November 22, 2016
It’s been nearly two years since I was diagnosed with aggressive, fast-growing breast cancer, and nearly a year since I completed “active” treatment. In my case, “active” treatment included four months of chemotherapy (1 drug for a year), a lumpectomy, and 33 radiation treatments. As of my last mammogram and check up a few weeks ago, I’m still cancer-free.
I’m incredibly lucky.
Four people I know died from cancer this year. I’ve had a difficult time making sense of their losses.
I’m so grateful to be here, even if I don’t understand why.
That’s what I want to write about.
When you survive cancer, everyone who knows and loves you is overjoyed and relieved. Collective deep exhale.
I’ve been somewhat reluctant to write about my cancer overmuch. Does the world need more cancer stories? We made it through so why, on some level, relive it?
Maybe because to fully understand my gratitude you need to understand the context in which I was given so much.
A week after my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove a cancerous lymph node(s) and to implant a port in my chest. The port, a quarter-sized catheter, was positioned just under my clavicle. Under my skin, the port had a septum through which my chemotherapy drugs would be injected directly into my jugular vein. Easy access for my medical team and no chance of collapsing arm veins for me.
I woke up from that surgery crying and saying, “It hurts.” And while I don’t remember that exact moment, I remember that for days afterward, I felt like I’d been kicked repeatedly in the chest.
When I had my first chemotherapy treatment a few days later (December 22), my girlfriend at the time, and a few dear friends, were with me. I had already been to “chemo class” as I called it, so I knew what the process looked like, and I had a notebook full of information, including three pages of side effects for each drug I’d receive through my port.
The nurse repeated the process to me and asked if I wanted the “cold spray” when she put my IV in. The “cold spray” temporarily numbs the skin. I said yes. Yes, please.
Needles have never really bothered me. I’m fine to have my blood drawn. But before the nurse put my IV in, I instinctively grabbed my girlfriend’s hand. In that moment, I think I needed grounding and connection and physical reassurance that I could endure everything that lay ahead. I think somehow I knew that once that IV went in, my life would change forever.
The nurse smiled, looked me in the eyes and said, “Take a deep breath for me.” I did and watched her arm draw back. She inserted the needle with the force necessary to penetrate the rubber pad beneath my skin. The sound it made going in was a deep, toneless “womp,” not unlike the sound a ripe melon makes when you thump it, which is actually the sound of your own body giving way to force, to intrusion. As she stepped near me to adjust the IV, I felt a wave of nausea wash over me, more from the sound than anything. I felt that sound deep within me, and I couldn’t believe how incredibly strange it was to have someone inside this most vulnerable part of my body.
In subsequent treatments, that wave of nausea was no longer an issue, but the strangeness of the experience itself remained. I realized later that whomever held my hand in those moments (a must for every treatment), always inhaled with me. We took that breath in tandem, I think, because on some level, we were all getting hit in the jugular.
Over the next four months, once my IV was in, we were in for a four to six hour-long process during which I received four drugs: Herceptin, Perjeta, Taxotere, and Carboplatin. Plus, we began with Benadryl to prevent any allergic reactions and a cocktail of anti-nausea meds.
While I was never able to tolerate Benadryl orally, it mostly just rendered me sleepy and slightly stoned intravenously. I got to know when it was kicking in. I’d feel like a veil was being drawn over me, some sort of strange Instagram-style cancer filter. My motor skills slowed; my speech slurred.
That was Day 1 of treatment.
I am so grateful to so many people, for so much.
When I see the people who were so present during my treatment now, they beam at me, hug me extra hard, sometimes with eyes glassy from joy. And I know we are all standing there thinking: “Can you fucking believe we made it?”
I just want everyone, everyone, to know how grateful I am for every moment, every email, every Tupperware of soup, every time you held my hand, or sent me good energy. Because here’s the thing: my gratitude hasn’t diminished. It continues to expand and grow.
March 28, 2016
I look up as we pause between stations.
Into her eyes, slate flecked with flame.
Seven seats between us.
Also acres, miles, millennia.
As one does when one locks eyes with a stranger, I pretend I didn’t.
I let my gaze drift to those beside her.
And then, long beat, to her.
I watch her expressions shift.
Brow knit, not.
Flashes of light through trees, shadows play across her face.
Patterned light then dark.
Like a hundred dreams I’ve never had.
Her hands fold, unfold.
Her eyes fixed on mine.
I forget transit etiquette.
I don’t look away.
I feel the question inside her,
Have we met?
No one speaks.
Internal circuits flicker off, on.
Time collapses against a backdrop of bakeries, bookstores, cafes, trees, blurred city.
She rises as we reach the next stop, her gaze still on mine.
She steps through the doors, looks back as they slide shut.
I smile, watch as she ascends stone stairs, into a crowd, into honeyed light.
The train moves toward Central.
August 2, 2015
P.S. Thanks for reading.
Mom invited Liam over two weeks later. She told us he was coming over to cook dinner. Scout was thrilled.
“Fun! I like Leem.”
“What’s he cooking?” I asked.
“Hmm, I don’t even know,” Mom mused. “He said he’s bringing everything over with him at four.”
“We’re eating at four?” I asked, incredulous.
“No,” Mom said, slowly. “I thought he’d come over. We’d all hang out for a while, and then he could cook dinner. OK?” she asked, eyeing me.
At exactly four, there was a knock on the door. Scout went tearing out into the kitchen to open it. “Leem’s here!”
I stayed on the couch in the family room while Mom walked out to the kitchen. I heard Mom say hello and heard Liam’s annoying accent. Scout was already in full tilt I was sure, smiling and batting her eyes. Gross.
Liam walked into the family room behind Mom with Scout attached to his hip practically.
“Hey there, Sara,” he said and sat down next to me.
God, he was big. His knees were almost up to his chin sitting on our couch. His thigh was wider than my whole body. He looked awkward.
“Hey,” I said finally.
Scout skipped over and perched herself on Liam’s right knee.
“Scout,” I started. “Get off Liam’s knee. He doesn’t want you drooling all over him.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Leem doesn’t care,” she said firmly. Liam shifted in his seat and laughed uncomfortably.
Mom sat in her rocking chair and shook her head. “Girls, knock it off, already.”
“Why don’t you guys go out on the porch and hang out and I’ll get us something to drink?” Mom said encouragingly.
“Great,” Liam said.
Oh God, I thought. This was just the worst.
We all walked outside, and Liam and Scout sat on the porch swing while I sat on the railing across from them.
“So, Sara,” Liam started. What is it that you do in that booth of yours when you come visit your Mom?”
“Nothing really,” I said flatly.
“That’s not true,” Scout said. “She draws pictures and writes stories about all the people in the diner.” I gave her the meanest look I could. She’d get a wicked pinch later under the dinner table.
“Is that so?” Liam asked, interested.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said lamely.
I’d like to see some of your drawings or stories sometime, if that’s OK,” he said.
Who did he think he was anyway?
“Leem,” Scout said, bored because she no longer had his undivided attention. “You wanna play?” She tossed him my soccer ball that was sitting under their swing.
“Is this yours, Scout?” he asked as he caught the ball.
“It’s mine,” I said clearly.
“Do you play football, Sara?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Girls don’t play football at my school. They’re not allowed.”
“Oh,” Liam said and laughed. “I’m mixed up. In Ireland, we call soccer ‘football.’ That’s what I meant. Do you play soccer?”
I had scored three goals just the other day against Jennifer Ellerbee, the toughest goalie in the county. I prayed that Scout would, for once, stay quiet.
“Sara won the game…” she started to blab.
“Yeah, I play,” I interrupted.
“Shall we have a kick around then, before I start dinner?” Liam asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Now he was in for it.
We walked down to the grass and started kicking the ball between us as Scout sat on the porch steps, mesmerized by this big lunk. I started kicking the ball a little harder each time, trying to get him to miss. He never did. He trapped each of my kicks quickly and neatly with his huge boots. It was hard to believe those giant feet could be gentle enough to control my hardest kicks. I started getting frustrated.
“Can I try to dribble past you and score?” I asked.
“Sure.” He passed the ball back to me.
This was it, I thought. Now I’d show him. I’d fake him out, leave him in the dust. I started dribbling slowly at first, taking my time to jog over to where Liam stood. I controlled the ball perfectly with my left foot, then, tap, tap with my right. I was in my groove. I came within two feet of him and started teasing him with the ball, kicking it back to myself if his foot ventured out too far. This would be easy, I thought.
I faked to my right and then cut quickly to the left to get around him. To my surprise, he moved right along with me, so I couldn’t get past him. I turned my back to strike the ball hard, another fake, but Liam didn’t flinch. He stood there, looking right into my eyes.
I felt my face flush as I backed up and tried again. This time, I lunged left with my body and nudged the ball to my right. He was right on me. He didn’t steal the ball, but I knew I couldn’t get past him this way.
I was angry and decided to push my way past him. I backed into his chest with a thud that made me catch my breath.
“God!” I said. “How much do you weigh, anyway?”
He didn’t say a word.
I leaned against him with every ounce of strength I had in me. He was a rock, unmovable.
I had no other choice, so I drew my foot back and kicked soundly into his left shin.
“Shiiiite!” he yelled and crumpled to the ground. “Jesus Mary Mother of God,” he groaned and grabbed his shin. I stood above him, motionless, eyes wide. Scout ran over to where Liam lay on the grass, moaning and rolling from side to side.
“Jeeze, Leem, you alright?” she said, concerned.
“Fine,” he squeaked. “Just brilliant.” He sat up, rubbing his shin and wincing.
Mom suddenly appeared at the top of the porch steps. “What’s happening out here?” she asked.
I felt my face get hot. Suddenly I felt sick.
“Your Sara,” Liam started. I held my breath. “She’s quite a footballer. Quite a scrapper.”
“Yeah,” Mom said, looking at me suspiciously. “She’s something alright. Are you in any shape to cook dinner?”
“Of course,” Liam said and stood up slowly. “And Sara here, even volunteered to help me while you and Scout relax.”
He looked down at me and winked. I smiled my fakest smile.
I walked slowly behind him up the porch steps and followed him into the kitchen, defeated.
“Do you know how to peel potatoes?” Liam asked as he put on Mom’s apron and washed his hands.
“Of course,” I said.
“Great, you do that then.” He handed me the peeler and a bag of potatoes.
I rolled up my sleeves, washed my hands and started peeling.
Liam started the fire under a large black skillet and began unloading the grocery bags he had brought with him. He placed a carton of eggs, bacon, cheese, onions, peppers, and sausage on the kitchen table.
“You’re making breakfast?” I asked sarcastically.
“It is the most important meal of the day,” he said in an announcer’s voice. He smiled.
I laughed. “Yeah, right.”
“I heard you and your sister were big sausage and pepper fans, so I’m going to make you the best omelette and fried potatoes you’ve ever had.”
“Scout’s allergic to eggs, you know,” I said seriously.
“Oh God, really?” he said sadly.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye.
“No, not really.” I smiled.
Liam laughed. “I see how it is with you, Scrapper.”
“So how did you learn to cook?” I asked, actually interested.
“My Ma taught me. I used to stand on a chair next to her while she fried bacon, boiled potatoes, baked cakes. I paid attention.”
“Does your Dad cook, too?” I asked.
“Don’t know, really. He never lived with us, so I just couldn’t tell you.”
We were silent for a while. I watched the thin, wet strips of potato skins pile up while Liam began cracking eggs into a light blue bowl. He grabbed the whisk from the drawer and began beating the eggs. I watched as his right hand blurred together with the whisk as the eggs went from clear goo to light, yellow froth. Huge hands, I thought.
Liam looked over at me. “You’re doing a fine job with the potatoes.” He leaned over to inspect my work. “Just brilliant.”
“Thanks,” I said, blushing and feeling dumb for blushing.
“Sorry if I hurt you before,” I said quietly, without looking at him.
Liam put out his massive, ruddy hand to shake mine.
I put down my peeler and shook his hand, the largest, cleanest hand I had ever seen.
July 31, 2015
Mom didn’t bring any guys home for close to a year after we saw Glenn at the fair. That was just fine with me and Scout, because Friday nights turned into “Girls’ Night In.” Mom would bring home sausage and pepper pizza after work, and Scout and I would pick the best movie on T.V. that night to watch. Mom and I would act out the funny scenes from the movies we had already seen while Scout jumped up and down on the bed, red-faced with laughter. “Again!” she cried when we finished a scene. “Do it again!”
That Sunday Mom was covering a shift at the diner for Lucy, one of her friends. Scout and I decided to walk downtown and visit her. Scout thought visiting Mom at the diner was heaven, because she could sit on the red vinyl counter stools, sip her strawberry milkshake through two straws, and bat her big chocolate eyes at all the truck drivers sitting near her. I liked to go because I got to sit in a booth by myself and watch everyone around me. Sometimes I wrote stories about the different people sitting around me, or I’d draw pictures of the fat truckers and show them to Mom when she passed by to give her a laugh.
She sat down next to me in the booth on her break. “You wanna meet the new cook?”
“What happened to the old cook?”
“Old Jimmy finally retired. He’s probably sunning himself on the beaches of Florida even as we speak.”
“Oh. So who is this new guy?” “Liam,” she said quickly.
“What?” “Liam,” she said a bit louder.
“That’s a weird name.” I scrunched up my nose.
“It’s Irish. He’s from Ireland. From Dublin.”
“Oh,” I said flatly, now bored.
“C’mon.” She grabbed my hand. “C’mon, Scout,” she said as we walked past the counter where Scout was flirting with yet another fat truck driver. “Let’s go meet Liam.”
“Who’s Leem?” she asked and jumped up. We walked through the kitchen door onto the greasy black and white til floor. To our left, Henry, the dishwasher, was up to his elbows in hot, sudsy water. He clanked the white plates together and looked up when he saw us. Sweat ran down from his receding hairline into his eyebrows. “Well, hello, ladies,” he said and smiled.
“Hey, Henry!” Scout and I shot right back.
Just then we heard the sound of things falling and a yell from the pantry. “Shite!” a big, husky voice boomed.
“What’s shite?” Scout asked Mom. “Nothing,” Mom said and rolled her eyes at Henry, who was trying not to laugh. I was confused.
“Hey, Liam, why don’t you come out here and meet my girls?” A massive figure emerged from the pantry dressed in black and white checked pant, black work boots and a white cook’s jacket. It must have been seven feet tall. It took up the whole doorway.
There stood the largest man I had ever seen. His face was flushed as if he’d just run a race. His hair was a tangled mass of straw-colored tufts, sticking up here and there. He blinked his khaki-green eyes a few times before he opening his mouth to speak.
“Hello, garls,” he said with a thick accent. Neither Scout nor I could speak. Scout’s eyes were so wide I thought they’d pop out of her head. Mom nudged me. “Hi,” I said, almost to myself. Scout just stood there, staring.
Liam smiled. “How are ya?” Scout piped up, “Hey, how come you talk so funny?” I bopped her lightly on the top of her head from behind.
“Jeeze, Scout.” Mom and Liam laughed; I shook my head.
“Liam’s from Ireland, Scout,” Mom tried to explain. “He speaks with an Irish accent, that’s all. It’s called a brogue.”
“Really?” Scout said, now enthralled. “Say something else,” she demanded.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked.
Scout laughed. “You’re funny!”
Liam caught me looking him up and down. “Is there something on me?” he asked.
“No, why?” “You’re looking at me like I’m covered in horseshite or something.”
I was mortified. Scout cracked up. “You’re funny!” she yelled.
Mom walked over and put her arm around me. “You want Liam to fix you something to eat? I have to get back to work.”
“No, I’m not hungry,” I lied.
“It’s no bother, Sara,” Liam said.
“I’m ok, thanks.”
“Hey, Leem,” Scout started. “I wanna hamburger. Can you make me a hamburger and french fries?”
“Scout, stay out of Liam’s way no, you hear?” Mom walked back out to dining room. Scout wasn’t listening. She was sitting on the counter following Liam’s every move as he dropped her hamburger patty onto the sizzling grill.
Liam looked at me as I walked out of the kitchen. “I’ll see you later then, Sara.”
“Yeah, later.” I walked back to the booth, my stomach growling at me.
July 28, 2015
My apologies for the delay. It’s a long story, and I’ll get to sharing that soon. In the meantime…If you’ve been reading this short story, thank you so much. If you’re just starting, you may like to start at the beginning with parts one, two, three, four and five. And now, part six.
Scout and I jogged back across the field in the direction of the huge, glowing ferris wheel where Mom and Carmine were waiting. As we got closer, I could see Mom and Carmine standing face to face. Mom’s arms were waving wildly about, just the way they do when she’s real mad or when she’s talking about something really exciting. As we got within earshot, I could Carmine yelling at Mom.
“For such a beautiful woman, you’ve got an awfully dirty mouth,” he said.
“I don’t see that one thing has anything at all to do with the other,” Mom said loudly, her right hand flailing. She whipped a Kool out of nowhere and lit up quickly.
“You embarrassed me,” Carmine whined, sounding like a spoiled brat.
“Oh, Jesus,” Mom said, looking over and noticing us for the first time. “Hey, girls,” she said quickly.
“Carmine, you’re gonna have to get over it,” Mom said, sounding suddenly tired. “C’mon,” she said, motioning to us, “let’s get outta here.”
She blew a huge cloud of smoke above her head, and we watched carefully as the billows of smoke drifted right down into Carmine’s face.
“Take that nasty shit out of your mouth,” Carmine growled and ripped Mom’s Kool out of her mouth and stamped it out with the tip of his black boot.
Scout gasped, and I hollered, “Hey!”
Mom grabbed Carmine’s wrist suddenly and spoke quietly but clearly, never once waving her arms.
“Don’t you ever pull that crap with me. You better find some passive little thing to manhandle. My life is too short to spend time with the likes of you.” She dropped his wrist and looked right into his eyes.
“C’mon, girls,” she said, still looking at him. “Let’s go home.”
I picked Scout up in one arm as Mom grabbed my free hand. Carmine just stood there, like he was frozen in place, not moving or talking. Maybe no one had ever put him in his place before. Maybe he just dumb as dirt like I thought.
Mom lit up another Kool and inhaled deeply as we walked toward the road. “What an ass,” she murmured, almost to herself. “Of course, you knew that already, didn’t you, Sara? You always do.” She kissed the top of my head lightly.
I glanced over at Scout whose face was pointing back in Carmine’s direction. She was sticking out her tongue and scowling as Carmine got smaller and smaller.
It took us the better part of an hour to walk home. By the time we walked up the driveway, Mom was carrying Scout, who was dead asleep, on her shoulder. I walked quietly with Mom back to Scout’s bedroom. I pulled the shade down on the window and pulled her pajamas out of her dresser drawer as Mom carefully undressed Scout’s limp, sleeping body. Mom laid Scout’s head back onto her pillow and pulled the covers up to her chin. Her hand went automatically to Scout’s head to play with her hair. I could only see Mom’s dark silhouette over Scout’s bed since we hadn’t turned on any lights, but I knew just what she was doing. She’d done it for me a million times.
“Night, Scoutie,” Mom whispered. I bent down and kissed her sweaty hair.
Scout rolled over to her side and mumbled, “Mmm, racin’ man.”
“Do you want some milk?” Mom asked as I sat down at the kitchen table.
“Yeah,” I said.
“So did y’all go see the races tonight?” She put a glass of milk in front of me. “Is that what Scout was muttering about?”
“Mmmhmm,” I hummed and took a big gulp of milk. I breathed in deeply. “Mom, Glenn was racing tonight. We saw him. I even talked to him,” I said fast, waiting to see what she would do.
She looked down at the table and began running her hand across it. She sighed deeply and when she finally looked up at me, I could see the tears sitting on the edge of her eyelashes.
“So how is old Glenn?” she asked, sounding tired.
“He’s alright. He’s been racing for a while now. He came in second tonight.”
“Is that right?” she said, her face brightening. “That’s funny. That’s great, I guess.”
“Glenn said he used to sneak out to see the races when he and his brother were kids,” I said.
Mom chuckled and reached for her Kools. “That doesn’t surprise me a bit,” she said and smiled. “He always loved fast cars. I guess it’s hard for you to remember him. You only ever got to see him at night for a few minutes anyway. He must’ve seemed like a dream to you.”
I looked up at her, wondering how she knew.
“There would be whole weeks when all I’d see of him was the back of his curly head as he got out of bed,” she said. I remember when he came to see me out of the blue at the diner one morning when I was real busy.” She looked past me, to the clock on the wall.
“He came in, sat in my section and everything. I walked over to him, saw that sad mile on his face that had become permanent, saw those dark circles under his eyes, saw him — in daylight, for the first time in, God, I don’t even know how long, and I thought, ‘I don’t know this man at all.'”
She took a long drag on her cigarette and held the smoke for a long minute before blowing it up toward the ceiling fan. “We had just become strangers, isn’t that funny? Strangers who are married and have two kids together? She laughed sadly. “I was so angry when he left. Angry that he left you girls. Angry that I didn’t even know my own husband anymore. Angry because I lost the best friend I’d ever had.”
I stared at her for a minute, seeing the two tears that had run down her left cheek and made a tiny puddle on the table. “I was mad, too,” I said softly. “When I first saw him tonight, I was so mad, but when I talked to him and really looked at him, I couldn’t be mad anymore, you know?”
She smiled and nodded. “Guess there isn’t much room left for anger, is there? Maybe there never was. Honey, Glenn and I changed, that’s all. God willing, maybe we even grew up a little, too.”
She laughed again, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Your Dad and I are very different people, Sara. We have different lives.”
“I know,” I said quietly.
She grabbed my hand, held it between hers and said, “You always do.”
August 22, 2014
Last summer, Mom and Carmine, the town’s plumber and Mom’s latest pinky-ringed date, took Scout and me to the county fair in Montgomery. Mom even let Scout and me go off by ourselves, which was great; otherwise we would’ve spent the whole night pretending to be impressed by Carmine trying to win us pink stuffed elephants by knocking over milk bottles or shooting B.B.s at some paper star.
By ourselves, Scout and I had a super time riding the Scrambler five times until Scout hollered, “I’m gonna puke!” and the guy running the ride said maybe we should take a break, so we did and walked around the fair in amazement watching people and lights. Scout held on tightly to my hand because the fair was so crowded with kids screaming at their parents for money, moustached men buying raffle tickets and couples like Mom and Carmine trying too hard to have fun.
We ended up sitting on the hood of one of the race cars over at the track, eating caramel apples. I watched Scout real carefully so she didn’t get caramel stuff smeared on her overalls. I overheard some people saying there was a race about to start, so Scout and I lay back on the hood of a car, a black Ford Thunderbird with Red Man Tobacco painted on it in big white letters. I sat up when I finished my apple and was about to throw the core onto the track when I heard a voice yell, “Hey, Glenn, you almost ready?”
No way, I thought. I looked hard in the direction of the voice and saw a man in a black jumpsuit with curly brown hair crouched over the engine of a red Thunderbird. I felt something in my stomach drop for a second, and I swallowed hard.
“Hey, Scout,” I said, trying to sound cool and relaxed. “Let’s go check out that car, c’mon.” I slid off the car and stood in front of her. Her face was covered in sticky caramel but her overalls were still spotless.
“O.K.,” she said. “Piggyback?” she asked coyly.
“Fine, c’mon.” She hooked her legs around my waist and draped her right arm around my neck. Her half-eaten caramel apple she held out stiffly like she was the Statue of Liberty holding her torch or something. “Don’t get any of that sticky crap in my hair,” I shot back over my shoulder as we walked closer and closer to the man in the jumpsuit.
As we got nearer, I knew it was Glenn. This man tilted his head the same way Glenn used to when he was listening hard to the sound of the engine, trying to figure out what was wrong. A big fat man with a beard was standing next to him and looked at us strangely as we stopped walking next to the car.
“Whaddya y’all want?” the fat man asked suspiciously.
“We’re just looking around,” I said. “Is this car in the race?”
“Yeah,” the man said proudly. “And you’re in luck, ’cause this man right here is the driver. Gonna win big tonight, huh, Glenn?” The fat man chuckled, nudging the man slightly.
Glenn stood up, laughing easily and turned to face us. My stomach lurched again, and I almost dropped Scout.
“Well, my God,” he said quietly, his green eyes shining. “My God, look who’s here. Lookit you girls,” he said, smiling broadly now.
“Hey, Glenn,” I said, my voice high and nervous. “Scout, this is Da-, this is Glenn, ‘member? Here, get down and say hi, “I said, letting her slide off my back.
“Wow, Scout,” Glenn said. “How are ya? You got so big. Whatcha up to?” he said and walked a step toward her, stopping a foot in front of her and bending over.
Scout looked at his jumpsuit and reached out to trace the letters of his name stitched in white cursive letters. “Your name,” she said quietly, smiling slightly. She stopped suddenly and backed up into me, shyly. Glenn stopped walking. “You remember me, Scout?” he asked.
Scout moved next to me and grabbed onto my left hand. She kicked at the gravel and sent a cloud of dust up. She shook her head.
She didn’t remember him.
“Yeah, well, that’s fine,” Glenn said. He looked uncomfortable all of a sudden. I was glad and felt guilty about it.
“So, are you racing tonight?” I asked. I ran my hand along the cool smoothness of his car, nervous.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said happily. “I’ve been racing for a while now. I’m doing pretty well. I’ve had some good races, won a couple. You know, I’m no Mario Andretti or nothing, but I’m finally racing it. I’m really doing it.”
“I never knew you wanted to race,” I said, looking right at him.
“Well, yeah, I spent lots of time here when I was a kid,” he said slowly. “I remember my brother and I used to sneak out of the house when we were kids and hitchhike out here to see the races. I fell in love with those cars. We used to stand right next to the track and when the cars passed, I could feel the engines vibrating through me. It was wild.” His face was flushed and he looked down at the ground. He looked like Scout when she got her two-wheeler on Christmas morning. He looked so happy.
“Wow, that’s something.” I said.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said and nodded. “So Miss Sara, how are you? What grade are you in now?”
I looked straight at him. “You know when I was born, don’t you?” I said coldly. “How old am I?”
He turned his face toward the track and swallowed. “Yeah, I guess I should know how old you are, shouldn’t I? I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what?” I asked looking at him and wondering who the man in this black jumpsuit was.
Glenn sighed and smiled. “You girls…” he started and then looked at me. “I was so unhappy working all those nights, Sara. I hardly ever saw the sun, isn’t that weird? I worked on those cars all night and never got to drive one of them. Now all I do is drive them.” He stuck his hands deep in his pockets and started shifting his weight from foot to foot.
This man in the black jumpsuit was my father. This man in the black jumpsuit had another dream, and it had nothing to do with us.
“I’m in the seventh grade,” I said suddenly. “I like my English class a whole lot.” I looked over and saw Scout peering in at the car’s engine.”
“That’s, oh, that’s great, Sara,” Glenn said. “You guys wanna watch the race?”
“Maybe for a little bit,” I said. “Hey Scout, you wanna watch Glenn race for a while?”
“Yeah!” she said.
So Scout and I stood right next to the gate during the race and could feel the engines pounding through us. It was pretty cool. Scout kept yelling, “Go, go, go!” to no one in particular. We both jumped up and down when the checkered flag came down.
Glenn came in second place, just a few feet behind Jerry Briggs. It was almost ten-thirty. We hand meet Mom and Carmine by the ferris wheel soon. We walked by Glenn’s car and saw him standing with a bunch of guys grinning and shaking hands. He was sweaty and dirty, his brown hair curling tightly around his face. I caught his eye as we passed him and stopped for a second. He looked right at me and smiled that same sunny grin I used to think was a dream. He winked at me, and I sent one right back.
“Hey, Scout,” I said, picking her up. “Wave bye to Glenn.” I held her up so she could see him over the tops of everyone’s heads.
“Bye, racin’ man!” she hollered.
August 8, 2014
Mom started dating six months after Glenn left. She would shower right after dinner on Friday night while Scout and I lay on her bed having pillow fights and singing along with her Patsy Cline records. Mom would come out of the shower in her faded blue bathrobe with her head wrapped in a towel like a turban. She’d sing along with Patsy in her throaty voice while she picked a dress out of her closet. Scout and I always got the final word on what she was wearing. She looked prettiest in her blue dress because it brought out her shining grey eyes, and we always told her so.
She’d sit down on the bed with us to pull on her nylons and moan, “Nylons are God’s curse to women, girls.” She’d pick Scout up then and the three of us would dance into the bathroom to do hair and makeup.
Mom blew dry her hair, using her fingers to sweep her dirty blonde hair back into gentle waves. It always fell perfectly to the tops of her shoulders. It was such a change to see her with her hair done, since most of the time it was pulled back in a loose ponytail with just small wisps hanging around her face. With her hair down, she looked like a model in one of the fashion magazines.
Scout always sat on the counter near the sink when Mom put on her makeup. I sat on the toilet lid and watched as she applied mascara with a tiny brush. Scout asked to have some makeup put on her every time.
“I want some lipstick, Ma.” she’d say.
I rolled my eyes. “Scout. Really…”
Mom laughed and put the teeniest bit on Scout’s puckered lips. Scout look up at us, bat her eyes, and say, “I’m beyooooootiful!” Mom and I just laughed.
When Mom finished with her makeup, she’d look at me and say, “Is that enough gunk?” and then spray her wrists with her favorite perfume, White Lace.
She walked out to her closet and grabbed her purse and shoes as Scout and I ran and flopped back on her bed.
“Well..” she said, “Do I pass inspection?”
“Yes,” we always said.
She looked so beautiful I felt we shouldn’t even touch her. She was perfect, and neither of us could stop looking at her. She dug into the depths of her purse and fished out a Kool and lit up. “Ready!” she announced.
She’d sit on the edge of the bed with us and sing Patsy songs until there a knock on the back door or a honk from the driveway. Then, once again, it was time to greet the geek.
July 29, 2014
That night when Scout was finally asleep, and I was tossing and turning in my bed, Glenn told Mom is was her fault that Scout got hurt.
“Why weren’t you watching the baby?” he demanded.
“Dear God, Glenn, I can’t watch them every single minute of the day. I feel awful as it is. Accidents happen. Don’t you blame this on me.”
“Who else am I supposed to blame?” he yelled.
“Who gets them up in the morning? Mom started yelling. “Do you? No. Who makes their meals? Do you? Who takes care of them all day, every day? Do you? Are you ever here? Do you ever help? Where the hell were YOU?”
And then Glenn muttered something I couldn’t hear and walked to their bedroom. I sat in bed motionless, waiting. Ten minutes later I heard Glenn’s Ford truck crunching over the gravel, and I knew he wasn’t coming back. Ever.
I guess we were too much for him.
Mom told me the next day that Glenn had left and probably wouldn’t be back.
“It’ll be alright,” she said, looking at me with puffy eyes. “I’m gonna take care of everything. Who loves you, Sara?”
I looked down at my French toast, too shy and hurt to look at her. “You do,” I whispered.
Scout started sleeping with me a week or so after Glenn left. It’s like she knew even though she was just two. I’d cuddle her up next to me and stroke her hair. Sometimes she’d wake me up and say, “Sawa, I scare.”
“Go back to sleep.”
“No,” she’d say louder. “Monstas in here.”
“There are not.”
“Yes, go see Mommy.”
We’d walk tiptoe into Mom’s room and shake her shoulder slightly. It got to be a bit of a ritual during those early months after Glenn left. She’d groan and roll over to look at us. “Monster alert?” she’d ask. We nodded.
She sat up, grabbed a Kool from her bedside table, lit up and walked us to the back door with her hands on top of our heads. “Wait here,” she said and walked to the closet to get Glenn’s shotgun.
Scout and I stood shivering on the cold linoleum floor from anticipation as Mom loaded two shots into the gun. “Are they in the back field again, Scout?”
“Yes,” Scout whispered bravely.
Mom kicked open the back door with her bare foot and started hollering out into our back field, an acre or so of land that seemed harmless enough during the day.
“O.K., monsters,” Mom would yell into the blackness. “Get outta here or else!”
Scout and I covered our ears as Mom pumped two shots into the dark. It’s a good thing our closest neighbors were a half mile away and knew about “monster alerts.” The shots echoed from the woods, and Scout and I stood there blinking as Mom walked calmly back to the closet, emptied the gun, and locked it back up.
“I feel better,” she said to us. “How about y’all?”
We nodded, still wide eyed.
“Good, then let’s hit the hay,” she said and stamped out her Kool.
July 24, 2014
If you’re just starting this reading adventure, start with part one. Here’s part two:
My father, Glenn, left us when I was seven and Scout was just two. I don’t remember seeing him much, because he worked nights fixing cars over in Montgomery. I remember sometimes he used to come and sit at the edge of my bed when he came home from work. I always woke up because even in my sleep I could smell the mix of gasoline and metal on his jacket. I’d open my eyes, and he’d be sitting there in the dark patting my back or playing with my hair. For years when I was little I thought Glenn was just a dream, not even real.
“Hey,” I’d say.
“Hey yourself,” he’d whisper.
“Lemme see your hands,” I always demanded.
He’d give me one of his enormous hands, and I’d sit up and look at it. It was always rough and scratchy and even in the dark I could make out the oil and dirt under his short nails. I’d run my hands over the lines of his palm and try to memorize them while he pulled a Camel from his shirt and lit up with the other hand.
“That dirt won’t ever come off all the way, will it?” I asked every night.
“Nope,” he said easily. “It’s here to stay. Now, roll over, rugrat, and get you some more sleep.”
I’d let go of his hand, and he’d pat my back until I fell back asleep.
The only time I remember seeing him in the daytime was when Scout tripped and her head on the corner of the coffee table and cracked her head open. I remember Mom being so calm as she scooped Scout up off the floor screaming and gushing blood from her forehead. I thought Scout was dying, and I started bawling.
“Sara,” Mom said firmly. “She’s gonna be fine. Now run and call Glenn and tell him to meet us at the emergency room.”
When Glenn got to the emergency room, I was sitting in a beige plastic chair swinging my feet and biting my fingernails. Mom was behind a yellow curtain with Scout and the doctor. They were giving Scout 10 stitches, and she howled and sobbed like they were killing her. Glenn walked up to where I was sitting and I looked up, surprised to see him suddenly there. His curly brown hair was wild and windblown, and the skin above his green eyes was pinched and tense. He looked scared and pale.
“Where’s the baby?”
“Behind the curtain with Mom. They’re giving her stitches. That’s her crying,” I said, my voice breaking.
He sat down next to me and pulled me onto his lap. I leaned against him, exhausted, and started tracing the red cursive letters on his jacket. G, L, E, N, N, over and over.
“You girls…” he said softly into my hair. “Sometimes I can’t hardly take it.”
July 18, 2014
I recently came upon a short story I wrote during my senior year of college. I can’t share this story without thanking my professor, Dr. Bob Ready. His early encouragement, suggestions, and thoughtful questions helped me craft a story that I think still works. Maybe you can let me know if it does. I’m going to share it in bits, so, here’s part one:
Mom always says that men are pretty dumb and that neither me or Scout, my little sister, should ever expect anything from them other than “heartache and headaches.” It’s funny she always that to us and then goes off every Friday night with some greasy loser from town with a limp handshake and a plastic grin.
The last guy she brought home, Earl, was just pitiful. Black hair slicked back, and the dumbest gold ring on his pinky he kept pointing at us whenever he said anything. He thought he was so cool when he lit up his Marlboro until I pointed out to him that he had lit the wrong end. Mom had shot me a look and laughed her fake laugh to Earl, and me and Scout almost threw up right there. I hate it when she laughs like that; it sounds like a sick hyena or that dumb Marjorie James from class who’s always sucking up to the boys. I managed to give Earl the finger while Mom was putting on her lipstick which Scout thought was the funniest thing ever. Stupid old Earl just grinned and nodded. After he figured out which way to light his cigarette, Mom all but pushed him out the door. She knew we hated him; we hated all of them. Mom stuck her head back in the kitchen and shook it at us.
“Honestly, girls, he’s an O.K. guy. Give me a little credit, huh?”
Scout stuck out her tongue and began to pout.
“He’s too greasy,” I said. “And that ring is the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a crucifix ring,” Mom said. “He’s Catholic,” she whispered, like it was some secret. “I’m leaving,” she said suddenly. “Bed at 9:30. No fighting. No horror movies. Who loves you?”
I rolled my eyes. Scout stopped pouting long enough to shout, “You do!”
The screen door slammed as she disappeared into the dark. We could hear Hank Williams, Jr. hollering out of Earl’s Duster as they backed down the gravel driveway. Mom says Patsy Cline is the only country music worth listening to. Hank Williams. Barf.