For Ralph and Linda
My mother only left the house once a week. Friday was her day to stop at the gas station to buy cigarettes while I waited on hot, sticky vinyl seats ‘safely’ nestled behind cracked windows. The gas station was on the outskirt of town and caught all of the newcomers, grinning with fishing poles and pistols; and it caught all of the other men, on their way out, running from something or someone, to tell them ‘goodbye’ with a last pack of cigarettes purchased in a dingy, little port town.
My mother was always polite to the men who held the door open for her, despite their frayed haircuts and dirty knees. She smiled nervously at the parking lot as I kept watch on the staring eyes of pump number two. My mother vanished with a DING of a rusty bell; and my heart pounded and skipped until the next fling of the door produced my cigarette carrying mother. When she took too long, I realized I was not able to care for myself as I had thought over the previous night’s dinner. She did provide a form of comfort and protection, despite my thoughts regarding a lengthy scolding and whipping. Her wooden paddle was missed during her stay inside of the old gas station; but I found myself wondering about the small rubber ball that had been snapped from the wooden paddle many years before. I could not imagine my mother throwing it away, being a keeper of almost everything, including worked crossword puzzles and bread twist ties.
My parents were born in the middle of The Great Depression and often told stories of ‘sweeping the dirt floor’ and hunting rats and opossums for dinner. My father talked mostly about eating the hearts out of stolen watermelons during the summer; and I lavished in the thought that my father’s honest handshake had not been as such in his younger years. Even after my father’s twin was murdered and left on the side of lonely highway, my father never swayed from his accounts of thievery: “Mickey and I used to run out there, barefoot and tired as all get out, after pickin’ cotton all day; and we’d pick us the biggest and the darkest melon we could hold. We’d throw them down just to bust out the hearts—and boy, that was some good eatin’ right there. Those hearts were so cool and juicy—and not a seed a one.”
It was ghastly, to say the least, for my mother to hear the dirty details of my father being so wasteful. Perhaps she attempted to compensate his lewd behavior by cooking most of our meals with expired liquids and eggs. Perhaps she thought he would notice the missing corner of his grilled cheese, where the penicillin had once thrived.
Despite her attempts to teach my father a lesson for his childhood decision making, she was never successful to make an impression anywhere further. I checked the dates on my cereals religiously and smuggled expired Miracle Whips into the backyard burn pile. My father pushed the bottles and bags with his hoe as I stood alongside. The fire would whip up with the wind and touch my face after a rake of the coals. I could feel my mother watching us from the kitchen window and I imagined her pressing her lips together and blowing softly in our direction when the flames got too high.
My father did not have an opinion on expired food; however, his superstitious nature kept me from enjoying a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream after a fish dinner. He insisted this combination would yield ill effects, including, but not limited to: vomiting, diarrhea, lockjaw and death. He also described the seriousness of eating undercooked chicken and overcooked cheese – two items he had not swallowed in over forty years—with such intense eyebrows, I found myself refusing chicken in the school lunch line. I chose apple juice, instead of my usual chocolate milk, on FISH PATTY Friday, and I overanalyzed the consistency of the melted cheese on SOFT TACO Tuesday.
It was common for my father to hoard heads up pennies and rub stray cats with odd concoctions of mineral oil and chewing tobacco. I followed his habits like an old woman dog ears pages of the bible. I collected my pennies, didn’t go to bed with wet hair, and enjoyed my father’s stories of the “old days” when people sat up all night with dripping candles and a dead body, in hopes to avoid burying someone alive out in the back cemetery of town.
My father’s religion was less than respected and he shuffled his stories about “why” he wouldn’t eat the chicken and gooey casseroles on Thanksgiving day. His sister-in-law, long since gone and only 15 when married, had attempted to fry chicken in a cast iron skillet. She served the crispy edges and my father sank his teeth into the greasy skin. A few hours later, he found himself in an outhouse, coughing up bits of raw chicken and undercooked flour. He vowed to never eat chicken again; and it was confirmed, by my mother herself, that as long as she had known him, she had never known him to eat chicken—fried, baked or compressed and packaged into thin, slimy slices.
He never discussed his faith of the “cooked cheese,” and because this verse could never be substantiated, I lacked the devotion. I ate cheese on hot Hamburger Helper and melted Kraft slices on bowls of freshly popped popcorn. I ate cheese enchilada TV Dinners and smothered nacho cheese on my mother’s tiny, baked potatoes. My father noticed my distrust, but only scolded me with a glance over his wire framed glasses.
I did not understand his theory on the cheese; and almost questioned the fact that ‘watermelon seeds will sprout if “swallered,” but I overheard little Jaime Kettling going on and on about how she had swallowed a piece of gum last summer and never witnessed the gum purge through her lines. My father’s religion seemed progressive and tedious, but I chose his faith over the stacks of children’s bibles my grandmother mailed to our house, as I was not much of a reader. The task of reading each of the thin pages was likely comparable to the hours my mother had spent picking lice and eggs out of my fine strands with a tiny toothed comb. Furthermore, I had believed in Santa for nine years, following his stereotypical childhood guidelines, only to learn he was cunningly created to keep mouths shut and eyes closed. My father followed his personal guidelines without fault; and I could not imagine him depriving himself of freshly baked casseroles had the whole thing been a farce, to accomplish nothing more than slapping spite at my mother.
Unlike my father, I fearfully pushed the boundaries with my mother, not to defy her, but to simply follow my own religious convictions involving food and beverage. This specific industry was her pride and her prejudice; and it was expected to be respected. My paganism gnawed on her nerves like the neighbor’s barking dog—during the midnight hours, respectively.
“You better drink that apple juice, child,” my mother had warned on our way out to the gas station.
I stared at the forgotten cup—juice soft and quiet, still and subtle. The juice was now room temperature and I had created my own verse: not to consume room temperature beverages, as they lead to stomach pain and vomiting. My mother was unaware of this conviction and she urged me once again to drink the juice.
“Don’t think I will forget about this,” she gritted. Her eyes were focused and sharp, but her threat fell, dropped, and rolled around on the kitchen floor with the bits of mud and sand she had missed. She flipped off the kitchen lights with a click and her keys jink jank jingled into the living room. I stared, once again at the juice. It sat in the transparent cup as if it expected to be thrown out the backdoor with a sudden jerk of my mother’s wrist; or maybe it was simply waiting its turn to drip, drip, drain down the kitchen sink after my mother screamed and slapped with her wooden paddle. The room was dark and silent. My mother’s cigarette whimpered its last fizzle and the last bit of orange singe fell asleep under the dark sun of the kitchen.
“Come on now,” my mother started. “I want to get up there before all of those factory men get out for their lunch break.”
I followed behind, shoulders given in to my fate. We rode in the car, cigarette broth caressing our hair and our hands, down the highway that led right out of town and into the parking lot of the flat-topped filling station my mother cherished and prized.
I was relieved that no wild-eyed man jiggled the door handle of the silver Buick as I sat, waiting for my mother to return with her box of cigarettes. My nerves popped when she fired up the beastly engine; and my mind churned all the way back home. The old Buick rounded the corners with ease and leaned into the drive with crushing sounds of shells and gravel. The house was dark and wide. It waited for me to enter its walls and face the leftover cup of sticky apple juice. The old house looked down as I followed my mother though the big, wooden door into the living room, who seemed dull and saddened with my father’s absence. The black spots on the knotty pine walls snickered as I made my way into the kitchen.
The kitchen chamber was ticking with patience, gloriously awaiting my momentous arrival. My mother headed to her cabinet, releasing her purse of his duty and placing her fresh tobacco on the kitchen counter. The cigarettes watched with stressful stature as my mother approached the large, wooden dining table.
“Now you sit right down there and you finish that apple juice before I have to pour it down your throat myself.”
I looked at the cup, lightly tinted by the darkness and still guarding the stale apple juice.
My mother flipped on the kitchen lights. The spotlight from above filtered through the haze of my mother’s dungeon and highlighted the monstrosity on our dining room table. It was a sight that startled all parties involved. My eyes jumped wide; and the ashtray’s tiny pieces of silver and black cringed and huddled.
The transparent cup, alone no more, presented the solemn apple juice with the grandest of cockroaches right in front of my mother’s Woman’s Day Magazine. The roach’s dark legs bent and twitched and his head faced the ceiling.
“Oh my Goddddd…” My mother moaned. She stood in disbelief above the hairy legged cockroach who represented the epitome of all things dirty and disgusting. The winged slivers were known to move at the speed of light and upon fright took flight. They crawled in my father’s damp garage between the cracks and the rusty freezers; and they licked over the rabbit mounds of feces and urine. They slept behind cool TVs and they waited in the bottom of the bathtub drain. They crinkled and cracked as they ran across paper and yellow goo leaked out when their bodies were smashed and smeared. They were my ultimate fear, with their faceless heads and stalking bodies. Not a snake, nor a frog, not a worm, nor a wasp could send chills down my arms like the cockroach did. He was not a friend of mine; and my mother, usually brave around household nuisances, stood silent.
The apple juice waved with terror and my mother stared at the cup.
“Look what you have done!” she yelled, pointing at the submerged and lifeless guest. “You left this juice sitting out and now you have invited roaches in my kitchen!”
I stared at the cup, now alive with light and death. The smell of squashed apples was faint and tainted. My lip curled. I had left water, orange juice, and half of a Coke-a-Cola on that kitchen table—sometimes days at a time—and had never witnessed such a tragedy. My arms were lifeless. My mind hummed and searched for reasoning.
“It’s the apple juice,” I mumbled.
“What?” my mother yelled. “What are you talking about? Yes, it’s apple juice! Apple juice that YOU didn’t drink! Apple juice that YOU wasted—and now it is here on MY dining room table with the nastiest thing I have ever seen in my life!”
I stared at the cup and my mother’s voice was muted. Her arms flapped and swayed as a high pitched whine sang in my ears. My toes tingled and my mouth was dry and stuck, but my mind was unclenched and free falling.
I thought about my father eating the raw chicken and busting hearts out of watermelons to avoid the sprouting seeds between the rind and the mush. I thought about my father’s hands being nailed to the front of our house and his head hanging with defeat as blood dripped from his toes. I thought about my father, dying for his sins, to save me from the agony of what melted cheese and heads-down pennies held for me; and I wondered, as I stood in the bereaved kitchen, how many bodies had sat up, alive and alone, when no one was there to wait.