This weekend is the Lanesville Heritage Days which played a crucial part in one of those literary stories, so I thought I would step away from all things dark and creepy, and give you a glimpse into my literary fiction.
Sometimes I hate my mother. Actually, I hate her most of the time. It’s not because of the things that she does (even though that should have been enough), but more because of the things that she doesn’t do.
My mother could survive for weeks on peanut butter, just so she could avoid going to the grocery, which she considered domestic purgatory. She would put off going to the store for as long as possible until we were living on nothing but bologna and peanut butter. I don’t care how much a person likes peanut butter or bologna, somewhere around day nine you start to hate it.
To make matters worse, everyone in Lanesville knows how my mother is. They may not know all the details of our crazy life, but everyone has seen her walking around town in her black hippie clothes. It’s one thing to look different from everyone else; but it’s a whole other thing to have a mother like mine.
I do not know if my mother was really crazy or not, and most of the time I did not care one way or the other. She was just different from everyone else and that is what made her special. She was not like other mothers, or even like my aunts, but she was fun. Sometimes we would stay up late watching movies on my grandmother’s tiny television and then she would let me play hooky from school the next day.
“Too much education ruins a person’s ability to think for themselves.” She tried to explain to my grandmother.
“And too much ignorance will keep a person hungry.” My grandmother argued back.
My mother believed that anything was possible in life; a person just had to want it bad enough. In her opinion, sheer determination was worth more than money or even education. How else could she explain how her life turned out?
“It’s a big world out there,” she often told me. “You just have to get past the front door to see it.”
Her advice seemed reasonable enough, after all; she was living proof of life’s possibilities. The problem was, nothing about my mother seemed all that reasonable once I was away from her and in the company of “normal” people.
My mother was an adventurer, a flower child, and a romantic. She believed in peace, free love, that good always triumphed over evil, and that John Lennon could save the world. Things like that don’t go unnoticed in a small town.
Of course, being unmarried with a small child did not change any of her beliefs. It only changed her execution of those ideas. One of my earliest memories was sitting between her and my grandmother on that black sofa watching television. We were watching a news report about American soldiers in Vietnam and my mother was crying real tears.
“They don’t even know what they are dying for,” she complained. “This is crazy, we shouldn’t even be there.”
My grandmother scolded her, “Bite your tongue. Your own sister’s husband is there; your words will curse him.”
“He’s doomed anyway. It’s a slaughter over there.”
“God will take care of Joe.” My grandmother declared.
“God stopped watching a long time ago.”
My mother’s prediction came true. By the end of the month, I had an uncle that I did not remember buried in the cemetery and the baby in Aunt Autumn’s belly was born without ever knowing her father. Even as young as I was back then, I knew it was a very bad thing that had happened.
I could tell by the way that everyone was crying all the time and talking in hushed voices. I would hide in the corner of the hall as delivery men dropped off flowers and fruit baskets, each time bowing their head to my mother or my grandmother when they answered the door. It was strange, those complete strangers seemed to know what was wrong, but as a child, I had no idea and just seemed to be in the way.
“Your poor sister,” my grandmother said to my mother when we went to see the baby at the hospital. “She’ll never get over this. Joe was her whole life.”
After that, the television reports became more gruesome. Soldiers came back home telling stories of Vietnamese children with grenades strapped to their bodies sent into American army camps to explode and die. I had nightmares of those children. They were running after me with cartoon bombs for heads.
“Play with us! Play with us!” They called after me. “Save us!”
The war ended and the soldiers that survived came home, but not to a hero’s welcome. My mother was appalled when she discovered that people on the street were calling these men “baby killers” and spitting in their faces. She never agreed with the war, but she never dreamed of blaming the soldiers.
“That makes as much sense as shooting the messenger that brings you bad news.” She explained to me even though I still did not understand.
* * *
It was ironic that she chose those words. About five years later that was just what happened to John Lennon outside his apartment building. We watched it on the news and my mother burst into tears. She believed that any hope of world peace died with him and she wore black from that day on. She said that she mourned not only for John Lennon, but also for the world itself. In some ways, I thought she did it just for the attention it brought her.
A woman stopped her in the grocery one day; looking at my mother with so much sympathy it was embarrassing. “You poor thing,” she said to my mother. “Did you lose your husband over in Vietnam?”
“No,” my mother answered. “I lost John Lennon.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself, you damn hippie.” The woman hissed at my mother and then scurried away, the wheel of her shopping cart screeching in protest.
I thought that my mother would be embarrassed; I know I was, and all of the other shoppers were all looking at us. Some of them were even whispering to the person next to them. I was humiliated.
My mother just shrugged and went back to shopping, “What’s with her? This is why I hate coming to the grocery; people here are just plain old crazy.”
Nu-da. That was the word that my Aunt Ama used to describe the change in my mother. “She’s a little touched in the head, but she’ll be alright.”
Of course she says this while sending Ana up to our door with leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil claiming that she had made too much for just her own family. Aunt Ama also had the knack of showing up for a visit right about the time I ran out of clean clothes. My mother resents the intrusion and I think that’s why Ama does it, but even I get tired of her always sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong.
When I was little, life with Momma was like one long slumber party. It took a few years before I realized that we were really in trouble. My mother was a hippie at heart, owned nothing of real value, and she had no idea of the importance of due dates or final notices. Often, the electric company would come to shut off our service and I would have to run down to Aunt Ama’s and beg for the money to pay the bill.
“I guess Mom just forgot.” I would say to Ama as she walked me back to the house and then took care of the bill.
She would smile down at me and pat my head as if I was a dog, “You don’t have to make excuses for her Rose, I know how she is.”
I tried to alternate between her and Aunt Autumn, but most of the time I just ran to the closest house, which was Aunt Ama’s. Each time, I begged her not to tell anyone.
“Rose,” Aunt Ama said with a sigh. “I’m not going to advertise Summer’s problems, but she’s going to have to pull her act together. This can’t keep happening.”
“I know, Aunt Ama.”
To keep such things from happening, I was the one that took the mail from the box, took it inside, and sorted all of the bills by the due dates. I was still a kid, but I was taking care of my mother. I had to remind my mother to pay the gas bill by the tenth and the rent by the first.
Life with my mother was not all bad. There was the Saturday mornings when I could sleep as late as I wanted without anyone telling me from the kitchen that I was going to sleep the day away. There were the mornings that my mother and I would eat chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, laughing with giddy pleasure and not worrying about getting crumbs in the bed.
The very best was the midnight sundaes. My mother would sneak up to my bed while I was sleeping and pull the covers away from my body as a magician removes a cape. I would wake up confused or angry depending on the hour.
“Get up sleepy-head,” she would sing as she shook the bed. “There’s time enough to sleep when you’re dead.”
Out in the kitchen, we ate ice cream straight from the carton and poured chocolate syrup over every spoonful. We sat on the floor until the ice cream was gone and the sun came up. Then we would go back to my bed, crawl under the blankets, and fall asleep with sticky fingers and faces.
“I love you.” My mother would whisper through chocolate smudged lips before she closed her eyes.
I would snuggle up close to her warm body. “I love you too.”
I meant it. I loved my mother. I loved the way that she made even the most normal thing seem special. The world became an interesting and exciting place when I was with her, sort of like standing on the edge of a roof. Sure, it was a little scary, but the world looks very different than it did from the ground.
No one could stand next to my mother without feeling the passion for life that bubbled just under the surface. People were drawn to it, as if she reminded them of what their own lives were missing. Men found it irresistible.
“Like bees to honey,” my Aunt Autumn said. “That’s the way that it has always been with Summer.”
They swarmed after her, clamoring for her attention. My mother turned her dark eyes on them and they fell under her spell, helpless to resist her charms. She refused to be claimed, holding them all at bay. Of course, that did not stop her from taking their gifts.
I would come home from school and there would be something new in the house at least once a week. It could be something as small as a dozen red roses or as extravagant as a new color television set.
“Mom,” I argued when the television arrived. “We can’t keep this.”
She pulled the cardboard away from the set, “Why the hell not?”
“It’s too expensive.” I replied. “Don’t you think that the man that bought this for you is going to want something in return?”
“Well, he can want in one hand and shit in the other.” She said as she plugged the new television into the wall. “I’m disappointed that you would even think like that. It doesn’t matter what he expects, it’s not what I’m willing to give. So, he’s got a problem and I have a new T.V.”
The worst part of having such a strange mother is the sympathy you get from everyone else. I can’t even walk down the street without people giving me the most annoying looks. They elbow each other, mumbling, and whispering as if I don’t have ears to hear them.
“With that mother of hers, that girl doesn’t stand a chance.”
The scary thing is, most of the time I agree with them.
* * *
Every year in September, the town of Lanesville hosted the Heritage Days Festival to celebrate its past in the time-honored tradition of old steam engines, flea market vender stalls, and truck pulls. Families went from booth to booth shopping while fathers disappeared behind a huge plywood wall to watch the truck pulls and have a few beers.
Right away, my mother draws attention by having her own booth right in the center of everything. Since she doesn’t believe in having a job like normal people, she uses the festival as a place to sell her “authentic” Cherokee remedies and lotions that she brewed up in our kitchen. It was bad enough that she had to be crazy at home, but did she have to be nuts in public too?
This latest business venture nearly pushed Aunt Ama to her limit. She found out about it when she dropped in with the extra bread and milk she claimed to have bought on accident. She paced the kitchen while Momma worked at the stove, “How can you sell the ways of our people for spare change?”
“It isn’t easy,” my mother said. “There isn’t that much spare change out there anymore.”
How do you argue with logic like that?
I left her there to pawn her tonics and remedies, wandering through the crowd until I met up with my cousins. We ate funnel cakes and cotton candy until my stomach ached with all the sugary goodness. Then, like the stupid kids we were, we decided to take a few rides on the Ferris wheel where I vomited on the people below me.
Aunt Ama came out of nowhere to rescue me from the furious carnie and the disgusted patrons. She held my hair back as I continued to retch and sent Ana and Joe for a soda to settle my stomach. “Where’s your sense girl? Stuffing your face and now look at you, sick as a dog.”
My skin was clammy and I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t cry in front of all those people. Ama shielded me the best that she could until the nausea passed, wiping my face with rough paper napkins that smelled of corndogs, and ordering me to take slow sips of the soda my cousins brought back.
By the time Ama took me back to the rows of venders, Momma’s booth space was empty. I was tired, sick, and wanting my own bed. It was a perfect example of why I hated her.
I would have sat right there on that patch of dying grass, pouting until my mother remembered that she had a daughter wandering around at night by herself. Didn’t Momma know that this was how girls’ dead bodies ended up in dumpsters? Psychopaths snatched them while their parents weren’t paying attention. I wasn’t sure I had even been to the dentist enough for them to be able to use my dental records to identify my body.
Ama dragged me to her car, seeming to forget that I was sick only moments ago. She shoved me into the front seat that always smelled of cookie dough. I tried not to vomit again on her floor mats. That was the funny thing about Ama; she believed in having a clean car all the time and always had at least three sets of floor mats in a car. She kept the factory set; another set that she would buy that matched the interior, and then a rubbery set to keep the other two clean. I couldn’t even imagine the trouble I would be in if I got sick all over them.
I managed to hold down what I had left in my stomach as Ama drove me to the house Momma rented just off Main Street. It was only a two or three minute drive, but in all the festival traffic, it took us almost half an hour. She pulled into our narrow gravel drive and ordered me out of the car. She got out and slammed her door, “You go in and go straight to bed. Your mother and I need to have a little talk.”
I nodded and walked along the damp grass with Ama only a few steps behind me. I climbed the chipped concrete steps, light poured out from the lamps inside. I wished Ama would go away, but there she was pushing me through the door when I hesitated.
Stepping in, I stumbled over a few discarded beer and wine bottles by the door. I looked around the living room, but there was no sign of Momma. The living room was its usual cluttered mess with bottles scattered about the coffee table and end tables, I was embarrassed to have Ama see it that way. I wanted to apologize, but then I heard a man’s voice coming from my mother’s bedroom followed by Momma’s girlish giggle.
Son of a bitch….
I pushed past Ama and ran from the house and across the field behind our house. The ground still rutted even though it had been years since the soil was plowed. The little gullies of earth tripped me, but still I ran. I did not care if I fell and broke my leg, or for that matter my neck, I just had to get away.
I ran past the field and into the thicket of trees that surrounded the property. The air was cool there and I was shielded from the view of the house. I sank to my trembling knees and gasped for air, trying not to vomit on the fresh autumn grass.
The wind through the trees was chilled and scented with the manure used in other, neighboring fields. It did little to settle my stomach. I leaned back against the trunk of a tree, closed my eyes, and let the world swim around me.
There was a peace in those woods. It was the sort of stillness that only exists under a leafy canopy and the smell of the damp earth. I opened my eyes and looked up at the crisscross of branches that framed the evening sky like giant hands pointing the way.
Looking around, I searched for my tree. Walking paths and trails that I had traveled since I was first able to walk, I found it near the edge of the wood. It was a big, fat tree, struck by lightning years before I was even born. It stood naked and grey as if it had been waiting for me all of this time.
I climbed the thick, low branches, grown smooth from many summers and winters. Sitting there, letting my feet swing in the air, I stayed there until all the light faded and the stars glittered in the sky.
I hate her…I’m never going back…
I used to pretend that I was adopted. I made up a fantasy where my real mother (a beautiful Cherokee princess) had given me to my mother because my real mother knew that a little baby would never survive the famed Trail of Tears. I waited for my Indian mother to come back for me and take me back to my real family where I would be appreciated.
The year that I turned ten, I read about the Trail of Tears in school and saw the impossibility of that fantasy. Even more disappointing, Aunt Ama explained that there was no such thing as a Cherokee princess. Still, there in the darkness, I looked up at the stars and longed for the mother of my youthful dreams.
Please hurry…I don’t think I can take much more…
“What are you doing up there child?” A voice called from the other side of the thicket.
I jumped at the sound and turned to see my aunt looking up at me.
“I asked you a question girl.”
“I just wanted to be alone.”
“Don’t pay any attention to your mother.” My aunt said as she pulled at my feet. “Come down. We’ll go home.”
“I don’t want to.”
Ama smacked at my legs, “Come down.”
I climbed down and took my aunt’s brown hand, “Do I have to go back?”
We walked through the thicket and across the field. I stayed close to my aunt, inhaling the earthy scent from her clothes and brown skin
“Ama,” I began as we neared the house, the yellow lights shining out onto the lawn. “When will Mom be normal?”
“It’s too late for that.”
My mother was waiting for us when we came in from the night. Her male visitor was gone and she wore one of her prized possessions, an authentic kimono in a bright swirling red and black design that some nameless man bought her in Japan. “Where have you been?”
“Leave the child alone.” My aunt ordered as she stepped between us. “The girl needs to be in bed.”
My mother glared at us both, “She can go to bed when I’m done with her.”
“You are done.”
“You’re not her mother!” My mother hissed, sitting down on the couch and lighting a cigarette.
“I’m more of a mother to that child than you are.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Why didn’t you go look for her when you knew she ran off?”
“Because,” my mother said with a cold smile and a drag from her cigarette. “I knew she’d be back. She always comes back.”
I hated her then. I hated the sight of her, and I swore the next time I got past the front door I wouldn’t come back.