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By Lisa Samson
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2003 by Lisa E. Samson
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: April 2003
Mama waited tables down at the Texas Inn, right where Route 29 dipped back up from its sojourn across the bridge that spanned the James River. Now, coming down the big hill before the river you can get the prettiest view of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia. The streets are layered in tiers downtown as though some building farmer decided to employ the Inca method. Beginning with Main Street, jumping up to Church Street, then Court, and finally Clay, downtown just sort of hovers there, the steeples sometimes piercing the morning mist from the river, sometimes glowing like holy swords of fire in the afternoon sun. Now that I'm an adult I appreciate this view, but back in the late '60s and early '70s, it wasn't so well lit and some folks thought downtown would never bounce back to the glory days.
The Texas Inn, serving chili and barbecue and egg sandwiches and the like, drew in all manner of truckers back in those days. Guys with names like Norman and Al and Bobby-Jay gathered from far and wide just to steal a glimpse of the saucy waitress with the pearly teeth. See, Mama, well, she was flat-out the prettiest waitress there. I grew up hunched awkwardly at the counter, penciling schoolwork, weighed down by the red frizzy ponytail I usually gathered myself thereby accidentally achieving a topsy-turvy effect. Listening to the juke-box blurt out country-western music and the occasional rock n' roll tune like "Sweet Home Alabama," I watched as Mama worked her magic on the customers. She never introduced me to her customers, even the regulars.
I guess I couldn't blame her.
"Ask for Isla. She'll treat you right," folks leaving informed those just walking through the doorway. I just didn't know how right she treated them! I just thought she was sassy and smart and daring and removed, as if humans wasted her time unless they were admiring her and even then, she met compliments with snappy derision.
"That Isla is something else!"
"Isla darlin', you just come on over here and refill my coffee and we'll talk about things."
She'd say, "Stuff it in your pants, Joe, there's plenty of room down there."
And they'd just laugh.
"That Isla sure ain't hard on the eyes, is she, Stanley?"
And Mama wasn't. I disappointed her that way, I know. We looked nothing alike, this harsh white and red, bloodshot eye of a child and her black-eyed Susan mama. Mama's brown hair radiated a golden warmth and she always wore it straight down, its waves curving around her sweet, valentine face. Olive complexioned with reddish brown lips, she talked smart to the men, hands on hips, chin pointed high as though she really had no business waiting tables at the Texas Inn. Mama's way of answering questions without really answering them kept them at bay, yet happy, and when a rare jovial mood visited her, all sorts of crazy stories from sparkling lips entertained them, tales of escapades filled with phrases like, "And then he took out his," and she'd lean far forward, exposing her bosoms all the while keeping my little ears from hearing her words.
She never seemed to inhabit her eyes. Not really.
I only knew this about her: Mama came to Lynchburg in 1956 as a freshman at Randolph Macon Women's College and never left. She told me she grew up in Suffolk, Virginia, and had planned on never seeing the place again.
"It's the most boring, stuffiest old place you've ever seen. And your grandma Min is the most boring, stuffiest old woman you've ever seen. Who needs the 'peanut capital of the world'? We can have lots of fun right here in Lynchburg. So don't ask to go there, Myrtle," she said.
And I didn't ask. Because when fun and Mama collided, the party lasted for weeks! But most times, Mama distanced herself from me and everyone else, it seemed, and when she didn't want to talk about something, she wouldn't. She'd just sip on her glass of "medicinal gin" and pretend you never asked a thing. Sometimes she stared out between the blinds and talked about Queen Elizabeth.
She'd go on vacation usually after one of those times. Somehow Mrs. Blackburn always knew when Mama really needed a vacation. And I'd spend those days with Mrs. Blackburn, sitting on her porch overlooking the street. And I'd watch all those college girls and realize I'd never walk in their shoes. I knew that then, somehow, as well as I knew when looking at National Geographics at school that I'd never be living by a mud hut, wearing a thousand necklaces above bare breasts.
One particular student named Margie would take me out for milk shakes when Mama was on vacation. She'd say, "Rich or poor, it doesn't matter. This sort of thing hits women of all walks and ages. Believe me, my mother goes at least once or twice a year, so I know firsthand." I really thought she was talking about vacations so I said, "How nice for her," and she'd say, "You don't get it yet, do you, Myrtle?"
"Get what?" I'd ask.
She'd just smile and say, "Good for you."
One night, after I turned eight, I heard Mama sneaking out of our room. A real pretty dress the color of the blue ink on my school papers hovered above shoes with heels whittled down to little dots at the bottom, the kind that look as though you could kill somebody with if they were giving you trouble.
So from my spot on the bed, the spot next to the sea-foam green wall, I asked her, "Where you goin', Mama? Who you going with?"
And Mama said, "Out. Don't even ask, Myrtle Charmaine, because you're old enough now to be here for a couple of hours by yourself." But she couldn't hide the sparkle in her eyes.
"What if there's a fire or something?"
"You just find Mrs. Blackburn. She'll take care of you; you know that. But it had better only be because there's a fire or something. I'm so excited, Myrtle."
"But what about if I get sick?"
"Your towel's hanging right there." She pursed her lips.
She shook her head and finger and grabbed my ear with a twist. "I mean it, Myrtle. If I find out you went out of this room while I'm out, you'll wish you hadn't!"
"Shut up, now, Myrtle." She let go. "Let this be a nice time for me."
And so I said nothing else, because when Mama really exploded it was like a ball of blue lightning circling down the chimney to what had seemed like a fine party only a moment before. A blue ball skirting about the room like the Tazmanian Devil. And when she exploded she said some cruel things. I kept a list so I wouldn't say them to my own kids someday.
1. You ruined my life.
2. You don't appreciate anything I do for you.
3. How did I end up stuck with you?
4. Get out of my face, Myrtle, I can't bear to see you for one more second.
She called me the name of a female dog a lot. Even now I can't speak that word or write it, and people use it so flippantly it makes my teeth ache.
And Mama never asked me to do anything.
"Get over here."
"Fix that hair of yours, Myrtle. You look like a clown."
Now, a lot of the kids at school had parents that spanked them good. But Mama always gave me the silent treatment after her tirades. I'd rather have been walloped and been done with it. One time, when I brought Vicki Miller home with me from school, Mama rewarded me with a two-hour lecture I could barely comprehend and an icy silence for three days afterward. We ate some lonely meals together over at the soda fountain in the drugstore by the college for a while and I figured if I ever crossed her again, only something big and worth more than Vicki Miller would do.
My nosebleeds started around then. Mama jumped on that, telling me not to come down to the restaurant after school anymore, saying, "Nobody wants you to bleed all over their corn dog, Myrtle. And I wager the sight of you caused them to lose their appetites anyway."
Mama sure was right, though, about bringing Vicki home because before then, nobody knew much about me and where I lived. And Vicki told everybody about our little rented room, saying, "Imagine that! Myrtle Whitehead doesn't even live in a house! She just lives in a little room near the college, with lots of other college girls in the house." And then, just so she didn't indisputably prove herself the Devil incarnate she had turned out to be, she added a, "Poor Myrtle."
See, Mama made sure my clothes looked nice because she was proud like that and I think she tried to do the best she could with the Raggedy Anne daughter she found herself responsible for. She skimped on issues of lodging, food, and transportation. It didn't matter what the weather, Mama always walked down to the Texas Inn to save bus fare. And I can't even begin to tell you how many leftover egg sandwiches rolled up in three layers of napkin I ate for breakfast before school.
I never knew life could be any different.
I looked out the window that night Mama left in such excitement. The man down there, he looked like a no-good. With golden rings, bracelets, and patent leather shoes for company, his overall appearance gave off more shade than the oak trees lining Rivermont Avenue.
I sure didn't like the way he laid a hand on Mama's rear end.
Pretending I slept, I felt Mama climb into the bed beside me hours later. "See, Minerva Whitehead? I can make out just fine on my own," she whispered with a drunk laugh.
I felt a movement in the bed and winked open my eye and she lay there fluttering a wrist encircled by a new gold bracelet. Slim, and light. I'd seen them in the jewelry store window downtown. They cost next to nothing.
"Real gold," she giggled.
I felt reasonably sure Minerva Whitehead, the grandma I'd never known, didn't think that going out on dates with shady guys like that no-good counted as making out just fine at all.
Ibegan singing at five years old. Mama would drop me off at First Baptist Church right on Rivermont Avenue at nine o'clock on Sunday mornings and she'd continue on toward downtown and heaven knows what. This Sunday school teacher named Mrs. Evans taught us little songs like, "Shadrach Meshach and Abednego," "Dare to Be a Daniel," "My Lord Knows the Way Through the Wilderness," and my favorite one about the Devil sitting on a tack. Mrs. Evans approached me one day just as we finished singing "The Happy Day Express" and said, "Myrtle, the Lord has given you a gift."
And I looked around for a bright package somewhere in the room. "I don't see nothin', Miz Evans."
Mrs. Evans laughed and her dark, straight hair swung back and forth like wind chimes in the breeze, and her pretty blue eyes scrunched up like pansies before they bloom. "It's not in a box, Myrtle, unless you count your voice box."
Then she told me that God's gift to me was my singing voice. "You never forget who gave you your pretty voice, Myrtle. Some gifts God blesses us with because we've taken the time to work hard at them, but some of them, special ones like you've got are just flat-out free."
I hugged her then and she felt so warm. When she hugged me back I cried. Her warmth, her sweetness, her joy ran like waters in the desert. I look back on that moment now and I realize that Mrs. Evans saved my life right then. And even to this day, when I imagine my larynx I picture a little gift box there in my throat, given to me by God so that I can return the favor. It's wrapped in dark blue paper with gold stars. And gold ribbon—the real fabric kind, that shimmers and glows with each note that comes from beneath the lid—holds it all together.
My relationship with Mama had its redeeming times every so often, like shopping together for school clothes or my Easter dress. One year when I was nine I tried on a lavender dress and coat, the kind with the little silk bouquet of flowers pinned at the collar. I slowly slid the latch of the dressing room door to the right, anticipating her displeasure upon the revelation of my person. You see, I'd swung a lot the day before at recess, creating a tangle of auburn thicker than a bed of sea kelp, and my scalp still hadn't recovered from the brushing she'd given my hair. I'd screamed and cried, but that one crack of the brush to the side of my head cured that. I looked like a blotched piece of chicken in a dress.
She sat there on an upholstered fold-out chair near the dressing room door. "Turn around, Myrtle." Her index finger up to her mouth, she looked me over, nodding slowly. "Yes, ma'am, that will do." And that year, she knelt down and pulled me close and said, "You really are a pretty thing, Myrtle Charmaine. And someday, we'll just put a little permanent wave in that hair of yours to calm things down, but for now, you're little, and it works just fine."
I never knew what to believe.
I hid the rest of my nosebleeds from her. But she never let me come back to the restaurant except for dinner a few times. And the nosebleeds only surfaced with greater frequency as though my body tried in any way possible to release what had become pent up inside of me.
She met him the December before she threw off the mantle of motherhood. The snazzy guy from Washington, D.C. Nothing like that no-good Lynchburg fellow she traded up for years before, this man reeked of savior faire. He topped quite a list:
1. Old Guy. Nothing distinct about him.
2. Salesman Guy. He always shook her hand and said, "Hi, good to see you."
3. Bald Guy. My favorite. I swear he used to be a friar or something. Hardly a man inclined to caterwaul with a woman like my Mama.
A woman like my mama.
If that isn't a too tight shoe I don't know what is.
There were more. Cowboy Guy. Trucker Guy. And lots more Old Guys. Oh, my lands, more than any woman's fair share of Old Guys bobbed their way down Mama's list.
"Don't go near that window when you hear the horn blow, Myrtle."
I watched her get ready. Just like most little girls do, I guess, I found my mother fascinating. Now, when she went to work at the Texas Inn, she wore her hair real simple, either straight down, or back in a headband or a low ponytail. But that night, I'll never forget the way she pulled it up into a French twist, and how the golden streaks in the brown of her hair shimmered like a hundred glowing rivers back into the whirlpool of hair at the crown of her regal head.
Her long neck gleamed white in the light of the small, frilly lamp on the school desk that performed double duty as my place of study and her vanity. So there she sat, her elbow bent against the wooden surface, an eyebrow pencil in her slim clutch, and she worked it so smoothly, first on her eyelids, then in quick little strokes on her brows. "And I'm not sure when I'll be home, so don't even ask."
"You look so pretty, Mama."
"I do? You really think so, Myrtle?"
"You're the prettiest lady in Lynchburg, Mama."
"Let's hope Jeremy thinks so."
Jeremy! That sounded like a classy name.
"Why are you being so nice, Myrtle? You get in trouble at school today?"
She rooted in the drawer for the lipstick brush. Sometimes when I'd get home from school, I'd sit there and pull the cap off her lipstick brush. I'd twist the bristles into view and do my own lips with the residue left from when she'd painted on her lipstick before work. One day I forgot to wipe it off before she came home and she said, "Myrtle, you look like a tramp. Wash your mouth right now."
But that night, Mama seemed so excited. "Myrtle, things might just change for us. I feel like good luck is in the air." She shook as though a little engine puttered inside of her.
Despite Mama's warning, I watched her slip into the man's car and was thankful she didn't look up at the window, because a nosebleed gushed. When it stopped, I walked down to First Baptist for the Christmas pageant rehearsal.
Mrs. Evans sat in the sanctuary with the rest of the kids and she waved real big and motioned me over, as if her arm said, "Now, just you get on over here, you sweet thing."
And I ran down the aisle, no thoughts of nosebleeds or Mama's dates. Mrs. Evans basted everybody together as though an invisible thread passed through each body and then stitched me in right between her left side and the end of the pew. She curled her arm around me and squeezed a little. "We're singing 'Away in the Manger,' the one with that pretty tune you don't hear too often."
I shook my head. "I don't know which one you mean."
So she hummed it in my ear. "You got that?"
"Sing it back, with the words."
And so I did, and Mrs. Evans's eyes grew. "You're a peach, Myrtle Whitehead. How about singing a solo?"
"I've never sung a solo."
"It'll be fine."
Since Mrs. Evans said it, I believed it.
"That settles it, then." She squeezed again. "You'll sing the song, and James'll be Joseph, Ida will be Mary and have you seen the Stuarts' brand-new baby?"
"He'll be the Baby Jesus."
And you know, Mama sat right there the night we put on the pageant, right on the fourth row, on the center aisle, and when I began to sing, she cried. She just cried and cried and I felt so bad.
"Why were you crying, Mama?" I asked afterward. "Were you sad?"
"Not really, Myrtle." She held my mittened hand in hers and we walked slowly down Rivermont Avenue toward home. Mama seemed so normal that night.
"Then why were you crying?"
"Don't even ask."
It was the last important question I'd ask her for the next fifteen years or so.
That December brought a change in her that I still don't understand. Perhaps it was designed to give me more cause for regret upon her desertion, or perhaps it served as something to cling to in those subsequent years when all I really had was memories.
That Christmas morning, we decided to attend Rivermont Presbyterian, closer to home, and the prettiest church you've ever seen. My how those ladies decorated that year. Candles flickered in hurricane lamps on each windowsill, their tiny spark of glow a twin of the picture of the little oil lamps pieced together in the stained glass of the windows above. The lacy screen up front supported feathery fir garlands and velvet bows and fresh fruit.
I sniffed the lush, yuletide perfume of the hushed, candle-softened sanctuary as we tiptoed in that morning. Mama did, too, and she took my hand and whispered, "There's nothing like the smell of fresh pine, is there, Myrtle?"
And I shook my head. "I do believe they should bottle it, Mama."
Isla Whitehead awarded me one of her few chuckles. "They do, Myrtle Charmaine. It's called Pine-Sol."
And we had ourselves a laugh as I fingered the soft wool of my new scarf, noticing, for the first time, a tiny little bluebird embroidered in the corner of one end. Mrs. Evans knitted scarves while she watched TV at night. And that Christmas, she gave one to me. Even Mama thought it pretty though she didn't have much of a heart for "homemade things" in general. But now, years later, whenever I take the winter things out of storage, there it sits in the box, shimmering baby blue and silver and cream. I do believe I'll have it dry-cleaned one day and wear it for the season.
None of the nearby restaurants turned on their lights that Christmas Day, and all of the college girls had traveled far and wide, and were now snug at home in Connecticut with fire-places, or Atlanta or Richmond with their spacious warm kitchens decorated with hanging brass pots and the finest in cutlery, or even Los Angeles with clear swimming pools, sparkling plastic beverage holders in a wide variety of colors, and palm trees cha-chaing with ocean zephyrs. The girl with the room next to ours hailed from California and her parents named her La Fontaine, a name much preferable to Myrtle, I can say with utter conviction. Nobody knew how she kept that tan all year round, but me and Mama suspected the two battered Chinese screens and three disposable pot roast pans we found one day up on the flat roof of the house had something to do with it.
To our surprise, however, when we returned from church a wide basket perched right in front of our doorway. Now Mama had been planning on us having squirt cheese on Ritz crackers, Vienna sausages, Slim Jims, and a variety pack of Frito-Lay products for our Christmas dinner. She'd even placed four Yoo-Hoos and a pint of High's eggnog outside on our window ledge.
"Look!" Mama cried, and she bent down and read the pretty card.
"Who's it from, Mama?"
"Don't even ask, Myrtle."
So much for a nice Christmas.
I figured that snazzy man from Washington, D.C. figured into the whole mysterious equation.
"Can I see what's inside of it?"
"Of course, Myrtle, don't be a fool! Let's quick get inside before anybody sees."
Well, what a basket, is all I can say! Fancy stuff in there. Crackers, caviar, cream cheese, a half bottle of champagne made up our first course. Next came cheese straws, a cute little Danish canned ham, pâté, and some grapes. And by then we were so stuffed we couldn't eat the dessert.
I fell asleep on the bed. Mama stayed there with me that evening and her happy mood increased. We'd eaten fancy food and nobody was taking her off on a date that night. Mama just sat at the window drinking champagne. Before I drifted off she said, "Myrtle, what would you think of us having a house someday?"
I said I'd like that just fine. And after I woke up from my nap, we ate pecan tartlets, fine chocolates, and drank up the eggnog. For the first time I realized why people said, "Merry Christmas." In fact, until that day, I never really thought much about the salutation at all, what people really said, or why they even said it.
"Merry Christmas, Mama."
And Mama only smiled and sipped some more.
Down at Mrs. Evans's house she draped those new little twinkly kind of lights on almost every bush. At least they shone new back then and so different from those big, pasty, colored lights people clipped onto the branches of their firs, yews, and azaleas. The first Christmas she used them, Mrs. Evans's lights blazoned intense colors, the filament of the bulbs standing staunch behind a thick coating of sheer pigment. The second year, they shone a bit paler, and by the end of that season, with all the rain that fell, the color had cracked some, flaked off some. White light beamed through the fissures.
I loved those lights.
I loved them more when the white shone through because her yard glowed brighter, happier. But I remember most the day after the big-basket Christmas when Mama took me for a walk after dark to look at the decorations. It was the first year for Mrs. Evans's twinkly little lights and I thought, "How beautiful!" In fact, I said just that.
"I think so, too, Myrtle," Mama said above my head. "Maybe one day we'll have lights like that on a house of our own."
Now, Mama never talked like this even three months before. She'd never muttered hopeful sentiments, someday wishes, or even regretful what-ifs. Many times Mama said to me, "Myrtle, life is what it is. You've either got to deal your own cards, or take what comes. But if you choose the latter, then don't bellyache."
Well, we stood there in rapt pleasure at Mrs. Evans's lights when her green door opened, splaying light across the brown grass like a searchlight on a field of desert troops in close formation. "Is that you, Myrtle?" she hollered.
"Come on, Myrtle, let's go," Mother whispered.
But I broke free and ran up to the porch. Silent treatment or no silent treatment, nosebleeds or no nosebleeds, I wasn't going to hurt Mrs. Evans's feelings to save myself from Mama. I experienced a panic, as though an unseen hand drew battle lines and I'd better get myself on the winning side quickly.
Mama's explosions came and went, but Mrs. Evans's love never waned.
Of course, Mrs. Evans hugged me tight and acted like seeing me was akin to the news that World War II ended. And I hugged her back.
"Is that your Mama out there, Myrtle?"
"Well, come on up!" Mrs. Evans hollered. "I just put the kettle on." And she waved her arm like usual, the plump length of it encased in a tan woolen, hand-knit sweater, the kind with a metal zipper running up the front.
I eyed Mama, praying my heart out that the good mood would continue somehow. I knew better than to open my mouth and cloud her mood.
Mama walked up the drive with a strained smile, obviously controlled by something deeply ingrained. The woman who waited tables at the Texas Inn became, I suspect, the young woman from Suffolk with a mother named Minerva. "Thank you. But we only have a minute."
I didn't say a word. One thing we always had was time.
"Well, we'll take what we can get, right Myrtle?" Mrs. Evans said to me.
And I still didn't say a thing, I just nodded and let her usher me into her warm little white rancher at the end of Rowland Drive.
"That's a beautiful magnolia you have out there," Mama said. "And I so enjoyed the pageant! I never knew Myrtle could sing like that."
"Isn't she a peach?"
"Well, she sure didn't get the talent from me. I can't carry a tune in a bucket."
"Must be from Myrtle's father."
And Mama didn't say a word. She just nodded. Because believe me, I asked the father question long before that day and, well, it doesn't take a genius to imagine her response.
"Let me get that tea. How do you like it?"
And we told her. Nothing in it for Mama, a little milk and some sugar for me.
Mrs. Evans produced a plate the size of a truck tire supporting sugar cookies she and her teenage children must have baked. They gathered with us, too, two girls with long brown hair and a nice-looking black-haired boy who towered over the rest of them. Laughter and crumbs mixed together there with the smell of our tea, the Christmas tree, and the fire going on the grate in the living room.
Mama sat like a fence post, and even when one of the girls sat down at a Miles Kimball-type piano and played Christmas carols, the music tinny and bright, she looked as though her thoughts were landed in Alaska or Zimbabwe.
Who are you? I suddenly remembered the woman who used to sing me awake each morning.
When the music started, an old lady inchwormed into the room with an aluminum walker. She wore her white hair piled high like a dollop of Cool Whip and the makeup that overlaid her wrinkles appeared somewhat clownish, the way too much makeup does on old people, but she smiled and bared these big yellow teeth and her eyes sparkled just like her daughter's. The whole family waved her over the way, I know now, all the Evanses do, and she plopped down in a lounger. The cute boy pulled the wooden handle at the side to make good use of the footrest.
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2003
- Page Count
- 448 pages