Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My fifteen minutes in the sun

The first memory I am sure I remember is of a day at the beach with my parents. My dad swung my little sister in her carrier, which had its own awning to keep the sun off of her. She wore that little blue hat tied to her bald head, her little wrinkled face screwed up, always squinting as if an answer was about to come to her.

My mother wore her modest black bathing suit with a white terry cloth robe over it and a new pair of black flip-flops. She had a bright print scarf tied around her big black hair. She shook out a horse-hair navy-issue blanket and arranged herself on it with her freckled legs out in front of her, teetering a little from side to side, catching herself on her elbows. My dad always teased her that she never really tanned, just became one big freckle. I had a half a cup of my mom's freckles poured across my nose, but I was rosy and fair (flushed and pale?) with light pinky blonde hair, and I burned to a crisp in half an hour.

My dad loved to take photos and movie film. He pointed the camera at my mother, and she threw her hand up to her collarbone and turned her head as though she didn't want her picture taken. Later she would send out three copies: one to each of her sisters and one to Grandma. We had one in our album too.

I stood in front of my mom while she rubbed sun cream on my back. She spun me around and greased up my front side too. As my dad put the baby down his shadow fell across us. My mom looked up, and her husband was reflected in the lenses of her big black sun glasses. She looked like a minor movie star with her big white teeth glittering in the sun, her shiny black hair tumbling down her back. “Go on,” she said to me. “You can only spend fifteen minutes in the sun.”

“But I want to build a castle–”

“You’d better get going, then. You’ve already wasted a minute. Go with your dad and get in the water.”

My mom took sunburn seriously. The first year they were married, she and my dad had been attracted to the beaches as only two young newlyweds from Illinois could be. They'd awake early on Saturdays, pack some snacks and drinks, and drive to the beach. The world was Technicolor, and they were wholesome young adults in a salty, vivid land.

Everybody hears the warnings; they are all over the place. But the sun on a tropical island is not the same as the sun that ripens corn and beans on the Midwest prairies, and even if a man has sported a farmer’s tan for twenty-four years he can’t lie out in the island rays and expect not to cook like a chicken thigh.

So one time my dad didn’t turn over when my mom told him to but said instead that he’d turn over when he damn well pleased. He thought the heat was clearing up the acne on his back. He didn’t really start to smell like frying bacon until they were on their way home.

He was so sick that a couple of times he said he wished he’d turned over when she told him to. He slept at the kitchen table the first night. He moaned and roared when he tried to move. A fan oscillated across his skin and my mom kept slathering on handsful of Noxema.

Mom said he was so sick she wanted to call the doctor. He was vomiting from the heat and dehydration, and his skin was as red as a hot dog. His body temperature was high, and his mood was hot as hell. He slept at the kitchen table the next night. The skin on his back curled up like pork rinds and fell to the floor like husks. He was in so much pain that he began to converse with my mother. “I could be court martialed for this,” he told her.

“For a sunburn?”

“For damaging government property.”

She put that piece of information away in her little mental tote, filed under “court martial” and cross-referenced to “sunburn”. By the time I was born her fear of the sun had gelled into a standard operating procedure, and I was always subjected to a lecture and a creamy rub before I went outside in the sun.

“Go on, go on,” she said as she shooed me toward my dad. “Dwain, take her into the water,” she directed. She lit a cigarette and blew the first drag up into the sparkly air. She checked my sister with one eye only, the other one squinted up from the smoke. She rubbed cream into her thighs with the palms of her hands, keeping her fingers splayed back so the Coppertone would not collect under her red-lacquered nails.

My mother never went into the water. Part of it was that she didn’t want to muss her hair. She did have a beautiful head of hair. The other part was that she couldn’t swim a lick, and my dad was a trickster. She might have enjoyed a lazy bob in the waves, but she didn't trust her husband not to turn her weakness into a nasty practical joke. Our outings nearly always ended with someone crying.

I couldn't swim either, but I took hold of my father's hand, and he led me along the sand to where the wetness began, squeezing my knuckles together until the bones rolled against each other and hurt. I didn't say a word because complaints usually caused him to decide to play rougher, squeezing my pinkie finger into a little white swirl and rolling it into a knot until I began to cry and he began to laugh. Being good meant no whining, and that was not always easy to achieve with my parents.

So we dug our toes into the sand and waited as the waves approached. I stood in the little oval spot of my dad's shadow. The water tumbled over our feet and backed away again, seeming to suck the sand from under our feet. Each time a wave retreated, I felt as though I was flying backward toward the blanket and I laughed.

“Watch this,” my dad said. He picked me up and tossed me about three feet away into the water.


The whole world slowed almost to a stop. The water twirled me around and I saw shells and crabs and sticks and silt spinning around with me. I was jerked out to sea as the wave receded. I felt as if I traveled a hundred miles from the beach. I had not known that you could see under water. My ears echoed with a rhythmic sound that I didn’t recognize as my own heartbeat.

Finally, my dad grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up out of the water. I heard myself choking and gagging and spitting, before I lay still in the hot sand. This afternoon was the first time I felt that hot anger that drove me through my twenties, thirties, and forties before I gradually learned to loosen its hold. The first time I let myself feel anything but afraid.

"She's drowning," my mother said to my dad.

"She is not. It was only a foot of water." My dad poked at me with his foot as if I were driftwood that had washed up on the beach. "Hush up," he said, “or we'll just go home."

I lay on my belly in the hot sand, my father's bad toe with its thick yellow horn of a nail an inch away from my nose. I didn’t make a sound while I tried to calm my breath and stop sucking in great gulps of air.

"It's your own fault," my dad said. "The sea hates whiney sailors. Get up. I'm not going to tell you again.”

I lay there hiccupping and burping up sea water, feeling the skin on my back grow crinkled, as my fifteen minutes in the sun burned away.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Hawai'ian Dream

My father was a sailor, and he and his sixteen-year-old bride had set out on an adventure that landed them in Honolulu, thousands of miles from the Illinois prairie where they grew up. Two years later I was born, and they raised me until the age of eight not knowing that there were places cold and colorless and dull.

My dad told me that he wanted to name me Sugar and my sister Candy. Since our last name is Cain, my mother wouldn't let him do that. I don't know if that story is true or not. Once I said to him, "My last name would be Payne (my mother's maiden name) if it weren't for you." He said, "If it weren't for me, your name would be Mudd." I had to wonder about that one a long time before I learned about Dr. Mudd.


Plumeria plant at GriffithGardens.

Even though my father’s academic career ended a few months short of high-school graduation when he threw a basketball at the coach’s head and stormed out of the gym, he was smart. Perhaps the fact that he rarely spoke and did not waste too many words on feelings or tales of the past (or the present, for that matter) made him seem smarter than he was. He usually spoke for practical reasons: Hand me that hammer. Get me some coffee. Where’s the twine?

When I was about six years old, my father came home from working in what he called Uncle Sam’s engine room and said he was going to become a millionaire. He had a plan. He would be rich by the time he was forty years old. He was getting in on the ground floor of an opportunity to strike it big. Everyone in the house had drawn near and grown still just to hear him talk. My mom stood by the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand, letting the white chicken gravy drip while she stared at him.

Tropical Floral Barkcloth at The Rockpile

“Mutual funds,” he said.

What my father was proposing was no more imaginable than me flying to the moon on a clothesline. My mother did not entertain the thought of my father becoming a salesman. She simply turned back to the stove and continued stirring as though he had not spoken.

Wikimedia.

For two weeks after that, my dad sat around in his spare time reading looseleaf notebooks and writing up worksheets for fictional clients. He even practiced his sales pitch on my mom while she was peeling potatoes.

I could not picture my father coming into someone’s house the way the carpet sweeper man had come to ours, making small talk and then turning the topic to what he had to sell. And he didn’t get the least bit upset when it became clear that my parents were not going to buy, even though he was obliged to leave the free gift he had promised (four steak knives, I think). I couldn’t imagine my dad nodding politely, listening politely to potential clients. Spit it out, he’d tell them. I haven’t got all day. If they couldn’t spit it out, he’d say. Yak, yak, yak.

Wikimedia.

Then my dad announced that we were going to a fancy fake luau at the home of a couple who came from Boston but now owned a three-story glass house with a lake and a waterfall, wild birds and a tame monkey, all from selling mutual funds. This was even stranger to us than the fact that my father had found himself a second job.

Sears catalogue 1939.

With the exception of a few friends, my dad did not visit people: He visited car shows and zoos and Sears, places you didn’t dress up or worry about manners. Right away my mom went into a frenzy of planning. She feared that we wouldn’t know how to behave in a nice place, as if our house was the pig sty she was always telling me it wasn’t. Get those toys picked up! You don’t live in a pig sty! Apparently even my dad was too ignorant to be allowed in public without coaching, because she kept giving him etiquette tips until he said, “Who made you the goddamn queen?”

www.fashionera.com

My mom was a slave to women’s magazines that told her how to make a gracious home on a shoe string, and that servitude was going to serve her now. She was twenty-four years old, cute and coltish, but her family… well, she had a lot of work to do. For the four days remaining before the visit, she discussed our wardrobes with herself. She tried to make us the smart, young family on the go. I was going to wear a turquoise dress with a white sash that made me look plump. Nearly every time she grabbed me at the last minute and started to improve me she ended up embarrassing us both, and I feared that. In her nervousness she began to cut my hair, and each day the bangs of my pixie cut grew shorter as she tried to match up the sides.

Hawaiian dress at UpscaleVintage

My sister Lissa, who was two years old at this time, looked like a little old man. She had no hair and a squinched up suspicious little face, and my mom always stuck a bow to her head so she was identifiable as a girl. Lissa was going to wear a blue dress with matching ruffled panties and ridiculously useless sandals. She was to sit on my mom’s lap, and she was not to snot, to cry, or to throw up. And I was not to do any of my nervous habits: harumping or clearing my throat or biting my fingers. “Just try me and see,” Mom said. “I’ll blister your butt in front of everybody.” But she wouldn’t. I knew that. She would never call attention to herself.
(I hope my sister sees this.)

As we drove on the narrow twisted lava roads lined with trees and plants I've never seen the equal of even yet, my parents sparred half-heartedly, my mom describing my dad’s shoes in unflattering terms and my dad calling her a fat ass. All the time my mom sat in the middle of the bench seat with her hand on my dad’s knee while he drove.

The party was not a success for the young family on the go. There weren't any other children there except a snotty teenage girl with a dog under her arm. I stayed a little behind my mom and said nothing. I thought the guests looked at me as though they were holding little pieces of poop on the tips of their tongues. Just like a sitcom, everyone was wearing casual luau clothes except us. My mom took the belt off my turquoise dress and let me remove my shoes and socks in hopes that I would look billowy and in a luau mood, but instead I was sweaty and graceless, starting to burn.

My little sister fell asleep on my mom’s lap and saved her from having to mix. She sat silently and soaked up the uncomfortable smiles as if she didn’t notice. When her feelings were hurt, you’d never know it. Later she’d unleash a streak of venom and clean the house furiously as she ranted and eventually run down to a headache and a nap. I sat on the grass next to her chair with my big old feet politely stuck up under my dress so I wouldn’t look like I came from Dogpatch, as my mom described it.

And do you know what we got from all of this? We were invited to attend the hosts’ church home, and my parents, now fired with the idea that they could have a mansion and a fake luau, accepted.

Honolulu, Hawai'i, taken by Steve and Pam Paulson from Amos Griffith's Giffin and Hoxie.

I don't remember even once going to church before this time, though my mom would talk about the church ladies who helped her through pregnancy, stillbirth, and tumor, so I must have. We had a big book of Old Testament stories that had colored drawings my mother deemed too active for us to read before bed. I believed that God made the world out of clay and it thundered when he was bowling and rained was when he was crying. Lightening, he was sharpening his sword. He put a rainbow in the sky to say I'm watching you. He lived in the sky in a country called Heaven, but we couldn’t see him because of the clouds. When someone died it was because God needed them for something up there. Sometimes I got God mixed up with Aesop, but these were the tenants of my secret religion, a collection of lore I had gleaned from many sources.

So, we went to church for a month. The Sunday school teachers taught us songs that I can still remember. I’m in the Lord’s Army and Zachias Was a Wee Little Man. I sang without emitting a sound and never recited an answer when my name was called. I felt proud of the stars they put up on the wall chart next to my name, though I had done nothing to deserve them but show up. One week we sang Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain in front of the church before the sermon, all of us making the motions like little mimes, the teachers standing in front of us singing with exaggerated cheerfulness and drawing big smiles in the air with their hands as we sang faces all aglow.

After a few weeks of scuttling to church once a week, making Sunday as stressful as a school day, or any other day you had to get ready to go somewhere with my mom, I learned what a revival was: a chance to go to church every night for a week and all day on the concluding Sunday. My heart sank into my shoe. It was one thing to tolerate a once a week visit, sing a few songs, make a craft, listen to stories that were not as good as the ones my mom read to me before bed. I didn't like other kids. I didn't like strange adults urging me to participate and speaking to me like I was an idiot because I wouldn't. About this time I was developing my habit of fuzzing my eyes up so I couldn't see clearly and staring off into space as though I was deaf.

But now I had to go to church in a hurry every night after my dad got home from work and cleaned up. My parents both were oddly enthusiastic and talked excitedly about the future in the car on the way. Mom carried a dish for the fellowship dinner in the church basement. I’d get a shaky stomach from eating other people’s food and having my mom whispering directions and threatening punishment. I had to go to bed at seven o’clock in the evening when we were home, so by the time the congregation was gathered, I was falling asleep, and my sister was sacked out on a pew, sleeping like a baby.

The church was packed and we all sat looking toward the front, where we expected our minister to appear. The sanctuary was hung with banners about our lord and they were twirling slowly from the big fans in the ceiling. Music came out of the huge speakers on the walls, instrumentals that sounded familiar and inspirational. We were in back of the sanctuary, which was built like a plush coliseum, the seats staggered upwards so that everyone could see. Throughout the room heads were turning and people were mouthing words that could not be heard over the vibrations of the speakers.


Suddenly the whole room went quiet and our special musical guests appeared. They were identical twins, The Good Twins, who sang in perfect harmony and witnessed for the lord with their music. The minister’s wife introduced them and made them sound like someone famous that we had somehow missed hearing about. Their hairlines were receding identically and they were dressed exactly alike. They introduced their beautiful wives, who were also twins, who smiled and sang a number with them.

They put on a heck of a show, my dad said. Several times my mother stilled my little sister’s feet because she was kicking the back of the seat in time to the music. During an intermission my parents shelled out for one of their albums, Good News, so either they really wanted to impress the guy with the glass house or they really liked the music. I was pretty fond of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” because it swelled to a dramatic moment at the end.

As the minister began to speak, my mom motioned me to take my sister to the restroom. It took me a minute to realize what she meant because she never trusted either one of us out of her sight for a moment, and usually she would rather keep shushing Lissa than take her downstairs before she whined with desperation. My only guess is that my mom was so touched by the holy spirit that she forgot that she didn’t trust us any farther than she could throw us, which she didn’t do back then. Or The Good Twins had stirred her in a way she hadn’t been stirred before.

(I still have the albums.)


So I took my sister down the stairs, holding her hand and the banister. I was a clumsy child, and steps terrified me; I had fallen down them so often. We got into the roomy one-room bathroom without a calamity.

“Hurry up and go,” I told Lissa. My mom always locked us in, so I turned and fiddled with the lock on the door. I heard the little click and felt a stab of maturity before I heard Lissa let out a shrill scream that filled me with a greasy-stomach dread.

She was standing there with her ruffled blue pants around her ankles, her underpants nested in them. She pointed at the toilet as she let out another siren. Something was splashing in the bowl. I crept forward and stretched my neck out like Pippy Longstocking.

“It’s a mongoose,” I said. “Look. He’s taking a bath.”

Lissa was bent over at the waist, her rosy butt cheeks pointed toward the door, staring into the commode, her hands thrown up at the sides of her head, her little white church gloves reminding me of a clown. We looked like someone should paint us: two homely urchins and a mongoose in the toilet.

The mongoose pulled himself up by the elbows and hung on the toilet ring. He opened his pointy little mouth and made a rude noise at us. Lissa screamed again before I could grab her and try to keep her quiet. I put my hand across her mouth and said, “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” She just bobbed her head around trying to get away.

I talked to her in a sing-songy voice. “He’s taking a bath, then he’ll go home. See? He’s taking a bath in the toilet.” I didn’t think a mongoose was any more dangerous than a rat, and we saw them all the time. Rats are a part of living in the tropics. They would run off with a kitten if you didn’t watch them.


Giant rat. BBC news.

Pretty soon Lissa was repeating after me, “There’s a mongoose in the toilet.” She was wrestling her panties up, and I helped her, my gloves clamped under my arm, forgetting all about the original purpose of our visit to the restroom. The mongoose leaped out of the toilet and started moving around the edges of the room looking for an escape. This set my sister off again. She was loud, and we were not allowed to be loud, especially not in church. The mongoose ran behind a carton of toilet paper, and she stopped--

Dwarf Mongooses at linohype

A commotion arose at the door, pounding, shouting, stomping, pounding. Open the door! What's the matter! Is someone hurt? Open the door!

The door would not open. Now the yelling crowd outside the door had frightened us more than the mongoose, and Lissa started wailing. We were breaking my mom's cardinal rule: Don't call attention to yourself. I kept trying to shush my little sister, but I was so scared that I had to bend over and clear my throat of the nervousness before I tried to unlock the door. The little button that had so easily slid to the right wouldn't budge back toward the left. I fumbled. Break it open! Unlock the door! What's the matter? Get back! I'm coming in!

Click. I swung the door open and there stood my parents, frowning, glowering, surrounded by the congregation, all with eager, concerned looks on their faces. Even The Good Twins were peering into the bathroom. I squinched my nose. I leaned over and hurumphed a few times. I think my mother thought I was going to throw up, because she put her gloved hand on my back and tried to lead me away from the crowd. I thought she wanted to get me alone so she could lecture, pinch, and smack me, so I stood there doubled over in the midst of the churchgoers knowing that for one brief moment she could not touch me except gently.

My dad squatted down and put his arm around Lissa's legs and lifted her up so she was sitting on his forearm, her favorite seat. "What was going on in there?" he asked her.

He never expected her to answer. She never spoke except in her special Lissa babble that no one could understand but me. My mom always said that Lissa was too lazy to talk because I talked for her.

"There’s a mongoose in the toilet," she said, plain as day. Then she wet her ruffled blue panties, my dad’s sleeve, and part of his pant leg.

Mom would not leave me alone on the way home. Never had she been so mortified, she said. Her own children screaming and playing grab-ass in the church! In the church! She grilled me about the mongoose.

“It was probably a rat,” she said.

“It wasn’t a rat,” I told her.

“There’s a mongoose in the toilet,” Lissa said.

“You,” my mom said to her, “lie down and go to sleep.”

“Because a mongoose doesn’t look like a rat,” I said.

“Well, then, Miss Smarty Pants, what does a mongoose look like?”

“A little like a weasel,” I said. "A little like a cat."

“Dwain?” she said to my dad. “Dwain! Is that what a mongoose looks like?”

“It looks something like a weasel,” my dad said. "They kill snakes and birds."

“Weasel or no weasel,” my mom said, “if you ever scream in church again I’ll whip you into next week. You hear me?”

"I didn't scream," I said.

She turned to my father and said, “We can’t go back there. I’m absolutely mortified."