Mama waited tables down at the Texas Inn, right where Route 29 dipped back up from its sojourn across the bridge that spanned the James River. Now, coming down the big hill before the river you can get the prettiest view of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia. The streets are layered in tiers downtown as though some building farmer decided to employ the Inca method. Beginning with Main Street, jumping up to Church Street, then Court, and finally Clay, downtown just sort of hovers there, the steeples sometimes piercing the morning mist from the river, sometimes glowing like holy swords of fire in the afternoon sun. Now that I'm an adult I appreciate this view, but back in the late '60s and early '70s, it wasn't so well lit and some folks thought downtown would never bounce back to the glory days.
The Texas Inn, serving chili and barbecue and egg sandwiches and the like, drew in all manner of truckers back in those days. Guys with names like Norman and Al and BobbyJay gathered from far and wide just to steal a glimpse of the saucy waitress with the pearly teeth. See, Mama, well, she was flat-out the prettiest waitress there. I grew up hunched awkwardly at the counter, penciling schoolwork, weighed down by the red frizzy ponytail I usually gathered myself thereby accidentally achieving a topsy-turvy effect. Listening to the juke-9.box blurt out country-western music and the occasional rock 'n' roll tune like "Sweet Home Alabama," I watched as Mama worked her magic on the customers. She never introduced me to her customers, even the regulars.
I guess I couldn't blame her. "Ask for Isla. She'll treat you right," folks leaving informed those just walking through the doorway. I just didn't know how right she treated them! I just thought she was sassy and smart and daring and removed, as if humans wasted her time unless they were admiring her and even then, she met compliments with snappy derision.
"That Isla is something else!" "Isla darlin', you just come on over here and refill my coffee and we'll talk about things." She'd say, "Stuff it in your pants, Joe, there's plenty of room down there." And they'd just laugh.
"That Isla sure ain't hard on the eyes, is she, Stanley?" And Mama wasn't. I disappointed her that way, I know. We looked nothing alike, this harsh white and red, bloodshot eye of a child and her black-eyed Susan mama. Mama's brown hair radiated a golden warmth and she always wore it straight down, its waves curving around her sweet, valentine face. Olive complexioned with reddish brown lips, she talked smart to the men, hands on hips, chin pointed high as though she really had no business waiting tables at the Texas Inn. Mama's way of answering questions without really answering them kept them at bay, yet happy, and when a rare jovial mood visited her, all sorts of crazy stories from sparkling lips entertained them, tales of escapades filled with phrases like, "And then he took out his," and she'd lean far forward, exposing her bosoms all the while keeping my little ears from hearing her words. She never seemed to inhabit her eyes. Not really.
I only knew this about her: Mama came to Lynchburg in 1956 as a freshman at Randolph Macon Women's College and never left. She told me she grew up in Suffolk, Virginia, and had planned on never seeing the place again.
"It's the most boring, stuffiest old place you've ever seen. And your grandma Min is the most boring, stuffiest old woman you've ever seen. Who needs the 'peanut capital of the world'? We can have lots of fun right here in Lynchburg. So don't ask to go there, Myrtle," she said.
And I didn't ask. Because when fun and Mama collided, the party lasted for weeks! But most times, Mama distanced herself from me and everyone else, it seemed, and when she didn't want to talk about something, she wouldn't. She'd just sip on her glass of "medicinal gin" and pretend you never asked a thing. Sometimes she stared out between the blinds and talked about Queen Elizabeth.
She'd go on vacation usually after one of those times. Somehow Mrs. Blackburn always knew when Mama really needed a vacation. And I'd spend those days with Mrs. Blackburn, sitting on her porch overlooking the street. And I'd watch all those college girls and realize I'd never walk in their shoes. I knew that then, somehow, as well as I knew when looking at National Geographics at school that I'd never be living by a mud hut, wearing a thousand necklaces above bare breasts.
One particular student named Margie would take me out for milk shakes when Mama was on vacation. She'd say, "Rich or poor, it doesn't matter. This sort of thing hits women of all walks and ages. Believe me, my mother goes at least once or twice a year, so I know firsthand." I really thought she was talking about vacations so I said, "How nice for her," and she'd say, "You don't get it yet, do you, Myrtle?" "Get what?" I'd ask. She'd just smile and say, "Good for you."
One night, after I turned eight, I heard Mama sneaking out of our room. A real pretty dress the color of the blue ink on my school papers hovered above shoes with heels whittled down to little dots at the bottom, the kind that look as though you could kill somebody with if they were giving you trouble. So from my spot on the bed, the spot next to the seafoam green wall, I asked her, "Where you goin', Mama? Who you going with?"
And Mama said, "Out. Don't even ask, Myrtle Charmaine, because you're old enough now to be here for a couple of hours by yourself." But she couldn't hide the sparkle in her eyes.
"What if there's a fire or something?" "You just find Mrs. Blackburn. She'll take care of you; you know that. But it had better only be because there's a fire or something. I'm so excited, Myrtle." "But what about if I get sick?" "Your towel's hanging right there." She pursed her lips. "But-"
She shook her head and finger and grabbed my ear with a twist. "I mean it, Myrtle. If I find out you went out of this room while I'm out, you'll wish you hadn't!"
"Oh, Mama!" "Shut up, now, Myrtle." She let go. "Let this be a nice time for me."
And so I said nothing else, because when Mama really exploded it was like a ball of blue lightning circling down the chimney to what had seemed like a fine party only a moment before. A blue ball skirting about the room like the Tazmanian Devil. And when she exploded she said some cruel things. I kept a list so I wouldn't say them to my own kids someday.
1. You ruined my life.
2. You don't appreciate anything I do for you.
3. How did I end up stuck with you?
4. Get out of my face, Myrtle, I can't bear to see you for one more second.
She called me the name of a female dog a lot. Even now I can't speak that word or write it, and people use it so flippantly it makes my teeth ache.
And Mama never asked me to do anything. "Get over here." "Go away." "Fix that hair of yours, Myrtle. You look like a clown."
Now, a lot of the kids at school had parents that spanked them good. But Mama always gave me the silent treatment after her tirades. I'd rather have been walloped and been done with it. One time, when I brought Vicki Miller home with me from school, Mama rewarded me with a two-hour lecture I could barely comprehend and an icy silence for three days afterward. We ate some lonely meals together over at the soda fountain in the drugstore by the college for a while and I figured if I ever crossed her again, only something big and worth more than Vicki Miller would do.
My nosebleeds started around then. Mama jumped on that, telling me not to come down to the restaurant after school anymore, saying, "Nobody wants you to bleed all over their corn dog, Myrtle. And I wager the sight of you caused them to lose their appetites anyway."
Mama sure was right, though, about bringing Vicki home because before then, nobody knew much about me and where I lived. And Vicki told everybody about our little rented room, saying, "Imagine that! Myrtle Whitehead doesn't even live in a house! She just lives in a little room near the college, with lots of other college girls in the house." And then, just so she didn't indisputably prove herself the Devil incarnate she had turned out to be, she added a, "Poor Myrtle."
See, Mama made sure my clothes looked nice because she was proud like that and I think she tried to do the best she could with the Raggedy Anne daughter she found herself responsible for. She skimped on issues of lodging, food, and transportation. It didn't matter what the weather, Mama always walked down to the Texas Inn to save bus fare. And I can't even begin to tell you how many leftover egg sandwiches rolled up in three layers of napkin I ate for breakfast before school. I never knew life could be any different.
I looked out the window that night Mama left in such excitement. The man down there, he looked like a no-good. With golden rings, bracelets, and patent leather shoes for company, his overall appearance gave off more shade than the oak trees lining Rivermont Avenue.
I sure didn't like the way he laid a hand on Mama's rear end.
Pretending I slept, I felt Mama climb into the bed beside me hours later. "See, Minerva Whitehead? I can make out just fine on my own," she whispered with a drunk laugh. I felt a movement in the bed and winked open my eye and she lay there fluttering a wrist encircled by a new gold bracelet. Slim, and light. I'd seen them in the jewelry store window downtown. They cost next to nothing.
"Real gold," she giggled.
I felt reasonably sure Minerva Whitehead, the grandma I'd never known, didn't think that going out on dates with shady guys like that no-good counted as making out just fine at all.
Excerpted from SONGBIRD © Copyright 2004 by Lisa Samson. Reprinted with permission by Warner Faith, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.