Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dead Men Don't Dust

          Have you ever looked around at your home and in your closets and wondered if an investigatory team like CSI or NCIS could parse out your life based on your furnishings and clothes?  What do you mean, no?  Having recently binge-watched X-Files, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NCIS, I've been hyper-aware of how my life might look to others.  
          Before Ben and I started dating, he was hesitant to respond to my initial message as he thought I was too fancy, or high maintenance.  When we started dating, and he saw my closets for the first time, he even jokingly began to call me Imelda, as in Imelda Marcos (of the three thousand pairs of shoes).  He wasn't referring to my shoe collection, as the possessor of 'old man feet' I only have 14 pairs of shoes.  I do, however, have 37 pairs of colored chinos, in a variety of colors for all seasons.
Of course, over the past 15 months of our dating, he has witnessed and half-heartedly participated in my shopping sprees, so he has seen evidence that I am a lover of all things clearance-priced, a patron of high-end outlet malls and a skilled thrift store shopper.
          You could look at my new favorite cashmere sweater, which retails for $300, and think I either have lots of cash or lots of debt.  You wouldn't know, unless I spilled the beans, that I got it for $30 at an upscale thrift store in my little neighborhood in Long Beach.  And that's what I'm talking about.  Misinformation such as this might lead those who have been assigned to investigate my disappearance or murder down the wrong path and I couldn't share the truth as I would be dead or missing or both.  And you know I love to inadvertently solve crimes, if you've read my first book, A Gone Pecan.  
          Beyond the clearance sale luxury goods, other appearances can be deceiving.  My home appears unlived in most of the time, because I straighten as I go.  My landlord uses my apartment as the model she shows to prospective tenants as my décor is stylish and my home always tidy.  Everything is in its place and decorated to the Nth degree.  Sister Parish (famed interior designer) once said, "Behind every attractive room has to be a very good reason."  My reason is an unending need to be surrounded by bold, tasteful, erudite awesomeness.  
          However, as Ben (now my fiancé) will tell you, as he does each and every weekend, "BooBoo (my nom de amor), your house is so fancy, why is it that you do not dust?"
          Yes, it's true  I don't dust as much as I should.  If you were to glance about you might notice layers of me, covered in layers of me as everyone knows dust is but the remnants of your own dead skin.  It's science, y'all, it's supposed to be gross.
          I will share with you a mélange of house-cleaning conversations 'twixt my Benjy and me:
          Ben: BooBoo, why is it dusty in your living room?
          Me:  I stopped the cleaning lady from coming over.
          B:  Why?
          M:  I should be able to clean my own apartment.
          B:  Yes, you should.
          M:  But I don't want to.
          B:  But you can afford it.
          M:  I'm trying not to waste money.  We have a wedding to plan.
          B:  It's not a waste of money, it's a service.
          M: I just wish I could save money and have my apartment cleaned by someone else.
          B:  You could drink less Starbucks Iced Tea, to save money.
          M:  That's crazy talk!
          B:  So, clean your apartment.
          M:  You make it sound so simple.
          B:  It is, really.
          M:  I know.  That's what so annoying.
          B:  When I move in, I will help clean.
          M:  You'll dust?
          B:  No, I will mop the kitchen and clean the bathroom.  They need attention as well.
          M:  In my defense, my bed is made every morning, like clockwork.
          B:  It should be.
          M:  Don't I get credit for that?
          B:  You want me to praise you for doing something you're supposed to do?
          M:  Yes.  Yes, I do.
          B:  I will not.
          M: I guess I'll get to dusting.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Is 'Shame' a Setting on Your Microwave?

                I recently became aware of a peculiarity of mine.  I never really paid attention to this little quirk, but now I am cognizant and since we’re friends, I feel it bears discussion.  My shameful secret?  I always stop the microwave at one second; I don’t let it complete the cycle.  I don’t relish the ‘ding’, y’all.  As someone who is always curious about why people do the odd things they do, I had to do a little investigation of myself, thinking back to where and when it all started.

                My family bought our first microwave in 1979, when we lived in Tallulah, Louisiana, in the two-story house directly behind the post office.  It was an old, historical house, but my mother was determined to have a modern kitchen.  She bought a combination stove/oven/microwave unit from Amana, I think.  The stovetop was ceramic and would instantly heat up.  The microwave was affixed to the top and it was huge.  You, literally, could have cooked a full-size turkey, if so inclined.

                We didn’t know how to use it.  For most of the first year, we only melted cheese with it; onto baloney or into sliced wienies, depending upon the preparer’s preferences.  We actually called it a “Cheese Melter”.  My classmates in Mrs. Green’s Fourth Grade Class at Tallulah Academy can attest to my bragging about the giant appliance purchased to melt cheese quickly.  I thought we were so fancy.

                When Christmas rolled around, we bought my mother a microwave cookbook at the S&H Green Stamp store with the stamps we had been collecting at the A&P Grocery Store all year.  With cookbook in hand, my mother began to experiment.  Grits, soups and warmed up leftovers were successes; turkeys and cakes were revolting failures.  However, I couldn’t remember having any ding-averse motivations as a child.  The ding was actually a welcome sound – it meant it was time to eat.  It was the 20th century equivalent of the dinner bell or dinner gong, if you were British and had a butler.

                Surprisingly, I still have my mother’s microwave cooking set, with two pieces I have never used, both cake-related (bundt and cup, to be specific).  I typically only use the large dutch oven to make haystacks at Christmas or queso when the mood strikes, which is about twice a year; more often and I’d be quite a bit chubbier than I am.  And then it hit me.  The reason I avoid the ding is shame. 

                I was always a chubby child, but never actually fat.  The reason was my food intake was monitored by my mother (to ensure a healthy diet) and my sister (to ensure equal distribution, mostly related to Nacho Cheese Doritos).  When I was in high school in Tylertown, Mississippi, and I was actually allowed to go ‘to town’ and participate in (mostly innocent) night-time activities that caused me to get home late, awake long after my family had gone to bed, I began to sneak snacks.  A ding at midnight would have been the clarion call of gluttony; Dusty was violating scripture by eating something outside of approved meals and snacks, knowing full well that I had already eaten something at The Sonic that, at minimum, had included a large order of tater tots and a Cherry Dr. Pepper.

                If I was ninja-like in my reflexes, I could slip into the kitchen, nuke some vittles, stop the process pre-ding and slip away in the dark to my bedroom to savor my ill-gotten gains, enrobed in darkness, hidden from judging eyes.  I guess I thought Jesus had poor vision at night.  It was a nefarious activity, on par with surreptitiously watching Cinemax After Dark or USA’s Up All Night movies.

                For some reason this habit stuck with me through college and into adulthood, even now as I am chasing 48 like it robbed me at the outlet mall.  And that got me thinking they should re-design microwaves, adding a ‘Shame’ setting next to ‘Popcorn’ that gives no notification when the cycle is finished, knowing the intended recipient of the covertly reheated casserole has not left his or her post, impatiently staring, practically stalking their twirling tacos and pirouetting pizza slices like Jack McFarland stalks Kevin Bacon. 

                Ooh, maybe I should go on Shark Tank to tout my idea.  This screams “America”, am I right?

Friday, February 23, 2018

I Got (Sorta) Kidnapped Once

            I remember most everything.  I can describe in detail events from my childhood and teens, college and graduate school.  I can give you details such as who was there, what they said, even what they wore.  I remember minutiae that most people overlook or have long forgotten. 

            My junior year in college, I was working the front desk of the men’s dorm, Fraser Hall, at Mississippi University for Women and received a phone call from a friend of mine named Marcy.  Marcy told me there was a young lady, I truly can’t remember her name, who had supposedly met me at a party and wanted to go on a date.  I asked her to repeat the name and coming up blank, asked her to describe her.  When I still couldn’t remember, I asked which party (off-campus fraternity party), location (the home of my fraternity little brother’s biological big sister) and day of the week (Saturday) as there were many parties to attend in my very active social life.  Still, nothing.

Despite the fact that I was stone-cold sober at all frat parties (I was never one to drink anything stronger than Mello Yello), I was unable to recall this person in any detail.  However, as I was single, I was happy to accept this dating invitation by proxy.

On the night of the date, I was asked to pick up this young lady at her home.  When she opened the door, I had literally no recollection of having seen this person at any point in my life.  She wasn’t even someone I vaguely remembered as a peripheral person in one of my classes on campus.  I said 'Hello' with as much familiarity as is possible when talking to a total stranger.  I then met said stranger’s parents.

Not wanting the night to be awkward, I never mentioned that I had no idea who she was, but she apparently knew me in some detail.  She knew my fraternity, friends, activities, hang-outs, etc.  It was so flattering that I didn’t question the level of staler-esque detail she had about your dear narrator.  The date was as enjoyable as one can be between complete strangers and I took her home after dinner and a movie.  I don’t remember which one.  Sleeping with the Enemy, perhaps?

I didn’t call her after that as the date was weird and awkward.  As far as I was concerned, we were done as a couple.  About three days later, she called me and wanted to stop by the dorm to give me a surprise.  I was cautious but curious as she had mentioned homemade cookies.   

I met her in front of the dorm, where she invited me into her car to get the cookies.  Naively, I got into the car.  I mean, there were homemade cookies.  My stomach is stupidly trusting, y’all.    

So, yeah, she kidnapped me. 

I mean, I got away, but it was still weird. 

Oh, and the cookies were yummy.

Yes, I ate them.

What?  It was free cookies.
I have always had my priorities straight.  Just saying.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

God, and Queen, may be skittish

               I grew up a Southern Baptist and an unabashed Anglophile.  These may sound like mutually exclusive interests but as I’ve been watching Season 2 of both The Crown and Victoria, I realized there are many commonalities amongst Baptists (in church) and British (in the Peerage), the most interesting being the apparent belief that God and royalty (be they King, Queen, Prince, Princess) are on edge and, therefore, one must not make sudden moves or appear to enjoy oneself in their house and/or presence.

                Southern Baptists, at least those of my youth and young adulthood, show no demonstrable joy while inside the church; not clapping, not movement other than mouths to sing, no hands lifted.  It felt somewhat somber, but more formal, as you are required to wear dark clothes, remember obscure rules concerning proper conduct, always nervous to have a misstep, as it could result in unbelievable and often creative punishments.  Not unlike being in a judicial court, except you had no lawyer in church unless you count the preacher as a sort of intermediary; an intercessor, if you will. 

Of course, Baptists believe we can talk to Jesus directly should we desire.  To be honest, I was always afraid I’d misspeak and the “Angry God” (introduced by British Colonial Theologian, Jonathan Edwards) would smite me.  At least Catholics are lucky enough to have the Mama of Jesus to request an intervention or whatever was deemed necessary.  As a note: Baptists are fond of , but do not pray to, Mary.   

Comedian Eddie Izzard is famous for talking about the Anglican Church, or the Church of England; a denomination created by Henry VIII, so he could divorce and marry another of the women unfortunate enough to have wandered into his orbit; an inauspicious origin to a church where Queen Elizabeth is the head and the American arm (Episcopalians) are typically the well-to-do in the cities and towns where they congregate.   That is to say, it's a pretty sketchy start to a very fancy group.

In his routine, Mr. Izzard talks about the marked lack of happiness when singing songs of faith and miracles and hope.  Now, Southern Baptists aren’t mournful in church.  They are more reserved than anything else, especially when it comes to the practice of clapping.  Old Guard Southern Baptists do not clap at any point during the worship service, unless there are children who are singing in a special performance.  They, and only they, receive applause, and even then, it is restrained to the point that the allotted “Amen” from the Chairman of the Deacons, could easily drown it out, depending on whether or not the battery in his hearing aid is working. 

Even though I have been singing in church pretty much since I broke forth into this world, I never received applause after a performance, between the ages of seven and twenty-nine.  The first time, as an adult, that people clapped after I sang, it caught me off-guard and I will admit that I flinched and looked confused; skittish, I suppose, if you had to assign a word.

When I was in high school, we attended a very small church outside a very small town in Mississippi.  There were 50-60 attendees on a regular Sunday, as many as 80 if there was a dinner on the grounds.  The youth group was small (my sister and two cousins comprising a good 40%) and the activities were few and far between.  I was resigned to this fate as we lived only a few miles from the church itself.  However, my senior year, we moved into town and lived only three blocks from the very large and very active First Baptist Church.

There were so many activities and so many young people in their youth group that I desperately wanted to be a part.  When I spoke to my mother about a trial run at the new church, if not for the whole family, at least maybe for me, I was told in no uncertain terms, “We are not shopping for a new church.”

                I responded, “But our church is boring…and small.  First Baptist is much more fun.”

                “We don’t go to church to have fun,” she replied in a very British way, except with a Southern accent, like if Queen Elizabeth had graduated from Ole Miss.  She couldn’t have sounded more Anglican if she had added, “It’s just not what we do; it's not who we are.”

                I attended my sister’s little Baptist Church in Texas over Christmas and I must tell you, the sense of déjà vu was strong.  The floor plan was so similar that I was able to find the restrooms without assistance, and even though I found a used adult diaper lying in the middle of the floor of the men’s room, which I then had to dispose of lest someone think it was mine, it didn’t dampen the nostalgia. 

                While I prefer the TV-version of Anglican services (morning coats, fascinators, the random minor royal), I did enjoy the comfortable familiarity of a Baptist service, with the men and boys wearing starched jeans, the women in their turquoise jewelry and outfits from Dillard’s and little girls with bows as big, if not bigger, than their heads.  Of course, the only difference between me as a teen and me as an adult was the fact that I was wearing plaid pants and sitting between my sister and my Filipino boyfriend.  As there were no strange looks or sharp intakes of breath when we entered, my guess is they assumed he was a foreign exchange student.

                And, true to form, we didn’t clap at any time during the Christmas service.  No need to startle Jesus on His birthday, I suppose.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Watergate Salad

                Being 27 and single in a Southern Baptist Church leaves you in a nebulous category unmet by the confines of Sunday School offerings.  I’m too old to feel a connection with the other members of the College and Career class, as it is more college than career; most people my age are married and in the Young Couple’s class.  I’m far too young to really fit in with what I call the Old Man class as they are, at the youngest, in their early 60s.  I am theoretically an outcast.  I could teach a class of junior high or high school boys, but what am I going to teach someone about Jesus, having only truly given my life to Christ in the last year.  I was baptized in 4th grade, but only out of fear, when my church watched the end-times movie, Like a Thief in the Night.  I suppose I could fake it, but I don’t think that’s a great premise to share the love of God, do you?

                I attend Parkview Baptist Church and I am a full-fledged member of the Adult Choir.  I sing tenor, if that’s important for you to know.  I am the only member of the choir who is under the age of 50, apart from Christine Holly, a single young lady who shares an adjacent age bracket, which is uncommon here in Whispering Pines, Mississippi, about 20 minutes west of Hattiesburg.  Parkview was aptly named 50 years ago when there was a park to view.  These days there is only a view of the grocery store in the shopping center, but we keep the name as apparently Piggily Wiggily Baptist Church would be a trademark infringement.

                I mention Ms. Holly not solely because she is the only other junior vocalist in the choir; she is also the reason I am in the situation I currently find myself, which is a food crisis.  Ms. Holly is 25, having just completed her reign as Miss Perry County after a Top Ten placement at the Miss Mississippi Pageant last summer.  A talented vocalist, she and I frequently find ourselves partnered, especially at Christmas, being the only two young enough to convincingly portray Mary and Joseph in the duet, Breath of Heaven. 

                We often joke about being the 'babies' of the choir when we share coffee after practice at the little café across the street from the church.  I would love to share dinner or a movie or anything that would move me from ‘choir buddy’ to ‘boyfriend’ but it seems Christine doesn’t have eyes for me.  Or at least she doesn’t seem to; I’m not good at reading those things.  My mother always said I was handsome, but I’m thinking she was biased.  I once asked my older brother, Ethan, if I was good-looking and he only laughed and said, “Not as good looking as me.”  

                In an effort to appear more adult-like, I signed up to bring a homemade dessert to the potluck at church.  It seems like a line to cross from young person to adult; bringing food instead of just eating it.  I don’t want to be the one who never brings anything.  People will talk about you.  I don’t know if that will make a difference to Christine, but it’s worth a try.  And it has to be homemade.  Even bachelor’s can’t get away with bringing something store-bought to a potluck.  It’s just not done, at least not a Baptist Church.  I tried to think of something that would be delicious and easy and impressive, and I remembered my mother used to take Watergate Salad and it was a fairly simple recipe and included pecans, the most grown-up of the nut family. I wrote it on the sign-up sheet and my choice was blessed by Ms. Leotha, after she quizzed me on the origin of the recipe.  She seemed comforted to know it was from a good old Southern Baptist family. 

                Some people call this recipe Pistachio Salad, but most know it by its scandal-adjacent nickname, Watergate Salad, possibly because it was invented during the winddown of Nixon’s Presidency.  There are only a few ingredients including pistachio pudding, cool whip, pineapple and pecans.  Should be a breeze to make, even though I don’t have a recipe card in front of me.  I mean, how hard could it be?

                I go to the Piggily Wiggily and buy the ingredients and remain loyal to this recipe even though I discover pecans are really expensive.  Well, expensive to me.  I’m just starting out my career and am working as a clerk in Human Resources at the hospital.  It’s a great first job but the pay isn’t great, so I must be on a budget even though Mississippi isn’t an overly expensive state.  I set about to make the dessert, so it can refrigerate overnight as my mother did.

                After I made the pudding (per the directions on the box) and added the rest of the ingredients, I noticed something was wrong.  It looked…off.  It wasn’t fluffy and light.  It looked like green pudding with fruits and nuts; a weird unappetizing green.  This would not pass muster with Ms. Leotha, much less Ms. Minnie or any of the other members of the Hospitality Committee. 

                My mother served on the Hospitality Committee, too, and it was her I needed to call to see what was wrong.  I reached for the phone and realized I couldn’t call her; she’s been gone for almost three years.  She died at 54, way too young and it hasn’t quite registered.  I wonder if it ever will.  Every couple of weeks I need to talk to her and I reach for the phone and then realize what I’m doing.  I upsets me and embarrasses me, and I usually end up calling my sister-in-law Michelle instead.  She was close to my mother and it sometimes feels like I’m talking to my mom when I talk to her.

                Needing some cooking advice, I go ahead and call Michelle.  When my mother died, Michelle got her recipe box as she was the only female on our side, sons being the mark of the Fortenberry family.  I figured if anyone could help me with a recipe, even from five hours away in Columbus, it would be Michelle.  She and I have been friends longer than she and my brother, Ethan, have been together as I met her one night at a fraternity party at Ole Miss and I introduced them the next morning at breakfast.

                Michelle and my mother were like partners in crime; both loved Jesus, coffee and chocolate, in that order.  People sometimes ask how they were so close, as Michelle is somewhat liberal, and my mother was so conservative.  One thing people don’t realize is my mother was, in all actuality, and not for political advancement, a compassionate conservative.  She truly loved people; she didn’t get into the specifics of their lifestyle.  She always said, “That’s between them and Jesus.  We’re supposed to love everyone.”  In the early 80s, when Evangelicals abandoned the Democratic Party to support Reagan and never returned, she remained a staunch Democrat the rest of her life.  The only time she was even remotely judgmental was when it came to food, especially food that would be on display at a Baptist Church potluck, the religious equivalent of a trial by jury; not twelve angry men but twelve experienced and opinionated women, blessed by the Lord with culinary prowess.

                My mother was one of the anointed.  I know this because she was allowed to bring an entrée if she desired.  Not just anyone can do that, particularly if you have one of the Deacons who is skilled at roasting or grilling a variety of animals; vegetarians, Baptists are not.  And there is a hierarchy that plays into who can bring what and you must pass muster, or you will be denied.  Those who in the highest rankings get first right of refusal.  They are either known for their particular item (Andrea O’Quinn’s rolls, Linda Bell Moore’s broccoli casserole or Mary Nell Herrington’s potato salad) or have the ranking to bring what they want, or even, in a rare and shocking show of power, bring nothing at all. 

My mother was famous for side dishes and desserts as she was not inclined to put as much money and time into an entrée, unless it was a quick, inexpensive casserole.  When you have a reputation, people ask specifically for your dish and depending on their rank, they get what they want.  My mother’s Watergate Salad was always on the list as Fred Rushing, Chair of the Deacons, was a huge fan.  Mother always took him a small bowl to take home, just for him.  She always told him with a grin that he didn’t have to share it with anyone, even his wife, Ruth Ellen. 

                Anyone new and untested was asked to bring drinks or store-bought rolls, which is the only acceptable store-bought item besides napkins.  May God truly bless your heathen heart if you bring store-bought cookies, which will be served only to the children and only after a series of head shakes and tsk-tsking has taken place.  That I was allowed to bring a dessert was a sign that either (1) they were much more liberal here in Shady Elms or (2) they assumed an unmarried man would bring store-bought cookies, which would save them the judgment as men in the Baptist Church are usually offered a full portion of grace when it comes to such things.  However, I was determined to impress everyone, most especially the lovely, angelic Christine.  If I didn’t shame myself or my family, the Hostess Committee would tell ever single female in the church what a catch I was, and this sort of divine intervention would be more than welcomed.  

                It’s not my goal to have Trey Fortenberry’s Watergate Salad always expected at future potlucks.  I just want to show I can take care of myself and, possibly, someone else. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but I’m hoping it’s the same for a woman.  Christine doesn’t strike me as the type who has any inclination to cook.  This will show her she doesn’t have to worry about that with me around.  Time to consult those in the know.

                When Michelle answered the phone, I asked if she had ever made Watergate Salad and she admitted she hadn’t, but said she thought she had my mother’s recipe card.  We chatted while she looked for it and when she found it, she read the instructions out loud and we both laughed when we realized I was supposed to sprinkle the dry pudding mix on the Cool Whip instead of actually making the pudding.  I winced at my mistake thinking about how much it was going to cost to but more pecans. 

                I told Michelle, “I feel so stupid for making that mistake.  I don’t want to bring shame on the Fortenberry name.”

                Michelle just laughed and said, “Your mother always told me if I made a mistake in a recipe and it was still edible and not embarrassing that I should just tell anyone who asks that it’s an old family recipe.”

                “Really?” I said, not quite believing my mother would have said that.

                “Yes.  As long as it’s delicious, it won’t (she laughed) bring shame on the family.”

                “I find it hard to believe mistakes can be yummy.”

                “Do you like my banana pudding?”

                “Well, yeah.  It’s the best I’ve ever had,” I said, hastily adding, “Don’t tell Aunt Angie.”

                “Well, it was a mistake.  I accidentally added sour cream instead of Cool Whip, way back before Ethan and I got married.”

                “Really?  It’s so delicious.”

                “Yes, it is,” she laughed.  “Your mother said to pretend it was an old family recipe from North Mississippi.”

                “Well, then I’ll just take what I made.”

                Michelle laughed and said, “Oh no, what you described sounds awful.  Don’t shame the family.”

                I’m headed back to the Piggily Wiggily now for more pecans.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Say a prayer if you think it’ll help.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Smoke and Memories

                It's interesting how the random presence of cigarette smoke can evoke a memory, an emotion, and transport you to a place in your childhood in such a quick manner.

                I left the front gate of my apartment complex headed the one block separating my home from the beach.  I take a nightly jaunt to ensure my 10,000 pledged steps on my Fitbit, so I can remain honest in my bedtime text to Ben, who asks each day, “How many steps Booboo?”  He calls me BooBoo for reasons neither of us can remember but he asks me about my steps because I told him I am naturally lazy, but can be shamed into exercise simply through a daily inquiry.  It is a promise he made and keeps.

                As I exited, I walked past the maintenance man who was finishing his cigarette, one of the few remaining Californians who continue the habit, and the smell of smoke immediately took me to a motel room in Opelousas, Louisiana, in the summer of 1979.  I assure you, it was nothing seedy; I was eight years-old at the time.  My Dad was working as a rig welder for Tiger Drilling and we (mother, sister, brother, dog) went down to visit him for the summer, back when school children actually got three full months off from school.  He had been staying at the Polka Dot Inn and it was as interesting as you would imagine something with that name would be.

                As he was, at that time, a two-pack a day smoker and, as he remains to this day, someone not known for his cleanliness, the room reeked of stale cigarettes, empty fried chicken containers and, well, loneliness.  My mother did her best to air out the room, but we spent much of the first day at the pool, like you do when you are a pre-teen with no exposure to water other than through a garden hose, a ditch or in a bathtub.  When we made it back to the room to get ready for supper, it smelled very strongly of bleach and Charlie, the fragrance I had saved my allowance to buy my mother for Mother’s Day.  I chose it because I liked the fact that the woman in the commercial was young like my mother, beautiful like my mother and wore pants like my mother.

                By the end of the week, my mother had apparently had all of the Polka Dot Inn she could handle and rented a house for the rest of the summer.  Well, not so much a house as a trailer at Thibodeaux’s Trailer Park, but a nice one with brown leather couches and a pool at the house next door.  The neighbors, with the pool, had a son named Chance and all I remember about him was he let us swim in his pool and once, when he threw a rubber snake into the pool near my sister, she made him get out of the pool and sit and watch us while we swam as she found no humor in his prank.  I don’t blame him for obeying her.  She was almost as tall as my mother even though she was only 11 years-old.  To this day, she is deathly afraid of snakes.  She’s probably mad right now that she just read the word ‘snake’ and if she is reading it on her phone, she probably just threw it.  I promise to tell you if she calls me tomorrow to complain.

                My mother is a great cook and she made meals from scratch most every night, except Fridays.  That was the only day my Dad was able to come home and eat dinner with us and we would either go to a restaurant in Lafayette that served crawfish six or seven different ways, or we would go to the Dairy Bar next to the trailer park where they served pork chop sandwiches, which were simply fried porkchops on white bread.  Delicious!

                The trailer was always happy, just like every space my mother inhabited, and it never smelled of cigarette smoke or burned welding rods as my mother would have my Dad take off his shirt and boots outside and immediately shower when he came home.  He was not allowed to smoke in the trailer, either.  Only outside.  And he never complained; he seemed happy just to have us there.  He typically worked three weeks and was home for a week.  So, seeing us every night, even if we didn’t eat supper at the same time, seemed to brighten his mood.  He wasn’t known for smiling much, but he would each time my mother walked in the room.  He’d grin really big and call her Mama, just like we used to do until she asked us to call her Mother; she liked the sound of it better, I guess.  He loved us and was happy to see us, but he never looked at us with a smile as big as the ones he had when she walked into the room.    

                My mother could usually get my father in good mood, a feat considering his normal personality was grumpy, manifesting as alternately sleepy (from 16-hour shifts), hungry (which was most of the time) and constantly searching for chores for us (mostly me as the oldest son, my younger brother a mere four years-old at the time).  Idle children are one of my Dad’s biggest pet peeves, right along with preachers who smile too much, boys who don’t play football and the smell of Green Apple Jolly Ranchers.  I can only imagine what it would be like to work for him.  I know I didn’t enjoy it, although an employee I was not, as no money was earned; indentured servant would be a more apt description.  I'm not being melodramatic.  "Did you eat?  Did you pay the light bill?", was the response from my father when I ventured to inquire about the idea of being paid for mowing the yard.

When my mother wasn’t around, and he was left to his own devices, it seems the cleanliness stopped, the home-cooked food ceased, and the smell of cigarettes returned.  I don’t know if he just didn’t care that it smelled or that he needed something to fill the space she (and we) left, but whenever I smell cigarettes, my immediate response is melancholy, with the urge to call my Dad, who is at this very minute filled with his version of loneliness, which includes living with his youngest son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.  It seems the only thing that made him happy left us almost eighteen years ago and he wears his suffering as a badge of honor.

Monday, November 13, 2017

When a Belle Robs a Bank

                My son Spencer likes to compare me to Sally Fields’s character, M’Lynne (from Steel Magnolias).  All Southern women have a little bit of each of the characters deep inside, even ornery ol’ Ouiser, but out of the cast, I suppose I am most like resilient and calm, M’Lynne, with one notable exception.  My hair is not a brown football helmet; it is ash blonde, courtesy of Miss Clairol every three months or so.  I can’t afford to go to the beauty shop for anything other than a basic cut these days.  Since my husband, Mac, hurt his back working on an off-shore oil rig, our finances have been tighter than normal, and they weren’t very loose in the best of times.  Those who used to live smack dab in the middle of middle class, is now, in 1993, now reside in the upper reaches of the lower class.  Fortunately, we live in a small southwest Mississippi town where few are visibly wealthy, and people are more apt to not treat you any differently if you seem ‘not poor’.

                We are what I call ‘well’; well-spoken, well-fed and well-dressed, in the sense we are always clean and pressed.  No one really knows we have money issues, except the bank, our landlord, the Treasurer at First Baptist Church (who sees our tithe check) and the secretary at the school where Spencer and Olivia, my youngest daughter, secretly eat reduced-rate lunches.  By secretly I mean, their weekly lunch cards look just like everyone else’s.  My oldest daughter, Catherine, refuses to eat lunch in the cafeteria; instead she uses the money she earns from her part-time job at Prenson’s, the only clothing store in our town of less than 2,500.  Catherine, not a big eater to begin with, subsists on Doritos and Diet Sprite because, and I quote, “Only children and dorks eat in the cafeteria.”  And, yes, she means Spencer is a dork, at least in her world, where the only people that matter are, sometimes me and Jesus, but mostly only her best friend Claire and boyfriend Joel.

                As both Catherine and Spencer are in high school (Senior and Sophomore, respectively) they are unfortunately very aware of our reduced finances and dealing with it as best they can.  Children shouldn’t have to worry about money and Mac and I try to keep it from them but there are only so many times you can hear, “We can’t afford that” before you realize something has changed.  This couldn’t have come at a worse time as Senior Years are expensive and Spencer, my little genius, keeps getting academic awards and invitations to pre-college programs and these require, at the very least, travel and money for food.  It costs money to be that smart and most honor students are from wealthier families, at the very least middle class.  I’ll be the first to admit a welder and a homemaker who didn’t finish college aren’t typically the parents of someone invited to take college courses while a sophomore in high school.

                This is where I find myself today, a reliably normal Wednesday, but normal only in the sense that in our town everything closes at noon on Wednesday, so people can attend night services at church.  I am unsure of the percentage that actually does this, but it is a tradition and we will stick by a tradition whether it makes sense or not.  I have to figure out how to pay for this program at Mississippi State University to which Spencer has been invited; Mac calls it a 'Smart Kid Camp'.  Even though he received a partial scholarship due to his grades and extracurricular activities, we still have to pay for room and board as he will live in the dorm in Starkville for eight weeks and that is around $500, a lot of money in 1993.  My excitement for him has been tempered by the knot in my stomach that any talk of money continuously tightens.  Spencer didn’t want to tell me he got accepted but he was too excited.  When he did tell me, the look on his face was painful to see; like he was waiting for me to dash his hopes and tell him we couldn’t afford it.

                I’m a Christian and I pray every day and I know God provides for our needs but it’s something I struggle with especially since Mac is pessimistic and angry at our circumstances and blames himself and even God.  Trying to keep him on an even keel and putting on a smile for the kids saps my energy and normally optimistic outlook, leaving me with a lessened faith.  As my Daddy would say, “It’s hard to put lipstick on a pig”, but I am as determined as a Mary Kay consultant trying to get her pink Cadillac.  That pig will wear this lipstick, voluntarily or otherwise; not unlike my tomboyish cousin Willadean on her wedding day.  I told Spencer his Daddy and I would take care of it, telling God in the same breath, “You’re up!”

                Mac and I discussed the situation, behind the closed door of our bedroom, and decided we would have to go to the bank to ask for a small loan.  Even though I wasn’t experienced in doing this, we agreed I would handle the possibility of a “No” better than Mac, who might revert to his heathen ways and try to fight someone.  With his back injury, his bark is definitely worse than his bite, but that bark might make you hurt yourself trying to get away.  Mac is scary to other people, but I know how to handle him.  I have the gift of 20 year’s practice and the knowledge that he loves me and would never hurt me.  I said a prayer, got in the car and drove to Magnolia Savings and Loan, where we bank.  Even in a town of less than 3,000, there are multiple banking options.  Besides Magnolia Savings, we have Walker County Credit Union and Merchant’s & Farmer’s Bank, which is one more finance option than we have for food.  Sonic and Sharla’s Burger Barn are the only places to eat in this town, unless you count the truck stop or the Kwik Mart, which I most certainly do not.  I will admit to eating my fair share of Frito Pies from the concession stand at the football field, but we're getting off track.
               I don’t remember why we picked Magnolia Savings when we moved here 15 years ago, but we did, and we have stuck with them.  Even though we have been in town for 15 years, we are still considered ‘new people’; more a part of the community than actual new people, but still considered ‘not from here’, which doesn’t help the situation.  Family histories, like credit histories, are long and permanent here in the South, and both of ours are populated with embarrassing stories and mistakes that are difficult to overcome.

                I knew this as I headed to keep my 10:30 appointment with Doyle Vanderlin, the loan officer at Magnolia Savings.  I don’t know him well as he attends the Methodist Church and we are Baptists from way back.  It’s not that Baptists and Methodists don’t socialize, but we truly don’t, as a rule.  So much of our free time is involved in church-related activities, outside of sports and the occasional event like Homecoming or Christmas parade, we tend to cluster in our respective religious circles.  That may be a metaphor for something; what it would be, I can’t begin to tell you.  It shouldn’t make a difference but when you have a connection, some commonality with another person, it’s easier to ask for help.  Then it’s more a favor than a handout.  It takes the stress out of it, or at least reduces it.  Anything related to money or credit scores, in the last few years since Mac got hurt, has induced anxiety.  And, yes, I know stress supposedly means a lack of faith in God but I’m not perfect, so I do worry.  This is an important event in Spencer’s life.  It could possibly alter his future.  He deserves to enjoy the results of his talent and hard work, doesn’t he?  He’s already had so many money-related disappointments.  I have to do this for him. 

                As I walk into the bank, I hope I’ve hedged my bets and Mr. Vanderlin will be right in the middle of the shortened work day; not sleepy at 8 when the bank opened but also not ready to leave around 11:30, right before they close.  I’m not scared or nervous, really, just apprehensive.  I guess that’s roughly the same thing, but I just want everything to go well, which is a hope more than a fear, so that’s different, right?

                I say a quick ‘Hello!’ to Audrey O’Quinn, who is one of the tellers and in my Sunday School class at First Baptist.  She is one of the sweetest ladies and her 1,000-watt smile gave my attitude and outlook a boost.  Audrey is such a kind soul, five feet and ten inches of Jesus coming at you, typically armed with a hug and smelling of fresh-baked goodies, from her perfume, Vanilla Fields.  I was so uplifted I was able to smile at Ramonica Dalley, who work for Mr. Vanderlin and is the only unpleasant Pentecostal I have ever met.  Pentecostals are usually the kindest people this side of the Amish and I always assumed they were happy because they were ‘God’s Chosen People’ (according to their church sign).  Ramonica, on the other hand, is the exception.  When she says, ‘God Bless You’ it sounds like a stranger begrudgingly interacting with a homeless person after a sneeze.  I braced myself as I approached her desk, about ten feet from Mr. Vanderlin’s door, not remembering if she was a Secretary or Assistant or whatever people call themselves these days.  The last time I worked in an office was in 1971, right after Mac and I got married and I was a stenographer at the Courthouse in West Carroll Parish in Northeast Louisiana, right across the river from Vicksburg.

                I smiled my sweetest smile and said, “Good Morning, Ramonica.  How are you?”

   “Well, hello to you, Mary Ellen McAdams,” she said with the formality of a judge or substitute teacher, with no prior knowledge of who I am, as if she only knows my name from Mr. Vanderlin’s appointment calendar.  I can’t count the number of times we’ve bought meat from her husband’s butcher shop near our house.  I mean, I turn down Butch Dalley Road on the way to town, literally every day.  It’s named after her husband, a fixture in our community.  Unnamed or numbered roads were named after the most important or longest-living residents in small Southern towns, once they instituted the 9-1-1 system, in the late 80s.  It is a testament to our limited means and lack of local family history that we now live on Travis Fairchild Road.  If they had named it Mac McAdams Road, most people from around here would have said, “Who?”  Well known we are not.  But it's 1993, and the South remains the South at least in our little corner of the Bible Belt.  While we are not exactly sitting on the buckle, we are at least in the vicinity of the first belt loop, responsible for holding up those Christian pants ensuring nothing untoward happens on our watch.

                Looking away from me and back at her typewriter, Ramonica said flatly, “He’s not ready yet.  You can sit over there.”  She pointed to a chair as far away from her desk as possible to still be considered sitting inside the bank.

                “Of course,” I said, still smiling as hard as I could, “I’m a little early.”  I’m glad to have a minute to gather my thoughts and organize my arguments, although I hope it’s not too long.  I don’t want to work myself into a tizzy as anticipation is often worse than the actual event.  I need to stay positive yet here I am thinking of arguments and he hasn’t even said no.  He might say yes.  I don’t know off-hand what our credit score is but I’m guessing it’s not great; lower than Mac’s cholesterol level.  I’m not sure what the lowest number you can have is but I’m betting we’re pretty near there.  When Mac got hurt, his Worker’s Comp checks were significantly lower than his paychecks and we got into a hole and we haven’t quite been able to get ourselves out.  I say a quick prayer, reminding Jesus He is needed in the bank at this very moment.  I look for a magazine to distract my mind but don’t see any.  Not having sat down in a bank before I don’t know if this is normal or not.  Is it different from the doctor’s office, I wonder?  It could mean that no one has to wait long so there’s no time to read or it may mean Magnolia Savings doesn’t think they’re necessary.  If they don’t spend money on magazine subscriptions, they have more money to lend mothers of smart kids of limited means.  Yes, that must be it.  See, I knew I liked this bank and Mr. Vanderlin.  Oh, his door is opening.  Maybe it’s just that people don’t have to wait.  Either way, it’s show time!  This will work!

                Seeing me, he bypasses what I imagine is protocol with Ramonica, based on her facial expression, and extends his hand, along with his very own 1,000-watt smile (hopefully also filled with Jesus) and takes my hand saying, warmly, “Hello, Mrs. McAdams.  Welcome.”  He leads me toward his office, asks me to have a seat in one of the comfy chairs in front of his desk, rounds his desk to take his own seat and asks, “What can Magnolia Savings and Loan do for you this fine morning?”  Such a nice man.

                “Well,” I began, suddenly realizing I haven’t done this before; ask for a loan, I mean.  I’m not sure how this works.  Why didn’t I ask Mac?  He got the loan for the car and the house and my Daddy got the loan for my first car.  It never occurred to me to practice.  Do you just come out and ask?

                “So…I, uh, we, I mean, Mac and I, would like some…money,” I manage to stammer.

                He chuckles and says, “Wouldn’t we all.”

                Startled, I laugh suddenly and say, “I mean, we would like to borrow some money.  A loan.  A small one.”  And then, remembering my upbringing, hastily add, “Uh, please.”  I laugh again and try to smile.

                “A loan?  Well, we do offer those.  What sort of loan are you requesting?  Auto?  Home?  Signature?”

                “Um…well…not a car loan or a house.  It’s only for a little bit.  My Spencer.  I mean, my son Spencer was accepted into an academic camp and even though he got a scholarship there’s still the room and board and books and we just don’t have the money.”

                ‘Ah, yes, Spencer.  He’s in the same class as my daughter Victoria.  From what I understand, he’s a very nice young man.  Very smart, it sounds to me.  Where is this camp, if I may ask?”

                It’s at Mississippi State.  This summer.  He’s going to take two classes with actual college students.  He’ll already have six credits on his transcripts when he starts college in two years.”

                “That’s wonderful.  Mississippi State is my alma mater.  I sure am glad it’s not at Ole Miss.  I’d have to turn you down flat,” he says and chuckles again. 

                Something fires in my brain and I say, “That’s right.  Go Bulldogs!”  I hope I’m right.  I started to add something about a cowbell, but I must be mis-remembering that.  Do they use cowbells?  Is that a thing?  I don’t watch college ball.  Mac does all day on the weekends and I guess it seeps into your brain simply by being in the room.  The TV is on non-stop sports and even though I spend my time reading and thought I was tuning it out, thankfully I didn’t completely ignore it.

                It must have worked as he’s still smiling.  He pulls a folder from a stack on his desk and says, “I pulled your accounts to have a look-see.  You and your husband have been loyal customers for a number of years.  We appreciate that.”

                “Oh, yes,” I replied, “Magnolia Savings is a great bank.”

                He silently smiles and then says, “Your credit score isn’t strong, however.  How much of a loan did you say you needed?”

                “Only $500.  That’s all.  Not much.”

                “Hmmm.   For that amount, we usually do a signature loan.”

                I interrupted and said, “Yes, that’s what Mac said we’d need, a signature loan.  What is that exactly?”

                “Well, we don’t require collateral.  A signature loan means you simply promise to pay us back.”

                “Oh,” I said, “Of course we’ll pay you back.  Um, how long would we have to pay it back?”

                “Normally, we give you six months. The interest is typically fairly low depending on your credit.”

                “Oh, great.  No problem.  Of course, you’ll need your interest.  That’s fair. That would work.  Thank you!”  This was much easier than I imagined.  Why do people get so nervous about asking for a loan?  I never realized it that simple.  Thank you, Lord!

                He sits back in his chair and looks at me and then at our file again.  This time he grimaces.

                “What’s the matter?” I ask, afraid to know the answer.

                “Well, Mrs. McAdams, to be honest, with a credit score like yours and without a positive loan history, it would be a risk for us.  My job is to mitigate risk.”

                “Risk?  How is it a risk?  I told you we promise to pay it back.  I’m a Christian.  Do you think I wouldn’t pay it back?”

                “It’s not that we don’t think you would pay it back.  Its…”

                I interrupt him and say, “What is it then?” a little more loudly than I wanted.

                “Mrs. McAdams, can I call you Mary Ellen?  Mary Ellen, my job is to make sure my employer is safe from losses on risky loans.  I am simply trying to decide if you are a risk worth taking.  I’m unsure.”

                He sits back again, this time steepling his hands, looking at me like my old English professor, Dr. Watkins at Louisiana College my freshman year, before I quit against Daddy’s wishes and married Mac, against Mother’s wishes.  Not so much condescending as unsure of my character; like he was deciding if I was worthy, if I could be trusted.  Rude is what is was!  I guess I had worked myself into somewhat of a tizzy because before I could stop myself I stood up and practically yelled, “I said we’d pay you back!  I wouldn’t lie!  I’m a Christian, Mr. Vanderlin!  I’m a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist.  I cannot believe you don’t trust me!  That you think I would steal your money!”  

                “Mrs. McAdams, please don’t be upset.  I haven’t said no, I’m simply trying to work with you.”

                “Oh, you’ve already decided.  It’s in your face and in your hands!  My Spencer will go to that program!  He’s smart and he deserves it and it’s not his fault we’re not rich!”

                “Mrs. McAdams, please sit down and let’s talk about this,” he pleaded.

                “Look, I already talked to God about this and He is on board, so unless you want to me to rob this bank, you need to get out your checkbook and give me that money!  Do you want to go against God’s wishes, Doyle, can I call you Doyle?  Do you?  You'll have to answer to God, I hope you know!  I’m going back out to the lobby and I’ll wait for my check!”  I turned and ran right into Ramonica who had opened the door and asked, “Is everything all right in here, Mr. Vanderlin?  Should I call someone?”

                We both looked at him and he stood there, open-mouthed and said, “Uh…no…Mrs. Dalley.  Everything’s fine.  I’m just going to complete the paperwork for Mrs. McAdams’s loan.  She has offered to wait in the lobby.  Can you get her a glass of water or something?”

                Looking at me like I was crazy, Ramonica said, nervously, “Sure, Mr. Vanderlin.  Mary Ellen, would you like some water?”

                Still flustered and red-faced, I answered, “Yes, Ramonica, that would be nice.  Thank you.”

                I walked out to the lobby, sat in the chair, ashamed that, apparently, the Steel Magnolias character I most resemble is Ousier.  I absent-mindedly looked for the magazines I forgot wouldn’t be there and pretended no one was looking at me and that I hadn’t just threatened to rob a bank.  Oh, I'm gonna have to pray for forgiveness tonight.  

                Mr. Vanderlin quickly brought a check and some paperwork to sign and I left very quickly, telling Audrey, “I’m fine, thank you” when she asked if I was okay.  Lord help me, I have made a fool of myself, but it was worth it.  Spencer can go to his smart kid camp. 

                I got home and told Spencer “I took care of everything, sweetie, you can go to MS State this summer.”  I didn't tell Mac anything.  He doesn't know anybody in town and rarely leaves the house, so he'll never find out, thank goodness.

               Spencer was so excited, hugging me and repeating, “Thank you Mama!”  I couldn’t help but smile and get a little teary-eyed.  He will make something of himself, I just know it.  And in the end, it will be worth the gossip and embarrassment and all manner of things said behind my back.  At least I still live in a place where no one says anything negative to your face.   At least they better not;  apparently I have a temper.