Saturday, February 2, 2013
I Mean It
This old lady had a middle-aged daughter, and they lived in this house in a rundown neighborhood near downtown. Their house was way off from the street, but the other houses were close to the curb. There was a little sidewalk that led to their front door, and the aluminum siding looked sore and gray, as if it had a rash. The front door was a little off its hinges, and whenever I went in to pick them up to take them to her daughter's eye-doctor appointments it sounded like a pterodactyl screaming.
They were both fat in a jolly kind of way. The mother had bright silver hair and a round large nose, and she wore housecoats with huge pockets around the house. This was her uniform that she wore to work and her work was ironing people's clothes. She took in ironing, in other words: she had a big ironing board, and a couple of large clothes racks next to the ironing board hung with men's shirts. "Taking ironing in" seemed like a total 1950s thing to me, an anachronistic almost ghostly activity, now that there were drycleaning places in every strip-mall, but she still had clientele. "Mostly lawyers," she'd tell me, proudly. Her eyes were always lit up inside as though one of those lawyers were always whispering some sweet little joke into her ear. But I had a feeling that she just had those shirts there as a way to pretend she still took ironing in. One time she explained to me in one short unsentimental sentence that her husband and her daughter's father had left them years ago because the daughter had turned out to be what she was. "Just disappeared one day," she said. "He couldn't take it."
There was a huge industrial bag of starlite mints on the floor beside the ironing board, opened for easy access. The old lady explained that she put a starlite mint into every shirt pocket. Like a little treat for her customers. She said she had started it years ago for Christmas, but then they all started to expect it every time.
The daughter was retarded. I know that's not politically correct to say, but that's what the old lady always said to anyone they met, and the daughter went along. She was a little rounder and bulkier than her mother, with dirt-brown hair permed into a tight ornament atop her large head. Her eyes were tiny. Her mouth had a stubborn, tight set to it. She always wanted to hug people, and her mom was always apologizing for it.
One time when I went over to pick them up, the daughter was putting on her shoes in a La-Z-Boy chair, and as soon as she heard that door open she looked up and grinned great big and just stopped what she was doing and waddled over to me and hugged me so tight it felt like she was trying to hug her way out of her own life. I smelled shit, and then saw that there was a small piece of shit on the back of her blouse. The mother was going through her purse to make sure she had the right insurance papers, and when she looked up to tell the daughter so stop hugging me she instantly saw the piece of shit and scolded her.
"How did that get there?" she said, as if the daughter might have an explanation. The daughter just slumped her shoulders and walked toward the mother.
"Get in there and get that off of you," the mother said. "I mean it. That's nasty."
The daughter asked, "What?" She was mad.
"You got poop on your back," the mother said.
The daughter did a little circle dance, trying to see it.
The mother said, "Come on. I'll help you."
The mother was pissed, but laughed despite herself. I did too. It just seemed so sad and typical and perfect somehow, one of those moments when everybody is exactly who they are and everything is strangely okay. And for a few seconds the mother and I and the daughter looked at each other like, Lord have mercy.
One time I went over to pick them up to take them to the utility company because they had a huge bill and they couldn't pay it. It was late March, and there was a tornado warning on the morning TV show they watched. The lady meteorologist was standing in front of a mean-looking fluorescent weather map. Their whole neighborhood felt lit from within. I looked out the windows above their little TV and clouds were roiling and trees-limbs were flailing. They were both ready this time, and for some reason the mother and the daughter had dressed alike that day, as if going to the utility company called for it. Burgundy dresses, like maybe what they once wore to church. They didn't go to church anymore because the pastor came and visited them because the daughter had made a couple scenes during the Sunday services there. Burgundy dresses with black belts and black shoes. The house had a cinnamon-candle smell. I remember thinking they there was no way we could drive in this weather, and yet what if the tornado hit while we stood there?
A few months later the daughter died in her sleep, and the mother died a few months after that. It was like they never existed. I don't go into that neighborhood now. It's way out of the way to go by there. But I still see it in my head sometimes, just because they're gone, and I guess I need to remember them. I guess somebody does.