“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K. It
was on a Friday afternoon at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had all been boiled red. We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.
I thought then that I had landed in my own worst dream, not a love story. Love stories start with a kiss or a meet-cute,
not with someone getting shot in a gas station minimart. Well, no, two people, because that lady cop took a bullet first.
But there we were, William gone still as a pond rock, me
holding a green glass bottle of Coca-Cola and shaking so hard it was like a seizure. Both of us were caught under the black eye of that pistol. And yet, seventeen seconds later, before I so much as knew his name, I’d fallen dizzy-down in love with him.
I’ve never had an angel on my right shoulder; I was born with a pointy-tailed devil, who crept back and forth across my neck to get his whispers into both my ears. I didn’t get a fairy godmother or even a discount-talking cricket-bug to be my conscience. But someone should have told me. That afternoon in the Circle K, I deserved to know, right off, that I had landed bang in the middle of a love story. Especially since it wasn’t—it isn’t—it could never be my own.
At eleven o’clock that same morning, walking into gunfire
and someone else’s love story was the last thing on my mind. I was busy dragging a duffel bag full of most of what I owned down the stairs, trying not to cry or, worse, let my happy show. My mother, never one for mixed feelings, had composed herself into the perfect picture of dejection, backlit and framed in the doorway to the kitchen.
I wanted to go, but if I met her eyes, I’d bawl like a toddler
anyhow. This tidy brick bungalow on the mountainside had been my home for seventeen years now, ever since I was four and my parents split up. But if I cried, she’d cry, too, and then my sweet kid would lose his ever-loving crap. We’d all stand wailing and hugging it out in the den, and Natty and I would never get on the road. I tightened my mouth and looked over her head instead. That’s when I noticed she’d taken down the Praying Hands Jesus who’d been hanging over the sofa for as long as I’d had concrete memory. She’d replaced him with a Good Shepherd version who stopped me dead in the middle of the stairs.
The new Jesus looked exactly like her.
He was super pretty, slim and elegant. He was backlit, too,
standing in front of a meadow instead of a kitchen, cradling a lamb instead of a spatula. My mother had never once gone into direct sunlight without a hat and SPF 50, and this Jesus shared her ivory-bloom complexion. I looked more Jewish than he did. They had the same rich brown hair glowing with honey-gold highlights, the same cornflower blue eyes cast sorrowfully upward to watch me struggle a fifty-pound duffel down the stairs. Neither offered to give me a hand.
Mimmy wasn’t anywhere near ready to let me go, and the
thought of having to fight my way out of here made me want to flop down onto my butt and die on the staircase.
“Please don’t make this awful. This is the best thing,” I said,
but Mimmy only stood there, radiating lovely sorrow. The pretty my mom has, it’s an unfair amount. Simply ungodly, and it worked on everyone, even me sometimes.
“Maybe for you,” she acknowledged. “But Natty?”
That scored a hit; I was trading Mimmy’s mountain full of
trees and deer and sunshine for my dad’s three-bedroom
condo, sleek and modern, bang in the middle of the city. But all I said was, “Oh, Mims.”
We’d been having this fight all week. Dad’s condo was ten
minutes from the Georgia State campus, and from Mimmy’s, I drove about four hours round-trip. I had to register my classes around Atlanta’s rush hour and make sure they all met either Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday. This was enough to make a simple coffee date an exercise in logistics, and Mimmy didn’t help my social life go easier. She’d been boycotting anything with a Y chromosome for going on seventeen years now. Even her cat was female, and she’d been known to change my shifts at her candy shop if she knew I had a date. I would’ve moved to the condo long before if my stepmother, Bethany, had ever let my father make the offer.
She hadn’t. Not until last week, when the results of Natty’s
tests came back. Dad had set them up after Natty taught himself to read. The tests said my kid was rocking an IQ north of 140, which put him firmly in the genius category. My three-year- old could probably apply to freakin’ Mensa.
Bethany—Bethany herself, not Dad—called to tell me I could have the condo. This was unusual. Bethany was the heavy who told me I was getting uninvited from Passover because her entire family was coming and the dining room table only had so many leaves. A few days later, Dad would do something huge and beautiful and thoughtful for me, as if these events were wholly unconnected. But this time, Bethany had wanted to talk to me badly enough to dial Mimmy’s house phone when she missed me on my cell. A risky move. Mimmy and Bethany were matter and antimatter. Contact between them could trigger a blast that would knock the planet clean off its hinges and plummet us all right into the sun.
Luckily, I was the one who picked up. We had the briefest exchange of cool politenesses, and I waited for her to drop whatever awful bomb she’d primed this time. She cleared her throat and delivered what sounded like an overrehearsed monologue:
“So! Given Nathan’s unusual intellect, David wants to help
you place him at a more academically focused preschool. We understand how limited the choices are out there in the weeds.”
I swear I could hear the narrow nostrils of Bethany’s long,
elegant nose flaring in distaste through the phone as she said that last bit. It was a carefully worded piece of code. Last year, I’d almost killed my Jewish father by sending Natty to preschool at Mimmy’s Baptist church. Natty and I no longer attended synagogue or church, which was better than when I was a kid and had to go to both. Dad offered to pay all tuition if I moved Natty to a “better” school.
“Surely there is more than one close preschool,” he’d said.
“Of course,” I’d told him. “If you prefer, Natty can go to the
one run by the Methodists.”
Now Bethany went on, “It means moving to Atlanta. I know
that your mother isn’t likely to see this as an opportunity. Country people can be shortsighted, especially when it comes to education. But the benefits . . . I think any decent parent could see them.” She sniffed a little huff of disparaging air and finally came to the heart of it. “You and Natty could stay at the condo. We’d put your own phone line in, and you could decorate the third-floor bedrooms as you please. I’m not sure your father is prepared to suffer the on-call rooms with the residents, so sometimes you’d
have him napping in the master. But otherwise, you could think of it as your own place.” There was a pause, and she added, pointedly, “For the year.” Then, in case I hadn’t gotten it, “Until you graduate, I mean.”
This was an amazing number of long-standing, guaranteed fight starters to pack into a single speech. Even a dig at Lumpkin County! Sure, we were rural, but not the kind of rural in Deliverance, and she damn well knew it. If she’d hoped to goad me into turning down the condo I’d been coveting—fat chance. I summoned all my inner sugar and said, hell, oh hell, oh hell-hell yes, and then I got off the phone fast as I could.
Now I dumped my heavy duffel by the front door, next to
Natty’s Blue’s Clues suitcase and the stacked laundry baskets full of books and socks and toys. I went to Mimmy and looped my arms around her little waist and put my face in her hair. She smelled like vanilla.
“You’re the best Mimmy in all the world. I don’t know how
I would have gotten through Natty’s baby years without you. I couldn’t have, not and gone to college. But I’m twenty-one. Natty and I have to stand on our own at some point. This is a nice step.”
She shook her head. “You and Natty setting up house ought
to be exciting. It’s a rite of passage. I ought to sew you curtains and throw a housewarming. But I don’t know how to celebrate you moving into that awful man’s place.”
I let the awful man part go and only said, “I am not moving to the house house.”
Bethany and Dad and my three little stepbrothers lived in a
huge stucco and stone McMansion out in Sandy Springs. No way I could ever share a roof with Bethany. I called her my Step-Refrigerator to my mother and much worse things to my best friend, Walcott. She’d earned all her names, though to be fair, I’m pretty sure I’d earned whatever she privately called me.
Mimmy started to speak again, but just then we heard Walcott coming down, his long feet slapping the stairs. He had most of my hanging clothes in a fat fold he held against his chest.
“Why do you have so many dresses?” he asked.
“Because I’m a girl,” I said.
My mother eyed my things and said, “A better question is,
why do you dress like a forty-year-old French divorcée?”
“I like vintage,” I said, going to unburden Walcott. It was a
huge stack; I found most of my clothes at rummage sales and thrift shops, digging through mounds of acid-washed
mom jeans for the one good circle skirt or perfect two-dollar
He waved me off with one hand, arms still clutched tight
around my clothes, heading for the front door.
Mimmy said, pinchy-voiced,“You can’t load hanging clothes
first. They’ll get smushed and have to be re-ironed.”
Walcott stopped obediently and draped my clothes over the
duffel, giving me a Walcott look, wry and mock-martyred.
He’d walked over yesterday from his momses’ place to help me pack, as his hundred-millionth proof of best-friendhood.
Today he’d help load my car and keep Natty entertained on the drive to the condo. The condo was built in a stack of three small floors. The kitchen and living space were at ground, and Dad’s master suite took up the whole middle. Natty and I were taking the two rooms that shared a bath at the very top. Walcott, being Walcott, would carry the heaviest things up all those stairs, while we toted in pillows and Target bags full of shoes. I didn’t even have to drive him home, just drop him at his girlfriend’s place in Inman Park.
He’d been doing crap like this for me since we were both five, the outsiders at a milk-white elementary school in a so-white-it-was-practically-Wonder-Bread county. I was the only half-a-Jew for miles, and Walcott was the sperm-donated product of a pair of lesbians who left Atlanta to grow organic veggies and run a mountain bed-and-breakfast for like-minded ladies. Walcott’s momses engaged in all manner of suspicious behaviors, including Zen meditation and hydroponics. Where we lived, those words were as foreign as Rosh Hashanah or Pesach Seder, strange rites that got me extra days off school and sent me to my dad’s place in Atlanta, where I no doubt painted the doors with lamb blood and burned up doves.
Me and Walcott, we’d stood back-to-back with our swords up,
together surviving the savage playgrounds; yet here was Mimmy, giving him the glare she saved for any poor, male fool who got caught by all her immaculately groomed pretty and tried to ask her out. She knew darn well that Walcott didn’t have a sex-crazed man-genda for helping me move, but every now and then, she remembered he technically belonged to the penis-having half of the human race. She’d flick that suspicious, baleful look at him. She’d done it when he was in kindergarten, even. Back then, he’d
showed me his penis on a dare, and it had been an innocent pink speck, clearly incapable of plotting.
“This is the last from upstairs. Let’s pack the car after we eat,” Walcott said.
“As long as we get on the road by two. I don’t want to unload in the dark.”
“I’ll dish up lunch,” my mother said, wilting into acceptance.
The wilt was a feint. I caught her sloe-eyed side-peek
at me as she rolled away against the doorway on her shoulder and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Hoo! You’re so screwed,” Walcott said, grinning. To an outsider, my mother would seem to be in a state of mild, ladylike displeasure, but mainly at peace with the world and all its denizens. But Walcott and I had grown up together, in and out of each other’s houses all day long our whole lives. He could decode the state of the Once and Future Belle from her lipstick colors and the angle of the tortoiseshell combs in her hair almost as well as I could.
“She’s loaded for bear. And I’m bear,” I said.
“I can’t help you with that. No one can.” He flopped into a
lanky heap of string on the wingback chair. “But I could say you a poem? I’ve been working on one for you, for this exact occasion.”
“No, thank you,” I said primly.
“It’s really good,” Walcott said. He cleared his throat, putting
on a faux beat-poet reading voice, really boomy and pretentious. “Alas! The Jew of Lumpkin County, exiled once more. Like Moses—”
“Poem me no poems, Walcott. I know what you use those
things for.” Before he got hooked up kinda serious with CeeCee, his signature move was to quote hot lines from John Donne or Shakespeare to mildly drunken girls in the Math Department.
“They work, though,” he said. “I used to get a lot of play, for
a skinny English major with a big nose.”
“Bah! It’s a noble nose.”
“It’s overnoble. It’s noble plus plus. Lucky for me, chicks dig
iambic pentameter. But this poem? It’s not for seduction. It’s free verse and quite brilliant. You wander forty days and forty nights in Piedmont Park, following the smoke from a crack pipe by day and a flaming tranny hooker in the night.”
“You’re a goof,” I said, but as always, he’d made me feel better. “Stop it. I have to pacify The Mimmy. Maybe we could crawl to the kitchen with fruit? Throw a virgin into her volcano?”
“Now where are you and I going to find a virgin?” he asked,
I started for the kitchen, then paused under the painting. The new Jesus, with his salon-fresh highlights, had those kind of Uncle Sam eyes that seemed to track after me.
Walcott followed my gaze, craning his head back to look. “Holy crap! Where is Praying Hands Jesus?”
I shrugged. “I know, right?”
“Shandi, that’s your mother in a beard.”
“Yeah. Super unnerving. I don’t expect Jesus to be that . . .”
“Hot,” Walcott said, but he was looking toward the kitchen
now, where my mom was. I scooped up one of Natty’s stuffies from the closest laundry basket and chucked it at him. He caught it, laughing. “Aw, don’t throw Yellow Friend!” He tucked this most important blue patchwork rabbit gently back in Natty’s things. “I know she’s your mom. But come on.”
I couldn’t blame him. My mother was forty-four, but she looked ten years younger, and she was nowhere near ready to recover from being beautiful. If I’d been born with a lush mouth and crazy-razor cheekbones, instead of round-faced and regulation cute, I’m not sure I’d recover, either.
“Lunch,” Mimmy called, and we went through to the kitchen
table. Natty was there already, perched in the booster so his nose cleared the surface of the high wooden table. Most of his face was hidden by his Big Book of Bugs, but I could tell the move was worrying him. All his Matchbox police and EMS vehicles were lined up in front of his plate, and he had big chunks of three of his bravest costumes on: fireman’s yellow slicker, astronaut’s white jumpsuit, airplane pilot’s hat.
“Goodness, Captain Space Fireman, have you seen my kid?”
Natty said, “I am me.”
Walcott said, “Weird. How did a Pilot Space Fireman turn
into a Natty Bumppo?”
My tiny literalist lowered the thick volume to give Walcott
a grave stare. “These are costumes, Walcott. I was me the whole
I took the seat by him and said, “Oh good, because you are
Walcott sat down across from me.
“Mimmy made cobbler,” Natty told me in his solemn Natty
I nodded, taking it very seriously. “Excellent.”
“Mimmy says I must eat peas,” Natty said next, same tone, but I could tell he believed this to be an injustice. “Mimmy is very right,” I said.
All our plates were filled and sitting centered on the tatted
lace mats. My mother took her place at the head of the table, and we all bowed our heads.
Looking down at my plate while my mother had a cozy premeal chat with Jesus, I realized I’d clocked her mood wrong. She wasn’t sad or wrecked. She’d made chicken-fried
steak and mashed potatoes and peas and fresh biscuits, then swamped the plate in her velvety-fat gravy.
She only cooked for me like this when she was furious. She
thought the meanest thing you could do to a woman was to give her a fudge basket; she lived on green salad and broiled chicken, and Mimmy would have still fit into her wedding dress if she hadn’t set it on fire in the middle of the living room when I was Natty’s age. Then she packed me up and moved back here, where she’d grown up.
My angry mother prayed a litany of thanks for food and health and family and put in a word for the Bulldogs approaching fall season. She didn’t go off-book, didn’t exhort the Lord to bring her wayward daughter to a better understanding of His will. In the past, God’s will had so often matched up exactly with my mother’s that she found it worth mentioning. But she closed after the football with a sweet “Amen,” and I upgraded her from merely
furious to livid.
Natty amen-ed and then started zooming one of his cop cars back and forth. Walcott dug in, moaning with pleasure at the first bite. He’d eat everything on his plate and then probably finish mine, and I had no idea where it would go. He was six feet tall and built like a Twizzler.
“Eat up, baby,” I told Natty.
“I will. I have to consider the peas,” he said, and I grinned at his little-old-man vocabulary.
My mother had served herself a big old portion as well, and
she whacked off a huge bite of fried meat and swabbed it through the potatoes, then put the whole thing directly into her mouth. My eyes widened. I think the last time my mother ate a starch was three years back, when Dad paid my tuition at GSU in full.
I always knew he would, but Mimmy worried he’d cut me off
once court-ordered child support for me ended. I wasn’t eligible for most scholarships, even though I’d been an honor student in high school. I’d spent my senior year at home, baking Natty and studying for the GED. When Dad’s check came, she’d gone to the ancient box of Girl Scout Thin Mints in the freezer and had two, which was for her a caloric orgy. She’d purchased those cookies at least four years ago, and she hadn’t so much as worked her way into the second sleeve.
Now she sat quiet, chewing what had to be the best bite to
enter her mouth this decade, but it was like she wasn’t even tasting it. She tried to swallow, then stopped. Her face changed and cracked, like she’d been told she was eating the thigh meat of her dearest friend. She spat the wad into a napkin and stood abruptly, chair scraping against the old hardwood floor.
Natty kept right on zooming his cop car across the tabletop,
but I saw his eyes cut after her as she hurried from the room.
“Mimmy is fine,” I said to him.
“Mimmy is fine,” Natty repeated, zooming his car back and
forth to a mournful inner rhythm. “It’s only because we are going far away for all eternity.”
I was already getting up to go talk to my mother, but I paused.“Natty! We aren’t going far, and we can visit anytime we like.”
Natty said, “Not far, we can visit,” with absolutely no conviction.
“It’s going to be fun, living in Atlanta. We’ll get to hang with
Walcott tons once school starts, and you can go to preschool and make nice friends.” I met Walcott’s eyes across the table, because he knew all my reasons for moving. Up where we lived, everyone knew about Natty’s geniushood, probably mere seconds after I did. It had reopened all the worm-can speculation about who Natty’s dad might be. Natty, who picked up on so much more than your average three-year-old, was starting to ask questions. Up until this year, his baby understanding of biology had allowed me to tell him the simplest truth: He didn’t have one.
How do you explain to a preschooler, even one as bright as
Natty, that his mother was a virgin until a solid year after he was born? A virgin in every sense, because when I finally did have sex, I learned my hymen had survived the C-section. How could I tell my son that his existence was the only miracle I’d ever believed in?
If neighbors or acquaintances were pushy enough to ask, I
told them the dad was “None O’YourBeeswax,” that randy Irish fellow who had fathered a host of babies all across the country. But I owed Natty more than that. Maybe a good made-up story? Something about star-crossed true love, probably war, a convenient death. I hadn’t made it up yet, mostly because I didn’t want to lie to him. And yet the truth was so impossible.
Telling the truth also meant that I’d have to explain how
sex worked normally, while Natty was still quite happy with
“A daddy gives a sperm and a mommy gives an egg, and bingo-bango-bongo, it makes a baby.” He wasn’t interested in exactly how the sperm and egg would meet. Much less how they might meet inside a girl before she’d ever once gone past second base.
But Natty had an entirely different question for me. “Is
Mimmy going to die?”
“No!” I said. “Where did you get that idea?”
“I heard her tell the phone that she would die, just die, just die when we are gone,” Natty said. I could hear my mother’s inflections coming out of him on the die, just die, just die parts.
“Mimmy will outlive us all,” I said and added sotto voce to
Walcott, “If I don’t kill her.”
Walcott made a smile for Natty and said, “Yup. Mimmy will
outlive every single one of us and look hot at our funerals.”
“We’ll come back and visit Mimmy lots, and she won’t die,”
I said, shooting Walcott a quelling look. “Let me go get her, and she can tell you herself.”
I left Natty with Walcott, who, saint that he was, was asking
if Natty would like to hear a dramatic recitation of a poem called “Jabberwocky.”
I went back to my mother’s amber-rose confection of a bedroom. I’d done it as part of my portfolio to get in GSU’s competitive interior design program. It was ultrafeminine without being fluffy, and the faint blush of pink in the eggshell walls suited her coloring. She sat in it like a jewel in its proper setting, but just
now, she was in a mood much too heavy for the delicate curtains.
“Not cool, Mims,” I said. “Not cool at all. You need to rein it in.”
I had more to say, but as she turned to me, her mouth crumpled up and fat tears began falling out of her eyes. She lunged at me and hugged me. “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!”
I patted at her, thoroughly disarmed, and said, “Momma . . .” My own name for her, now mostly replaced by Natty’s.
“That was completely out of line, in front of Nathan. Completely.” She spoke in a vehement whisper, tears splashing down. “I’m an awful thing. Just slimy with pure awful, but, oh, Shandi, I can hardly bear it. He’ll forget his Mimmy and be all cozied up and close with that man, that man, that dreadful man! Worse, he’ll forget who he is!”
I breathed through the dig at Dad and said, “He won’t. I won’t let him.”
We sank down to sit together on the bed, her hands still clutching my arms. She firmed her chin at me bravely.
“I want you to put something in the condo, Shandi,” She
waved one hand past me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw her favorite picture, from last summer at Myrtle Beach. It showed Mimmy hand in hand with two-year-old Natty, the ocean swirling up around their ankles. She’d blown it up to a nine-by-fourteen, framed it, and hung it in her room. Now it was perched on her bedside table, leaning against the wall. “I want him to remember me. More than that. I want Nathan to never, never forget for a second who he is.”
“Okay,” I said, though I wasn’t sure how Dad would feel about me hanging a big-ass picture of his ex-wife rocking a red bikini. I was positive how Bethany would feel. “I can probably do that.”
“No. No ‘probably.’ Say you will,” my mother said.
I sighed, but Natty had never spent more than a weekend away from Mimmy. He might need the picture. I could hang it in Natty’s room so Dad wouldn’t have to look at it. And Bethany never came south of the rich people’s mall in Buckhead. If she did drop by for some unfathomable reason, I could stuff it under the bed.
“Fine. I’ll hang it.”
Mimmy shook her head, fierce. “I need you to swear. Swear
by something you hold absolutely holy that you will hang that at the condo, no matter what.” Her fingers dug into my arms.
I thought for a second. I’d grown up between religions, at
the center of a culture war, each side snipping away at the other’s icons until I was numb to much of it. There were not many things I held as holy.
Finally, I said, “I swear on the grave of my good dog Boscoe, and all the parts of Walcott, and—I won’t swear anything on Natty proper, but I could maybe swear this on his eyelashes. Those are the holiest things I know.”
My mother smiled, instantly glorious, her big eyes shiny from the tears and her nose unswollen. She even cried pretty.
“Good,” she said. “Good.”
She stood and dusted her hands off and stretched, then walked past me to the bedside table. I pivoted to watch, but she didn’t pick up the beach picture. Instead, she reached past it, to a much larger rectangle, wrapped and ready to go in brown butcher paper. It was behind the table, but it was tall enough to have been visible.
“I already wrapped Him up.”
I knew what the package was, of course, by size and shape.
The Myrtle Beach pic had been a decoy, with the real picture she wanted hung at Dad’s place hiding in plain sight behind it. And she wasn’t angry at all; I should have known that when she didn’t swallow the bite, but I’d missed it. Damn, she was good, and in her arms she cradled Praying Hands Jesus, the Jesus who had hung over my mother’s sofa for as long as I could remember. Man, oh man, had I been played.
My mother dashed her last tears away and added, smiling, “I also pulled down this picture of me and Natty. He asked if he could take it.”
With that she picked both up and left the room, practically
skipping as she went to add the weight of Jesus and herself to the pile of things that I was taking to my father’s house.
After lunch, Mimmy had to get to work. She owned the Olde Timey Fudge Shoppe in a nearby mountain village that was surrounded by rent-a-cabins and vacation homes. The village had a picturesque downtown with an independent bookstore, some “antique” marts, local wine-tasting rooms, and half a dozen Southern-themed restaurants. She drifted, mournful, to her car, looking prettier in the sherbet-colored sash-dress uniform than all the little high school and college girls who worked for her. I’d been one of them myself, until last week.
After a hundred hugs from Natty and a thousand promises
from me to visit soon, she drove off to hand-dip the chocolates she would never sample. Walcott and I finished loading and got on the road.
Less than two hours’ worth of kudzu-soaked rural highway
separated us from the city condo, even with the detour to bounce by Bethany’s Stately Manor to pick up the keys. Still, it wasn’t like The Fridge was going to invite us in for kosher crumpets and a heart-to-heart. I figured I’d be unloaded and moved before sunset. When everything you own will go into a VW Beetle, along with your three-year-old and your best friend hanging his bare feet out the side window, how long can moving take?
We drove along singing, then I told tall tales for a bit. Natty
loved Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox, and I had learned the art of packing these tales with filthy double entendres for Walcott. When that got old, Walcott recited poetry, until he got to Emily Dickinson and started freaking Natty right the hell out, what with the corpses hearing the flies buzzing and capital D Death himself pulling up in a carriage. So we canned it, and Walcott plugged his iPod into my port and blasted his Natty playlist, heavy on the They Might Be Giants, as my car ate the miles. We were listening to “Mammal” when I noticed that the kind of quiet that Natty was being had changed.
“You okay, baby?” I called, glancing in the rearview. His skin looked like milk that was just going off.
“Yes,” he said. But he added, “My throat feels tickle-y.”
I shot Walcott a panicky glance. We both knew “tickle-y
throated” was Natty-speak for “thirty seconds from puking.” We were in the last few miles of kudzu and wilderness. In another ten minutes, the exits would change from having a single ancient Shell station into fast-food meccas. A few exits after that, we’d be able to find a Starbucks, and then we’d officially be in the wealthy North Atlanta suburbs.
But for now, there was no safe direction I could aim him.
Most of his toys were piled high in a laundry basket under his feet, and the thought of cleaning puke out of the crevices of that many Star Wars action figures and Matchbox cars gave me a wave of sympathy nausea. The passenger seat beside him was full of our hanging clothes. Walcott began searching frantically for a bag, and I rolled down every window and hit the gas. A better mother would have realized this move would be spooky for Natty; he got motion sick if he was worried.
An exit appeared, mercifully, magically close, and I yelled,
“Hold on, baby!” as we sailed down the ramp. It ended in a two-lane road with a defunct Hardee’s with boarded-up
windows on one side and a Circle K on the other. I swung into the Hardee’s parking lot and stopped. Walcott wedged his top body between the front seats and unbuckled Natty, while I popped my door open and leapt out so I could shove the driver’s side seat forward. Natty leaned out and released his lunch, mercifully, onto the blacktop.
“Oh, good job, Natty,” Walcott crowed, patting his back
while I dug in my purse for some wet wipes. “Bingo! Bull’s-eye!”
When Natty stopped heaving, I passed the wipes to Walcott
and said, “Everyone out!”
Walcott lifted Natty out and cleaned his face, carrying him
across the quiet road to the Circle K lot. I moved the car across, too. Walcott set Natty down and the three of us marched around in the sunshine. After a couple of minutes, Natty’s wobblety walk had turned into storm-trooper marching. He started making the DUN DUN DUN music of Darth Vader’s first entrance, and Walcott and I leaned side by side on the Bug and watched him.
I was thinking we could risk driving on soon when a green
Ford Explorer pulled in to get gas. The guy who got out of it caught my attention. Hard not to notice a big, thick-armed
guy with a mop of sandy-colored hair, maybe six two, deep-chested as a lion. He was past thirty, his skin very tanned for a guy with that color hair. He was wearing scuffed-up old work boots with weathered blue jeans that were doing all kinds of good things for him. For me, too.
Walcott said, quiet, only to me, “Gawking at the wrinklies
I flushed, busted, and looked away. Walcott liked to give me crap because my first real boyfriend after I had Natty had been thirty-five.
The guy after that, the one I’d stopped seeing a few months ago, had been thirty-nine.The guy in the Explorer finished at the pump and went inside. I had to work not to watch him make the walk, and Walcott shook his head, amused. “It’s like you have reverse cougar.”
“I’m already raising one little boy. I don’t need another,” I said, arch, just as Natty passed.
Natty said, “I would like a brother, please.”
Walcott laughed, and I gave him a fast knuckle punch.
“Maybe later,” I told Natty. His skin had lost that curdling sheen, but he still looked peaked. I got my bank card out and said to Walcott, “Can you fill the car up? I’m going to take Mr. Bumppo here in and get him a ginger ale.”
Walcott waved the card away. “I got this tank. Grab me a Dr Pepper?”
I tossed him the keys, and Natty and I went on in. The door
made a jingling noise as we opened it; someone had wrapped a string of bells around the bar for Christmas, and they were still up.
The hot, older guy from the parking lot was standing dead
still with his hands clasped in front of him in the second aisle. He was facing us, towering over the shelves, right at our end. As we came abreast, I saw the aisle was a weird mix of motor oil and diapers and air fresheners all jumbled in together. He was stationed in front of the overpriced detergent, looking at a box of laundry soap like someone had put the secret of the universe there, but they’d written it in hieroglyphics.
Natty paused to scrub his eyes; it was dim inside after marching around in the sunshine. I realized I was staring at the guy, maybe as hard as he was checking out the box, but he didn’t even notice. When Natty was with me, I got rendered invisible to college guys, but a kid didn’t stop guys his age from looking. Heck, he probably had one or two himself. While I would never be a certified beauty like my mom, I was cute enough in my red and yellow summer dress with its short, swirly skirt that he should’ve spared a glance.
Especially since it was pretty obvious to me that he was single. Newly. It all added up: the shaggy hair, the interest in detergent boxes. He was trying to learn how to not be married anymore. Divorced guy meets laundry. Walcott said I was getting a little too familiar with the syndrome.
As we passed, I checked his marriage finger for that tattletale ring of paler flesh. Bingo. Add the broad shoulders, the permanent worry lines in his forehead, the wide mouth, serious eyebrows, and there he was: my type, down to the last, yummy detail.
If I’d been alone, I would have sauntered over, done the thing where I tucked my long hair behind my ears, showed him the teeth that Dad had paid several thousand bucks to straighten. If he’d had a good voice, I might have let him take me back to his place and introduced him to the mysteries of fabric softener, maybe let him get to second base on his newly Downy’d sheets. Looking at him, the football player build, I got a flash of what it might feel like to be down under that much man, pinned to fresh-smelling bedding by the great god Thor. It was a sideways thrill of
bedazzled feeling, snaking through my belly.
It surprised me, and I found myself smiling. Sex had never
quite worked out for me yet. When I looked at this guy, I knew my body still believed it would. Probably. Eventually. After all, I’d only tried sex with two men. Well, two and a half, I guess, because a year after I had Natty, I’d lost my virginity with Walcott, but I didn’t count that at all. He’d been doing me a favor, and we’d never even kissed.
Then Natty tugged my hand, steering me past the hot guy,
heading for the candy aisle. Since Walcott wasn’t there to prang me, I gave myself a half second to check out the ass as I went by Passed, flying colors. But then I went on, because Natty was with me, which meant no other man in the world could claim more than a look or two. They mostly didn’t exist for me in Natty’s presence. Not even Norse godlings. Policy.
Natty paused at the treat aisle and said in solemn tones, “They have Sno Balls.”
“Interesting,” I said, internally shuddering at the thought of Natty puking nuclear-pink coconut down my back as we drove on. “You know what’s even more interesting? They have ginger ale.” I said ginger ale like Mimmy said Jesus, walleyed with excitement, using long, ecstatic vowels.
“That’s not interesting,” Natty said, but he let himself be
towed past the Sno Balls with the same good-natured
disappointment I’d used to let him tug me past the blond guy.
The refrigerated cases at the back of the store were full of
weird zero-calorie water drinks and Gatorade and Frappucinos, all in a tumble. Diet Coke by the Power Milk, orange juices stacked behind the Sprite. While I hunted ginger ale, Natty tugged his hand away to dig his Blue Angels jet plane out of his pocket. He started zooming it around.
I called, “You got ginger ale?” across the store to the scraggly, henna-haired object behind the counter.
“Do what?” she called back. We were closing in on Atlanta,
but her Georgia-mountain accent was so thick I knew that she’d been brought up saying you’uns instead of y’all.
“Ginger ale?” I turned so she could hear me.
“Just two liters. And they ain’t cold,” she said.
I shook my head and opened the case to get Natty a Sprite, but I didn’t have any faith in it. Mimmy had raised me to believe that ginger ale and a topical application of Mary Kay Night Cream could cure anything but cancer.
I grabbed a couple of Dr Peppers, too, for Walcott and me.
Natty had zoomed his way over to a tin tub full of ice, and as I passed him on the way to the register, I saw that it was full of green-glass-bottle Coca-Colas. The sign said ninety-nine cents. It used to be only country people remembered that green-glass- bottle Cokes tasted better than any other kind, but the in-town hipsters had gotten all nostalgic for them. They cost two, even three bucks a pop inside the perimeter.
If I’d gotten the damn Dr Pepper, Natty and I would have
walked out clean, but I wanted a Coke in a green glass bottle. I grabbed one and said, “Just a sec, Natty Bumppo.”
He stayed by the tub, flying the jet low over the ice as I put
one soda back. He was in plain sight, so I left him there and
headed for the register to pay.
I passed the blond man, still standing at the end of the aisle. He was breathing shallow, eyes slightly unfocused, like he was looking a thousand years into the future instead of at a box of soap.
The girl behind the counter watched me approaching with
her mouth hanging slack. She had big boobs, swinging free in a tight knit top that was cut low enough to show me a Tweety Bird tattoo on the right one. Her bobbed flop of dyed magenta hair ended in frizzles, and as I got close, I saw both her front teeth were broken off into jagged stumps.
“That all?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. It was very hard not to look at the teeth. She
started ringing me up.
Then the cheery jingle bells on the door rang out. It was an
odd Christmas-y sound on a late summer day, unexpected enough to make me look, even though I knew the bells were there.
I glanced at the door, at the stumpy little guy coming in. He had a broad, pale face with a wide nose under a baseball cap, pulled low. Then my gaze stuck. My whole body stopped moving and the very air changed, because the guy brought his hand up as the door swung jangling closed behind him, and I was looking down the barrel of a silver revolver, really old and rusty.
All at once, I couldn’t see the guy behind the gun as anything more than a vague person shape. I only saw the shine of fluorescent light along the silver barrel, only heard a voice behind it saying in a redneck twang, “Get on the ground! Get on the ground right now, before I put shoot holes in you.”
His voice was low and raspy, like he was talking in a growl on purpose, but very loud, and I believed him. He would do it.
“On the ground!”
I couldn’t move, though. My joints refused to bend and take
me to the floor. I was closest to the gunman, by the register, then the big guy in the detergent aisle, and beyond him, standing tiny and alone in the path of the gun as it swept back and forth, was Natty. Natty gone still with his plane clutched in his hand.
I felt my head shake, back and forth. No.
A gun had come, rusted with anger and ill use, loaded and
alive in human hands, into the same room where Natty stood in his honorary pilot’s cap, hovering his Blue Angels plane over an ice bucket full of Cokes. Natty looked at the gun, his eyes so round that his fringe of thick, ridiculous lashes made them look like field daisies. The gun looked back.
It was not okay. It was not allowed. That gravelled voice told
us all again to get on the ground, but I couldn’t get on the ground.
I couldn’t move or breathe in a room where Natty stood far, so
far away from me, too far for me to get there faster than a bullet
could, under that gun’s shining gaze. His little fingers were white,
clutched hard onto his plastic jet.
Then the guy by the detergent moved. Just a couple
of steps. A step and a half, really. Barely a move at all for a guy that tall and big, but it changed my life a thousand ways.
It wasn’t a threatening move. He moved parallel to the gun,
and his palms were up and pointed forward in surrender. He sank down, folding into the seated shape that Natty called crisscross applesauce, palms flat on the ground, spine straight.
That sliding half step put his big body between the gun’s
black, unwinking eyehole and everything that mattered to me on this green earth.
And that was it. That was when it happened. I lowered my
body to the ground, and all of me was falling, faster than I
could physically move, way further than a glance or an attraction, falling so hard into deep, red, desperate love. I lay flat on the Circle K’s dirty, cool floor, but the heart of me kept tumbling down. It fell all the way to the molten center of the earth, blazing into total, perfect feeling for the big blond wall of a man who had put himself between my child and bullets, before our eyes had ever met, before I so much as knew his name.