Cover Carly Larsson
Suicide Without Dying
Socks and the City
Wendy S. Palmer
G J Johnson
Other Oceans, Other Motions
A Puma for Lucille
We’re all crammed into this tiny kitchen: Mamaw, Mom, my two aunts, and me. Mamaw stands at the stove stirring a giant pot of boiling vegetable soup, her fist on one big hip and a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth. She’s got this unspoken motto, “If it hurts, feed it,” and her frame confirms that belief. There are a lot of big-assed women in my family. I am the exception, but only because food holds no lure for me. It’s a worry to my family.
The rest of us sit around this little round kitchen table, drinking coffee and popping the last of the green beans from the garden to put up for later this fall. I’m peeling potatoes for the soup. Papaw and the menfolk, along with my boyfriend, Ricky, are squeezed into the living room watching the U of L—UK football game. The room is divided in its loyalties, so somebody will likely go home with a black eye. It’s a fracas in there.
Mamaw has been unusually quiet today, and we’re all worried sick about her. She’s having these fits of confusion. The last hospital test showed abnormalities in her brain, which we all know isn’t good. So we’re all here, and Ricky and I are coming back at the crack of dawn tomorrow to take her into Louisville to see the doctor, since he has a car, I don’t have classes till Tuesday, and everybody else has to work. It’s weird, all the quiet in the kitchen, because normally Mamaw’s the biggest talker and half the time doesn’t care who’s listening. She talks to herself like the world agrees.
Her hands are scarred from bacon grease and early years of cotton picking. Aside from the bottles of Tab stacked in the fridge, cigarettes are her biggest habit, but not because she’s addicted—she never inhales. Back in the forties some doctor told her cigarettes were good for the nerves, so she sets one between her lips when she cooks, or gives us grandkids a bath, or washes the dishes. Her head is in constant motion to keep the smoke out of her eyes. She says her nerves have been bad since her first husband, Sonny J, died suddenly after World War II. Mom and her sisters are all Sonny J’s kids, and Mamaw had three boys with her second husband, my Papaw. But this ain’t no Brady Bunch.
Today she’s been staring into the soup like it’s going to conjure something up. It’s not till Mom asks what’s on her mind that Mamaw turns and looks squint-eyed at her three daughters.
“I was reading this article the other day about ohrail sex. Now, just what is that exactly?” She picks up the half-drunk bottle of Tab from the center of the stove and takes a swig.
Even though I am almost twenty years of age, she ignores me. She thinks I’m too young to know. We stare at her in shock. First, there’s a pause as we all try to figure out what on earth she’s asking, then that aha moment where we all know exactly what she’s asking, and then we finally realize somebody has to answer. The whole thing takes less than ten seconds. Mom and her sisters exchange shocked looks. I am a breath away from a snort, but don’t want to draw attention to myself when Mom screams with laughter, grabs her crotch, and runs for the bathroom. She’s not coming back.
My face is hot. I pray Ricky doesn’t come in here to see what the ruckus is, but luckily the men are riveted to that game. If anybody in this kitchen looks at me hard, they’ll know my secret. A week ago, I had my first ever orgasm. I finally let Ricky use his tongue on me, and it’s all I’ve been thinking about. I didn’t know it would be like that, like riding a wave, not that I know anything about that since we live in a landlocked state, but I did spend some time this summer at the new swimming pool that has a wave machine over at the Marriott, so I figure that must be the sensation—free and wild, riding a forever wave. Smooth, like a good cup a coffee topped by a Reese’s peanut butter cup, so rich and sweet that you just want to wallow all up in it and never leave the ecstasy. You can lose your mind in all that goo.
I met Ricky at a bar named Bambi’s on a Sunday night, when they let underage kids in to dance. I had my eye on his friend, but Ricky kept saying, “Hey good lookin’” every time I walked past him. He convinced me to dance the last song with him, which, ironically, happened to be the Donna Summer hit “Last Dance.” Afterward, he picked me up in his arms and ran me to my car in the rain. He wouldn’t let me down until I kissed him good-bye, so I did because who wants to drive home soaking wet?
If I’m honest, the kiss wasn’t great. All that sounds romantic, but it was too rough. He called later and I agreed to go out, mostly because he makes me laugh. He’s got a mean imitation of Muhammad Ali. We’ve been together eighteen months now.
I know Ricky is hoping tonight will be the night to consummate what we started. We still haven’t gone all the way. I’m staying over at his place since we have to get up so early. Now he’s gone out and bought champagne and the Off the Wall Michael Jackson album. He likes the song “Rock with You.” It’s thoughtful, I know, but I’m nervous about all this planning. It feels like he’s lining something up, like it’s the scene of a crime instead of something that should just come natural. But what do I know?
Mamaw sits in the chair Mom left vacant and stares the other two down. She’s not talking anymore until she gets answers. Somebody is going to have to speak up and it’s not going to be me—I don’t need to add flame to this fire. She worries enough about everybody as it is. She still lines us up outside the bathroom door every Friday night after the church fish fry to dose out Milk of Magnesia by the tablespoon to six grown kids and their spouses and offspring. I hide out front in the bushes but she always finds me. If she is the wheel, we are her spokes. This woman is determined to keep us all alive.
“You read an article about what?” Sally Anne asks.
“You heard me,” Mamaw says.
Sally’s mortified. She puts her head down on the table and shakes it back and forth, one long no. She’s easy to mortify. Just say her name out loud in a crowded room and she goes all white and shaky. Mamaw says she’s like that because she’s the baby that never knew her daddy. I don’t know, I think some people are just like that.
I’m still a virgin. The oldest one I know. Here I am a sophomore in college, not a single soul in this kitchen was a virgin for as long as me. Mom got pregnant on her sixteenth birthday at the drive-in movies where Arrivederci Roma was playing. It was the first time she had sex and she got me. She tells that story like a warning. She and Dad ran off to Tennessee, where they didn’t need parental consent, and came back hitched. Mamaw and my other grandma were so mad they wouldn’t let them inside. My parents spent their first night of marriage sleeping in the car in the alleyway behind the house, Mom puking the whole time.
The only person ever to tell me what to expect about real sex was the drunk lady who lived next door. She leaned into my car one Friday night a couple of winters ago and asked what we girls were up to. There was a carload of us heading out for a cruise around McDonald’s.
“You girls had sex?” she wanted to know.
Everybody said no, but looking back I know that isn’t true except for my friend PJ, because she is the one who asked, “What’s it feel like?”
That woman laughed her horsey laugh and said, “Oh, baby girl, it hurts so good.”
Maggie, she’s the middle sister to Mom, is shocked at Mamaw’s question, like the rest of us but not for the same reason. She wants to know how Mamaw got to fifty-five years of age without knowing more about sex.
“Mom! You don’t know what oral sex is? Do you know what a blow job is?”
“Why would I ask if I knowed what it was?”
A couple of years ago, Mom, Mamaw, and me were driving to South Carolina to see my great-grandmother, Mama Gert, and I asked Mamaw if she was a virgin when she got married. Mamaw laughed. “A virgin? Hell, no!”
I could tell that really bothered Mom, who always felt bad for getting pregnant so young and then, being the first born, finds out she probably came from the same circumstance as me. At a rest stop near Maggie Valley, Mamaw went into the bathroom and I heard her giggling, but when she came out she wouldn’t tell me why. Inside the bathroom was a condom machine selling French ticklers. I heard her tell Mom she couldn’t wait to show Papaw. But nobody has ever said anything to me directly. Not about sex anyway.
I do love him. Ricky. That much I know, so I don’t know why I’ve waited. Both my aunts married at eighteen to have sex, but Maggie is the only one still married to the same man. Sally Anne is on her second marriage to a guy we all secretly call Butterball because of the shape of his head, plus he cuts up food for her. None of us knows why.
My parents finally got divorced when I was twelve, which was for the best. No more threats with the butcher knife, no more belt whuppings, no more dinner at 5:30, and no more liver and onions. Thank God! Mom’s gone through some bad spells with the bottle. Every once in a while she’ll go on a bender and me or my aunts have to go pull her out of some bar to get her home. I spent my junior and senior years living with Mamaw so Mom could get back on her feet.
In the living room somebody’s on the ten-yard line, which judging from the noise could be positive or negative depending on who you are rooting for.
Maggie starts asking basic questions like, “You know how many holes a woman’s got, right, Mom?”
Sally raises her head like it’s a pop quiz and answers, “Two!”
“Two?” I jump in. “We don’t have two holes!”
“Yes we do,” she says, like she’s the expert.
“I assure you we do not.”
“Oh really, Miss Scholarship to College? How many holes do you think we have?”
“What hole do you think babies come out of, Sally Anne?”
Sally and I have a mind-boggling fight about pee holes and their flexibility, or lack thereof, while Maggie explains to Mamaw in detail what a blowjob is. I just want Sally to shut up so I can listen. Since Mom is the oldest of all six kids, Maggie and Sally act more like my sisters than my aunts. I remember them as young and they remember me as competition.
I know Ricky wants me to give him a blowjob but I worry about gagging, plus I don’t know how clean it is. I almost did one night. I was planning to, but then he got drunk, threw a beer bottle at me, and called me a fat ass, so the mood was gone. He isn’t usually like that. His mother never once told him she loves him. I don’t know how you have a kid and not tell him you love him. I don’t care if you are an orphan with no good sense—you don’t do that. Usually he leaves me little notes everywhere telling me I’m beautiful or reminding me to have a good day. We have long talks on his front porch about our future. I imagine us in a faraway place that doesn’t have subdivisions or pickup trucks with monster wheels or cheap beer on sale for a buck twenty.
Papaw hollers out from the next room, “One of you girls bring us some beer.”
I hop up and grab a couple of six packs of Old Milwaukee from the fridge and take them into the living room, stepping over everybody to hand them off. Ricky pulls me down on his lap for a kiss. I give him a peck so as not to endure my uncle’s endless jokes. They’re like a pack of wild dogs when they get together.
“Have you told Ricky why you were nicknamed Bone Woman in high school?” my Uncle Junie Bug asks. He’s drunk again and thinks he is hilarious. I slap him on the back of the head on my way back to the kitchen, and they roar with drunken laughter until Papaw yells at them to shut up so he can hear the game.
I got that nickname because I am so tall and skinny. I struggle to eat. I’m a lot better, but there was a time it got dangerous. Food sometimes gets caught in my throat. It’s like something is wedged in there, a block or lump that won’t let the food get by. I was down to ninety-two pounds my senior year of high school which for my height, I’m five-nine, isn’t good. Everybody was up in arms, which made it worse. But Mamaw told me to ignore them, and every night she made me a hot bath and bathed me like she did when I was a child. She sat on a small white wooden child’s chair with her rump hanging off either side, her knees up against the rust-stained commode, scrubbing my body with nubby cotton washcloths till I was fresh pink. She’d always have that cigarette in her mouth, the ash growing longer and longer until I was sure it would fall into the bathwater. It never did. At the last possible moment, she’d flick it into the toilet, never missing a word in a sentence. She was hypnotic.
After, she tucked me between clean sheets and spoon-fed me whatever was left over from suppertime, mostly soft foods cut up small, things that could get past the lump. She’d sing old songs her mama sang to her, bitch about Papaw and what dumbasses men are, and talk about growing up in the low country with her sisters and Mama Gert. Always just one long stream of consciousness that, I don’t know, I always found soothing. She talked and sang, and I would eat and cry. Sometimes it would take two hours to feed me, but she would do it until I came around. Every night she told me I was her favorite but swore me to secrecy from the other grandchildren. Now I am, what they say is, on the low end of normal weight, but sometimes I still can’t help but look at myself and wonder if I am repulsive.
In the kitchen, Maggie has moved the lecture on to how a man pleases a woman.
“Do you know where your clitoris is?” she asks.
Mamaw has no idea where, or even what, a clitoris is. She didn’t even know she had one. Sally rolls her eyes and bolts to go sit with Butterball in the living room. Maggie, sitting in the chair next to Mamaw, pivots, gives a look out to the men to make sure nobody’s coming, pulls up her skirt, spreads her legs, and yanks her underwear to the side to show Mamaw this little button at the top of her vagina, just under the lips. The vulva to be precise, which is the area from the perineum to the mons pubis—I learned that much in biology. Mamaw sets down her drink and bends over to see. I’m leaning in too. I’m not gonna lie, I don’t know where mine is either. None of us has ever been shy about our parts. Mamaw doesn’t even close the bathroom door to do her business, just hollers out orders from the toilet, but Maggie takes brazen to a whole new level.
“It’s like magic, Mom. This little thing here, if you rub it long enough it gets hard and swells like a mini penis. This tiny piece of flesh holds the key to amazing!” Satisfied she has pointed it out properly, Maggie adjusts herself and proceeds to tell Mamaw she deserves more than she’s getting, tells her she doesn’t know what she’s been missing all these years and how it’s the woman’s job to teach a man how to please her. Mamaw stares at her like she’s been shown proof there are extra planets in the solar system.
They don’t know I am in the room anymore, which is fine by me. Mamaw says nothing, just lights another cigarette and goes back to the soup. I know I could ask Maggie about sex, but she’s got a big mouth and I don’t relish the aftermath. Maggie once told me she likes when her husband talks dirty to her, but he won’t do it because he finds it embarrassing. Imagine how he would feel if he knew she was spreading that around.
After that whole craziness is over, we all eat soup and cornbread and pie. When everybody leaves Ricky pulls me into the alcove off the kitchen, near the back door, and tells me he misses my smell. I start a fit of giggles.
“What’s so funny?”
“Just something Mamaw said. I’ll tell you later.”
Mamaw is an ongoing source of amusement for Ricky. Once, she told him she rubbed WD-40 on her sore knees because she heard it was good for joints—swore it helped. He tells everybody that story.
“You ready to go?”
“Let’s help clean up first.”
Ricky wipes the table and I help Mamaw with the dishes. She washes and I dry as we watch the last of the light fade over the hill out the window. Soon it will be daylight saving time again. She stares out at the cool of the day, hanging on to a clump of silverware, and when I ask if she’s all right she says wearily, “Yes, child, I’m all right,” but I know she’s lying. I catch Ricky’s eye and we finish in silence.
After, I pull him aside. “She’s not right.”
“She is awful quiet.”
“I think it’s better if I stay with her and we can be together tomorrow night. Is that okay?”
“You’re killing me, you know that?”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t know what else to do.”
I know he’s frustrated but he is good about it, and he tells me I’m worth the wait. I give him a long kiss ’cause I feel bad for him. I ask him to get my books from the dorm so I can study while Mamaw gets her tests done, and then I stand in the driveway waving until he is out of sight.
Mamaw and I have our baths after Papaw goes to bed. She lends me one of her cotton nightgowns she keeps in a suitcase under the bed. We’re sleeping in my old room because we don’t want to wake Papaw in the morning, since we’ve got to get up early for the two-hour drive to the city. I know she’s scared. I am too. I can’t imagine my life without her. Mamaw is my mainstay.
I call Ricky and say goodnight. He tells me he called my friend Anna and she dropped my books at his place, then puts in a request for hoecakes for breakfast. Mamaw never turns down a food request. I tell him they’ll be hot and ready when he gets here.
“Kinda like me right now?” he cracks.
“Yeah, like you, right now.”
“Woman, you really are torturing me.”
“Tomorrow,” I promise.
Once we’re all tucked in, Mamaw takes out her teeth and puts them in a water glass on the side table before she flips off the light. The moon shines full through the window, lighting a path to her face. I can’t be sure, but I think she’s talking to me when she says real low, “Sonny J came to me through the TV set last night, told me it’s almost my time.”
I say, “What?” and ask if she’s all right.
She looks so sad, but then she laughs and rolls toward me in the dark.
“I tell you what, I don’t think I’ll be able to look that Maggie in the eye anymore ever since she told me she does that oral sex.”
I want to tell her about the wave. “Maybe we ought to consider what she says as fact, Mamaw. I mean, what if it’s fact?”
She laughs, runs a rough hand over my head, plants a wet kiss on my face, and whispers to me like we’re sisters. “I can’t hardly even look at that thing, let alone touch it.”
I drift to sleep watching her breathe.
I don’t know what time it is when I wake but it’s dark out, still the middle of the night. No light comes from the window, only the quiet sound of a light rain. The weather has turned. When I finally adjust my eyes, I see Mamaw standing at the foot of our bed pointing a gun at the window.
Mamaw’s. Got. A gun.
It’s the family hunting rifle, and she’s pointing it toward the window next to her side of the bed. When I sit up she says low, “Somebody’s out there. I’m gonna go see who it is. You stay here and keep quiet. Don’t wake up Daddy—you’ll give him a heart attack.” Ten years ago Papaw had a bad heart attack, and now Mamaw’s really strict about sudden scares, and she’s cut the butter in her recipes by half.
In the dark I hear a light tap on the screen and someone call my name. The voice, a girl’s, is recognizable. I hop across the bed on my knees, part the curtain, and see my best friend from college, my sorority sister at Alpha Delta Pi Do or Die, Anna Banana. Banana is not her real name, obviously, but I like how it rhymes. So now she is and will always be Anna Banana to me.
I lift the window and she says quick, “You can’t be the last to know, I’m not going to let that happen.” I don’t register what she is saying because she is about to get shot. I push my head to the screen, and see Mamaw at the side door lifting the rifle.
I whisper-shout, “Don’t shoot! It’s Anna!”
Anna falls to the ground and covers her head, like that will stop a bullet.
I hear Mamaw say, “Lord, child, what you doing out here? You scared us half to death.”
Anna gets her bearings and I can see in the yellow light of the kitchen she’s upset. She keeps apologizing for waking us up, but Mamaw puts on the percolator and says, “I wasn’t sleepin’ and ain’t plannin’ on it now, so we might as well sit and hear what you got yourself in a fuss about.”
I know she wouldn’t have come all this way if something hadn’t happened.
“Just say it,” I tell her.
Anna levels me with an eye-to-eye stare. “You know the Lambda Chi’s threw a party tonight?”
“Well, Ricky was there and he left the party with a freshman girl—that redhead.”
That redhead is in the theater department. Her name is Linda or Leslie, something like that. She slept with one of the guys at the fraternity who has a girlfriend, and when the girl confronted her about it that redhead told her that her boyfriend was good in bed. She would know the difference between good and bad in bed. That redhead is making a path straight through the male population of Western Kentucky University.
Mamaw gets up, sets the gun upright in the corner, and leaves the room. When she comes back she has her purse and her coat thrown on over her gown. “Go on and get dressed. Let’s go see.”
Anna scrambles up alongside Mamaw, and together they are waiting on me to move. I pull on my jeans, and in minutes we are in Anna’s two-door green Dodge with the heat blasting, Mamaw in the backseat. As soon as we’re settled Mamaw asks Anna, “You ever hear of a glitterus?”
Anna looks at me confused and I shake my head—best not to start that.
“No, ma’am,” she tells Mamaw, “can’t say as I have.”
Mamaw gives a little harrumph like that’s all the proof she needs, and none of us say anything the whole drive to Ricky’s place. It takes about twenty minutes. He’s got a tiny one-bedroom on the main floor of an old Victorian house four streets over from my dorm. I’ve got a key.
We pull up in the alley behind the house and Anna stops the car, throws it in park, and asks, “What are you gonna do?”
The rain is really coming down now. I hadn’t even thought what to do, but Mamaw says, “Go on in there and see if he’s with that girl.”
I get out of the car and trudge around the hedges and through the wet to his bedroom window at the front of the house. I cup my hands to the glass.
I wish I couldn’t, but I see. I see what’s going on in there. I see him between the legs of the redhead. Even in the shadows I see his perfect butt. I pull away and squat in the rain with my back against the house. Somehow this is going to end up my fault.
I wrench the key out of my pocket and slip through the side door into the kitchen where it’s dark. This is the door they would have come through because Ricky hates neighbors knowing his business. His jacket and hers are thrown on the futon by the refrigerator. Her jacket, so obvious, is pink with a fur collar. A redhead with a pink coat and a fur collar is definitely advertising something. I quietly grab her jacket and am out the door. I don’t bother to pull it closed—what’s it matter? I toss it up into the chestnut tree by the driveway. It snags a good branch and hangs. They’ll find it.
I circle round back and climb into the front seat of the car, out of breath and drenched. The shiver runs deep inside me.
“He wasn’t there.”
Anna grips the steering wheel. “I saw him leave with her, Peg. I saw him!”
I shake my head and Mamaw lets out a breath.
“I’m so sorry. Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” Anna says.
I pat her knee. “It’s okay. Maybe he was just walking her home. Let’s go. Let’s just go.” The only things talking on the way back are the windshield wipers swatting at the rain.
When Anna drops us off it’s four in the morning. Mamaw lights a cigarette and makes me a hot bath, then heads to the kitchen to roll out the hoecake dough. I climb in and soak until the shiver leaves my body. By the time Ricky pulls into the driveway, the rain has turned to sleet and I am bracing for the long ride ahead.
When he comes through the door I see he’s wary, which suits me fine. He gives a “Hello, ladies” and sits down to eat. Mamaw slides a plate of food and a cup of coffee in front of him.
“Rough night?” she asks. He confesses he didn’t get much sleep. Mamaw sets a plate of food in front of me too: hoecakes with molasses and a fried cheese egg. But I can’t eat.
Papaw joins us at the table in his T-shirt and boxers, says hey to Ricky, and fixes his coffee the way he likes it—three teaspoons of sugar and some milk. He has to be at the post office in a half hour for work. “Gonna be a cold one today. You go careful on that road, son, you hear?”
“Yessir, I will. Got precious cargo.”
That’s when Papaw notices the gun propped in the corner. “Alma, why is that gun out?”
Mamaw looks at me, and I look at her. Ricky stops midbite.
“We thought we heard something outside last night.”
“Woman, wake me up when you hear things.”
“Old man, nothing you can do that we two can’t. Wasn’t nothing anyway.”
When we’re alone in the kitchen Ricky pulls me to him wanting a kiss. I duck away. He asks if I’m okay. I tell him I’m just worried about Mamaw. That’s a truth. I am worried. I’m more worried than I’ve ever been in my life.
He holds me and says, “Aw baby, everything’s going to be all right.”
I say, “Yeah, I know,” but now I’m crying. “I’m gonna sit in the backseat with her for the ride, okay?”
He wipes my face with his shirt and looks at me, searching. “No problem, honey, whatever you need. We good?”
“Yeah, we’re good.”
So this is what it looks like when two people lie to each other.
He lifts me off the ground, gives me another squeeze, and is out the side door to warm up the car.
When Mamaw comes back, I see she is having one of her spells. “Where we going, Peg?”
She hasn’t changed out of her slippers. I don’t want to embarrass her so I lead her into the living room and sit her on the couch. She’s confused and scared.
“We’re just going into Louisville to see the doctor. We’re going to get you fixed up. Okay?”
She nods. She looks so much older than fifty-five. I don’t know what that age is supposed to look like, but I am guessing it isn’t this. I change her shoes. We climb into the back of Ricky’s Buick, and I pull Mamaw’s seat belt over and click it shut.
“Radio or no radio?” Ricky asks.
I look at Mamaw, who shakes her head. I tell him we don’t care, and he puts on the country station. The car edges out the driveway as Willie Nelson serenades us with his warning to mamas about cowboys.
Just before we turn onto the freeway I reach for Mamaw’s hand and squeeze it three times—our “I love you” signal. She gives me one hard squeeze back, and we sit like that, hand in hand, all the way to the city.
Deborah Spera was recently nominated for The Montana Prize in Fiction for her story, “Alligator,” and was a finalist for the Kirkwood Literary Prize through UCLA for her story, “Ohrail Sex.” She was chosen to be a writer in residence at Hedgebrook for a book of essays entitled Mamalogues. She has had short stories published in The Wascana Review, Pennsylvania English, and the LA Yoga Times. Actors Theater of Louisville produced a musical she co-wrote a entitled On The Road To Kitty Hawk, and Samuel French has published two books of monologues she co- wrote. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children. She is working on her first novel.