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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tropical Depression

Folks told us the storm was coming, and they said it was gonna be bad.  I couldn't even begin to understand what all the fuss was about.  It rained at least twice a day in Biloxi, and nobody seemed to give a shit before.  Then again, I'd only been there a couple of months.  Who was I to decide the severity of local weather events?

I watched as my neighbors taped up their windows.  They dragged barbecue grills and motorbikes inside their trailers.  Our landlord suggested we fill the bathtub, just in case we lost power.  This way, we'd have water for washing and flushing the toilet.  I thought for sure he was overreacting.  It was difficult for me to wrap my mind around this kind of emergency.

We didn't have natural disasters in the Bronx.  It snowed in the winter, occasionally dumping quite a bit more than homeowners could shovel.  But school and jobs were seldom cancelled.  Everybody still had to go to work.  Sometimes, there was a fire or a car accident.  But that was about it.

"What's the big deal about hurricanes?" I asked Jason when he came home early from school to prepare for evacuation.  "What is it that they actually do?"

"They flood the place and destroy everything in their path."

"Is that what's gonna happen here?"

"I don't know, maybe.  We might have to stay on base for a couple of days, until everything blows over."

I hated that suggestion.  I was pretty certain I was pregnant at this point.  My boobies were sore, and I spent most of my time trying to will myself to get my period.

"That's crazy.  I'm not going."

"You have to go."

"Why?"

"All military goes to the shelter."

"Where are we gonna sleep?"

"On the floor, I guess."

"What about Waffles?  Can she come?"

"No pets.  She has to stay here," Jason advised.  "Don't worry, she'll be fine.  She'll probably just hide under the bed if she gets scared."

"I'll hide under there with her."

"You have to do what you're told."

I wished I was a cat.  A cat that wasn't pregnant.

Hurricane Elena began rather modestly as a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico during Labor Day weekend.  With no help from steering currents, it stalled off the coast of Florida, developing slowly into a category three storm.  I watched the news reports on TV covering the mass exodus from the area.  Carloads of families frantically stuffing their vehicles with provisions and bugging out to safer locations, while tourists and residents filled local hotels and churches.

As Jason secured the perimeter of our aluminum abode, I prepared food that we could eat during our detainment.  I made three sandwiches and packed a canister of Pringles in a brown paper bag, along with four sodas and some cookies.  The US Military kept us for almost three days.

We camped out on the floor of a classroom in one of the larger buildings on base. We shared the space with other enlisted men, women and their children.  The circumstances were unpleasant and we couldn't have been any less prepared, but at least we were safe.  I laid on our blanket in the darkness, listening to Jason breathe while he slept.  Infants cried and mothers soothed them.

I wonder if I can do this.  Have a baby.  I don't know.  Probably.

I squeezed my breasts on purpose to remind myself just how much they hurt.  My mind switched to thoughts of my mother.  She didn't even know where I was. Thinking about her always made me cry.  I wondered if she might come around once she found out the news.  I wished I could make my mom love me and not be so mad.  I turned on my side and tried to distract myself from the sounds of the wind and rain, ripping the world to shreds.  Hurricane Elena made landfall in Biloxi with 125 mph winds.

When Jason and I were finally released, we walked to the main entrance of the facility. Huge trees had been uprooted and broken in half.  Very few cars had any window glass remaining in them.  Some looked as though they'd been picked up and flung from one end of the street to the next.  I remember trying to identify a soda machine that had come to rest on top of a parked truck.  It looked as though it had fallen from the sky.  Dead birds of all sizes were everywhere.  Live wires sizzled and sparked in the middle of the road like snakes.  Plus there were snakes.  And rats. And other frantic animals.

At least our home was still there when we got back to the trailer park.  And wouldn't you know?  The cat was under the bed.  Some folks weren't so lucky.  I'd never seen anything quite so jaw-dropping in my life, and nothing like it since.

After the hurricane, we had no electricity or water for almost a week.  The temperature soared to nearly 100 degrees.  The first two days, Jason and I made attempts to get to the mall, in efforts to escape the oppressive heat.  Hanging out at the record store and sitting on in-door benches seemed like a brilliant idea.  But the buses weren't working, so we just walked back home and stared at each other.

By the third or fourth day, the Air Force base resumed its regular activity, and Jason returned to school.  To kill time in the sweltering heat, I dragged my ass down to the beach and watched young girls bathe their toddlers in the Gulf of Mexico.  I went back to the trailer and threw out all the food in our refrigerator.  I listened to news reports on the transistor radio.  Countless accidents involving men and chainsaws, men suffering heat stroke, men falling off roofs.

I lay on the mattress in the bedroom.  There wasn't any other place to sit.  I ate dry cereal.  I took sweaty naps on our dirty sheets.  I waited for the water truck to drive through the neighborhood.  I kept checking the phone to see if it was working.  I wanted to call my mom.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

These Promises of Spring

Rory did some time in the doghouse recently.  A little too much spirited backtalk, several days in a row.  Unnecessarily bold responses to routine inquiries that, if left unchecked, would surely become a habit with which I will never be comfortable.

"I brushed my teeth already."

"I finished my homework an hour ago."

"How should I know you wanted me to empty the washing machine?  It's not like you said anything."

You get the picture.  So I pulled the plug on Brother's runaway train.  Before it had a chance to leave the station and pick up steam.  And before anybody got hurt.

"No dessert.  No TV.  Three days, my dear," I told him.

Fortunately, these perks are still valuable currency to my almost eleven year old.

"Not fair," he groaned.

"Give me lip, and I'll make it a week."

There was brooding initially, which is always unfortunate because his sour mood impacts everybody in the house.  When one of us suffers a setback, we all seem to take the hit to some degree.  I also cautioned him that my company is a privilege and if it meant anything to him, he would do his best to earn it back.  Off he went to the bus stop on his own, in a considerable huff.

After he left, I reminded myself that this is true.  I am valuable.  Motherhood routinely teaches me how to recognize and safeguard my own worth, while I to try to teach my children about decency.  There's a lot going on behind the scenes with this gig.

Rory returned in the afternoon with his demeanor somewhat softer and less accusatory.  Fortunately, his happy life has a tendency to dilute even the worst cases of situational irritability.

"Mom, Grayson's riding his bike without training wheels for the first time!" he exclaimed as he burst through the front door.

"That's wonderful!  Did you congratulate him?" I asked coolly.

Let's face it.  Last time I checked, he was still pissed at me.

"No.  I forgot."

The disappointment in his voice was hard to ignore.  His kind observation hadn't earned him nearly as much leverage as he'd hoped.  I could tell he would have preferred the more loving version of his mom.  Instead, he was greeted with cautious reservation, and it bummed him out.

Rory took his science notes up to bed with him that evening, while the rest of us watched our favorite TV shows in the living room.

"You can study for ten minutes," I told him.  "Then shut the lights out.  Do you understand?"

"Yes," he replied.  His chin dropped to his chest.

Desmond made sure he laughed just a little too loudly at the jokes coming from whatever program was playing at the time.  So Rory could hear how much fun it was to not be in trouble.

"That's unnecessary, son," I said.  "Unless, of course, you'd like to join your brother upstairs."

Being a parent is labor intensive.  There are so many moving parts.  And I want my children to like me.  But I can't look the other way when they are disrespectful.  They practice their behavioral skills here in my home, but fortunately, so do I.  This is a vibrant testing area.

The following morning after Rory gathered his book bag and jacket, he looked for me.  I was sitting on the edge of the bed in my room, putting on my shoes.  He planted a delicate kiss on my cheek.

"I'm leaving, Mom.  I love you."

"I love you too, Bro."

"Today's gonna be great.  You'll see," he assured me.

"I hope so, honey."

I followed him to the door and waved goodbye.  His positivity was noteworthy.  But as he left the porch, he headed in the opposite direction of the bus.  I waited for a moment to see where he was going.

His little friends were coming up the street.  And as they got closer, I heard him say something nice to Grayson about his bike-riding.
I totally zoned out on a prompt in writing class.  My teacher read the class this gorgeous piece about spring and cherry blossoms and hopefulness.  I looked across the table at all the seats filled with beautiful volunteers.  Each of us, students assigned the task of interpreting feelings with the help of carefully chosen words. Like that's easy.

What are you doing here? one of the voices in my head asked.  You're not a writer.

Don't listen to her, another one replied.  Just pay attention to the exercise.  You'll do fine.

I made the mistake of looking at my phone.  I love the blinking blue light.  A text from my eldest boy!  The one who'd just about vanished for almost two years, resurfacing only several weeks ago.  A little banged up, perhaps, but remarkably intact.  I'm still thanking God around the clock.

"How is everybody?" Kirin inquired, as if he'd left that morning for the beach and absolutely no time had elapsed in his absence.

"Good.  We're all good."  I trembled when I spoke.  No one had seen him.  No address or phone number.  No social media.  "Honey, I thought you were dead."

"Aw, Mom.  I'm sorry."

"So am I.  I love you, Kirin."

"I love you, too."

What it all boils down to is love and acceptance, I suppose, in a broad and basic sense.  I can't change who he is, and he can't change me.  But the feelings are there.  We are trying a healthier approach to being in one another's lives.  And hopefully this time, we'll get it right.

Anyway, I couldn't concentrate on the poem.  My heart was so caught up in how much I love this young man.  All of them, actually.  My three sons, these promises of spring.  I stole another look at the phone.

Imagine that, I thought, Kirin is taking a shower and leaving for work in half an hour.  This is the most incredible news.

When the messages come in these days, they're still a shock.  Seemingly ordinary details are available to me once again, and they are categorically remarkable.  I tried not to seem so excited.  I wanted to jump in the air and hug everyone in the room.

I think I may have been struggling to forget him, because remembering was so painful.  I had nothing to go on.  No information.  That kind of worry is like grief, only without a body.  It's very confusing.

I hate to admit that I did the same thing to my mother.  Now I understand a little better what she must have gone through.  I found myself praying that God wouldn't make me wait as long as she had to, for me to come back around.  He answered my prayers.

*******

"Are you coming to the bus stop, Mom?" Rory asked.

Seventy five pounds of books pressed upon his firm, round shoulders, yet this child has no burdens to speak of.  His world is filled with fifth grade fun.  Hardly anything keeps him down for very long.  It's inspiring.

"Did you talk to Kirin last night?"

"No, my dear.  Maybe today."

"I can't wait to see him.  We should take him to the comic book store when he comes.  And the movies.  And the pool.  And J.J.'s for hotdogs.

"That does sound great.  I hope we can do all those things when he visits, " I said.

I only walked Kirin to school twice when he was a little boy.  Where I lived was too far, and I had no vehicle.  I leaned heavily on the excuse that I had a junkie boyfriend in my life, but I was also getting high back then.  I cared about my child very much, but he couldn't count on me.  I became an occasional visitor.  I dangled just beyond his reach, like a carnival prize of questionable value.

I thought about these memories as I finished making up my bed.  Life can be so funny and sad and wonderful and worrisome and excellent.  It's hard to make sense of things sometimes.  I keep God close, and I feel like it helps.

"I'll walk you to the bus, Rory, but only if you promise to hold my hand."

"I'll hold your hand, but only if you promise to let go at the corner."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Be Here Now


It's not like I was against abortion.  I'd already had several by the time Jason and I met.  I wasn't particularly keen on having a kid so soon, and I couldn't imagine he was either.  We'd only been together a couple of months.  But it's not like I had any other big plans clogging up my calendar.  I also think something about being married made me feel differently toward having a child.  Like maybe it would be okay.

I told Jason I'd get the situation straightened out.  You know, take a pregnancy test and inquire about my options.  But I dragged my feet.  I kept putting the appointment off, and the weeks started to add up.

I was worried about that bag of pills.  I didn't know how long drugs show up in your system or what they actually tested for at a military gynecologist's office.  I didn't want to get my new husband into any hot water.  I was afraid somebody would yell at me because I'd been careless – again.  If I asked about terminating the pregnancy, would they hassle me because I was married now?  Could they actually do that?

I didn't know if abortions were even available in Mississippi like they were back home.  In the Bronx, it seemed as though clinics were popping up everywhere.  I felt like I'd been to almost all of them.  I wasn't quite sure how things worked down south as far as these kinds of decisions went.  Or if there was even a choice.

After Jason left for school in the mornings, I lay on the mattress in the trailer.  I stared at the water stains on the ceiling, each different shape resembling a fetus. Some of them were holding hands.  I felt wetness collect in the corners of my eyes. I thought about my mother, and the tears came easily.  She was probably still really mad that I left.  I was hoping that anger might turn to worry soon.  So when I finally called the house, she wouldn't hang up on me.

I tried to guess how much it would cost to take a taxi onto the base so I could ask about an abortion.  It was unclear if the town of Biloxi even provided this amenity.  And what if the Air Force didn't allow unfamiliar vehicles onto the premises?  I'd have wasted all that money on a cab for nothing.  Maybe I could walk back.  But shit, I'd still be knocked up.

I wondered if I could convince Jason that keeping the baby wasn't such a bad idea. Babies were little, and it didn't seem like they needed much.  Diapers.  Four, maybe five outfits.  A few toys.  It'd be kinda nice to have something special to take care of.

As time went on, I got too scared to ask questions of any medical personnel.  I would be nearly four months along before I worked up the nerve to get a check-up. The nurse who did the examination read me the riot act for not coming in sooner to see the doctor.  She scolded me about the importance of pre-natal care and vitamins.  I felt my cheeks get hot with shame as I sat on the table in my paper dress.  I'd never considered the risks before.  I simply needed my mistakes erased and forgotten as quickly as possible.

For Christ's sake, I just wanted love.  Why was it always so difficult?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Everyday Is Downhill From Here


I had no idea where Mississippi was or what to expect.  I was 21 years old, and I seldom left the Bronx.

I didn't pack up my folding chairs and move to Biloxi because I thought it was a good idea, you know.  I cut out because I was scared shitless.  Once I had my own apartment, I found myself spending time with all sorts of questionable people.  I made the mistake of inviting them over, and they kept coming by.  Getting too close and staying too long.  I didn't know how to make them go away.  So I just left.

Jason was my boyfriend, and he had gone and embarked on a new adventure in the Air Force.  I don't think I was jealous, but I did feel like we should be together.  I don't recall him ever asking me to come.  I do remember me begging, though. Pleading.  And as luck would have it, he was homesick and lonely down south.  So he said okay.

I guess in the back of my mind, I hoped that leaving would get my mother's attention, as well.  If I had half a brain, I would've realized how stupid it was to think that way.  There wasn't a whole lot she could do about my lack of direction once I was gone.  She hardly ever left the Bronx either.
Jason rented us a half trailer in a mobile home park just outside Keesler Air Force Base.  Every morning, he rode his bicycle to some place where they taught him how to fix airplanes, and he was gone until evening.

Life in the trailer park was quiet during the day, except for the sound of air conditioners and the occasional crying child.  The temperature soared to a thousand degrees most afternoons.  Many of the young women who lived there had children they wanted to keep alive, so everybody stayed inside until the sun went down.

One night shortly after we moved in, a young man knocked on the side of our house.  We had few visitors.  He may very well have been the first one.

"You folks got a blow drying machine?" he asked.  "My girl's right in the middle of fixin' her hair, and ours up and died."

I thought this was a strange question, considering Jason and I both shaved our heads and had very little hair to speak of.

"Sorry, no," I told him.

I saw the same guy the following evening, tying a baby walker to the rear view mirror of his car with an extension cord.  He plopped a small child into the seat.  She toddled back and forth, while he practiced cracking a bullwhip against a tree.

"Howdy, neighbor."  He called to me and waved.

"Hi," I replied.  I went inside and locked the door.

I only met his wife one time.  She held a bag of ice to her eye as she stood on our cinderblock steps in the rain.

"You okay?" I asked.

"I suppose," she muttered.  "I'm just having some problems is all."

She asked if she could borrow some money.  I only had six dollars in the house.  I gave her five.  I never saw her or the baby again.

*******

I thought I could get a job as a secretary somewhere, but there wasn't a whole lot of business happening in our neck of the woods.  And by the looks of things in and around town, they didn't need much typing done.  We had a laundromat and a sandwich shop, where they also sold bait and cigarettes.  The folks who worked in these establishments looked like the walls were built around them when they were just children.  Before windows and the labor laws that protect children were invented.

I passed an employment agency on the way to the supermarket one day.  I went in and asked about work.  I filled out an application and handed the woman in charge a copy of my resumé.

"You ain't gonna need that," she told me.  "Alls we got here is housekeeping shifts at the Quality Inn.  Have you ever done any cleanin' before?"

"No."

"Well, you strike me as a fast learner.  And you look strong, so that's good.  The girls down there can teach you whatever it is that needs din'."

"Okay," I said.

"Can you start tomorrow?"

"Sure."

She gave me a folder stuffed with brochures and a little introduction card with the name and address of the place scribbled on it.  I headed back to the house and shared the news with Jason.

"I got a job," I told him.

"Where?"

"Some motel in Gulfport."  I handed him the paperwork.

"Mary, this place is thirteen miles away.  How're you gonna get there?"

"The lady I spoke to said there's a bus."

"What bus?"

"I don't know."

Early the next morning, I made my way down to Highway 49 and started walking along the service road parallel to the interstate.  I was roughly four miles into my journey when I came across that first bus stop.  I waited there for what seemed like forever, watching the sun crawl wearily into the sky.  I panicked and set out walking some more.

By the time I boarded the bus, I was in a pool of sweat.  When I finally arrived at my destination, I felt like throwing myself on every single one of those beds they needed help making.

My domestic colleagues did not embrace me as one of their own.  They had hard lives and big problems.  Loose teeth, mean partners and too many mouths to feed on $3.35 an hour.  None of them cared how fast I could type or what fun I was at parties.  They had shit-filled toilets to clean, bloody sheets to strip and soak in bleach.  Mirrors and bathtubs that looked like who did it and ran.

Sometimes, guests left food and drinks behind in the mini-fridge.  These items were divvied up among the team members assigned to each room.  Liquor and beer were always hot commodities.  But mostly, it was just salad dressing and hot sauce. I found a big video camera hanging off a doorknob once and turned it in at the front desk.  I didn't make any friends that day.

I never did figure out the bus schedule. I had gotten into a habit of accepting rides along the highway in the mornings.  Men in trucks on their way to all sorts of jobs up and down the coast.  Most of them were very nice.

But I did take a lift from this creepy dude who pulled his vehicle in behind the gas station and suggested we smoke a joint before he dropped me off.  He got his hands up my shirt so fast, I found myself clawing at the passenger side door like I was in a scary movie.  I ran across three parking lots and heard him laughing as he sped past.

That was the first time I'd ever been called a cunt.  It's not that big a deal, I guess. I haven't thought about that guy in years.  He's probably dead now.  Or really sick.

Needless to say, my career in the hotel industry was short-lived.

*******

Jason found out that he could get extra money every paycheck if he had a wife. Military cash benefits generally include the commissary and exchange, plus there's a stipend toward living expenses and health insurance.  It seemed too good to be true.  More money sounded like an awesome idea.  Besides, we loved each other.  So we got married.

*******

I bumped into Mr. Obert one afternoon.  He was the gentleman who owned and ran the park where we lived.  While he tinkered with a broken air conditioner on his back porch, he asked me if I had any interest in cleaning out one of the trailers that had recently been vacated.  He said he'd pay me twenty dollars.  How bad could it be?

Actually, it was pretty gross.  People can be pigs.  But I liked how much better things looked when I was finished scraping food off the stovetop and mopping out the bathroom.  I guess I did a pretty good job.  I scoured quite a few units after that.

Sometimes, folks took off in the middle of the night.  They left their clothes and shoes behind in the closet.  It made me feel awful to see deserted baby things.  I thought about all the interrupted lives.  It didn't look like they had any big plans in place.  Neither did I.  I came across some marijuana once and brought it home to Jason.

"I can't do that anymore," he said.  "I'll get in trouble."

He looked sad, and I felt even sadder.  I waited until he left for work and strolled across the street to the bait counter.  I bought some rolling papers and smoked that weed all by myself.  I spent hours petting Waffles, the little cat I'd brought with me from New York.  She hated the plane ride.  Good thing I had a little Seconal.  We both took some.

Another time, I found a huge plastic bag of blue pills stuffed in a drawer filled with abandoned pants and shirts.  They had little v's carved into the tops of them.  I kept my discovery a secret and began turning to them in the evenings while I made dinner.  I liked mixing them with beer and wine coolers.

Jason and I ate hot dogs and rice.  We sat on the edge of the bed watching MTV. Those little pills helped me relax into a relationship with my new husband. Everything was excellent until the bag was empty.

Shortly thereafter, I suspected I was pregnant.