Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Snookered No More

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“I don’t remember any of that. I remember the way he treated us kids to sodas, each got our choice, every time. And treated us as bigger than we were, always joking and nice. How over the snooker table, light bulbs flickered half the time, there’d be at least one out and it’d take forever for it to be replaced and he’d do it, not Bud. And spicy onions on his breath. I remember how he laughed, short and loud, shot out of his body like a ball pocketed fast. His eyes were intense, happy or sad, it was hard to look away.”

I took a long swig of my beer, leaned forward, eyes on my old friend’s tanned, lined face. “Old” more than “friend” at this point but I’d wanted to see him. Catch up in the cautious way people do after so long and such changes. I had avoided high school reunions so long that I had to manage one, at last.

Jerry shifted in the bench seat. “You always pointed out good stuff, even when we were kids, that sorta Pollyanna attitude,  naive, you know? You folks didn’t get to suffer enough to know any different…” He gave a snort, waved his hasty words away as my eyebrows rose. “Hey bygones be bygones, we were friends, we are now. But  your memories, that’s not  much to retain. You missed a few things but, then, you got out of Dodge fast.”

He scratched at his grey stubble, mouth slack as he noted my crisp blue sport shirt and stone colored khakis and sock-less loafers. Should have worn the sandals. He tried to not stare at the Apple watch on my wrist, a custom ring with lapis lazuli and two small diamonds on my right hand. I moved both below the table. I’d maybe take those off tomorrow. I didn’t need to stand out, there was no reason to prove anything; everyone knew that if I was honest with myself. We all had our paths, some harder, some much better, like Jerry’s.

“I could go on, Jerry, but you wouldn’t likely hear it. Some arguments never quit but I hope you’re still not so against him. He was a mix of things like anyone. I hope to see him again, he still lives here, right? He didn’t die, I guess.”

Jerry examined his dirty fingernails. He’d just gotten off the job, had apologized for his state, after all, we were meeting after so long, but he wanted to get  there faster. A faint ring of dried sweat stained his t-shirt around the neck. I didn’t care about that but wished we’d met later for drinks at one of the new places, not here for the indigestible greasy burger and fried okra in Bud’s Bar and Grill aka Mash and Fritters. It was like revisiting the scene of old tales and petty crimes, plus I never got what tasted so delicious at the place. I liked the shiny jukebox, now long gone. I scrounged in a pants pocket for a chewable antacid, popped one in my mouth.

“How would you know what I have done or do– or not? Hello, Madison, you’ve missed the past thirty years. Gone up over the Ozarks, never came back except for funerals twice, gone in a flash.” But he gave me a kindly look as he grinned wide to show teeth yellowed by chew and coffee. “Clary was someone you had to know a lifetime to really know at all.”

Everyone here had nicknames, even me–“Mad” or the obnoxious “Madi” for Madison– but I started at hearing that one. “Clary.” Short for Clarence Maine. I’d called him by his CB handle, “Ghost Panther”, the few times we’d used our truck CBs, and like a private joke when passing each other on the street (mine was “Navy Boy”, I liked boats). So it stuck in my mind. And that’s what he’d looked like to me, pale, muscular, stealthy. Something untamed at heart.

There weren’t that many times we’d talked much, otherwise–he was seven years older than my friends and me, so there was little reason to call him anything. I watched him at the bar and grill–we kids came and went despite the alcohol. At the rundown community center where he showed kids on how to better shoot baskets or dive in the semi-scummy outdoor pool, or how to faster tie high top Converse sneakers. In the street as I grew up… even as he became half-notorious. The crafty Lothario, Snooker King, a tough fighter who stopped most of that after he broke his best friend’s collarbone, the drag racer who won more than lost and wrecked a few junky cars in the process.  But he could be attentive, good to others, that was plain to me; people just didn’t want to see. My parents, especially, would never commend him and even condemned him for the increased erroneous ways. And I still secretly thought he had more going than most. More life, more nerve to just jump in and live it.

“Well, you got Marvel in the end, not Clary, so you should have put that to rest. And you’re still married–what a testament to Marvel’s strength! I always liked her, no bull, fun to be around. Glad to hear she did become an RN–I know she’s an excellent nurse.”

Jerry punched my arm playfully. “Yeah, she’s a good one and she didn’t do too bad. I own my own roofing company and she–we– got the four kids. Plus two pampered, fussy poodles and a house that we built.”

“That’s what I call good fortune.”

“It’s a damned lucky thing, my happy ending.”

The chilled bottle sweated in my hand. I rolled it across my forehead. It was screaming hot in Missouri, a swelter that clings to your pores and dares them to leak out more sweat. It near suffocates. The cicadas were buzzing with abrasive constancy and the sky was heavy with threat of rain that wouldn’t leave the air freshened only saturated with the same degrees. I suddenly longed for Seattle, cooler, leafier, busier. Home. That comforting if at times grating silence. Waves lapping near my house overlooking the expanse of water.

“So where did Dina go? After she left?” He thumped his bottle down. “If I can ask.”

I looked away. Dina was not a topic I indulged in with people who didn’t know her. She had accompanied me to my father’s funeral and made quite the splash with her quirky, stylish dress, her fast, smart talk. Jerry had texted me that the townswomen had wanted to know where she got such clothes. Dina designed and made them. I’d referred him to her Etsy site and heard nothing more. They’re pricey. Dina is motivated to make money even more than I’ve been. Now I’m content with my work, the lifestyle I’ve built and not looking for more peaks to conquer.

“Dina is still in the city but we seldom talk. Her first brick and mortar store is doing well, I hear. I’d say it was best for her to leave and better for me, too.” I cocked my head at him. “In time, anyway. It’s been two years now.”

“Sorry, Mad, no doubt you loved her.” He leaned into the table, spoke quietly. “Sarah Dennison likely wishes you were available. She’s single…”

A teen-aged Sarah flashed before my eyes: pale blue eyes, skinny and energetic, shy. Plump lips, first real kiss. Her talent for math, a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University–but after that? Did she get what she wanted?

“Not open to returning to the past! I’m fine on my own. But I’m surprised she’s living here.”

“One marriage might just be enough for any of us… No, in California but she’s here for the reunion. She’s in touch with Marvel–they’re so different but still friendly.” Jerry’s head jerked up and he waved toward the door. I looked through the growing numbers of diners and drinkers and spotted who it was. One person only had that bright penny hair–still!–and wide smile bestowed on everyone.

Jerry shook his head. “Well, what do you know? Here comes Melba. Big surprise. She and everyone else knows you’re finally in town for a class reunion. It’s just starting, Madison Townsley, so get ready.”

Melba, Clary’s first love and first wife, I heard, had stopped at the snooker table. She picked up a cue stick, bent over and laughed louder than everyone; several people crowded about her. She beat her boyfriend a few times, I recalled, and that was that, they were in love, more or less.

The air swirled about the swamp of it all: steaming dusky air,  faded faces with blurred names, hard luck stories and better ones, rasp of insects a hum under a shock of lightning, grumble of thunder. If only the rain would let loose.

I stood up. “I’m going to watch Melba play.”

Jerry followed past the noisy round tables to the end of the room. People squinted at me; Jerry nodded their way as I avoided the curiosity. Who had I become? No one should be surprised I’d followed the family trajectory laid forth from an early age.

She was bent over, swaying bulk of her skimming the tabletop as she took aim. I counted the fifteen red balls, six colored ones, one cue ball. Just as always. All readied, taunting the player to tap or slam them away. Contact was made, crack, it shot across the table, left side pocket.

A ripple of energy shot up my back. I’d been here with cue stick in hand so often my parents at last forbade me to play: I had to study harder, had to make something more of myself, get out of that town. In the end, I got it. But what a game it was, what fun as we all shared those hours and more.

Now I owned a luxe pool table. There had been times I’d played with the same enthusiasm–she and I even played. It had given me such pleasure. But for months it has sat abandoned in the great room that overlooks Puget Sound with its carnival of  boats, the mystic orcas, reflections of changing skies above our grand, green city.

Sadness swept over me and I refocused on the game.

Melba was in her stride working the table, her adversary barely keeping up. Spectators admired every pause, each stroke, cheering or booing as they saw fit. In a short time she trounced the other woman and was ready to flounce off to her spot packed with friends. Then she turned, her body seeming to follow that red ruffled skirt that swirled about her. She bumped into me with a force of voluptuousness that had taken over her sturdy frame. Time had made the most of who she was. I held out my arms to her.

“Madi?”

“Melba.”

She tossed an arm about my shoulders and we moved through the crowd, Jerry at our heels.

“Where you sitting?” she asked, linked her arm with mine.

They found the booth at the back, ordered more drinks; hers was whiskey on the rocks.

“I was just telling my girlfriends you weren’t due ’til tomorrow, in and out for our fancy dinner and dance. How sly are you? Welcome back, darlin’.”

She clinked her bottle against mine and Jerry’s and surveyed me openly.

“Looking good, Madi,” she murmured.

“Ditto,” I said, as it was true. Her large amber eyes flashed the same. All that hair swung in a high ponytail, a flag that unfurled in the overhead fan’s breeze.

“Tell me all in a nutshell, then I’ll leave you alone awhile.”

“Wait, Melba, he just flew in this afternoon and had to drive from St. Louis, he’s tired out. Give him room to breathe, love.”

“I didn’t wait for forty years to find out how this ole buddy has been doing, settle down. But it looks like you did good, look at your handsome self, all shined up, smart as can ever. You a high paid corporate attorney now or what?”

Laughter spilled from her like a warning or a friendly offering,  I wasn’t sure which. I wasn’t sure of much here so far, caught in a time warp. It wasn’t feeling all that supportive of a need for privacy and ease. What did I expect?

“That’s right, making the rich richer. Naw, I’m an engineer, Melba, work in aeronautics.”

Her eyes widened and she whistled. “Planes, space stuff? And where’s the wife?”

“Doing her own thing…ten years and done. Where’s your spouse or whatever?”

Whatever is right. Which one?” She flashed neon white teeth, tapped silvery oval nails on the table top. “Oh, maybe you mean… Clary?” She winced but a bold smile came back on. “It’s been a long time since you lived here. I forgot for a minute. And sorry about the wife situation. If you loved her, I mean. Of course you did, divorce is a pain for us all. I’ve had three. But Clary…yeah, well…”

She glanced sideways at Jerry who’d slouched over the last of his third beer, now looking for another. A long night already, what the hell, he seemed to telegraph, so I raised a hand to a waitress who took our order. Though two was enough for me. I had no interest in inadvertently spilling my adult life story here or elsewhere on this trip. And it was stuffy there. I wanted to step outdoors to catch a breeze, then absorb chilled air conditioning in my motel room, that aging and questionable Bel Air Suites now a well reworked Motel Six.

“Madi, he’s in prison, you know that, right?”

It was like she punched me with both fists.

“What? Behind real bars for a long time?”

Jerry took drinks from the waitress then gazed at the table, a broad palm sliding over stains and scratches.

“Yeah, he’s doing time, likely ten to fifteen years.”

“What? Why?” I shook my head hard.

“Money, it all boils down to money! He burgled a place, a 7-11. Armed robbery, St. Louis. And probably more. They caught him on tape, found him, convicted him.” She rolled her shoulders back hard as if unpooling years of hurt and anger, then downed the whiskey. “What could I or anyone do? He gambled too much. Snooker became his worst enemy in the end, and pool–then cards and horses. For so long he was rode an easy wave ’til he came up against bigger fish in the sea, if you follow. And he listened to nobody, right? Not even me. Always the joker, the wiseguy and always his way.” She touched her lips with glittery fingernails as if to still them. Stop the memories. “So that’s that, ole boy.”

“I can’t believe it or maybe I can, but I don’t care to think of it.”

“That’s just how it is, Mad, it went sideways for him.”

I leaned back in my wooden chair, balanced on two legs. Clarence, Ghost Panther, Clary: he was a guy I wanted to model myself after, even if only in private. Swagger meant confidence. An easy way with people. I might also be a whirlwind snooker shark. I might become smart in all the ways I was not yet: how to fix cars, how to drink right, how to make a fire at the river so it glowered low and long into night. How to evade blame if necessary. How to fight without making a ruckus. How to hold a woman just so when she wanted to be held.

I had watched and learned a little. But the gambling and the terrible price paid…I felt sucker punched. Like the good times had been squelched. I actually had suspected I’d see him, catch up some.

“OK, enough of that.” Jerry patted Melba’s arm.

“Yeah, I should get back to my girlfriends. Sorry to break the news.  I’m glad to see you– you seem great. We’ll talk more tomorrow, right?”

When she left it  was like a vacuum opened up. We were quieter, extra careful to say less that might rock the leaky boat of the present reality. I stretched after our bottles emptied. We looked about as people came and went; now and then he’d point out someone. Most I barely remembered. His eyes were bleary and he mentioned Marvel, she’d be waiting for him and likely me.

“I’m tired out, think I’ll head to my room, Jerry. Why not let me give you a ride in my rental car and we’ll call it a night?”

“Yeah, sounds good for now though we could talk for hours.”

As we threaded our way through the dimly lit room and busy tables, people called out to Jerry and he waved; a few exclaimed my name then started to rise. I waved, moved faster, overheated, overdressed, over-informed and a little sick to my stomach.

I flung open the entrance door. Heavy air embraced me, half-smothering rather than relieving me of the lingering heat and a vise grip of tension.

Jerry whistled. “Some car! Is that called, what–ocean blue?”

“It’s a Mazda RX-8, not a Cadillac or Tesla, Jerry! Hop in, enjoy a ride.”

I stopped myself from saying it was what I drove at home most of the time. The rest of the time I drove a refurbished, finely tuned 2010 BMW. Kerry got in as I looked back at Bud’s Bar and Grill, peered into yellow lit, rectangular windows.

The cicadas were rasping their wings off. I wondered how I endured it all those years. I closed my eyes, smelled rain coming over the mountains. Heard tree branches rattle like bones.

There was so much I didn’t want to share, things I didn’t want noticed. Things were better than ever in some ways but emptier, too, since Dina had left. In the end, my life was just not like theirs, anymore. Was it ever? Yet I had missed this from time to time. Even longed for it. For the invisible traces those beautiful if uncertain times had left on me–the same ones I had tried to scour off. It had been easier than I had imagined. Go to college, get a couple degrees, get a decent job that pushed me up the ladder and marry a woman with plenty of her own talents. No kids, but hey, I couldn’t expect everything, could I? Still, I could adjust my life, discover what was missing, re-calibrate. There was a great deal I didn’t know.

“Wait! Is that…Madison!”

Sarah Dennison came toward me like she always had, swiftly, arms outstretched. long legs reaching for more ground, pixie face strangely illumined by the bluish-green tint of mercury lights in the parking lot.

“Is it really you?” she asked, a little breathless. “I just got in a couple hours ago, I called Marvel and she said–oh, hello, Jerry!–she said you two were here, so here I am!”

She placed her arms around me gingerly as if asking permission, and I gladly brought her to my chest a moment, then held her away from me. One person I  understood better than the rest. At least once.

But this was that Sarah? Sleek, swinging silver-streaked hair and so quick to speak? She leaned her head to one side, took my hand into hers.

“Madison, a pleasure once more.”

“I’m glad to see you, Sarah, such a long time.”

“It is. From Missouri to professorship at Stanford University for me; for you, Seattle,  and aerospace,  Marvel says. We need to talk.” She peered at the car, patted it. “Nice. Are you guys leaving already or going on a spin?”

“I need rest and so does Jerry. We’ll chat tomorrow.”

I beamed back at her but felt noncommittal. I was in need of more antacids and sleep and still had to run Jerry home. It was just a lot to take in the first few hours back in the ole hometown. So much felt the same but Ghost Panther, in prison. He wasn’t exactly my childhood hero but he meant something. It set badly with me. The small fire in my belly was roiling, likely to carry me into a long, restless night.

“Alright, see you tomorrow at dinner or before?”

“Tomorrow,” I agreed and folded into the car.

I dropped Jerry off at his pleasant two-story house at the edge of town not far from where he had grown up. Gabbed for ten minutes with Marvel, who was feisty and warm as before. Sped back to Motel Six, flung myself on my bed. Stared up at the at the popcorn ceiling, then took a cool shower and pulled on shorts. Studied my face in the mirror to make sure I still had a grasp of who I was. I had a mind to pack up the few things unpacked and leave in the morning. Who needed nostalgia or jolts of current reality? It was too much in one visit. I wanted life stories to unfold carefully, slowly. I wanted to hide my own longer though it wasn’t that sad, just not what I expected it to be. But, then, did anyone of us?

My nightly ritual had to be kept even in this room, this time warp. I pulled out a notebook and my drafting pen and began to loosely sketch those I had seen. Melba, flare of laughter, a wealth of generosity but eyes hard and sparking, too. Jerry all rough angles and weariness made stronger, sweeter with contentment. Sarah, beauty revealed and brilliance undimmed, her soft shyness finally undone. And Clary’s–Ghost Panther’s–face came to the fore. But it was of the past. A person I did not the least bit know had evolved. He was…older now, too,  much older, in case I forgot that time had slipped away.

How to make heads or tails of the news? On the clean white page, at least, a creature elegance rising from leanness. Eyes that delved, captured everything, committing it to mind for reference. Future acts. Dangerous capers. Yet he had been kind to me. He had taught me to be braver than I felt: a steady gaze back, a solid stance, head held up. He had given me tips on how to win some snooker games. How to withstand losing–with a shrug and “see you turkeys later” tossed over a shoulder, striding without rush out the door. He’d applauded my jacknife dives.

A person could be deeper and better than the wrong things done. I had faith in greater possibilities. He no doubt still carried some magic, had more to offer if he’d get through the misery and wake up. But it wasn’t for me to know, I conceded.

I closed the sketch book. Popped another antacid. Wondered what was on the dinner menu at the reunion. Punched up my pillow so it fit about right under my too-stuffed skull. Turned out the pearly plastic bedside light. Turned over, avoided thinking of Dina. Wondered about Sarah.

The cicadas were singing above the purring A/C, a comfort, after all. A mournful wail of a train whistle tunneled through sodden Missouri air, the same one that used to set me to dreaming as a boy. Tomorrow would arrive one way or another. I’d not often been stymied by people or places. I chose to take in what I needed or wanted then moved forward. But it was clear some of us got left behind, like it or not. I shut my eyes. It was only a quick time travel to finish up, then back home.

Ten-four, Ghost Panther, I know you’re around, wherever you are. Sorry I missed you this time. Good numbers, 10-7.

 

 

Mae Lynn’s First and Last Drive-In Movie

Photo by Stephen Shore

The Sunset Drive-In looked harmless enough but worn out at best. Verging more on ugly, some thought. It’d been there so long, and in nineteen ninety-eight there was talk of tearing it down, building cookie-cutter townhouses or duplexes. But Mae Lynn would be the first to take a bulldozer or even an ax to it. Most citizens of Beauford had gotten used to it over the last thirty years, hardly giving it a second glance as they sped down Raymond Road toward Route 31. One movie a week played now from June through August. It wasn’t worth keeping open for that but once it was a huge draw for miles around, the only place to go on week-ends. Now, twenty miles away, there was a four theater movie complex in a much bigger town.

The Sunset was a matter of serious discussion when it first went up, many against it but just as many for it. Mae Lynn Jarrett remembered its beginnings very well. She operated the Tank and Tobacco Stop just a quarter-mile from its entrance. When it was approved, the kids and their parents would stock up on plenty of cheaper pop and snacks and sneak it into the drive-in until Mae Lynn got wise and raised her  prices. But for the most part she was against it’s very existence.

“See that movie screen over there? It was doomed from the start, if you ask me.”

She pointed to the Sunset as if accusing a criminal and shook her head with creased lips pressed hard together. There was a For Sale sign at the entrance the last two weeks.

Strangers as well as Beauford residents stopped for gas and a pop or beer. Their gazes followed her costume-bejeweled index finger as the guzzled from sweaty bottles. They were willing to listen while benefiting from an industrial-sized fan. This afternoon two women and one man said they were coming from Nashville, on their way to California. They didn’t much like Missouri so far but Mae Lynn was a hoot.

“Old Man Harrison did that. He’d argue he’d none of it but the fact it, it was his land, and then it wasn’t so he must’ve agreed. His family had held that land for three generations but he said it wasn’t no good after the Four Year Drought. He never did try to plant corn on that piece again; the other acreage was kept in hope of better grazing acreage. It gets rented out now. But he was just getting worn out with it all, like lots of folks out here. So when the land development company–land crooks, we call ’em–offered Old Man Harrison a good bit for just ten acres–he bit good and hard. Never did tell a soul how much. Up and left for Florida.” She planted her hands on skinny hips. “Huh!” She laughed like she had a cough. “We ain’t seen or heard from him since. ” She rubbed her scarf-covered head. “Set for awhile, I guess.”

She paused to help another customer, a local who hurried out again, shaking his head in pity at the captive listeners. They winked at each other–best to just humor the lady.

“Anyway, there was this ugly cracker-box subdivision getting set up out here. So Old Man Harrison’s land was gonna have a strip mall, you know, a couple of good clothes stores for the ladies, a family shoe shop, a small restaurant with overpriced Italian food. Maybe a pharmacy, that woulda been good out here–first aid supplies, all the medicines, a quick birthday purchase of perfume, a rack with sports and news magazines. But no, they had a change of mind at the last minute. Just put in that thing, sold off the rest again and it stands empty. Don’t get it.”

She shook her finger at it, then her whole hand balled up. Mae Lynn caught herself just as a splotchy red crept across her cheeks. She released her fistful of anger to the air; the red receded.

“Plays good movies, though, I hope?” the short-haired blond asked, eyes blue as cornflowers smiling at the store clerk. The younger woman’s dress was about as tight as you could make it and still get into it. It was a soft mint green color, good with her coloration. Her older companion–a sister?– wore coral pants and a blousy white top.

Mae Lynn had from the start thought this gal looked as if she ought to be a model at least or even the film racket herself, and the very idea made her cross. She didn’t show it; her business didn’t thrive on bad manners. No, she smiled right back. They were passing through.

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t see them. When they first opened up I joined the herd to find out what all the fuss was. Uncomfortable as all get-out sitting in the cab of our truck next to my Joe and Howie. Having to adjust the speakers just right. Noticing other people doing things in the next cars that you don’t want to see. Howie, my boy, he always wanted a huge drink or more popcorn and it got spilled over the seat–it’d take days to find all the squashed kernels and wipe down sticky soda pop. Joe would fall asleep, anyway.”

She paused long enough to ring up another gas customer, Tate from the feed store with his delivery truck. She’d  have liked to catch up with him but the three strangers were waiting. She bet the two gals were sisters, they shared that papery skin and those large eyes. The man might be their brother, older, none of their charm. He seemed at odds with himself, big and sort of floppy, like he hadn’t yet grown into himself, couldn’t hide it for all he tried with a nice shirt and pants. They were just curious. Looked okay, polite enough, a little rich for her blood but she wondered who they were, what they were off to California for, anyway.

So many still wanted to go as far west as possible, it seemed. It was discouraging. Not her. Mae Lynn had no desire to leave her store or town. She had never even left Missouri, a fact she emphasized when those passing through inquired.

“You been here long?” the big man asked as he eyed chips and beef jerky. The second woman put her hand through the crook of his arm, then closed her eyes while the fan’s wind rushed over her neck and back. Her hair–light but not white-blond like her sister’s–was in a pony tail that flipped up and around in the draft.

“Yes sir, born and raised in Beauford. A decent small town, top-notch farming land. Own the business with my husband, Joe. He’s in a wheelchair now. Got through the Viet Nam war, then got himself a stroke, go figure.”

“Sorry to hear it,” the man said and she nearly believed him. “Well, I never heard what the first movie was that you saw. I’m a movie buff, you might say, so I’m curious.”

Mae Lynn thought a minute; she’d no desire to recall it. But she’d humor him a nit more. “I tend to forget things that don’t deserve a second thought.”

“How long ago was that?” the man prompted. “Nineteen sixty? Nineteen sixty-five?”

“Sixty-nine, maybe?… It was one of those action features…Joe and Howie liked it….the guy was driving a fast car…oh, he was one homely man, hardly moved his face…”

“Steve McQueen? In Bullitt?”

She closed one eye and looked into the distance, trying to pull the movie it from the past. “That’s it, I think. Fancy, fast cars, Ford–”

“Mustang 390 GT! Charger 440 Magnum!” The first woman had spoken up; her perfectly manicured hand pumped the air hard once. “Yeah!”

The big man looked at her fondly while the sister rolled her eyes.

The trio was driving a spanking new Dodge Charger, an alarming red, so they should know. Mae Lynn also knew something about cars, though Joe was the professional mechanic. Or was. Howie had long ago learned the trade and always had more work than he could manage alone. They’d have to hire someone else soon unless Joe miraculously stood up and jumped right into all the work. Not likely after all this time. She winced at her attitude. Howie was a blessing to them even more in middle-age now.

“I’m Delilah Miner, by the way,” the Mustang enthusiast held out her hand, “and this is Marietta, my older sister, and my fiancé, Sam Harking. This has been very interesting”–she looked at the name tag on the woman’s large bust as she squeezed her hand gently–“Mae Lynn. But I’m more than a little wondering why you dislike the Sunset Drive-In so much.”

“I don’t know. It does bring us more business. The last twenty-five years have been good to my family…”

She turned toward the garage where she heard Joe and Howie loudly differing on mechanical problems and repair costs. How would those sleek young adults even know what such a drive-in  meant back then? What it could do to people, a town? “Why do you say that, anyway–that I hate it?”

Delilah raised one feathery eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t say you hated it. That’s a very strong word for a simple outdoor movie theater. Maybe you are…religious? I don’t meant to offend you.”

“Maybe we should move on, Sis.” Marietta placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and left it there, giving her a warning look.

“Yes, time to head out, honey,” Sam agreed, and picked beef jerky, lay two packages on the counter, then hurried over to the cooler to get another orange soda pop. “You ladies want anything more?” he added as he came back.

“We’re good. Come on, Delilah. Nice meeting you, Mae Lynn. You have a nice place.”

They went out to their fiery fine car, chatting with and letting Howie get in and check it out.

But Mae Lynn saw Delilah’s eyes widen with a hungry look, a big curiosity getting the better of her. She thought she might tell her more… if she got her own questions answered. Why not? They’d never see each other again. People came and went all the time that Mae Lynn wished she had talked to even more. But it was business, not a social occasion, Joe reminded her with irritation if she talked too loud or much. He didn’t like people taking up big amounts of time and space (unless it brought income) since he returned from the war; less so since he’d suffered the stroke at forty-nine.

She tried to be patient but the best things about her work were the new and interesting people. The rest of her labor was numbers, which were fine on their own, but they couldn’t hold a conversation worth a damn–and neither, God help them both, could Joe. She felt like she had actually been somewhere else after folks talked with her. Mae Lynn learned things. She found out about other states, the weather, their cities and differing ways. How other people felt about the day or night, how they managed. All she had to do was be herself and ask a few questions. She got skills out of it, like how to calm someone down if he felt he’d been gypped out of a couple dollars on gas or how to make someone smile if she was wrestling with a cranky child. With Joe, anything might happen, but often nothing much or very different, after all. Which could be good. Or could get on her last thin nerve. His silence was a deep reservoir that went dry long ago. Mae Lynn waited, still holding out for hope, and meanwhile chatted up customers.

Mae Lynn leaned on the counter and looked straight into Delilah’s quick, sly blue eyes. The cornflower color had changed to a swampy blue in a shadow cast by passing clouds.

“I’ll tell you what. You let me in on what’s in California and I’ll share why the Sunset Drive In drives me crazy as a buggered loon.”

Delilah’s laughter spilled into the room like silver spangles, her chin up, her open mouth showing off bright, expensive teeth. Then she leaned her elbows on the counter, too, her face a few inches from Mae Lynn’s. She joined in their conspiratorial exchange.

“Why, the movies, of course!” She felt Mae Lynn shrink back, saw her face go a shade paler, then tighten. But the woman had asked. “Sam is a young and brilliant up and coming producer. I’m a stage actress ready to try the big screen. Marietta is a talent agent–mine, but also others’. We thought it’d be a hoot to drive out to LA in Sam’s newest car, or at least for a few days. Marietta and I might catch a plane in Vegas, we’ll see. But we have our ducks in a row so we’re good to go. Sam also likes this locale for another project he’s in talks over.” She considered the soft featured, fine-lined face of the person before her. How still she had become. “So I naturally wondered about the drive-in… why you hold a grudge against it.”

Mae Lynn felt hot, too hot, and weak. She sat on her stool, pulled off her scarf and ran her fingers through grey and brown curls, letting the fan’s wind toss and turn them, cool her neck.

“Okay, I’m fine,” she said.

“You want water?” Delilah tentatively asked, baffled. “Look, we can just drop this.”

“Yes, water would help.”

Mae Lynn smoothed her forehead and retied her scarf, then took the bottled water and drank. She put it on the counter and pressed her steaming palms on the scratched greenish glass counter.

“Candace, it’s about her, you see. My daughter. She had such a thing about movies, said they changed everything, even maybe the world, she kept on and on about it. Drove Joe and me near up a tree, back down and around, kept us awake with worry. As if they were like some magic potion, they were so powerful to her, maybe even like a religious experience to her, because she stopped doing much of anything but reading about them, sneaking out to see them even when we made it clear: no more. It was so easy, the drive-in just a fast walk down the road, meeting up with friends and then we couldn’t find her in that crowd, so why even try? It was everything to her.”

Delilah felt confused, then a small horror crept up her chest and she fought it off. “But, wait, they’re just stories, that’s all, tales brought to a big screen rather than flimsy pages of books. They come alive with good acting, right costumes, great scenery–the movie projector gives it all to us–”

Mae Lynn slapped the counter top once. Silence, then her voice was so soft beneath the noise of cars and trucks whizzing by and the fan’s whir that Delilah had to lean close in. She could hear Sam laughing and it tugged at her. She wished she had not said one thing.

Mae Lynn seemed suspended in time a moment. Joe felt her and rolled his wheelchair around the bumper of a VW van and peered at the women, then rolled away. Let his wife be, she was good at managing whatever it was, she’d find him if need be.

“No. They take away, they don’t add one blasted useful thing. How many boys are drawn to battle by war movies? How many girls are drawn to some wild idea of love that’s just no good? How many people are given the wrong idea about life just because they get lost in a moment, that bigger-than-life hour or two that they think offers something more important than what they already have? Then nothing else can compare, can it? Nothing is as thrilling as that made up nonsense…and real life looks too damn hard. It is hard. It takes stubbornness and, oh, I don’t know.”

It was like she’d run out of steam. Mae Lynn sat back and held up her hands in surrender. She had nothing more to say to her.

Delilah felt her spine tingle all the way to her brain. This ordinary woman was amazing, such energy pulsed in every word, look, pause. She had seen the hunched, somber man in the wheelchair and guessed he was her husband, and the young man, her son, covered in grease, a good whistler, a shyness in his eyes when he glanced Delilah’s way. Her family leaned on her and they loved her.

But Mae Lynn hurt beneath the banter and the talk. She had been hurt badly and so had her family.

“She’s gone, isn’t she? How did she….pass?”

“What? No, no, Candace is alive…as far as I know as of last month she’s still kickin’!”

But Mae Lynn closed her eyes against the sizzle of pain in her heart, willed herself to sit still and strong. What did this awfully shiny Delilah know? What could she understand of her one and only gullible, lively daughter, of her forlorn husband, their smart-as-a-whip son now trapped here with them in their difficult need? And her good gas station business, how much it meant to her–to them–despite the other hard facts. Because of them.

“Oh! I thought she…you spoke of her as in the past. So it had to be the movies that made things happen, right? She felt dissatisfied and restless, they filled her up with such dreams and so Candace up and left the family, Beauford, all that you care for…is that it?”

Mae Lynn held her breath. She held her tongue. When her heart settled and began to hum again, she looked at the other woman. There was one tear trickling down her cheek. Was it a true tear? Perhaps. It touched her. Delilah wiped it away.

“Mae Lynn, I’m sorry we both had to go. That we fell in love with those damned movies and left our mothers, our families behind. But everyone needs to follow a dream!”

“Sure, I know.” Maybe she really didn’t know. This was her true life, this keeping things moving along. What mattered was her family. And this little business.

“If I meet anyone named Candace…”

“Candace Jarrett–”

“I’ll tell her you and I met. Help her if I can, I promise.”

“Sure, sure.” She smiled tiredly at Delilah. A lovely young woman, but there was work to be done.

Sam laid on the horn once. They were impatient to get to LA. Or first, Las Vegas. Somewhere even farther away.

“I have to go Mae Lynn but thanks for talking with me.”

“Thanks for telling me some of your story, Delilah.”

The young woman came behind the counter and suddenly threw her arms around her. She could smell the metallic sharpness of the garage, tang of sweat, ancient rich dirt, sweet hay. Her strength was like the earth’s and she wanted it to  be in her some day, too.

Mae Lynn could feel Delilah’s fears flitting about like ghosts playing tag and she knew it wasn’t easy on her. Such deep hopes and her own private aches were taking root in blood and bones, as happened with all as time went on. She patted the-movie-star-in-the-making on her tender, bony back, then let go. Mae Lynn smiled into her limpid, vulnerable eyes and turned away.

The Charger fired up and squealed out of the station as a cranky old truck lumbered in. Mae Lynn stood up and straightened her blouse, tucked a stray grey curl back under the scarf, wagged her hand in a cheery greeting as she walked out to the pumps.

Summer Trips: the Kelly Girls

 

rural-road

Most of us can recall a place and time when family came together for catching up, sharing tables laden with food, strengthening the ties of blood. It likely has made a tangible difference in your growing up. The experiences are now spun of memories, more valuable as years pass, crisscrossed with secrets, small enchantments of youth. Those times were threaded with a mysterious blend of innocence and the dawning awareness of looming adulthood. But there were still moments when one’s being was gilded with an exquisite sense of being fully alive. Happy.

Aunt Christine’s house seemed to nearly overcome the yard and sidewalk, two and a half towering stories of red brick casting a shadow that fell on me in the sedan. Asleep the last couple of hours of a two-day (if all went well) trip, I felt cramped and dreamy. Moist heat rolled in through the car windows. Cicadas rasped so loud my brain reverberated with the familiar noise. Three of us five kids tumbled out of the back seat as Dad opened the trunk and set out our suitcases. We each grabbed our own, pausing for the parents. I sat atop my suitcase–stuffed with summer clothes, books and other essentials for a week–and stretched. I thought it was a shame my oldest siblings were in college and had to work all summer. But more food and attention for me.

We had, at long last, arrived in a city outside of Kansas City, Missouri. I was freed to enjoy the start of my eleventh summer. We were all Missourian (I had been born in St. Louis and lived there a year and a half), which meant we believed we were a tad Southern even if it was situated in the Midwest. It didn’t feel anything like my hometown in Michigan. So each year we made the trek back to my parents’ old stomping grounds.

I was about to enter a world defined by Aunt Christine, where fresh-baked pecan and rhubarb pies awaited us, delicate doilies covered almost every surface, the Bible figured prominently on the coffee table and there was a whole room devoted to sturdy boxes and cellophane packages she bought and organized to give to the needy. Her smile was the sort that makes you feel that for every bad thing in life, at least ten good things would happen. I was certain that many of them were due to her presence. Her arms were rounded with hugs as we entered the light-filled foyer. But I knew she was also made of tough sinew and grit as were all the Kelly women, Mom included.

Uncle Glenn, tall, thin as a reed, came forward with sharp shoulders and a few words in greeting. He had a “punny” joke right off but he tended to brevity unless he had something of particular interest to offer. His words also seemed to have double meanings; I sometimes didn’t know if he was kidding or complaining. Dad stepped up and maneuvered around the talk, swapped stories about the past year. Mom seemed magnetized by her sister’s goings-on.

We kids were looking for cousin Bruce. He ran down the wooden stairs, then stuck both hands in his jeans pockets. Dark hair was freshly combed back from a high forehead, gleaming unlike my brother’s crew cut. Bruce’s white cotton shirt looked fresh-pressed. A few years younger not close yet to being a breezy teen-ager, I felt grubby and childish but shared a hug, anyway, breathing in scents of sunshine and starch. I had a bevy of girl cousins but only a handful of boys. Bruce’s voice had a soft, easy cadence. He was surprisingly handsome for a cousin. Polite, whereas my next-older sister and brother bent rules and could be annoying but got away with it. And he knew about things that the men in my immediate family did not, like fishing and hunting. Guns.

Mom and Christine, two of the three sisters who would come together, were “thick as thieves again”. They laughed over this, a peculiar thing to say, since stealing was unthinkable–they were church-going women. But they did conspire when in the same room, talking over intricate details of being working wives (my aunt, at a bank; my mother, a teacher), raising children (Mom’s five to my aunt’s one), managing husbands and household business. Industrious, energetic and, efficient they might have made good CEOs, if they had had the chance. They admired each other’s work, compared shoes (bargains) and print neck scarves (sheer and silky) matched to older dresses.

This world was also shaped by Uncle Glenn. Three or four Cadillacs and Chryslers lined the long driveway. Every year there were different ones that he “bought for a song” (my aunt’s eyebrows rose high at that). They often needed some work and he loved to do it. In this, my dad and uncle had common ground. Dad was fascinated with cars, as well, but tended to purchase smaller ones like a red BMW Isetta that opened up from the front. My wise-cracking uncle’s cars were immense boats. I liked to tag along and listen to rustic car talk, smooth glossy paint finishes, admire the clean, fancy interiors. The engines were strong and dauntless, unlike engines my father worked on that sputtered and emitted greasy fumes until they finally worked up a congenial purr.

The yard was green and wide. I’m not sure I recall the back of the house so much as the feel of it. I have in my mind the picture of a screened in porch–all relatives’ houses seemed to include good porches–where people talked and relaxed, sipped iced tea with a lemon wedge and nibbled rich cookies. There were trees bowing over the grass and groupings of colorful flowers. When the wind rose it was warm, fragrant with the headiness of summer. The cicadas accompanied everything we did. I found their brown, green and white bodies and dark eyes fascinating, strange creatures hatched of the deep heat of summer.

I loved to listen to Aunt Christine and my mother talk, so tried to stay quiet although they knew I was eavesdropping. They laughed readily, whether they were talking about their hair-do or jewelry wants or their last church potluck dinner that included some odd pickings. Their affection showed in a hand on a back, an arm snug around shoulders, a smacking kiss on cheeks. They kidded around as if they wanted to get a rise out of each other. Shared experiences sweet or sour, voices lowered. The words, as my mother’s Missourian vowels returned, were complex telegraphing of intimacies. Their gabfests were the manifestation of loving loyalty.

The adult members of my family had survived the Depression, so they valued every small possession, saved odds and ends “just in case” and never stopped being grateful for plentiful food on the table. My aunt and Mom empathized with the pain of those in need. But Aunt Christine felt it a mission, keeping at the ready every essential for anyone who was heard to be without. The big bedroom with those items were stored was a staggering sight when I checked it out each summer. It seemed as if it was just as full as the year before. A great many families would again have most of what they required at a moment’s notice, whether they were victims of fire or a natural disaster, of medical tragedy or violent homes, and in need of refuge and sustenance. Many found themselves jobless, I knew. She volunteered at shelters and soup kitchens and gave money to many causes. She accomplished basic social work out of her own pocket and offered her skills for nothing.

There were many rooms with high ceilings and rich woodwork. So unlike our two-story yellow house with only three bedrooms to harbor seven of us. But the spaciousness also seemed a little sad, more empty when all had quieted. I knew that my cousin Bruce was treasured as an only child. He didn’t have to do much of anything to be counted worthy. I admired his gentlemanly manner, benign teasing ways, and how he included me in outings with the others. As my other siblings left for college but our Missouri visits continued, I had him a bit to myself. He drove a truck or one of the fancier cars, and we’d cruise through city streets on an errand, or into lush rolling country, radio on, talking as we wanted. It was good to sit by him and press my hand into the June wind as he drove. To go new places.

Once he took me to a rudimentary outdoor shooting range where he engaged in target practice. I watched from the safe distance, shocked by the ease with which he managed his rifle, the shot’s noise crashing about me, the mostly men lined up to aim and fire again and again. Then he held it out to me, something that would not be allowed now. I decided to take it when he instructed me exactly what to do and not do.

The sleek heaviness of it were so foreign I nearly gave it back but he kept coaching me, carefully watched over my every move as I positioned it. When I gingerly pressed the trigger, a shot rang out and the rifle kicked against my shoulder I was shocked. And shamefully elated. I had hit part of the target. It seemed a terrible thing to do but it was like nothing else I had even experienced. I felt a surge of bravery for a split second. Less young. I knew nothing of gun laws and violence. A small city girl, I lived in a community designed and overseen to maximize orderly, safe goings-on. So I felt its force as an audacious thing, and knew I would not likely do it again. But was not sorry I tried it. I never mentioned it to my family, nor did he.

As the youngest of five at home, at times I felt squeezed out or somehow misplaced. At my aunt’s and uncle’s I felt included and special in certain ways. For one thing, Aunt Christine wrote poetry and I did, too. We shared our writings through letters but also when I visited. Her poetry was long and elegiac, often religious and at times mystical. I am certain my poetry was constructed with childish vocabulary, ordinary moments. She never once criticized or discouraged me. Instead, she told me I had a “talent for telling” and encouraged my every attempt. Each small piece I published later on meant something; she took pride in my effort and result.

And, too, she recognized my all-embracing love of God, treated it as a blessing. Her own Christian faith spilled all over at times. It offered compassion as if it never ran out. Though we didn’t always agfree on theological details later, her effortless praise and worship were a profound comfort to me. We shared prayers and our favorite Psalms. We kept each other close. She knew me with a spiritual clarity that required no words. I felt she was an angel’s helper meant to  help guide me.

When Aunt Mary, the oldest, arrived with fanfare, the threesome was completed. She was gifted with a needle, fabric and thread. She owned a seamstress business in a colorful little house, making hand-made quilts, providing tailoring services, creating original clothing. She was single following a disastrous marriage, a rare thing back then, in that place. When she joined the other two it was as if they were a matched threesome, a full set. Except Aunt Mary peppered her talk with salty language that was tactfully ignored. Her wit was sharpened by a past that was darker, I suspected, less protected. I had great fondness for her spirit, recognized a different kinship as I witnessed her spitfire energy, her frankness. The fact that she was alone yet successful and managing fine impressed me.

Their united eruptions of laughter, commentaries on everything under the sun and dramatic expressions–it all merged into a singular, vivid piece of music. I was in the presence of women who had had heartache but were without self-pity, rising from the dust. They just stood up, victorious. They were my kin, and as a young girl I was thankful, even relieved to be included in such a group.

Aunt Christine presided over her gracious home until she was in her nineties. My mother and other aunt lived long, as well. But now they are all gone from this earth. They lost and gained more than they expected while here, no doubt, as it is for us all.

Still, they are with me and I think they may even be watching me write this. So I say this: they could whip up the best flaky, juicy apple pies and fresh strawberry jams. They could bring me to tears with their stories. They each had talents that were put to fine use in several creative ways. Aunt Christine could find me when I could sometimes barely find myself. Aunt Mary taught me to survive with flair and humor. My mother? She was water, air and fire to me. In their presence I had no doubt: I was a part of something good and true. I keep it in heart and soul, and hope I give it away as well as did they.

Mary, Christine, Edna (my mom): Kelly Girls
Mary, Christine, Edna (Mom): Kelly Girls in their 70s

Mosquito

jack-corn National archives Who she used to be
(Photo: Jack Corn, National Archives, Who She Used to Be)

It couldn’t hurt. It might help, in fact, taking time from her busy schedule to visit her family and those who’d cheered her on (some) from the start. And those (many) who hadn’t. She didn’t have to stay more than a day or so. Take the early flight from Miami. Archie would go with her for company. All she had to do was call her mother. Her dad was still alive, correct? She had a two week break; breaks were for spontaneity, good or bad. This was good, right?

Travis Beecher turned around, phone in hand, and looked out the twenty-first story window of his agency. He let his gaze rest on the azure sea. Well, more of a grey-blue today but he never let reality spoil his vision. He had money to make, places to go, stars to propel into the stratosphere.

“How about it? I got my finger on the pop pulse of America, and this is good: Galicia Havers Meets Mother After Ten Year Rift. We could show you two in the garden you always talk about. Iced tea so cold it beads up the ole Mason jars. Apples all shiny, green and red in a basket on the table. I should have been a set designer!”

He could hear her breathing. That was one thing he wished she would work on; there was a barely audible but distracting wheeze that came when she got nervous and stated to hyperventilate a little. But that was usually the worst of it. She was manageable. She was exquisite, a high demand model; she was on her way up as an actress. He hoped.

“Galicia? Have you left the premises? Are you entertaining royalty over there so I have to wait?”

He thought she should drop the Havers but she didn’t agree. She’d already changed her first name. What was she doing? Consulting her calendar again? This was free time more or less, why couldn’t she just say okay and book the flight? The calendar hung on her kitchen wall; she filled it in with different colored markers. Tacky!

“I might.”

“She speaks! Look, no one’s twisting your arm here. You had mentioned you finally wanted to call them so this is just a variation on the idea. We can route you through–”

Galicia’s voice was quieter and more distinct. “I’ll do it. I’ll call my mother and if she talks to me, I’ll take care of the plans. Archie can’t come. No pictures.”

“Now, wait.”

“No one cares about me and my family. I’m not that important. And even if I was, family life is off the record.”

Travis lit a cigarette and let it dangle between his lips. “Look, everything you do is an opportunity to promote, sell. You know that. Good story here.”

Silence. A little wheeze. He wanted to tell her to get a drink but held back.

“I’ll let you know if it works out. I have to go, Travis. Dinner with Mr. Darnell, the producer, remember?”

“Good, good. Call me later.” Travis brightened. He could see the sunlight wedge itself between two masses of cloud, making its way to his place.

Galicia went to her closet and walked around. Not turquoise, not chartreuse or peony, not the little tweedy dress. She fingered the dove gray silk shirt and charcoal ankle pants. Silk was so cool, easy on the skin. She grabbed the sleeve and crumpled it in her hand, then let go. Yes, elegant. She slipped it on with the pants, then checked her face a last time. Rose lips. It was what was expected; it was what she did. But even as she locked the apartment door, her childhood fell over her like a clinging breeze. She said a prayer for strength: Holding tight, Lord.

******

Her mother’s voice nearly squeaked. “Alice? No. Alice Sue? Is this some mean trick? Who is this?”

“It’s me, mom. I…I thought we might get together…I mean, if you had the time, if you wanted to, because I have a couple days and can come by. I want to see you. Dad, too.”

“Come by? You can stop by for lunch, is that it? Are you ordering out? Because I don’t cook for strangers unless they’re recommended by a trustworthy friend.”

Galicia swallowed hard. What could she expect? She knew it would be a mistake. “Alright, I get it, you don’t want to have a thing to do with me. We had a terrible time… so sorry to intrude!”

She was close to hanging up, should do it, forget any building of bridges. Too much lost, misunderstood. Time had made it worse, not better.

“You did not bother with your own brother’s funeral, Alice Sue. No words between us for nearly ten years. What now?”

“Nothing, mom. I know, I know…”

She put her phone on speaker, laid it on the table, then made a ponytail of her thick caramel colored mane. The balcony was heating up. She imagined her mother on her own shabby back porch in baggy shorts and sleeveless cotton shirt. Was she heavier or still a scarecrow? Was her father stooped, his six feet bent with work and cares? Were they happier since their ambitious daughter had stayed out of their lives? Did they see her on magazine covers? They took no money from her all this time. Maybe they saw her face but turned away, her mother angry and confused, father wondering how she lived with all the nonsense.

“So, what is it?”

Her mother’s question dove into the Miami sunshine and floated. The Missouri cicadas were so loud in the background that Galicia couldn’t make out what her father said. She recognized his voice, so deep it rumbled even when he sighed.

“Mom, I’m just going to come. If you won’t open your door, I’ll just leave. But I need to see you and dad and Molly.”

A clap of thunder raced across the miles and left Galicia trembling. The cicadas were insistent; they scared her after all this time. They might be warning her off. Or telling her to hurry up, she couldn’t be sure.

“Well, then,” her mother said, “bring ordinary clothes. Rent a regular car. I don’t want folks running over here making a fuss. And I don’t like the company of strangers so come alone. You’ll be enough to handle.”

******

It had always been that way, she thought, as she drove the three hours from the airport through the Ozarks, slowing at the familiar curve of road, looking down the dirt paths, noting trucks parked  in the shadows. She had been enough to handle. When other kids were minding their parents she was running off with Willy, chasing after small game. Building hideouts deep in the woods. Willy called her “Mosquito” the way she doggedly trailed him, pestered him. She hated dresses, preferring to wear the same old jeans in winter and plaid shorts in winter that Willy said looked like a boy’s, knowing full well they were his-hand-me-downs. Alice Sue was good in school but foolish and wild after, her father said, his hand raised over her more than once, then lowered as he turned away, half-smiling to himself, his wife scowling.

But then she grew up. Tall like him. Beautiful like…who? Some said it was a younger Aunt Marilyn–now disfigured by cancer–she took after but her father shrugged. Then looked away. Her mother told her it would come to no good; looks created problems and then fell away. It didn’t make sense, Willy said, to be gorgeous when she didn’t even want to brush her hair. He evaded her. No matter her pleading, he went off with friends, leaving her to her own devices. But, still, later they’d met by the campfire pit to catch up. Willy with his beer, her with a stolen cigarette. They conspired and laughed. He predicted great things for them both. Gotta get outta here, ‘Squito, he’d repeat solemnly and she’d nod.

When he died, she was in Shanghai on a shoot. She got word a day after the fact. Galicia wanted to attend the funeral yet the thought of seeing him empty of himself was terrifying. Her mother had said he looked like life had taken him and dropped him off a cliff. It was true, she knew. Because of the alcohol. So she didn’t go. Couldn’t. And that was the end of everything. She went on. They turned their backs.

Galicia pulled up to the row of houses. each turned inward, tired from standing up so long. She parked and saw how their roof sagged. She saw the hearty flowers and vegetables her mother had planted. The wash drying on the line. She heard a screen door slam shut but it was no one she knew, just a raggedy kid running by, giving her a wide-eyed look. She got out and too one step toward their porch, looking and listening. Did they know she was there? Where was Molly?

“Molly?” she called, her voice wavering a little. The beagle should be making a fuss by now, howling and running out to guard her territory. Would she know her like this, all clean and shiny and smelling of money?

“Oh, my.” Her mother stood at the top step in the dark cool of the porch roof. Arms folded hard against her chest. “Molly’s long gone.”

As Galicia came forward she caught a glimpse of someone, a girl about ten years old, hair unkempt, wary eyes piercing the sultry air, arms all brown and bug bitten. And then she was gone.

“Alice Sue…” Her mother cried out and stumbled down the steps, cropped hair so grey, arms thin as pins, her hands held out.

She ran to her mother and held her close.

“There’s our Mosquito,” her father said. He just leaned against the porch railing, his eyes like those of a man who has seen a strange sight and might never find the words to tell what it felt like. They were three of the four in one spot. He and his wife would finally sleep through the night. He knew Alice Sue might look like something the world owned, but only part of her, and not for good.

(Photo prompt from http://www.patriciaannmcnair.wordpress.com)