I was no bigger than a bug in my mother’s womb when the two of us drove away from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota toward our lives as a duet.
Mom had no destination in mind. The Kaskaskia River wound through the trees like a silver ribbon. The scene reminded her of a photograph that had hung over her parents’ bed, so she parked the Pontiac and slept for the first time in three days. Months later I was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital within a stone’s throw of that parking space. The sisters cooed over my young, recently-widowed mother, a madonnalike vision with her newborn daughter. Mom named me in the Portuguese tradition with two surnames, my father’s name listed before my mother’s. That was how I came to be María Amelia Casimiro Monteiro, Amy for short.
At my first awareness, sometime around the age of four, I remember hearing the fairy tale beginning of my life, born to the Queen of Sleepy Eye as I was. Unjustly dethroned after only twenty-three days as the 1958 Queen of Sleepy Eye, Mom never returned the crown or the sash. Her larceny seemed justifiable since her only crime had been a secret marriage to my father. Whenever one of Mom’s girlfriends visited, Mom brought out the velvet-lined box. With her fingers poised to lift the lid, her eyes lucent, and her smile shamelessly demure, she paused until her audience gushed, “Oh, Francie, please open the box.”
By age ten, I yawned and stretched as she ceremoniously set the box on the coffee table. By the time I turned thirteen, half the rhinestones had fallen from the tiara’s settings. Never mind that I’d buried the ratty thing under coffee grounds and potato skins in the kitchen trash more than once, only to retrieve the tiara before my mother discovered it missing. The story was a droning fly I batted away, but it always came back. My apathy went unnoticed. Mom told her story to anyone willing to listen. She worked conversations like a fisherman angling a fighting bass—reel, slack, feed the line—until she hooked the opportunity to tell of her stolen royalty. Grocery lines. Intimate apparel sales. Parent-teacher conferences. The world was ripe for a hard-luck queen story.
Today, Mom rarely speaks of her summer in Sleepy Eye. That was fifty years ago. As far as I know, the crown and sash lies buried with petrified hot dogs and Twinkies in a landfill somewhere. She and my stepfather have retired to travel.
Three years ago, Mom called from New Zealand, and the line between today and yesterday grew decidedly fuzzy. “Amy, honey,” Mom yelled as she did when she called from more than ten miles away. “You have to help me find the Pontiac.”
“The Pontiac? You sold that—what?—thirty years ago? What’s this about?”
“This phone call is costing me a fortune.” Mom blew her nose. “Fofa, honey, I’m desperate. You’re so good at finding things. How hard could it be to find a few thousand pounds of metal with four wheels?” The line went quiet for a long time—on my end because I was wondering why the Pontiac had reemerged as an object of Mom’s devotion. From countless other conversation, I’d learned silence on her end meant she was sifting her memories for leverage. Her effort proved unnecessary. I remembered clearly that Graham, our youngest son, had thrown up grape juice all over Mom’s white sofa.
“Do you even remember the name of the man who bought the car?” I asked.
“You’re such a good daughter, my honey, meu fofa.”
While Mom and Chuck took culinary tours of Tuscany and visited the Northern Baltic countries, the search consumed me for those three years, at least as much as being an amicable wife, an attentive mother, and a passable student recruiter allowed. I followed hunches and faded memories to heaps of rusted car bodies in tired cities and townships. That’s how Mom and I have come to be in Barstow, California together, standing in the dust and scanning the ground for rattlesnakes.
Excerpted from The Queen of Sleepy Eye © Copyright 2012 by Patti Hill. Reprinted with permission by B&H Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
The Queen of Sleepy Eye
- paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: B&H Fiction
- ISBN-10: 0805447504
- ISBN-13: 9780805447507