My mother never could sleep. Her soul, cracked open by dreams, reassembled itself at first light. She hated being in the house for too long, so Sunday mornings we’d wander around the edge of town in our pajamas and overcoats before anyone else was up.
In her pockets she carried these paper squares covered in buttons. They were seconds, as the holes weren’t punched through. They were the size of quarters and just as thin.
On the sidewalk outside People’s Pharmacy I’d lean against the soda machine, listening to her wrist pop as she threw the fake coins into the slot. Sometimes it took 2 or 3 tries before the latch on the door released and I pulled out my glass bottle of coke for breakfast.
Gladys May’s Breakfast Counter’s was the only place open that early. It shares a wall with the gas station and serves fried egg sandwiches to the sleep deprived passengers with long distance cricks in their necks. The Trailways line comes down from St. Louis, meanders town to town on its way to Jackson and then New Orleans. It has a stopover in Memphis.
Miss Evalina steped off the Sunday morning bus still wearing Saturday night’s party. One of the heels of her blue polka dot shoes has broken off and she wears it stuck behind her ear like a flower. She tiptoes across the gravel, a mermaid with a fresh set of legs. She hasn’t lost her voice though.
My mother and I sit on the swivel chairs by the counter. Gladys arguing with Miss Evalina from the get go. Yelling, “I ain’t serving you, girl.” She cuts an inch of butter and throwing on the grill, so it’d sizzled up for effect. “No ma’am, no service, done told you the last time.”
Miss Evalina picks up a fist full of those packaged peanut butter crackers they sell by the register and stuffs them in her purse. Then the rest she sent flying. Playing catch with customers whose eyes have barely open. Throws a fist full of singles on the counter. My mother’s the only one to talk to her. “Evalina, you have a good day.”
She tosses a package of crackers to me. My mother catches it.
We kick magnolia cones across the sidewalk while everyone else passes us walking to church.
The humidity perfumes us with sweat.
“What’s was my daddy like?” I ask.
“What do you think he was like?” she asks back.
It is always my choice. Whatever I wanted him to be. It’s surprising how what I want him to be changes.
When we lived in Jackson he was a banker. Suit and tie man with a money clip and a desk next to the window. He brought me presents in boxes where the top and the box were wrapped separately, like in the movies.
When we hitched to Clarksdale, he was the singer on the radio, driving into town for a one night, playing guitar and stamping his feet on the porch of the Riverside Motel.
In Ocean Springs, my mother made friends with a schizophrenic painter who kept sane by drawing the wildlife on one of the small marsh islands off the coast. He’d row out his boat and I’d sneak out with him. He told me about Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. He said the sound barrier was a place apart from words. I decided my father was a pilot too and he’d gotten stuck out there, in the place apart from words.
But these were all just made up stories. Absent fathers make for a great deal of, “my life would be better if,” thoughts. Those eventually become “you bastard” thoughts. When I miss-him-hate- him, I make him into a drunk and a gambler. The reason we move so often. We’re on the run and one day he’ll show up unannounced, rough and mean, and I will get to punch him right in the gut. But when I really hate-him-miss-him, I blame her. Loudly and with all my fury.
“What are you like?” she asks me. “Describe yourself. Go on. Find the parts of you that are like me. And the parts that aren’t, those are his. If you don’t have my nose, it’s his nose. I can spell, you couldn’t, you get that from him. Your eyes are blue mine are brown…You’re me, you’re him...I don’t know what he was like either. I’m learning, same as you.”