(title story from the collection In Ordinary Time
, Hanging Loose Press, 2005)
The cab from Midway Airport turns right at the Tootsie Roll factory, crosses the boundary of south side to suburb, and sails past the now-empty State Road house. As the cab takes a left at 79th, en route to Cousin Snooky’s place, I keep my eye on the house until it disappears behind the Walgreen’s. What’s awaiting me there, I wonder, now that Ma’s not there? To begin with, five generations of family history going back to Poland to sort through before I put the house up for sale, and only three weeks to do it.
It's early evening and dark, with a crisp two inches of new snow on the ground. As the cab pulls into the driveway, past the fiberglass wishing well and St. Francis statue, Snooky appears with her arms open, smiling. I haven’t seen her in seventeen years. Her red hair is blonde now. She looks like the mature Debbie Reynolds.
"Hiya honey," she whispers, embracing me. “It’s good to see ya. It’s been so long.”
“Thanks for letting me stay with you, Snooks,” I say as I breathe in her signature “Vanilla Fields” cologne which, mingled with the winter air, reminds me of Christmas when I was a kid.
“Oh, honey, you’re my godchild and I’d do anything for ya. You got a big job ahead of you, too. I just wish I could help you more, but I got that little balloon in me now and the doctor says I can’t exert myself.”
We eat dinner — “Friendship Chicken,” her specialty — at the little table in the corner of her kitchen. A figure skating competition plays on the black and white TV perched on the corner of the counter: Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul’s emotional comeback. She’s shaky, she falls, she gets a shitty score, but a standing ovation from the crowd anyway.
“Oh, my God,” Snooky whispers, voice quavering. “Wasn’t that wonderful?”
The phone rings. Brushing away tears, Snooky gets up to answer it.
“I bet that’s my mom,” I say, and get up, too.
“Hello? Oh my God, Frannie! Sharon just said it’d be you. She must be psychopathic
!” She passes the phone to me.
“Did you start on the house yet?” Ma wants to know. “I wanna know if you found the Thorn. I think it’s between my mattresses in a little box. Whatever you do, don’t throw it away, okay? It’s from the Cr0wn of Thorns, you know.”
“I know, Ma, I know. But I haven’t even been over there yet. I just got here an hour ago. I’m going first thing tomorrow.”
“Okay, I’m just sayin’. Don’t get all hyped up. Put Snooks back on, will ya?”
I hand the phone back and sit down. On the TV, the words “Stop Feeling Everything” appear. A message to me from the ether? No, just an ad for shock absorbers.
After Snooky hangs up we do dishes — I wash, she dries.
“The last time I was in this house I was twenty-one,” I say. “God, that was a long time ago. Do you remember that time? Right before I was going to get married? Ma brought me over here so I could talk about calling off the wedding with you and your mother. We all sat at the table over there —”
“That time you slit your wrist. Oh, that was a terrible time. You were such a rebel back then. But that guy really was no damn good.”
“Everyone was so adamant that I call the wedding off.”
“So . . . ada-what, honey? I don’t know that word.”
“Everyone was so insistent that I call the wedding off. And your mom told me that story about how your stepfather used to hit her.”
“That’s right. Drunkie John they called him. Oh, he was no damn good, either. But God rest his soul anyway. When he got drunk he usta tell my mother that if she didn’t give him sex he’d get it from me. That’s why Grandma Mesmer raised me at her house. My mother didn’t want me there when he was there. If my real father had lived, life woulda been real different. But John was a nice man when he wasn’t drinkin’. You know how my mother met him? He was the milkman! Oh, she had so many boyfriends around the neighborhood, after my father died. Probably when he was still alive, too. He just turned the other cheek. Did I ever tell you he was the seventh son of a seventh son? And his one brother, Basil, could talk to trees — he was a healer. He would just put his hands on people and heal them. His other brother, though . . . His name was Elmer, and he married a big, mean, red-headed woman and they had a tavern with a whorehouse upstairs called the Bucket o’ Blood, over by Sherman Park. All the gangsters used to drink there. He ran the tavern and she ran the whorehouse. After my dad died my mother hung out there, with the gangsters. Can ya beat that? Jesus, I don’t wanna think about half the stuff she did . . .”
After the dishes are put away we go into the living room. Snooks says she wants me to see something really beautiful on TV.
“It’s the . . . how do you call ‘em? The Royal Lippi-something Stallions? You know, the white horses? They perform to classical music, and it’s just gorgeous. You’ll watch them, and you’ll feel better about yourself and everything.”
She puts a tape into the VCR. After the opening credits (and some harp music) there’s a trumpet fanfare, and six Royal Lipizzaner stallions gallop in sync out of a dry-ice fog. Together they rise up on their hind legs, and then jump and kick. “The Blue Danube Waltz” begins, and they prance in time. I steal looks at Snooky watching from the couch, smiling and shaking her head. I recall how glamorous and beautiful I thought she was when I was little, with her red hair and red lipstick and the emerald green dresses she always wore when we saw her on holidays.
After it’s over she asks me what I thought, and I tell her it was nice. She looks crestfallen.
“You didn’t like it, did you?”
“No, it was really nice. I’m glad we watched it.”
She gets up from the couch, smiling to herself, and walks toward one of the bedrooms.
“I shoulda known it wasn’t your style. You go all over the world. You’ve seen a lot of things. But I like it, and I wanted to watch it with you.”
“Snooks . . . “
She comes back with a pink flannel nightgown tied with a ribbon and hands it to me.
“This is for you. You must be tired, honey. I’ll help you get ready for bed. You’ll be in the guest room. That was my room while Jerry was dying. So there are no bad feelings in there.”
“You know, Snooks, all those times I stayed at my mom’s after my dad died I slept in his bed. I didn’t care.”
“You know how Jerry and I met? Did I ever tell you that story? I was eight years old, and I was sitting on the steps of my house over on Aberdeen, and he came along with his dog. The dog went in the gate, and up the steps by me and wouldn’t leave. That dog just stayed there, and Jerry had to come in and get him. Diamonds was his name. We fell in love that day and we were together until the day he died. He died in my arms.”
“That’s a great story, Snooks.”
She turns and heads for the guest room.
“Come on. I know you’re tired.”
The guest room is a return to the past: it smells of the kind of perfume women used to wear — Heaven Sent or Chantilly — and on either side of the dresser two lamps with frilly pink shades give off a warm glow. It’s that light that’s most redolent of the past, evoking memories of the various apartments that Snooky’s mother, my Aunt Jewel (dead ten years), lived in when I was a kid. I loved visiting her. She had beaded curtains hanging in her doorways and Uncle Donny’s paintings (which she referred to as his “modern abstracts”) on the living room walls. She burnt incense and played Little Richard and Bobby Sherman records. And when she talked about her chronic insomnia — “Every night I walk the floors, thinkin’ about stuff I shouldn’t be thinkin’ about, like my mother’s stomach cancer and my sister Lily’s lobotomy” — I pictured her as some kind of glamorous woman from an old movie, waking up at 2 am with cold cream on her face and curlers in her hair, tuning her big Zenith radio to a talk show, and smoking in the glow of the dresser lamps.
Snooky comes in to kiss me goodnight.
“Sleep well, honey. And don’t worry about nothin’. Your ma’s in one of the good homes. You’ll see when we go there tomorrow. And don’t feel bad about her goin’ in there. She talked to me about it even before she told you. She just didn’t feel safe in that house anymore, with Nick hangin’ out with the gangs and all. And she didn’t want you to feel responsible for her decision. That’s why she went in when you weren’t here. She didn’t want you to have to spend your life takin’ care of her. That was her gift to you. She knows you’re not the kind of person who could take care of someone. And Nick’s not hangin’ out with the gangs no more ‘cause he’s with the Andersons, and they’re people he knows and they’re a real good family. I met them one time, in your ma’s room. They’re good people. I could feel it. And when you see him, you’ll see a difference. He really is a different kid. I’m tellin’ ya, it was a miracle how that all turned out. So see — everything’s gonna be just fine from now on. You mark my words.”
She kisses my forehead, pulls the covers up, and turns out the light. As the sleeping pill kicks in I wonder what she meant by “You’re not the kind of person who could take care of someone”? All I did for the last ten years was deal with Ma and her problems. And long distance, too. (to be continued)