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Touché

He was obviously unaware that anyone much less me, sitting at the next table, was watching his methodic inhalation of muscle chowder in a bowl big enough to bathe a new born in.  His scruffy, black 1960s goatee-Chavez beard harbored seasoned liquid that escaped his large soupspoon on the way to his mouth, leaving indiscreet trails of milled pepper on his Big Bang T-shirt.  He looked like he might have just stepped out of the TV sitcom to have lunch as I pondered why he was dining alone with unkempt hair and an attitude of dis-concern for anything but that bowl of soup.

His attention was solely on detaching the muscles from their respective shells, not caring if said shells made it to the bone plate or the white linen tablecloth.  His unused linen napkin was still folded in a fan just above his plate.  I’d say restaurant etiquette was not on his priority list.

With a ring on his left hand I assumed that he was married, probably with little children and one on the way.  His half rimmed glasses slipped down to the tip of his nose suggested that he was most likely approaching, or just over, forty.

The waiter came up to him and asked if he could refresh his drink?

Without looking up he pointed his sticky finger to his glass and said, “lemon water”, then shoved a freed muscle into his mouth.

I quickly looked away when the waiter noticed me watching his customer so I tried to concentrate on the menu.

“Can I take your order now, Ma’am?”

I hate it when they call me that!  “Yes, I’ll have the crab patties and some iced tea, thank you,” I let the Ma’am thing go…this time.

He then took my husband’s order and as the waiter stepped away, I noticed the gentleman at the next table was no longer at his seat.  I took a quick look around the room to see where he had gone and was stopped by the presence of someone standing next to me, holding a napkin up to my face.

“Looking for this?” the gentleman with the Big Bang T-shirt asked.  He then set the napkin on the table without shaking it out first, and turned and walked towards the exit.

I hate it when the napkin slips off of my lap when I’m watching people.

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The handwriting scattered, slanted; black ink pressed angrily into the lined paper.  A letter left behind, in a drawer, long forgotten by a naive teenage girl.

 

I learned that once burst it’s impossible to put all the beans back into the beanbag.

I learned that life is definitely not the Donna Reed Show.

I learned that consequences should be a mandatory course taken in high school.

I learned that spider webs are everywhere.

I learned that emotional pain can kill you if you let it.

I learned that forgiveness is sometimes harder than dieting.

I learned that guilt is never an option.

I learned that time heals all but leaves a scar.

I learned that puppies are unconditional.

I learned that the bottom line is we are all just trying to survive this world.

 

The handwriting scattered, slanted; blue ink pressed angrily into the lined paper.  The letter left behind, in a drawer, long forgotten by a naive teenage girl.

THE BALLOON LADY

I didn’t think she was going to be able to take much more but I kept telling her, “You’re at the bottom now, no place else to go but up.”

The last two years had been difficult.  She lost her house, her grandmother, and her prized 1976 Cadillac Seville because they could no longer afford a second car.

The economy was unstable and getting worse, the kids were going to start college soon and the college fund…well, there really was never a college fund.  She felt bad about that but couldn’t see saving money when trying to feed three kids.

She and her husband were renting now, in a new city, in another state.   The only good thing was that it was a big house with plenty of space to pace off the depression of losing everything.  And, it had a pool.  She thought if they had to live in someone else’s house it had to be comfortable while she figured out how they were going to manage the rest of their lives.

Each day was an argument between the both of them.  Who was to blame?  Was it because they moved so far away from family?  Was it really the economy or was it just plain karma?   They constantly bantered about what in the hell they were going to do next as the bills piled up and tempers flared.

Thrift shops had always been a comfort to wander in when frustrated and monetary funds were scarce.  One day she was scouring the Main Street Thrift Shop to find something to float on in the pool when she noticed an old top hat on one of the mannequins. 

“How much?” she asked the clerk.

“Oh, that’s really old, it has a small rip, and it used to be my…”

“Yeah, okay, how much?”  She repeated.

“Well, I’d really have to get at least $5 for that, being old and all, but it has a …”

“I’ll take it.”

As always, in a financial crisis situation, something was brewing in her head.

“Do you have any tuxedos?”

The clerk pointed towards the back of the store, “There’s a whole rack of ‘em against the wall.”

She rummaged through them all, each clearly worn only a few times, some smelling musty like they were just at a funeral, and still expensive as hell, when she noticed a dark gray, English day-coat with tails.  It was only $25.  

She tried it on.  The coat fit perfectly; her shoulders square with importance, the tails ending just at the back of her tanned thighs. 

Then, standing in front of a mirror, she tucked her blonde hair into a bun and put the top hat on, allowing her signature bangs to frame her tired blue eyes.  She liked the character she was creating.  For a flicker of a moment, she saw her younger self staring back at her.  Either she was imagining it or the lighting was playing tricks on her.  She turned her head again and there she was!  Only then did she know she had to do it.

They had $75 left in the checking account until the next pay day.  She just spent $30 for a hat and a tuxedo jacket that her husband would never forgive her for and now she was on her way to the craft store to buy balloons and some helium with the rest of the seventy-five bucks.

Her friend, Shelly, had been desperate for an idea of what to give her husband, Bob, (who had everything), a unique and different present for his 30th birthday.  She called her as soon as she got home and told her about her ‘new business’.  Without discussing price, Shelly said, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you sing happy birthday when you deliver the balloons!”

She answered, “I’ll do better than that, and I’ll only charge you fifty.” 

Delivery time was just before Bob’s birthday dinner on Saturday. 

Nervously, she got dressed.  White collared shirt, husband’s bow tie and cummerbund, black pants from Bullocks with a silk stripe down the side, newly purchased day coat, white gloves, and a slick pair of four inch black stilettos.  The antique top hat was the cherry on top. 

Her husband filled thirty large, black, and white balloons with helium, tied each with a long silver string and carefully placed them into the van. 

It was showtime.

Two blocks away from the customer’s house her husband let her out of the van and placed thirty strings in her right hand, splaying the balloons over her head like a giant bubbly umbrella.  When all was in place she slowly, gallantly, started walking towards the house. 

Children on bikes came out of nowhere and followed behind her, neighbors came out of their houses and waved and applauded at the spectacle that was parading down their street.

Her left hand carefully rang the doorbell.  This was the moment of truth.  Was it going to be worth it or not? 

Bob answered the door, his wife and a house full of guests excitedly stood behind him. 

“I have a delivery for the Birthday Guy, would that be you?”

Bob opened the door and stood in front of her on the porch, then looked back at his wife and jokingly said, “Does this mean I get to kiss her too?”

Everybody laughed and started singing happy birthday.  The balloons were handed off as they continued to laugh and cheer and then the tuxedoed Balloon Lady gallantly walked back down the street, bicycled children in tow, back to her ride home.  The kids applauded as she was driven away.

From that first delivery she got over 35 orders, each requesting and offering more money to parade down the street a little bit further.

She was back!  With this job the bills would be paid off in no time and they would be well on their way to recovery.

Meanwhile, around the corner, the economy was showing signs of improvement.  The progress for the big change at the new Mega Grocery Store was speeding along.  A bigger and better meat department, a bigger vegetable department, a garden shop, lawn furniture, plant department, a new pharmacy, and….and…a balloon department, with a huge sign that boasted, TWO DOZEN HELIUM BALLOONS Delivered to Your DOOR! $25!

In the 1950s it wasn’t illegal to leave little children alone in the house without any supervision.  It was just considered not very smart.

Every Saturday night my parents would put the five of us to bed, ages ranging from two months to seven years old, and then go down the street a few houses to a party.  One or the other parent would check in on us now and then.  We were supposed to be sleeping while they were gone but I could never go to sleep until they were home.

The last time Mom checked in on us she told my older sister to heat up a bottle for the baby if he started to cry.  Mom taught my sister how to light the stove.  I wasn’t allowed to go near it.

Well, the baby started to cry about five minutes after Mom went back down the street so I told my sister I would help her fix the bottle.  She had already gone back to sleep and didn’t want to get up because it was cold so I took on the task by myself.

I pushed a kitchen chair over to the stove that was next to the sink, filled the sauce pan that was on the drain board with a little bit of water, set the bottle in the middle of the pan and then onto the burner.  The blue and red box of wooden matches was full and smelled like newly shaved wood.  I took one match out, closed the box like my mother always did, then expertly slid the match across the rough edge of the box.   Carefully, I set the box down and turned the gas knob on until I could hear it hissing, being careful not to let the smell get too heavy.  “When you let all that smell out”, my grandpa used to say, “you’ll blow the whole place up!”

As I was waiting for the water to boil, I was fiddle farting around and noticed a milk bottle on the windowsill.  A while back, I saw my older brother and sister on the back stoop playing with matches and a milk bottle.   My brother would light a match and then drop it into the bottle; then he put his hand over the opening of the bottle and the fire on the match would go out.  He called it magic.  I thought it was magic!  No one was around to tell me not to give it a try.

I got down and moved the chair over to the middle of the sink and struck a match before I realized that the curtains on the window were closed and the ruffled hem was just above the milk bottle.  Being four and all, I didn’t think it would cause any problems because the match would go down into the bottle, not up.

I was very wrong.

The pretty, light yellow, ruffled curtains my mom made went up in flames faster than I could pee my pants, of which I promptly did.

Not knowing what to do I ran into the bedroom and tried to wake my sister.  She sill wouldn’t get up because it was too cold, so, I grabbed my lavender chenille housecoat with the big rip in the back, took the time to even tie it closed so my nightgown wouldn’t show when I went outside, and ran out the front door yelling, “Help!”

No one was around and I didn’t know which house the party was at when all of a sudden a man with muscles bulging out of his white tee shirt came running from across the street.  He ran right past me, faster than a speeding bullet, not even bothering to ask me where the fire was.  I followed him back into the house.  He turned off the stove, turned on the water in the sink, grabbed the burning curtains by the rod and slammed them under the running water…all in one fell swoop!

I thought he was the Lone Ranger without his mask.

Mom and Dad came running into the kitchen.  The Lone Ranger looked at me and then told my parents that someone must have left the stove on.  It was dismissed as an accident probably because they were so thankful that no one was injured and the damage was minimal.

In October of 2003, when most of Southern California seemed to be on fire, Mom called with the news that everything on my father’s ranch had burned to the ground except the main house.   As we were lamenting she said she had never worried about fire except for one incident long ago when the kitchen curtains caught on fire.

I asked her how it started?  She said, “Your sister must have left the stove on when she fixed the baby a bottle.

Just to see what she would say, I questioned her again,  “Where were you and Dad when the fire started?”

Knowing the laws had changed dramatically for child safety she defensively and apologetically confessed, “ Next door…at a New Year’s Eve party.”

So, I told her about how my older sister didn’t want to fix the bottle, and how I was fiddle farting around, waiting for the water to boil, and decided to try the magic trick my older brother had showed my sister.  I also told her how the Lone Ranger saved me.

She had no idea that it was me that started the fire and all this time in the back of her head she thought she might have left the burner on!

All that she could say was, “I guess it’s too late to put you on restriction?”

We both knew how lucky we had been back then.

AGAIN, THE BOX

I was bored from going through mom’s papers; endless old checks from the 1950s, receipts from stores that closed or went out of business years ago; report cards from our school days, and greeting cards from the past forty years, all bound in rubber bands that lost their elasticity years ago, crackled and disintegrated into the paper they kept bound. 

My fingers were numb from opening bills still in envelopes that licked themselves closed again from the heat of the closet.  The same closet I used to hide my two younger sisters in during the hot summer nights when mom and dad started to fight. 

I could barely fit my grown up body in that little closet now, especially with all the papers and boxes that had been stashed in there since we all left home years ago.  The smell was there; musty, mixed in with the full bottle of spilt baby powder I swear I could still smell, and the black ink stain just inside the door.  I was put on restriction for a month for trying to put ink into Mom’s fountain pen, staining the floor and one of her favourite pink high heels.

 I went through a few more plastic grocery bags of paper when I noticed the box.

“What was it doing in the downstairs closet where anyone could open it?”  I thought.  “Was Mom getting that careless?”

 I hadn’t seen the contents since the tenth grade when I accidently discovered it in the attic.  And then it was mysteriously gone.  Until now.

 My heart started to race; it dared me to open it. 

 I took the box into the dining room and stared at it until I felt that I could handle looking at it again.  It would be all right.  I knew what was inside, and besides, I was much older now, grown up, had discussed the matter with Mom at length, and felt assured that though it was tragic there was something to be learned from it all.

The lid almost popped off when I touched it.  The corners were now split and frayed, suggesting that the box had been viewed many times since I last saw it; most likely by my mother.

I unfolded the newspaper and squinted my eyes so I could adjust to the reality of what the picture revealed.  Especially since that time in the attic, when I too hurriedly put the paper back like I found it after I noticed the dead lady’s name under the picture.  I vividly remembered the pool of blood, and the phone cord wrapped around her arm, though.  And now, I was seeing it again…forty-five years later.

This time I looked through all of the papers and I cried.  There were more newspaper articles, handwritten sympathy cards, death notices, and a handkerchief. 

Then I saw something I had not noticed before.  There were two red cardboard-type circular tubes, with brass casings at one end.  At first I thought they were to roll coins with.  But then, I’m sure I turned pale as a ghost when I realized that the two red coin holders were the shells from the rifle that took the lives of my grandparents.

I felt my mother’s pain, over again, as I remembered her telling me how she went to her parent’s house the day after it happened, and sat there, in the chair next to where her mother fell, and picked up the cartridges that killed her mother and then her father.  I could hear Mom’s quivering voice as she told me how devastated she was, how unreal it all seemed as she sat and stared at the blood on her mother’s spotlessly clean carpet. 

I held the cartridges in my hands and felt the power of their consequences, and realized that these were the instruments that ended their lives, that deprived me of the grandparents I was never to know and the heartache and oppression that I have felt and experienced for that loss ever since I found out the truth in the tenth grade.

I can still see

the blue in your eyes

as I turned

and walked away

after the fireworks

explaining the word freedom

to the grandchildren