. With a whimper, I started to go down the ladder. Momma was right behind me, her normally pristine white Keds soaked grey. As soon as her feet hit the dirt floor, she slammed the door shut on top of us. It wasn’t pitch black, but pretty close. I didn’t budge an inch; I was waiting for a shower of spiders. I just knew they were going to land in my hair.

When my eyes became adjusted to the gloom, I noticed the little underground room was lined with shelves covered in junk. One of them held an old-timey camping lantern amid a pile of rusty tools. Momma was fumbling in her jeans pocket and finally produced her Zippo and lit it.

We could still hear the wind outside, and the door banged over our heads. I was always a tentative child, scared by just about everything, and right then, I was terrified. Momma sat on the dirt floor and pulled me into her lap. She rocked me a little, even though I was too big for it, and said, “It’s only a storm, baby girl. That’s all. It’ll be gone in a few minutes.”

Nestled into her lap, smelling her Chanel No. 5, mixed with the dark Pall Mall tobacco scent, her arms around me, I was almost content, tornado and cellar notwithstanding. I even drifted off to sleep. I’ve always been able to sleep through the loudest noises, a habit that didn’t do me well in my grown years of missed alarms, late arrivals for classes and jobs and sprinting across airport parking lots.

When Momma shook me awake, I was startled by the quiet. No wind, no sound of rain, nothing. Momma was still dead pale, but she managed a little smile. “Well, Baby, welcome to country living. You just went through your first tornado.”

When we climbed out of the cellar, tree branches littered the yard. A piece of the aluminum siding from the trailer was caught up in a big oak tree near the end of the driveway. I must have been googly-eyed, because Momma laughed a little and said, “Too bad it didn’t knock that shitbox all the way over. Guess we better start unpacking. I can’t imagine where your Daddy and Junior are. Well, yes, I guess I can.”

Momma marched me back to the trailer and got me settled into unpacking my books. I liked to pretend I was a librarian, so I sorted my books and started arranging them in my new bedroom. Even though I was five, I was a first class reader and Momma and Daddy liked to brag on me. Momma was banging stuff around in the tiny kitchen and talking under her breath. Finally, she said, “How about some music? Let’s see what we can pull in out here in God’s Country.” She had her little transistor radio set on the kitchen table and started twiddling the dial. After lots of static and a Holy Roller preacher, she found CKLW. “Joy ToThe World” was playing and Momma and I both started singing. It was my favorite song.

Lost in bubblegum pop from the tinny radio and my books, it took me a while to notice it was getting dark. “Momma? What are we going to do when it’s night? And I know its past dinnertime.”

She stuck her head around the corner into my bedroom and said, “Well, let’s go eat.”
Both of us looked like rag dolls, mud caking our shoes, one of my braids half undone and dust on the seat of Momma’s pants. “We’ll fit right in with the hicks,” she said.

It was so out of character for my prissy Momma to go out in public like that, I was shocked into silence all the way into town. And then town shocked me, too. It was nothing; a bunch of fields, a couple worn down gas stations and a block of stores and restaurants. There was a big old-fashioned brick courthouse with an immense lawn and a D & C dime store. No J.L. Hudson’s, no A & P. There were a few people on the sidewalks, walking dogs or window shopping, but you still could have dropped a bomb and missed them all.

As soon as Momma parked, I knew where we were headed. There was a big neon martini glass, complete with a pimento-stuffed olive, which flashed above a door marked Duke’s. “Come on,” Momma said, “We’ll wash up in the ladies room and get you fed and me watered.”

Duke’s was dim inside, but cheerful. Pictures covered every inch of wall space. Momma paused at the bar and asked for the restroom. The restroom was the tiled in the same shade of pink as Pepto Bismal, which I refused to swallow no matter how upset my stomach was. Momma spread some paper towels from the dispenser on the counter before she put her purse down. She scrubbed my face with the nasty pink soap and a rough paper towel, made me wash my grubby hands and asked me if I had to go. I did, so I went into the tiny stall.
“Momma? There’s stuff written here. ‘Sueann likes cock’”, I started to read.

“Never mind that, just make sure you put paper on the seat.”

When I came out, Momma had brushed out her hair, put on pale pink lipstick and given herself a fresh spray of perfume. Her plain beige camp shirt was still wrinkled but she’d flipped up the collar and tucked it into her jeans. She fussed with my braid for bit and made me wash my hands again.

When we sat down in a booth across from the bar, I felt like everyone in the place was staring at us. Momma had that effect, sometimes, with her bright red hair and being so tiny. A hillbilly lady on the jukebox sang about D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

Our waitress was young, and had long dark hair. Momma would have called her a Hippie. She smiled as she handed us menus. Momma said, “Good evening! I would like a Tanqueray martini, just a tiny drop of vermouth; in fact, just think about the vermouth, wave the bottle around, don’t actually pour any in. Straight up, icy cold, with an olive. The young lady would like a root beer.” The waitress’ smile disappeared and her eyebrows went up. Momma’s charm didn’t work on everyone; people sometimes thought she was just being snooty. “Yes ma’am,” she said already walking away.

“Don’t look at me like that. They have a martini sign; they should know how to make a decent martini. What do you want to eat?” She opened her menu and started naming the different dishes. “Cheeseburger, how about a cheeseburger?”

When the waitress came back with our drinks, Momma ordered me a cheeseburger and got herself a bowl of French Onion soup. She sipped her martini and pronounced it divine. The waitress looked startled, like someone had poked her in the back.

“Momma,” I hissed. “Stop it! You’re scaring her.” I could feel my cheeks burn red. I loved my Momma; she was my Momma and my best friend and I dogged her every step, but sometimes, people just didn’t understand her and that made me embarrassed for her. Momma just rolled her eyes at me and continued tapping down her Pall Mall.

I surveyed the bar. There was a big table of young guys who had on baseball uniforms and hats. Their table was strewn with pitchers of beer and plates of French Fries. I figured their game must have been rained out; they were sullen and not talking much. An old man sat at the bar, clad in faded overalls and a John Deere gimme cap; he was hunched over a draft beer and folding and refolding a matchbook. The bartender was an enormous bald man, standing with his arms crossed, leaning on the back bar. He had the biggest moustache I’d ever seen.

“Momma. Look at that man’s moustache!”

“That, Baby, is a handlebar moustache. Sported by Spanish cavilers and out of style for at least a century.”

There was a table of four middle-aged women, playing cards and laughing. They each had a drink and a cigarette close at hand. They were dressed nothing like my Momma; they had on pantsuits and it looked like they got their hair done in a beauty shop. I was pretty sure the pantsuits were polyester, too, a fabric my Momma refused to buy, claiming it was akin to wearing plastic clothes.

Momma had three martinis and barely touched her soup. I gobbled the cheeseburger like it was my last meal. Now that it was full dark outside, I wasn’t too sure about going back to the trailer. None of our furniture was there, there were no lights and I didn’t fancy sleeping on the floor in the pitch black.

Momma finally crushed out her cigarette and settled up with the waitress. When we walked outside to the car, the night was darker than any I had ever seen. I was used to city darkness; even when it was dark, there were still streetlights and traffic and sirens. This was a big empty dark, no moon, no stars and very still.

Momma sensed my apprehension and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure your Daddy and Junior will be there by now, even if they had to push the U-Haul from Southfield.”

Sure enough, when we pulled into the driveway, the U-Haul was backed in and the big doors were open. Inside, it was empty. Daddy and Junior were inside the trailer, sitting at the tiny kitchen table with a cooler half full of beer on the floor, and a bottle of whiskey in the middle of the table. Momma’s fancy candle holder that sat on the dining room table in our old house was on the table, all the candles burning and throwing light into the corners. They’d set up all the furniture that would fit in the small space and boxes were piled on the couch and every available inch of floor space.

“Hey,” Daddy said. “How’s my girls?” I hugged his neck and buried my face in the softness of his sweatshirt.

Momma just stared at Daddy and Junior and finally turned away to sort through the boxes. I settled into Daddy’s lap and Daddy and Junior picked up talking where they left off, about running coonhounds, the kennel Daddy planned on building, the fishing in the area.

Momma finally stood behind Daddy. She tapped his shoulder and in measured tones, said, “Where did you put the linens. Baby girl need to go to bed. It’s been a long day.”

“Daddy! We had a tornado!” I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten the most exciting thing that had happened.

“I heard, I heard. It was on WWJ. That’s why me and Junior stopped. We were afraid the truck would blow right over!”

Momma snorted. “More likely you were afraid you might miss Happy Hour somewhere along the way.”

Daddy ignored that and told her he’d tried to put all the boxes in the right rooms and set up the furniture. Momma, a meticulous housekeeper and organizer, had taped sheets of paper on the outside of each box, listing what the box contains and what room it was for. Sure enough, the box labeled “Lisa, linens” was sitting on top of my bed.

Daddy was like that; he’d do something he knew would irritate Momma, like showing up so late with the moving truck, then do something nice, like put all the boxes where they belonged. That way, she couldn’t stay riled up too long.

Momma fished out a pair of pajamas for me from the box labeled “Lisa, clothes” and instructed me to get changed. She made up my bed, snapping the sheets and tucking the corners in tight, just the way I liked them. “No story tonight, baby. It’s too late.”

She slid the wooden door between my bedroom and the kitchen closed.

I lay in the dark, listening to the murmurs of the adult’s voices. Momma was quiet at first, and then I heard a glass clinking and knew she’s found her bottle of gin and was going to sit at the candlelit table with Daddy and Junior. I heard their laughter, muted, because I was supposed to be asleep. I wondered about the friends I’d left behind I Southfield, if I would ever see them again. I thought about riding my bike; I’d just mastered my two wheeler and I couldn’t imagine Momma letting me ride up and down the narrow dirt road. She hadn’t let me leave our block at our old house.

I wondered about school and if I would make new friends. I had a whole summer ahead of me and I thought about where I would play, and what I could do. I didn’t think we’d be going on trips to the zoo, or swimming at the Metro Park; they were too far away.

The last thing I heard, before drifting off to sleep, was Momma and Daddy laughing at one of Junior’s jokes.

4 comments:

judemiller1 said...

I really like it. Can't wait to see Chapter 2

Have the T-shirt said...

Very good....keep it up!

Nadine said...

I cried when you got into your Momma's lap in the storm cellar.

Ronni said...

Gripping!