Archive for November, 2010

A Kitten

November 30, 2010

Mama’s frown deepened, her hands went to her hips and I knew I’d pushed her limit. I also knew a kitten was what I needed. “I want a kitten,” I begged. “Just one little kitten.”

“We aren’t home enough to give a kitten the attention it needs. I work and you go to school.”

“Molly, in my class, has a cat and her mother works,” I countered.

My mother rolled her eyes. I thought maybe she’d say, ‘If Molly jumped off a bridge would you do it too?’ But she didn’t.

“We live too close to the road. It’ll get killed,” my mother said.

“I won’t let it out of the house.”

“Who’s going to feed it and clean up after it?” she asked. That sounded like a maybe, like she was giving in.

“I will. I’ll do it all, feed it, clean up after it, brush it, everything.”

“Pets are expensive. It’s all I can do to feed the two of us. Besides…”

“Please Mama, a kitten’s small. It won’t eat much.”

The phone rang.

My mother answered it with a smile, but that faded and her head dropped into her hand. She rubbed at her temples with her thumb and middle finger, keeping her eyes closed. She only answered with “yes,” or “no.” Her voice was quiet and she sounded sad. I knew the look on her face, the tone of her voice. My Daddy was back in town and he was coming for me.

He showed up every six months, fresh off the ocean, tall, handsome, and bearing gifts from foreign lands: a set of dolls with costumes and matching hats, a tiny leather purse with labels like “Paris”, “London”, “Sweden”, and “Japan” stitched on it, a royal blue tapestry decorated with solid white kittens, and two days of his time.

I kneeled on the couch, holding the sheers back, my faced pressed to the glass, waiting. He drove a shiny black convertible with a silver stripe that ran across the hood, and trunk. I got to ride up front with him. He pulled to the curb, looked up into the mirror, ran his hand through his hair and put on his sunglasses.

I jumped down from the couch and ran outside to meet him, a whirlwind of arms, legs, ruffles and ribbons. He picked me up and swung me around, laughing and calling me doll baby. Mama handed him my overnight bag. I didn’t look back.

“What’s my girl wanna do?”

“Go to the park. The one with the train.”

My Daddy and I had fun, went to the park, and rode the little train through the tunnel. He folded up his long legs so he could sit beside me, his strong arm wrapped around my shoulder, his sunglasses on my face. He smelled like spice and his face was a little scratchy. We laughed and ate ice cream and drove fast with the top of the car folded down behind the back seat. My hair blew into my eyes, and it didn’t matter.

“I bet Grandma fixed a good dinner for us. We’d better head over there before we’re late and get in trouble,” he said, throwing his head back, laughing.

While he was in town, we stayed at my Grandma’s house. Her kitchen smelled like black pepper. We sat at her red, Formica and chrome table, eating pot roast, pull-apart tender, green beans cooked with new potatoes on top, corn pudding baked golden with yellow kernels nestled in custard. Grandma’s biscuits rose thick and hot. Her homemade blackberry jam dripped out the sides, all the food, my Daddy’s favorites.

At the supper table, he winked at Grandma, then told adventure stories about pirates with peg legs and hooks for hands, how he turned the tables on the meanest one with an eye patch and made him walk the plank. The Navy sounded exciting with sunny ports and big adventures. My Grandma looked at Daddy like I wished my Mama would.

Two days went as fast as six months went slow. Before my father left, I watched the clock over the mantle in my Grandma’s living room. The second hand ticked his time away, pushing me closer and closer to my mother, further and further away from him. I couldn’t talk in the car.

“No tears,” my Daddy said, “we’ve had too much fun to cry.”

He carried me to the apartment door. My fingers tightened into the back of his shirt, my face pressed into his shoulder. He hugged me tight and then began to push me away. I clung. My mother was behind me, trying to pull me away from him.

Both of them were talking to me, wanting me to stop crying and clinging, wanting me to give up the struggle so everything could return to normal. My father needed to rush off to some other part of the world and my mother needed to pull me inside the apartment and close the door, so things could go back to the way they were before the weekend started. My sound was a wail; my grief, determined.

Every six months, he turned his back and left me crying. My mother was left to try to put a small broken child back together.

“I found something special for you,” Mama said, her hands behind her back.

I looked up, tears running off my chin. I still couldn’t talk, but my mother had a gesture. She smiled at me and presented me with a small orange-striped kitten. I reached out and took the ball of soft fur. I held him in my arms as I cried, my tears making wet spots on him. He was nice, but he wasn’t my Daddy.

Sell Gold, Tuition’s Due

November 15, 2010

College tuition is coming due in December and I’m a good two thousand dollars short. We’ve done well for six and a half semesters, what with savings, extra jobs on the side, trips to the junkyard with scrap metal, and the occasional yard sale. The end of the year is always hard though. Real Estate taxes are due by the fifth, tuition is due on the twelfth, and of course there’s Christmas.

I’ve been saving this small one-eighth full plastic sandwich bag of gold for when the market reached peak. I waited until today. My mother called me in May. She had taken most of the gold she had to the Jefferson Coin Shop on Airport Road near the Greene County line. Her sandwich bag was about a quarter full and she garnered a little over a thousand dollars. Her insulin had doubled in price and no amount of gold she wore could bring down her blood sugars.

Jefferson coin shop has two locations. The one I went to is downtown, one block off the pedestrian mall, next to the main library. Parking downtown is awful, but the location is closer to home for me. I called the shop on Saturday and the man on the phone said they were downtown on Mondays. Most streets there are one way and the free two hour parking spaces are all parallel and filled most of the time. I was in luck. Someone pulled out, leaving a space open at the north end of the library.

Although I’d held it in my hand twenty minutes earlier when I left home, I dug around in my purse to make sure the bag of rings, bracelets, and miss-matched earrings was still there. I walked the half block to the old white brick building, read the sign to make sure the coin shop was among the tenants and pulled the door open. The business was to my left on the other side of a glass door with gold writing. A bell tinkled when I walked in. The shop was tiny, no bigger than a walk-in closet with two glass display cases. A woman and man behind the cases welcomed me.

“My mother sent me to you,” I said. “She told me you buy gold.”

“She’s right,” the man said. “Let’s see what you have.”

I took my plastic bag of treasures out and emptied it on top of the glass case. He took out a magnifying loop, one similar to the one my mother had when she was in the antique business. He picked up the first piece, a ring, held the loop to his eye and turned the ring around and around. “This one’s fourteen karat,” he said. He picked up another ring and was turning it when the door tinkled again. He looked up and excused himself, handing the loop to the woman. I turned and saw the Charlottesville police officer who’d come into the shop.

As the woman picked up each piece and looked at it, sorted the pieces in piles, I heard the conversation between the owner of the shop and the policeman.

“Here’s one of the counterfeit fives we’ve seen lately. They change the face on the bill, pretty smart.  If you’re not paying attention, you’re stuck with them.”

“People don’t usually look at the small bills.”

“Nope, just wanted to give you a heads up. Have a nice day folks.” The bell tinkled again as he left the shop.

“This one’s worn here, see, tarnished, the woman said, showing me the side on an earring. “Gold doesn’t’ do that.” She put the imposter in a separate place off to the side.

“I questioned whether this one was gold or not,” I said, holding up a huge gaudy Smoky Topaz set in yellow gold. I bought it at a yard sale for a dollar. As a matter of fact most of these were bought at yard sales over the years.” I don’t know why I felt it necessary to let her know they weren’t family heirlooms I was hocking for a few dollars, but I did.

“You can find some real bargains at yard sales if you’re willing to dig,” she said, as she continued to search for marks and sort in piles. “How about that?” She said holding up the Topaz ring. “This one is fourteen karat, and it’s heavy too.” When she finished sorting there were four groups, fourteen karat, ten karat, no mark, and junk.

The man came back over and took the unmarked pieces, scratching them on a stone. He then took a little plastic bottle of acid marked 14K and put a drop on each mark. If the mark disappeared, the item was not gold. If the mark faded, the piece was ten karat. If it stayed shiny, the piece was fourteen karat. He said I was in the lucky group today, mine were mostly of the fourteen karat variety.

He weighed and calculated, determining the value of my gold to be $791.20. He still needed to check four rings for karat weight, but wanted to make sure I was willing to sell at that price before he did more testing. I was fairly jumping up and down in the floor. My investment in the lot was well under one hundred dollars. He took the four rings left, scratched the inside bands with a knife and put a drop of the solution onto the scratch. If the rings were gold filled, the solution would bubble up green. All were real gold. I was disappointed by not seeing a reaction. I guess I should have been glad. 

“Tuition is coming due for my son,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” the woman said. “We have two in college right now and another to start in two years.”

The man shook his head. “We didn’t think about college when we were planning them. We wanted our children to be able to keep each other company, play together.”

“We thought having so many in diapers at one time was expensive,” she said. “We didn’t know expensive. I talked myself out of trying for the girl once I got home with the third boy. I didn’t have enough hands.”

“As parents, I guess we do what we have to do,” I said. “Somehow we find the time, the hands and the money to get done what needs to get done.”

As we talked, I felt like I was in the company of like-minded friends who understood and appreciated someone searching the nooks and crannies for a way to educate a child. It was easier for me to let go of the jewelry I hadn’t worn in years and collect the money to send to Ferrum for Ben’s last semester.

The man counted out seven, one hundred dollar bills, one fifty, four tens, a one and he pulled a quarter from his pocket.

“Didn’t you say twenty cents?” I asked.

“Yeah, but we don’t have change here,” he said.

“Wow, a coin shop without change,” I said.

“That’s what everybody says,” his wife said laughing.

It’s the Chemo

November 8, 2010

A year ago, my step-father, Gilly, was the strong one.  He hefted the wooden display table single-handedly, loaded the bushels of sweet potatoes onto the pickup truck and stacked all sixty cases of pint jars holding  my Mama’s jams, jellies and relishes.  She stood, smiled, recited recipes and collected the five dollar bills. 

“What ‘s the best thing to put this in?” a potential customer asked, holding a jar of Tomato Ketchup made from my Grandma’s recipe.

“Your mouth, right off the spoon,” Gilly said, laughing.

“Hush up your foolishness,” Mama admonished.  “Don’t you pay any attention to him.  It’s really good cooked in meatloaf, or spooned over pinto beans.”  Then she frowned at my step-father, daring him to say another word.

He just laughed and turned to bag more sweet potatoes from the pickup.

Gilly is six feet, two inches tall and until three months ago, was able to withstand hours in the garden, planting, plowing, picking  vegetables and weeding.  He chewed the end of his cigar and didn’t come into the house at night until darkness drove him to it.  Last year he planted forty-five hundred sweet potato plants and harvested two hundred bushels of the roots with no help.  Today, he was bent, gray, and thin.  It’s the chemo.

The spot on his lung turned out to be a tumor, a cancerous tumor that necessitated the surgeon taking out the upper lobe of his right lung and several lymph nodes. The process leading up to the surgery was long and slow, one test after another, little answers, leading to big procedures, a week in the hospital.

“The most pain came when they removed that damn drainage tube,” he said grimacing.  “When a nurse tells you it might hurt a little, she’s lying.”

Mama sat by his side, rubbing his back, turning her head when the tears started. 

A week after the surgery, Gilly climbed onto his backhoe and dug a septic system for the neighbor.  He planned to dig sweet potatoes September 24th, two weeks after his surgery.  He wasn’t going to call anyone to help, but  Mama called in the troops.  The whole family showed up that Saturday to dig and gather.  Gilly didn’t send us away.  Mama only allowed him to drive the tractor, no other work.  He picked up bushel baskets when Mama wasn’t looking though.

Chemo  treatments started Tuesday a week ago. Gilly spent two hours at the Cardwell Center having chemicals pumped into his veins to kill wayward Cancer cells. The nurse gave him a pamphlet to read during the procedure. It listed side effects.  After the treatment, Gilly drove to the barbershop to have his head shaved.  He’s always been proud of his thick, wavy hair. 

“You know, my Daddy was bald before I was born,” Mama comforted. “Garnett was bald too.  Seems most men in our family were.”

“I didn’t even know men had hair until I went to school,” I told him.

He looked down at the floor and sighed deeply as Mr. Herndon swept up the hair he’d buzzed off. Gilly put his John Deere cap back on his head and paid the thirteen dollars.  The bell over the door sounded cheery as we left the shop.

Today was the Vintage Apple Festival in North Garden. We tried to talk Gilly into staying home. We assured him we could handle everything just fine, but he was having none of it.  He wanted to sell his sweet potatoes and flirt with Mama’s lady customers. We finally gave in because we didn’t have a choice. 

Mama bundled Gilly in layers, brought the folding chair with the drink holder and a cooler full of water, tea and diet Pepsi. She kept him as far away from handshakes and sneezes as she could. My cousin Kandy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last November, came with her husband Randy to help us.  All eight of us who showed up to help, took turns weighing and bagging sweet potatoes.

“Take that back and trade the big one for a couple smaller ones. People like a mixture,” Gilly said.

We followed directions and tried not to be conspicuous as we watched him for signs of fatigue and dehydration.  He caught us, rolled his eyes, and finally snapped at Mama as she asked him for the twenty-fifth time if he was feeling alright.

A woman picked up a jar of Zucchini relish, read the label and asked, “What’s the best use for this?”

“Just ask my husband,” Mama said.

Gilly looked up and said, “Just spoon it out the jar. It goes down easy.”

Mama didn’t scold. She smiled.