Do or Die
I get home from work and she’s still sitting in the recliner where she was when I left this morning. She’s watching Jerry Springer with the volume up as high as it’ll go. The smell of cooking oil is heavy in the small, dark apartment. She barely looks at me and I go into the kitchen to see what there is to eat. A grease stained paper towel covers a plastic plate. Two fried pork chops sit in a congealing mass. There’s a covered pot on the stove. I lift the lid and peer inside. Rice and Tomatoes mixed together. Her favorite. I put one of the pork chops on another plate, scoop a glop of the cold rice and tomatoes next to the pork chop, and place the plate inside the grease filmed microwave oven. I punch in one minute and forty seconds and then press the start button. I get the glass pickle jar from on top of the refrigerator and dump my day’s tips onto the pile of loose change already inside. The coins clink and clank like tiny chains. I put the top back on the pickle jar and spin it closed.
Chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” blast from the television.
"Hey! That shit is too loud,” I yell.
“What?” she yells back.
“Too loud!” I scream back.
Oh, hell. I go into the living room, pick up the remote from the coffee table. The dark wood varnished table is covered with white discolored rings. She refuses to use coasters. I turn the television volume down until I can finally hear myself think. The picture on the screen shows a short man licking whipped cream off the body of a fat woman in a bikini while Jerry looks on with the microphone in his hand.
She looks up at me, “Why’d you do that?”
“Too loud,” I say and go back into the kitchen. She follows me, shuffling her feet in her once fuzzy pale blue slippers. The slippers are now as worn as she is. I grit my teeth. I hate it when she shuffles her feet.
“I cooked pork chops,” she offers.
“Rice and tomatoes too.”
“I saw that too. Thanks.” The microwave dings. I reach for the plate and burn my finger. I left it in too long. I grab a dishcloth and carry the plate to the table.
I place the plate on the red and white checked plastic table cloth. Like everything else in this apartment it’s seen better days. I grab a mismatched fork and knife from the drawer next to the sink and I sit down. My head hurts. She sits across from me in the only other chair at the table.
“Your day go good?” she asks.
“It was okay,” I answer. I hold the piece of meat down with the fork and saw into it with the knife. It’s like trying to saw into a cowboy boot. I stuff a piece of the pork chop into my mouth and crunch on a piece of fried fat. I shovel some of the rice and tomatoes into my mouth. This shit is going to give me heartburn. She knows that.
“Marty called,” she says.
“Oh, yeah. What’d he want? More money?”
"No, he just wanted us to know that Linda is out of jail.”
“For how long this time?”
She lights a cigarette. I glare at her.
“I told you I don’t want you smoking in the house.” I say.
“Sorry.” She takes a puff and then drops the cigarette into a cup on the table. The cigarette hisses out.
“And don’t use cups as ashtrays. That’s just nasty.”
“You ever gonna be nice again?” she asks.
I get up and scrape my almost untouched food into the trash can. ’Probably not,” I tell her.
I go into the bathroom and peel off my work clothes, and then my panties and bra.
I fill the tub with hot water and ease my aching body down into the rust stained tub. Chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” blast from the television again. She can’t hear worth a
damn. I slide down until the hot water covers my breasts. I soak the weariness out of my body while the water cools, and then I slip my head down until I am submerged. It’s quiet under the water. Peaceful. I feel like the Lady of the Lake. I come out of the water just long enough to take a breath and then slip back under. I wish I could stay here forever.
But I have to take care of her. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t know how I got elected for this shit job. Hell, she’s not even my mother, she’s Rich’s, but he’s gone. He left me his Mama, a battered Chevy, and a house going into foreclosure, and no life insurance.
“Damn Skippy, you did, Rich,” I say out loud. I have been talking to myself a lot lately. I wonder if that’s normal.
I get out of the tub and dry off and then slip into a t-shirt and my gray sweat pants.
When I come out of the bathroom, she’s still watching television. Some old seventies sitcom. M*A*S*H maybe? I used to like M*A*S*H. Yeah, there’s Hawkeye. She doesn’t even look at me as I walk over to the television and turn it down.
“I can’t hear it now,” she complains
“Yeah, and neither can the people in Alaska,” I say.
“You don’t like me,” she says.
“It’s not a question of liking you, Stella. I’m just tired and the t.v’s too loud.”
“Rich didn’t care if it was loud.”
“Well, I’ve got news, Mama Stella- Rich is dead.”
She flinches like I’ve just struck her with the back of my hand and suddenly I feel bad. She hasn’t got anyone else, but how in the hell did I end up with her? I hate Rich. If he wasn’t in ParkWay Cemetery, I’d probably kill his sorry ass.
She starts to cry. Now I really feel bad. But I know better than to try and calm her. She’ll just cry louder and harder. I go into the kitchen and open the tip jar. I sit at the
table, empty the jar out on the picnic checked table cloth, and start separating the coins into neat piles; pennies there, nickels there, dimes and then quarters. I count the pennies
until I have fifty and then slide them into the red penny sleeve. I tuck the pennies in tight and then close the ends tight. I can hear her sniffle a few times from the other room. I
continue rolling coins and try to ignore her. When I finish rolling the pennies, I start on the nickels. When the pickle jar is empty I have seventy one dollars rolled. I get up quietly from the table, careful not the let the chair scrape against the linoleum, and walk over to the kitchen doorway. I peer into the living room. She’s sleeping in the recliner, her head lolled to the side.
I go back into the kitchen and kneel down in front of the sink. I open the lower left cabinet door. I push the container of Comet and squirt bottle of Glass Plus aside, then reach way back into the cabinet until my fingers locate the cloth bag. I pull it out. I take the bag to the table and unroll it. I quietly put the newly rolled coins inside with the rest and then roll the bag back up. I kneel down and push it back into the dark recesses of the cabinet and then arrange the cleaners in front again before closing the door. I brush off my hands and silently calculate how much I have now. Let’s see Tuesday I had fifty. I added seventy-five on Wednesday and then yesterday sixty. There was already two hundred and fifteen dollars from the two weeks before. With today’s seventy-one that brings me to four hundred and eighty dollars. In two and a half more weeks I should have enough, if I work double shifts like I’ve been doing. I only need about a thousand dollars.
That’s all, just a thousand, and then I can get out of this town. Down to the ocean where the rich folks live in Gulf Shores. Where it’s sunny and warm and I can walk on the beach, the real beach, and let the sea water rush over my bare feet, gaze out over the horizon while the sun sets and the sky turns all pink and red. I can listen to the sea gulls cry, smell the salt air, and feel the sand between my toes. I might even drink a margarita with salt around the rim. I heard they’re good. I can make a go of it there. I know I can. I’m a good waitress and rich people always need waitresses. Don’t they? Find some
cheap apartment. I don’t need much.
But what about her? I’ll just leave her here. Someone will find her. Someone will
take care of her. I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t. I’m forty-six years old. If I don’t get out now, I’ll never get out. Never once in my life have I ever seen the ocean. When Rich and I first got married he promised he’d take me. But he never did. And there were no babies for me to cuddle and raise. After six years of trying, we found out we couldn’t have babies. We didn’t talk much after that. Those first six years were pretty good though. The best I ever had. But six years don’t make up for the twenty-three lost ones. I deserve something. Damn right I do.
I walk into the living room drying my hair with the ratty towel and she’s still sleeping. I go to wake her so she can go to bed. The minute I touch her, I know. I put my hand over her breastbone. No
heartbeat. Her chest is still. No breathe moves in and out from her tired old body. The old lady finally did me a favor. Then I feel a tinge of guilt. She never asked for any of this to happen. She was as blameless as a baby. I guess I should maybe call someone.
I look at the television. Another episode of M*A*S*H is still on. Hawkeye is wearing his Hawaiian shirt. I wonder if they wear Hawaiian shirts in Gulf Shores?
To San Antone in ’77
We jackknifed our way through the 70s,
all denim hugged, the smell of pot sticking to us like tape,
Electric dreams of electric guitars & drums
& satin and corduroy
& we rocked & swayed & nodded,
certain in our youth
that the music would never end.
We would never end.
We chugged from a common bottle of grape M.D
and marched to convention centers,
where Muddy slid onto stage
like a great black snake and
captured us skinny kids in his E chord.
And Gibbons Tube Snaked,
and Angus Bad Boy Boogied
and we couldn’t get enough.
We wrote each other’s names on brown bagged books
and carved deep into table tops with dried out pens,
we rated one another as FOX or FINE
and passed hot boxed cigarettes between classes & murmured about:
Who fucked who
Who had weed
Who wore Levis
Who got busted
Who got pregnant
Who broke up
Who had Moxy.
We squirmed through thin bedroom windows
into the cricket chirped damp midnights
and got high in a church parking lot.
That night the cops showed up
& made Julie stand in front of the headlights of the patrol car
like a spotlight shining on stage
searching for a bag stuffed down tight pants.
Then ordered, “Get out of here!”
So we ran through the streets to the playground &
took turns on the swings trying to touch
I let go in midair & sliced
through the darkness like a switchblade.
And we laughed & sang & drank
and crept back though windows,
like the drunk clumsy kids we were,
damp from early morning dew,
as the ink sky turned to salmon.
Today I woke and found that 40 yrs have passed.
The denim is tattered and I smell of Ben Gay & broken promises
& dead lavender.
The veins show through my tissue skin
and the world is quiet in a loud way.
The swings are frozen,
the cops are dead,
pot costs too much,
and the guitars are buzzing with feedback.
I slept like Rip Van Winkle
and woke to me
behind another face.
I cut the air with razor precision
trying to slice into a time door
but Muddy is gone,
the stages are silent,
and the M.D has been vomited out
behind garbage dumpsters.
And the smell of weed &
angst & heartbreak & longing & bravado
no longer clings to my fingertips.
I pet the dog, take my nightly pills
and wish like hell
I could still squeeze through that window
and run into the damp slick night
while the heavy dew clogs my lungs
It's 4:30 in the morning and I'm lying awake next to my snoring husband thinking of Howard. I can't sleep for thinking of Howard. My eyes watch numbers flip on the digital clock and still I think of Howard. My eyes long to close and drift into the pull of sleep, but Howard won't stop poking at my brain. Maybe if I give in and stop fighting he'll go away and leave me to rest. So here is Howard...
Howard is thirty-eight years old, six feet tall in his stocking feet, and he sweats too much. Howard is single because his wife left him for his former business partner seven years previously. He lives out of a suitcase and his suits always look a bit rumpled, even after he irons them. Howard smokes Pall Mall cigarettes and he makes his living as a mediocre door-to-door salesman hawking fake leather Bibles and framed pictures of Jesus. He's happiest when he's driving down a country road with the car window down and the autumn breeze is blowing through his thinning brown hair. Howard likes to listen to Hank Williams on the car radio and he has such a fear of snakes that it borders on a phobia. Howard has a nervous habit of tap tap tapping his finger on a desk, a car dashboard, or a diner table when he is nervous. He's never tasted a kiwi, nor ever heard of one, and he's only made love to six women in his life. He never served in the war because his left leg is one inch shorter than his right and he has a slight heart murmur. Howard is very self conscious of not ever having served his country and is glad his dad died at the start of the war so he wouldn't have to duck his head in the hardware store over his son's disgrace. Howard's birthday is in April and he hates the color purple. He has a slight case of eczema on his elbows that flares up every winter. His favorite flower is a daisy.
I know all of this because I created Howard. He is the star protagonist in my next short story. He is a figment of my imagination, or maybe I'm a figment of his. Whichever. Howard is getting ready to have a very exciting adventure into which I will breathe life into. It's going to be bumpy ride. Extremely bumpy. So, now that Howard has come to life, so to speak, I can finally sleep.
Are you satisfied Howard? Good. Go away. I'll see you tomorrow.