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.
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.”
I recently read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, who died at age 39 of pneumonia and septic shock.
This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book full of grief; vivid, happy memories – and a long list of questions about what it means to be a mother, a writer, an aging woman, and the surviving member of your own family.
For a few weeks after I read Blue Nights, I found myself thinking nonstop about how old, or rather young, Quintana was when she died, mostly, I’m sure, because I am the same age. I thought of my mother and where she was at 39. It was 1976 – she was married, had three children: ages 16, 9, and 4 (me), and was making beds and dinners and building people. I cannot fathom what my life would have been like had we lost my Mom when was 39, any more than I can imagine what my Mom would do if she lost me right now.
The truth is, none of us can fathom loss, expected or sudden, until we are in the midst of it – and even then it carries a surreal quality that, at times, feels so foreign we catch ourselves watching ourselves from the outside in.
Which makes me think of what Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’s sister, said in his eulogy: “We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.”
Even when we “have time.” Even when we “say what we need to say.” There is always the thought. It wasn’t enough time. I need more.
During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion shared a conversation she and Quintana had near the end of her life about what kind of mother Didion was. “Quintana, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,'” said Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”
What are our parents to us and we to them? A collection of tics, idiosyncrasies, stories, secrets, assumptions and hyberbole? Do we ever truly know one another, or are we bound by our own definitions of parent and child?
A friend whose father has terminal cancer told me recently that her father is cleaning out dresser drawers and organizing things. “It’s almost as if he were a pregnant woman nesting,” she said. I was so struck by that – the notion that what we do to prepare for a new life could so mimic what we do to prepare for the end of life.
As our conversation continued, I spoke about my Dad, who died nearly two and a half years ago. I heard myself say, “I’ve adjusted to his death, but I don’t think I’ve accepted it.” I could not have surprised myself more.
My Dad lived a full life, 80 years, and by his last days, he was not living the way he nor anyone who loved him would have wished for him. And yet. But still. Grief is muted and morphed by time. And I still long for the sound of his laugh, his eyebrow raised in jest, his warm hand on the top of my head when I was young. As Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
So she writes. And remembers.
As I do. As I will.