Waiting To Disappear
Aunt Sherry came to stay the summer Mama left us. To hear my Daddy tell the tale, you'd think Mama went away that hot July third. Facts don't recount the whole story. I carry the truth in my heart; Mama's spirit flew away two years before on the day my brother Booth died, May 10th, 1958.
She needs time, Daddy reminded me whenever I asked him when we'd get Mama back, the real Mama who smiled with her whole face and not just her lips. After two years, I grew impatient.
The summer of Mama's episode, as Daddy referred to her breakdown, started out with temperatures so cool, most mornings I pulled on the chenille robe hanging from my bedpost. Just when I thought I'd never see the sun again, a heat wave moved into Moodus and lingered, an unwelcome guest who forgot to go home. Each time I stepped outside, I swallowed air so hot and moist it about cooked the inside of my mouth. The humidity wreaked havoc on our Emerson Quiet Cool; it seized up more times than I could count. I took to sleeping in a canvas tent on the porch with my dog Pepper, a pointer Mama and I rescued from the pound where we volunteered. Most nights I wore cotton shorty pajamas and lay in the tent reading mysteries and old copies of Silver Screen Magazine by flashlight, a bag of cherry licorice whips at my side.
Mama spent the week with her ear tuned to WKLM listening to the weather reports. She fretted it might rain and the neighborhood picnic would need to
move from our back field to inside our house; the thought of forty-odd people crammed within its walls with its temperamental plumbing and one bathroom caused her to twitch every time the sky darkened.
The morning of the episode Mama went into town to shop for the picnic. Pepper was off chasing squirrels and I sat on the porch cooling myself with a paper fan
made from the Sunday comics when a red Impala convertible, my Aunt Sherry at the wheel, zipped along our driveway spreading clouds of dust in its wake.
The Impala came to a screeching halt under the red maple, its tires spewing stray pieces of gravel. The driver's door popped open and I watched Sherry jump
from her perch, a streak of black in her sleeveless knit top and Capri pants. She stood almost six feet tall and the skin-tight pants ended high above her
pink canvas espadrilles, their grosgrain ribbons laced around her calves sinewy from years of ballet classes with Miss Lenore.
Sherry planted her feet on the driveway and shook herself loose, the way Pepper does after he swims in the pond. Her shaggy copper-colored hair cut the air
like so many knives. Pfft, pfft, pfft. She hacked off her waist length hair with a pair of kitchen shears late one night, after her high school sweetheart
called from college to inform her he was dumping her for someone he met in his American history class.
I still hadn't gotten used to her new look. She opened the rear door to the car, and a cluster of wire-thin silver bracelets chimed against her wrists. I
spotted Gram sitting hunched in the back seat, waiting for someone to announce it was okay to move. She wore a plastic rain bonnet to keep her hair in place.
I remained on the porch, still as a sentry, content to observe my aunt perform her tasks unaware of my presence. Still and waiting is how I spent that summer. Waiting to turn fourteen, waiting for something to happen. I became ever watchful, the town crier of the small world that was my family. Pepper chose that moment to return from his hunt through the backfields. Bounding around the side of the house, he stopped dead in his tracks to bark a warning.
Sherry told him to hush up, turned to me and smiled. "Buddy, come help," she called. I ran across the drive, my legs shaky with anticipation. For me, Aunt Sherry was Sandra Dee and Miss America rolled into one. She turned twenty-two that June and sold cosmetics at the JCPenney's over in Sandy Springs. I admired her ability to change her look quicker than a chameleon; she wore a different color lipstick with matching nail polish every day of the week.
Compared to Sherry, I felt as plain as a brown paper bag. A growth spurt in the eighth grade shot me from five feet-two to five-six, most of it in my legs.
My weight lagged behind, leaving me with the look of a yearling in need of sweet feed.
Mama used to try to do something with my hair. The year I turned ten, after one too many Tonette home permanent with its stinky lotion and torture rods, I
put my foot down and told Mama my straight, brown fly-a-way hair was just fine with me. Except for special occasions when I let Sherry smear it with Dippity-Doo and roll it up on wire rollers, I fixed my hair in braids or a ponytail.
There was no one quite like my Aunt Sherry. She told me, some days she went to work wearing no underwear. Sherry had adventures. Once she drove clear to Virginia Beach with nothing but the clothes on her back, a make-up bag and a twenty-dollar bill. I figured if I stayed close to her, one day she'd take me
along. My given name is Elizabeth, but Sherry gave me my nickname Buddy because I had been nipping at her heels since I took my first step. I would have
followed Sherry into a burning building.
Gram cleared her throat loud enough to reach the cheap seats in the balcony. She watched me from where she sat in the middle of the back seat, piles of her
handmade quilts layered into rippled stacks framing her like soft book-ends, their bold colors a counterpoint to her paleness. I could tell by the set of her thin lips she wanted out of that car.
"I'm about to die from the heat," she announced and stabbed a loose strand of gray hair with a bobby pin. "We would have been here earlier, but Sherry likes to sleep in. I told her last night we needed to get an early start, but nobody ever listens to me anymore."
"Maybe that's because you never stop complaining Hazel." Sherry took to calling Gram, Hazel in the third grade because she looked so much older than everyone else's mama did. Gram had Sherry two months shy of her forty-sixth birthday.
The two of them lived just on the other end of Moodus, in a hundred-year-old row house off Main Street, but to hear Gram tell it you would have thought they
came from California by way of covered wagon. With Gram in harness. She didn't trust anyone's driving at night, so she planned to sleep over.
Sherry stood off to the side of the car out of Gram's view and rolled her eyes at me. I took hold of one of Gram's hands, the skin translucent and delicate as
the tissue Mama wrapped around the glass Christmas ornaments, and eased her from the car. She sighed with relief as her small feet hit solid ground. With a
quick motion, she pulled me to her, bending my neck like a gooseneck lamp and crushing my face against her soft chest.
"How's my girl? You been good?"
"Good as gold." I inhaled the scent left by a hot iron on her faded peach housedress and detected a hint of Evening in Paris from the blue glass bottle she kept on her maple dresser. As I lifted my head I noticed how pink her scalp was, almost like a baby's. Fifty-four years apart in age, we were passing each
other like elevators; me on my way up and Gram on her way down. I feared the day she'd be gone.
There was no sense to worry her with my premonitions, my sense of impending doom. Mama's "spells" wore her down real bad. Once, Mama and her two sisters
Sherry and Tess fought about who would cook the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner and Mama got so riled up she hyperventilated and had to breathe into a brown
paper sack. Gram confided in me she prayed every day for her girls to get along. She said she awaited a sign someone was listening.
Sherry nudged me with her elbow and pushed her white plastic heart-shaped sunglasses to the top of her head. "So Buddy, how's your summer going? Got a
boyfriend?" She leaned down and wrapped her arm around me. I loved how she did that. The way she looked like a movie star, all tall and shiny and inaccessible and then in one swift motion came down to my size and made me feel important. As if I mattered.
"Ignore her missy, she's got boys on the brain." Gram trudged across the burned-out grass, the twine strap of a Macy's shopping bag held tight in her hand. Gram traveled with her favorite cooking utensils the way some people travel with their best jewelry. She dropped the bag at her feet and collapsed on the glider set on the porch under the living room window. "Bring me some ice water will you Buddy, I'm parched."
I fetched a red plastic tumbler of ice water for Gram and two bottles of Coke for Sherry and me. "Can I help?" I asked as Sherry lugged Gram's scuffed blue
Samsonite up the steps and deposited it near the door.
"No thanks, the rest can wait. One of those for me?" She pointed to the bottles on the windowsill.
"Sure. I figured you must be thirsty." I handed a Coke to her, its sides frosted just like the one on the poster in the drug store. She popped the cap
with the bottle opener hanging from a nail on the post.
"This tastes good." Sherry downed half the bottle and belched. "Where is everybody?"
"Mama's shopping for the picnic stuff and Daddy's at the drug store. He said he'd try to come home early if Darlene decides to show up and work the counter.
I volunteered, but he said helping Mama was more important than mixing root beer floats. Where's Aunt Tess?"
"She'll be along tomorrow morning. As usual, she put herself in charge of decorating the floats at the firehouse so she'll be busy until midnight."
My Aunt Tess was the middle child, born five years after Mama and fifteen years before Sherry. Not quite the middle according to my calculations, but definitely centered in the eye of the storm. Tess favored Grandpa's side of the family, all shoulders and thighs like one of those roller derby women who shove each other around the ring on TV. Tess couldn't tell me the best shade of lipstick to wear or make me laugh like Sherry, but she was morally solid and I
could count on her to pull Mama back from the edge.
Tess taught phys-ed at the high school, coached the girls' field hockey in the fall and the girls' track team in the spring. Mama was one of the two high
school guidance counselors so she and Tess had lunch together every day in Mama's office with the door closed and a sign on the door that said meeting in
progress. The thought of entering high school in the fall filled me with mixed emotions. Between the two of them, I didn't stand a chance of getting away with
Gram finished her water and set the glass on the floor next to her feet. Her swollen puffball ankles balanced on the sharp edges of her white leather
oxfords. She wore black leather ones in the winter, covered by galoshes in inclement weather. Gram believed clothes should be practical.
"I need to lie down for a few minutes." She pointed to her suitcase. "Put that in my room, will you Sherry? I'm going to get a bite to eat from the
kitchen to tide me over until dinner."
"I'll get you something, Gram," I said. "You can rest here on the glider." I needed to keep her out of the house until Mama got home.
The calm exterior with its swept porch and pots filled with red geraniums concealed the chaos inside. Gram would scold me for not tidying up the place. How could I make her understand I did the best I could? Mama was the queen of clutter and forbid me to move so much as a piece of paper without her permission. She held onto the past the only way she knew how; my brother Booth's varsity jacket still hung from the peg next to the back door. I noticed her touch it every time she left the house, a talisman to keep us safe. Gram waved me away. "You and Sherry do your girl talk. I need to use the facilities."
"Come sit a spell Buddy." Sherry tilted her head.
I waited until the screen door slapped shut behind Gram, then sat next to Sherry on the glider. I drank my Coke down until it was the same level as Sherry's and then we played the game where we let the sweet liquid slip down our throat one drop at a time, seeing who could make hers last the longest.
I was winning when the door banged open and Gram burst outside, a bruised banana in her hand. "What is going on Buddy?" She waved the banana at me.
I sat up straight and faced her. Sherry remained still, her eyes closed.
"I'm talking about the house." She jabbed the banana in the direction of the doorway. "It looks like a tornado tore through the place and nobody noticed.
Newspapers and laundry scattered hither and yon and there's not a scrap to eat in the kitchen. Not anything I would dare to put in my mouth. How does Ellen expect to feed all those people at the picnic tomorrow?"
"I told you, Mama's gone to Winn-Dixie. She's got her list."
"She'll need a miracle to fix all the food and get the house ready for company in less than..." Gram paused to look at her pink-gold watch, its expandable band
pinching her fleshy wrist. "In less than twenty hours. Dear Lord, we're going to be up half the night slicing and dicing." Gram bit her lip and sighed.
"Buddy, how's your mama been doing lately? You're not keeping anything from me, are you?"
"You worry too much, Hazel," said Sherry. She reached into her tote bag and pulled out a pack of Dunhills, its red and gold box a miniature jewel case.
Gram removed a hankie tucked beneath the belt of her dress and used it to pat the perspiration from her face. "Spoken like the baby of the family. When was
the last time you worried about anything except your hair and make-up?"
Sherry lit a cigarette, dropping the match into the pot of begonias. "Oh, boy, here we go."
Gram stood over me, her hand resting on my shoulder. "Buddy, you've been home all day. Why don't you help out your mama more?"
"I cleaned up the bathroom and scoured the kitchen sink, but Mama told me to hold off doing the other stuff until she got home. She likes to supervise."
"Well, if she's not careful, the lot of you will end up like those crazy Collyer brothers. The newspaper said they were found dead in their apartment, hidden by stacks of papers and magazines high as corn in August."
"Mama's not crazy." The words came out louder than I intended, as if saying them at the top of my voice would make them true.