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 Came across this from an old journal . . . made me miss my grandfather all over again.

 

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It’s Wednesday.  I’m driving up U.S. Highway 55 North, Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” playing out it’s pre-historic horror tale through the cassette player.  E sits beside me, alternating between fussing with the straps on her sandals and looking out the window at the overwhelming greenness of Mississippi streaming by.  S and H are fussing and giggling over an esoteric game they play that makes sense only if you are six and two and trapped in the backseat of an Isuzu Trooper for God knows how long.

 

We are headed to Missouri; first to my grandfather’s house, in New M-town, site of the famed New M-town earthquake of 18-something.  Only a few years ago, a seismologist of some reputation insisted that the second great New M-town earthquake was on its way, and the little town over flowed with reporters and scientists, only to be abandoned a few weeks later when the only earth-shaking occurrence was the local merchants filling their coffers from the expenditures of their visitors.  Now I am on my way there, expecting no earthquakes, just a couple of slow, leisurely days where my children will hopefully get a feel for the sweetness that is their great-grandfather, my Poppity.

 

After New M-town, we plan to go further north to F-town, a little, backward place, the county seat of Madison County, Missouri, where both my parents and I were raised, and their parents, too.  A lot of my family has died or moved on, but my father’s people, the Starkeys, are still there and holding a family reunion on Saturday.  I’m taking the girls and, again, hoping that in one afternoon they can glean something from being surrounded by people to whom you are tied by blood that will last them.  I don’t know if it will work, if it’s even worth the trip, but I’m going to try.  We’ll know in the years to come how it turns out, I guess.

 

 

The following Monday, we intend to head southwest to my Cousin P’s place in Harrison, Arkansas, forty-five minutes or so outside Branson, Missouri.  I’m excited to see her – we are very much alike – and a little nervous, too.  Maybe we’re too much alike.  She’s recently divorced and man-crazy, and there’s something about that combination that makes me jumpy.  Afraid of too much information, I guess.  Anyway, the girls are getting to go to Silver Dollar City, an amusement park set in the 1860’s, and maybe to The Shepherd of the Hills park, based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright who, I’ve read, outsold Hemingway and Fitzgerald at one point in literary history.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s Sherman Hemingway and Harpo Fitzgerald he outsold, but it is a book that made me long for a history, whose re-reading made me want to make this trip in the first place, so maybe.  From P’s, we’re headed homeward, a grueling 14 hour drive south that I am hoping will be fueled by an abiding desire just to get home. 

 

Now, however, home is the last place I want to be.  I’m road-tripping, that glorious phrase from my college years.  I started college seventeen years ago, and the words ‘road-trip’ haven’t lost a single shade from the delirious corona they sported then.  Road-trip then meant freedom and new experiences, it meant just maybe drinking too much and just maybe sex with just maybe strangers, it signified potential.  This road-trip has me driving north in an old Trooper with three little girls and a cooler full of bologna and cheese and whole milk for bottles, and the only just-maybe I’m aware of is just maybe getting into an argument with one of my notorious relatives over my father or money, both moot points, and just maybe getting to go out for drinks with P in Harrison.  But it’s still there, the old excitement, the unknown, leaving my own self behind and breaking new ground.  Even with an extra pacifier hanging off the rear-view mirror, even with the back seat littered with coloring books and plastic figures from McDonald’s.  My foolish heart knows no better.

 

Mississippi is a surprise; nicest rest stops I’ve ever seen.  Our first official stop has a Welcome Center, incongruously furnished with antique chairs and a china cabinet, paintings on easels.  Only rest stop I’ve ever been to where I was afraid the girls would break something.  But the people are nice, and the air is cool.  A white-haired man behind the counter offers E and S a soft drink, and S accepts, though I have to hunt her down to accept it once he has it ready for her.  She says thank you without prompting, but he talks over her, and doesn’t hear.  I give her the points anyway.

 

Outside, I let them run for a bit.  H takes off into a tree-lined clearing, and the big girls chase her. She’s delighted.  She chortles and runs faster, curved legs and blonde hair bouncing across the grass.  We get back in the car and I replenish drinks and snacks from the cooler in the back; we’re all antsy to get back on the road.  Even H doesn’t fuss at the buckles and straps of her car seat.  She wiggles and grins – “Let’s go, Mama!”  and we do.

 

Mississippi, the corner of Tennessee, Arkansas, then Missouri.  We’re getting tired now, and glad we’re close.  I plan to call Poppity when we hit the state line, but don’t.  Just want to keep going.  I find Locust Street easily, and his little house near the end.  I don’t really think of it as his house, still.  He and A have been married for twenty-five years, and I still think of it as her house, hers and Mr. S’s house, I guess.  As though Poppity were a guest who came to visit after Mr. S died and just never left.  When we pull into the drive, Poppity bursts through the front door; he’s been watching for us.  “Oh-ho!” he says, and hurries down the steps.  I get out of the car and come around to hug him, and he squeezes me hard, then pulls back and looks past me into the window where H sits in the car seat.  She looks at him for a split second, then grins broadly, and waves.  I’m tickled – I know this means a lot to him.  I go to get her out of the car, and S runs around the back, hugs Poppity, and they tickle and talk.  E gets out quietly, stands self-conciously, waiting.  As I pull H free and shut the door, Poppity turns to E and says, “Well, this must be our E!  Hel-l-oo, E!”  He hugs her, too.  I am relieved, and I know she is pleased.

 

We all walk up the stairs and into the house. I remember the last time my father and I visited here.  Dad, in his wheelchair, had become accustomed to waiting on the lawn of houses with stairs, waiting in the car, waiting all the time.  Dinner was ready when we arrived, and Dad was prepared to wait outside while we ate in the kitchen.  Poppity was mortified.  Over my father’s protests, he gathered the Sheriff from across the street and a truck driver from next door, and they lifted Dad, chair and all, up onto the porch, and assured him they’d bring him back down when he was ready.  My dad was pleased and embarrassed and grateful, and I remember thinking how humiliating it would be to rely on the passing vagaries of people that way.  I gave Dad the points then, too.  Now we open the full glass front door and step into the living room, and I am not surprised to see that virtually nothing has changed.  It’s a place out of time, with the ceramic basset hound under the end table, the swinging doors into the kitchen, the comfy old couch, the air smelling vaguely of fried bacon and A’S cologne.

 

The first time H is put down on the rug, Poppity opens his arms and she runs straight to him, snuggles into his neck.  He is visibly touched, and their bond is forged.  I remind him that she was named after his sister who died, and he tells people during our visit about this several times, changing ‘sister’ to ‘daughter’.  I correct him once, and then drop it – it doesn’t matter to people, and it’s still a nice story.  I’m thinking that he has his sister H confused with the tiny daughter, Patsy, that they lost. Poppity tries to draw E out a bit, but his real talent is with the little ones.  He brings out his toys – things that rattle and play music, roll across the floor, explode.  H is fascinated by everything, but he gets a little possessive when she starts saying ‘mine’ about his toys, and puts a lot of them away.

 

It’s still early evening, and A is playing Bingo at the Eagles Club, their home-away-from-home.  Poppity wants to take us there, to buy us dinner and ‘show us off’.  E is nervous, asks if it’s a bar, and I tell her it is, but not to worry.  Poppity drives us; I worry about his driving, but he appears to do very well.  We park outisde the building, and he tells us that people watch for the red flag on his car antenna to know when he’s there.   Inside, it’s the same as it was five years ago, probably the same as it’s been for twenty years.  We choose a table, and a friendly waitress takes our order – burgers and fries, grilled cheese for H, and beer for Poppity.  I don’t remember him drinking beer before, but it’s a nice change from Southern Comfort and Coke.  At least he might get some nutrition from the beer.  A dashes in from Bingo and greets us all; she seems genuinely glad to see us, and I am surprised to see that her hair is now nearly all white.  Poppity, at eighty-three, still has more dark hair than white, but A’S has faded fast.  She used to tease him and tell us that he colored his hair, but the way the white is distributed, I don’t believe it, at least not anymore.  Must be the Cherokee in him, I think.  She dashes back out again before the start of the next Bingo session. It’s an hour and a half ‘til her game is over, and I manage to wrangle H that long, but only with effort and help from E and S.  She’s fascinated with the juke box, and repeatedly runs to it and presses the buttons.  She also discovers a new ‘trick’, stepping up onto the carpeted foot rail on the bar and after much preparation and goading from us, making the daring five-inch jump off into space.  We all clap, and she claps for herself, too.  She’s very loving with Poppity, calling him Daddy and giving him hugs and kisses. E is very uncomfortable; has decided that everyone in the room is a drunk, and that they are all staring at her.  She’s a very pretty girl, and people do notice her, but in this instance I think she’s being paranoid, and it makes passing the time here even more uncomfortable having her talk about it. At last A is finished, and comes in for a single beer before we leave.  Back at their house, we bring in our suitcases and talk until bed time.  They pull out the couch in the living room for the big girls, and H and I sleep in Dan’s old room. S is thrilled to be a ‘big girl’ with E, rather than a ‘little girl’ lumped in with H. She throws on her pajamas and gloms onto E for dear life, and E allows it.  H-baby has a short episode of calling for her Daddy, then falls asleep cuddled against me.  I fall asleep wondering about H’s daddy, if he’s enjoying the solitude, if he’s thinking about me.

 

The next morning, A is in her chair, and gets up painfully to greet us.  She says she’s broken a rib that isn’t healing well, and every movement appears to cause her a lot of distress. Much later we will find out she has cancer, and it takes her life. Now we sit on the couch and make small talk.  Poppity and S sneak off together for his morning walk.  They are gone quite awhile, and when they return, Poppity proclaims that S is a ‘walking fool’, and that he could hardly keep up with her.  They have had a good time, I can tell – S’s face is flushed from exertion, and she’s hanging onto Poppity’s hand.  This is what I came for, I think.  This is what she’ll remember. A insists on making a big lunch, their only meal of the day.  They skip breakfast, have a large meal at eleven, then snack in the afternoon and, although she doesn’t say so, I know they drink dinner.  For lunch today, she makes green beans and new potatoes with bacon, fresh corn, sliced tomatoes, lettuce and green onions from their garden, sliced turkey breast in gravy, a few other things on the side.  Even E eats heartily . . . .

 

 

 

 

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I like to think I don’t recall when the seduction began, but I do; sitting on the front steps of an office building downtown, anonymous, hot sun warming the concrete and our bodies, he peeled a deep red apple in one, long sinuous strip. With his pocket knife, he scraped the pale flesh of the fruit, then offered it to me to eat from the blade. It never occured to me to take the knife and hold it for myself, or even to refuse. I leaned forward, opened my mouth, and let him feed the soft apple pulp to me from the sharpened edge. As I sit here now, I can feel the metal in my mouth, taste the apple, see the way his eyes took in my lips. He fed half the apple to me that way, occasionally taking some for himself, and I was aware from time-to-time of passers-by pausing to watch this oddly erotic interlude.  I like to think I don’t remember how this thing of ours began, but this was it – tempered steel and summer fruit inside my mouth and I at his mercy by choice.

The man was not handsome. He was not tall, nor well-built. He moved like a dancer, though, and his hands were delicate, like a woman’s.  His skin was a light, golden, Spanish brown, nearly hairless and soft, so soft. He was broke, this man, barely able to pay for his own liquor, of which he drank too much, too often. His clothes were second-hand, and outwardly there was little to recommend him.

But he fed me from the blade of a knife.  Would my sweet, safe husband have ever done that? Would anyone, seeing me out about my day, button-downs and loafers, wrangling children from school and dogs from their walks, choosing flowers for the dinner table from the display at the grocer, would anyone think to scrape the naked flesh of an apple and offer it to me on the edge of a steel blade?  This man did, and in a certain way, I belonged to him from that moment.

He took me dancing, this man. I who had not danced since college, and even then only to the fast songs, never the slow, romantic ones. The first time he led me onto a dance floor and pulled my body to him, began to lead me across the floor, graceful, in control, I thought I might swoon. Ridiculous, I know, a woman my age, and yet this is the truth. I was, I am, a strong woman, a woman who speaks her mind, who has things her own way, a woman who makes the tough decisions, and there I was, being moved backward across a polished wood floor, unable to even see where I was going, let alone choose my direction. And I felt light, and adored, and sexy. God, did I feel sexy. And the man pulled out all the stops for me – he taught me to twirl and dip, led me to respond to the slightest touch of his hand, to know by pressure alone whether he wanted me to turn this way or that, to know when to spin away and when to come back to him, pressing our bodies together, moving together.

There was no sex. There was innuendo, there was witty conversation. There were side-long glances and other cliche’s, but there was no sex. I was both grateful and bereft, knowing he wanted me, and knowing that while what passed between us was wrong in light of my marriage, it wasn’t irretrievably wrong as long as it didn’t go too far. My nice husband wouldn’t be too concerned about an emotional involvement, as long as there was no intercourse. I know that the time I spent thinking of this man, and the abject joy I felt in being with him was in fact a much larger betrayal of my marriage than simple fucking would have been, but my husband – like most men, in my experience – would not have seen it that way, and this was both comforting to me and desperately sad.

How my husband did not know about the man and I is unclear, and nearly unbelievable. The man tapped on the window of my bedroom late at night, while my husband slept in the front of the television in our living room, and I would slip into clothes and let myself out the back door to meet him.  We would wander the streets of our city, with its open-til-dawn bars, sweating at sidewalk cafes, washing shots of Jack Daniels down with domestic beer, always laughing, always holding hands. Or, some nights, when he would tap, tap at my window, I would step out the back door barefoot in a white summer nightgown, and we would sit in the swing on my front porch, watching the boats on the river, and talk until the sky lightened, and still, still there were things to say.

I did not neglect my children, though my mind was often somewhere else. I cooked and shopped and washed clothes, I cleaned my house or didn’t, but no more or less than before I knew this man. I helped with homework and volunteered at PTA meetings, I met my husband for lunch, I planted flowers in the boxes on the windowsills. I am not saying this was fair, I am not saying this was right, I am only saying what it was, and what it was not.

At night, in bed, he was there all around me. My husband had never really liked sex, or so he said. I know he didn’t like to have it with me. Deep into the night I would lie under the cool sheet and founder in the sense memory of my time with the man, the not-sex, the feel of his hand on the small of my back when we danced, his hand reaching for mine when we walked, the way he watched my lips when I spoke. I pleasured myself to these thoughts, if pleasure is what it was, to his image, both wanting and fearing him, stifling my voice, muted by the hum of the air conditioner.

This man was not gentle, not kind, not decent. The seemingly sweet or romantic things he did with and for me were an aberration, an exception to the way he lived his life.  In the brief glimpses of his every day that I was privy to, I found him coarse, even mean. He could be brutal in disagreements, and I am sure there is part of me that liked this, liked knowing that potential for violence existed in him, yet he chose to be otherwise with me.

One night, very late, after my family slept, he came to get me, told me to wear something sexy. I fumbled quietly through dresser drawers using only the faint light from the open bathroom door, finding stockings bought for an anniversary and never worn, a black dress cut too low, painful stiletto heels bought on sale. I dressed in the bathroom, put on too much perfume, too red lipstick, and locked the back door behind me when I left. At the sight of me, he smiled broadly, almost handsome under the streetlight, and told me I was about to feel sexier than I ever had. We drove into a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, and parked next to a run-down building with the word, “Taqueria” painted in peeling pastel paint above the door. He led me by the hand inside to a bar teeming with Hispanic men, all focused on a big-screen television shouting and cheering over a soccer game in progress. Other than the barmaid, I was the only woman in the room. I felt over-dressed, conspicuous, but the man watched me with a smile at the corner of his mouth, and I knew I would not protest.

Even before the match ended, men began to drift over to where were seated at the bar. Old, young, they spoke to the man in Spanish, and admired me openly. I was enthralled, embarrassed, excited, all at once. Thes men found me desirable, and did not care what aI thought or had to say. I was a beautiful object in that moment, and while it is not politically correct and I would not be content to live my life in this way, the man was exactly right – I felt incredibly sexy.  At one point, a young man addressed the man in English, saying the man was very lucky to be with such a beautiful woman. The man looked into my eyes and answered that we weren’t together; I was just a friend, and if the young man wanted me, he should take me.

I was crushed by this, nearly physically ill, suddenly thrown off-balance. I wanted to go home, and when we left a short time later, he was distant, and hardly spoke to me when he pulled up near my house, leaned across me to open my door, looked away out his own window as I gathered my purse, my shoes, and stepped in stocking feet out of the car. Looking back, I think it was purposeful, a way to push me away and draw me in further at the same time. I didn’t know for certain then, and I don’t know for certain now.

I cried easily for the next few days, inexplicably to my family, and was something of a mess. I told my husband I thought it was PMS; I didn’t think he’d understand if I were to explain that my boyfriend had offered to give me away to a stranger in a Spanish soccer bar. But the man wasn’t finished with me, nor I with him. It was just another step in moving us toward what we would eventually become.

When I write this, it seems almost as if he had a plan, a well-wrought way to get from Point A to Point B, but truthfully, I’m not at all sure he was that clever. And I still don’t know how much of what happened was me, my needs, my fantasies, my greed moving this forward. I have not addressed his feelings here, either. I have come to believe that he loved me, or that he thought he loved me – who is to say if there is a difference? You may say that I am fooling myself, rationalizing my actions by endowing the man with feelings he did not possess, and I can’t say that I know you are wrong. But I believe, I do, that he loved me and may in fact love me to this day. (more, later, maybe)

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I lie in bed.  The ceiling fan stirs the wisps of hair around my face, whirring like the whisper of a companion.  I’ve gotten so I can’t sleep without it, even on the coolest nights.  The toilet flushes,  a brief glimmer of light – door open, light switch flipped – and my husband slips into bed beside me.  He stretches, shifts his weight, yawns hugely and settles in. His body touches mine for only an instant – it’s an accident, and he pulls away quickly.  I wait.  I hear him clear his throat and shuffle under the quilt and think, maybe, but he goes still again. I lie very still, faking sleep; I know it doesn’t matter if I am sleeping or awake, but it makes me feel better to pretend.  When he raises his body suddenly, I am sure he intends to kiss me goodnight, but he reaches for the clock glowing on the night stand, and I see he’s forgotten to set his alarm.  He finishes with the clock and again furrows beneath the covers; within minutes his light snore competes with the fan overhead for my attention, and I, too, roll over, shifting and settling my body for sleep.   A year and a half, I think, and surprised by this I begin to do my count.  The last time we made love was the middle of March, last year, in a hotel room in Paris . . . it is now the fifth of November of the following year, and we have, indeed, passed the eighteen-month mark. Nom myoho renge kyo, I chant silently.

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