Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Go To The Sage

I did not think I would see her again. But there she was, Y., standing in front of her old house. A fine tremor stirred the hand she raised to pat her hair, an old habit among women. Nerves. And why not. She spent decades burying her old childhood. And then one day it surfaced, all grown up, driving a little car with out-of-state plates.

But she had initiated this reunion. I knew the second I laid eyes on Y. that she wanted to take it all back, climb into that big van and drive back to Georgia where she'd made a good life, taking care of disabled people in her home. Good care too, I imagined. The kind of care no one bothered to take for her.

Because she had been the caregiver in that home, the one we were standing in front of on that cold Alabama day. She was 8 when she moved in across the street, her electrician father to work in spinoff efforts for the space race too, like mine. Our families were friendly, at first. But too soon that changed.

Her parents were drinkers. Bad drinkers. Mine were old-fashioned religious teetotalers. This set up a war of titans. So Y. and I, and our sisters, were instant underground allies. It was match made in heaven and hell. Y. And I were the resistance. On both fronts.

Soon, Y. and I were enjoying our first cigarettes -- Kents filched from her mother. We coughed our heads off behind my house and fibbed to my mother about choking on Dr. Pepper. I was already a pint-sized rebel, rule breaker, born firebug kept from burning down the house one day by my perfect older brother and his buddy. Y. saved me from the solitary pursuit of these pasttimes and introduced me to others.

I kept her company, too,.

Like the awful nights of violence that broke out before her mother, a bride at 16, just took off, sometimes for months. They would build, these cataclysms, as predictable as the spring tornado season. You never knew exactly when the big nasty would hit. You just knew it would and it would be bad.

But we tried to intervene, Y. and I. Like somber Presbyterians, we stole through her house after school, pouring out the liquor. Down the sinks, loads of it. We had to act quickly, I wasn't supposed to step foot on the infidels' property.

But it never worked. There was always more alcohol. And late at night, dragged up from deep slumber, I could hear it -- the screaming, the crashes, the slamming doors and bodies. It had begun. Again.

And I knew what to do.

I would slip from bed with a quilt and feel my way into the kitchen. Quickly fill a pillowcase with any food and drinks I could find. If my parents were up, trying to decide whether this particular upheaval was worthy of a police call (which always came with months of retribution from Y.'s furious parents), I had to be careful. I needed them to think I was still asleep.

Unlocking the back door, I would quickly run to sanctuary next to my house, or across the street, by Y's place. And they would be there, shivering in the tall golden sagebrush even on the hottest of nights, the three of them, Y. and her two young sisters.

I don't remember being afraid on those nights. We were safe in the sage. We built huts there, erecting bamboo foundations and filling in with sage fronds. I needed water features even then, so I landscaped by digging little ponds that I stocked with minnows pinched from daddy's bait bucket.

On the Bad Nights, the little girls were always crying. And Y. was exhausted, lips quivering, eyes red and swollen, arms around the little two. Rage beatings sometimes had been administered, always on Y. Psychiatrists call this transferral, I think, mad at somebody but lash out at another, someone smaller, weaker. We didn't have any idea about that, then.

I got my share of the belt, too. This wasn't unusual in the early '60s in the deep South where it was respected as a righteous form of discipline, even if the belting was inflicted for no other reason than the inflictor was just pissed off at somebody. But we had the idea the belt was our fault. That we caused these senseless outbursts. We didn't want to believe it, though, we raged against it in our own way. It was just too much to bear.

So Y. and I took the unbearables to the woods behind our houses and to the sage, in the good times and bad. Y.'s were out there for the world to see. Mine were secret, carefully arranged under the heavy smothering cloak of southern civility. Forgotten, it was assumed I'm sure, disregarded, not to be mentioned or even thought about.

In real life, though, that just doesn't happen.

But that's another story. For next time...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How I Wasn't Surprised

Visiting a stunning waterfront home one bright fall day, I bee-lined for my main attraction -- the big water out back. But my attention was diverted by some curious sculptures in a clearing on the property. These were life-sized statues of children in play. Despite the dark brown monotone, they seemed real, frozen in motion yet poised to burst into life.

My dart to the water was arrested. I stopped to stare. And I wasn't the only one.

This was a gorgeous home built on a large wooded lot on the bay, furnished with champagne tastes and budget. A wall of windows faced the water side, caterers pulled food trays from the ovens in the gourmet kitchen and guests walked carefully on chic tiles, brushing by smart furniture. Even the closets in the re-done master bedroom had their own telephones and televisions. A walk through the woods to the water was rewarded with a a terraced deck overlooking majestic bay waters.

The bells and whistles eventually won out, of course. But almost everyone was drawn to the sculptures. And the children with heartbeats couldn't keep their eyes or hands off the facsimilies.

The flesh and blood models patted the bronze counterparts, holding the cold, hard hands. One actual toddler boy tried to pull down the faux boy's pants to see whether it had, well, business parts. This boy, so beautiful he could be a Gap or baby Ralph Lauren model, took a napkin and worked with care to clean the sculptured arms of sand he'd kicked up earlier.

Party-goers assumed our charming hostess had picked out the sculptures. She had long collected art and filled her homes with paintings. But no, she told us, her husband bought the art children without prior consultation. These pieces were simply delivered, to her consternation. So they languished in the basement for months while she figured out what to do. Landscapers were hired. They made a pebble and sand lot for the hard ones to cavort on, within easy view of the house.

This did not surprise me. Because several years ago I sat with this man at the tail-end of a business dinner far from home, compensated by multiple bottles of good wine. And he made a confession now commonplace from successful men nearing retirement age. He had spent too much time and energy away from his family when his now-grown children were young. His first marriage had broken up as a result, he said. He absolutely loved his second wife, their life, her biological children who he considered his own. But he could never get back the time he'd lost with his first, nuclear family. He had not taken good care with them.

Which made exquisite sense of the circle of bronzed children this man bought out of the blue, without a word of explanation. And had placed behind this grownup wonderland of a home where he is now spending his retirement years.

These perfect, silent bronze children will be with him until the end, keeping company, forever poised in youth and joy, playing together through the long days and cold, dark nights.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

He Doesn't Want to Grow Up

Mr. Beaudreaux, my southern nickname for my D.C.-born son, dropped a bomb on me the other day.

"I don't ever want to grow up."

He said this with the careful nonchalance of a male new to his 15th year. I watched him, looking for all the wild feeling that kept him screaming for so much of his first year. My Daniel in the Lion's Den, who fell calm when strapped into a car seat, soaring through space in airplanes and cars. Lulled to stillness only by motion.

We were in the car, again, but he didn't return my gaze. "I just don't want to. I want to stay a kid."

I couldn't speak. Do we coddle, his dad and I? Is he so terrified of the world he doesn't want to go out and see it for himself? He's not really sheltered. He's always off playing sports, visiting somebody or another. We had to wait for him, our miracle child, and never left him behind. My husband's work trips paid for hotel rooms and tickets were bought with airline miles. I took this boy with me on a plane when he was 3 months old. He's been all over the United States, including the long trek to Hawaii. He and his dad sit around shouting out the states the boy has visited.

My siblings and I couldn't wait to move out of our parents' house. That pushed and motivated us to make something of ourselves. We never told our parents that. We weren't trying to make them proud, the truth is we were just trying to flee from them.

But now Mr. B. says he doesn't want to grow up. I've always pictured him charging out into the world chest thrown back, running away from us as fast as he could, from his dad's bossiness and my neurotic worries. But I don't know how to help him with the Peter Pan thing or even if I can. And that breaks my heart more than a little.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Seatbelt Yoga

"I give you a 9.5. Not bad at all."

That was my score. Delivered by the service manager who sat and watched me wiggle, roll and slide out of my car -- pelvis first -- because I could not get out of my seatbelt.

The belt had been balky for days. Then finally, it wouldn't release -- with me in the thing. So I drove to the dealership. I pulled into the bay, which is beside the glassed-in office of the service managers, who sit in a line handling calls and customers dropping off their cars.

I couldn't see them through the tinted glass. I hoped they were really busy that day.

So I took a deep breath, opened the door, slid my feet to the pavement and began to slide out of my seat. As an old friend used to say, I was definitely "captured up." I tried to loosen the shoulder harness, which very nearly strangled me. I had no choice, I had to execute sort of a yoga camel pose to escape. I was hoping the service managers who I KNEW WERE WATCHING ME were yoga types and might keep their minds on the spiritual and maybe even close their eyes and meditate. As if.

I slithered, slid, wiggled, knees first then the hips came out and waist. Next I threw up my arms in a touchdown pose and managed to extract my trunk. I quickly adjusted my clothes, smoothed down my crazed hair. I grabbed my bag and rushed from my car as though it was about to blow up.

I tried to slip unnoticed into the service office, which made no sense. Because all eyes were upon me.

"I guess you saw that," I said to the service rep nearest to the door. He did a great job keeping a straight face.

He had seen it, of course, they all had. They were desperately trying not to laugh in my face. After all, life can be pretty boring down at the car shop. Busted transmissions, extended warranties, irate customers, people upset about having to spend precious time down there pouring out money AGAIN.

And then one day a gift: A crazy woman slithering out of her car right in front of them, unannounced, for no good reason that anyone could fathom, at least right away.

I astonished them that day. And I got a brand new seatbelt. Guess what: Free of charge. Color me double astonished.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

That Did Not Just Happen

I was in my car at the bank's drive-in teller line. I wrote my check and sent it hurtling through the tube to the inside. Then I zoned out. And then it happened.

A woman on foot charged up to the teller window and started knocking. No response. She knocked again, harder. A teller appeared and asked, "Can I help you?" over the intercom. "I need to borrow a pen," said Miz On Foot. The teller suggested she come inside to be helped. Miz On Foot babbled about not having an I.D. with her. Stunned by this nonsensical response, maybe, the teller opened the drawer and shot out the pen.

Miz On Foot began scribbling her check, hanging onto the drawer as a prop. The teller again suggested that she come into the bank. Miz On Foot was writing fast, repeating that she hadn't brought a pen, didn't have her I.D. but that the tellers all knew her "very well. All of them. They know me very well."

She was done with her check. Her stunning act of audacity, of jumping line outside a bank, at the drive-in teller line, was very nearly accomplished. I burst into a long hardy laugh. I was certain we were being "Punked" or "Candid Camera'ed." Hopefully someone would hand us $100 for not blowing our tops, or whatever all those reality shows do on television these days.

But oh no, Miz On Foot was simply pulling an age old game, a fast one. Or trying. My hooting laughter must have shaken the teller awake or into her authority. She told Miz On Foot to "take your place in line and someone will help you when it's your turn." On Foot looked surprised, feigned astonishment herself. And then walked slowly back to her car.

It was parked in the drive-in line, no. 3 behind me.

I laughed all the way home.