Sunday, October 24, 2010
When I was younger, I was a detective searching for signs of a woman who'd disappeared, which was interesting, considering that the woman lived at my address. My mother hadn't disappeared in the conventional sense. Her face hadn't appeared on the back of a milk carton. This was before the days of Amber Alert, and she was too old for that sort of all-points bulletin anyway. She'd gone to the land of men, which meant that she was gone mentally to that place where women go when they are single mothers and miss the touch of a man. She'd gone to Randy Land, which was like CandyLand, only without the sweets.
He was a co-worker, a white polyester-clad worker bee like her at the local nursing home. I don't remember them dating. I don't remember courtship. I remember him moving in all at once, as if the date and the co-habitation occurred on the same day, and instead of bringing candy and chocolates, he seemed to come bearing a car load of belongings. His belongings intermixed with our own, and just as quickly, his need for her began its competition with a child's need for her mother. It seemed that every time I was hungry, he was more hungry. Every time, I had a story, he had a better story. When I was hurting from a skinned knee or some unseeable inner wound, she gave her attention to an unwounded man.
So I often found myself looking for her in the strangest places. When I knew she was downstairs, cuddled up on the couch with him, I searched the neighborhood. When they were at Smitty's Tavern, I looked for her in the apartment. I searched for her in her loopy handwritten notes. I searched for her in the refrigerator in the carton of eggs that became the fried egg sandwich dinners I'd become an expert making. I searched for her by picking up the phone and pretending that she was calling me to tell me she was coming home. I searched for her in her bedroom, which had been my wonderland and was now strictly off limits.
Historical documents refer to B.C. (before Christ), and my mind often went to the time period I dubbed B.R.--Before Randy. The Bedroom B.R.was a place to come running early in the morning. I'd climb into bed beside my mother and revel in all that was woman: silky nighties or bare skin--breasts I wondered at, in awe of dark aureoles and black bush. If she had been out the night before, she might still have the residue of night about her: mascara and eyeliner migrated below lashes, cheeks and lips semi-rouged, perfume whispering come hither half-heartedly. Before Randy, she wasn't adverse to me trying on clothes or standing before her dresser and scooping up handfuls of pearls and gold chains and baubles that reminded me of cartoons--pirates, wenches, chests full of treasure, and walking planks.
Sparkling more than any jewel was my mother's porcelain Elvis. When you turned the base, it plinked out "Love Me Tender." My mom loved Elvis, and when you are a little girl, you love what your mother loves. In coming years, I would not love Elvis. I would make fun of this puffy-haired, sparkly jumpsuited man. I would say he couldn't act. I would condemn him for his sneer and for his suggestive swiveling. I would laugh at the thought that anyone could worship a fat, sweaty side-burned Elvis whose scarf alone could bring a girl to her knees. In coming years, I wouldn't even be able to say for sure if I loved a mother who chose a man over me; I would not be sure if I could forgive her for being the reason I went, at the age of 7 to live with my grandmother.
But in those B.R. Days, when forgiveness wasn't a word yet invented, I begged my mom to tell me about the time she went to see him in concert. She told me they sold vials of his sweat. The thought of it made my nose scrunch. Still, I asked her questions I already knew the answers to: "Did YOU buy sweat?" and "Did YOU catch his scarf?" The answer was always no, but I liked to imagine it anyway: Elvis singing only to my mother. And he did, sort of, as long as we kept that figurine tightly wound. The notes would wrap us both in nostalgia, and she would sing. She knew all the words by heart. I wanted to hold Elvis in my hands and watch him twirl in perfect circles. I wanted to present him to her. I wanted her, for once, to have something she wanted and for what she wanted never to leave. She'd warn me to be careful. "Put it down," she'd say. "It's not a toy." Reverent, as if setting up some holy altar, I would set The King back on his throne.
But during one of those nights when I was investigating a missing person's report, I found myself where I was not supposed to be. After Randy, the room wasn't sacred anymore, anyway. The door was always closed now. On those mornings when I wanted to pad across the cold linoleum and crawl into my mom's bed, I couldn't now because he was there. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them. And it was a confusing sound. It was a needy sound, the type when pups still blind try to find their mother's milk. It almost sounded like pain, and there were many times when I wanted to fling open the door and clobber him, but even then, I think I knew that pain sounds sometimes like pleasure.
On one of the last nights I'd live beneath that roof and before anyone had a chance to call the three of us that terrible word--family--I twisted Elvis until he could twist no more. And he played and played and played. And I sang the song like I knew the words. My world was topsy-turvy, but Elvis would always be constant: perfect pompadour, his bee-stung bottom lip, the guitar literally glued to his hands. And then I could hear the sound of keys jangling in a lock, the sound of laughter, the sound of a man and a woman's voice outside the front door. I had to make it right. I had to make like everything was in its proper place. I was her good girl, so I was going to set the still-turning bisque crooner onto the dresser, but an edge caught. My hands weren't big enough.
The song fell to the floor and continued to play, though distorted among the wreckage. Solemn, I waited for them to find me. I waited for her to mete out my punishment. Surely, a spanking was in order. A grounding. Maybe she'd take away some toy I loved. She picked up the pieces--right guitar-playing hand in one of her hands and the rest in her other hand. She said something about super glue. She said something about tomorrow. She disappeared. She left me stinging with lack punishment. More stinging still: she hadn't even noticed the crime.