"Well, I called your father up a day this past week and said, 'I gotta get outta here. I've worked my butt off today and I can't go home and just sit down.' My legs wanted to, of course, but my mind was on the prowl. I had to get outta this constant doing the same thing over and over. All I've seen and thought about for days is shrimp. You'll never know the amount of shrimp I prepared today. Seven par sheets. Seven. Well, you don't know what that means, of course, but take my word for it, it's a lot." My mom works at the local Red Lobster where, according to her, all the stand-up comics in town work there for minimum wage. She means, 'stand-up' as in 'on your feet some twelve hours non-stop' and 'comics' as in 'who else but a comedian would get laughed at this way?' She's worked there for some six, seven years, since she left my father and got a place of her own. She's had three raises in those years. "A dime a piece. Tell me if that's not laughable!" She reminds me this every Sunday morning we talk on the phone, our weekly check into each other's lives, in case I could have forgotten.
She continues in a pant, "You have to split them down the middle while you're deveining them.” Now she’s back on the shrimp par sheets again. “And our shrimper is broken, so this all has to be done by hand, and then you have to pound them, I mean, flat as a pancake, and then pass them on to the breading table. And with the new laws, the shrimp can be out on the sheets only so long before they have to be put back on ice, so you're under such ungodly pressure, all the time you're working, and the managers walk past non-stop, checking, you know. And, like I've said before, I never get a break. Never. You stand there upteen hours working your butt off without breaks. I don't even eat lunch till I get home most days after six." She pauses here and I hear her lean over and talk to her cat like I'm not on the line at all. "That's a good boy, no, no, I'm on the phone. No. No. Go away, Shaker. Go on now." I named her cat Shaker because he’s black and white, like salt and pepper. She wanted to call him Sheba after the expensive cat flood she feeds him and I put my foot down. She didn’t see the problem with gender twisting with a cat. With me, it was another matter. It took her some time to accept my lesbian ways, especially when I showed up at the first family reunion with Madeleine. It went very well, much to Mother’s relief. Dad didn’t care as long as Mother was sufficiently mollified.
She breathes heavily into the receiver and I think she's talking to me again when she says, "I've fed you already. You can't be hungry." But then she says to me, changing her tone slightly, as though she suddenly remembers she’s on the line, "Maybe he knows what the word 'shrimp' means, you suppose?"
I've learned to wait. It's the timetable of our history together. I've learned to wait until there's a pause long enough for me to say something. Sometimes this never happens. But I'm lucky today because she doesn't pick-up for a whole second or two, so I say, "I think it's more likely he smells the shrimp, Mom."
I see her shaking her head side to side. "I took a bath before I called you," she says, exasperated, as though my thinking she might not bathe after she’s worked in a seafood vat all day should be repulsive to both of us. "First thing I do when I get home," she adds as a trailing thought.
"Mom..." I start but then wait while she rushes on. I don't figure out her pauses more often than I'd like to admit.
"You know the song about washing the man outta your hair? Well, I try to wash my work outta everything! It's impossible to get that fishy smell off your skin. I've even used Clorox." I remember well how Clorox was the wonder chemical for everything in our house while my siblings and I were growing up. She clears her throat and then says, "Anyway, you don't want to hear about my work."
And then, without skipping a beat, "So I just called him up, your father I mean, and sometimes he's really good for this, you know, we always could travel together and enjoy it. It's one of the things we did best together."
"So where'd you go?" I interject, thinking they may have gone for a small over-night trip like they used to.
"You're gonna laugh, but we went to El Reno."
"El Reno?" I can't fathom this at first. El Reno is twenty miles
north of Oklahoma City, forty from where they live. But it's the only place on the planet where you can still get greasy hamburgers six for a dollar. When my brother Teddy used to visit from California, before he got married and had kids, going to Johnny's diner in El Reno was his last departing act with us before he hit the airport. He'd buy two dozen hamburgers with fried onions, mustard and pickles and carry them in his lap on dry ice in a styrofoam box back to his freezer in El Cajon, California.
"You went for the hamburgers, am I right?" I ask Darlene.
"Well, eventually, yes. Remember what Teddy used to say about those? 'So little you either bite over or under 'em and either way, you miss!'" She laughs.
"I did eat a couple and I shouldn't of," she says, "They almost killed me. I never learn. Fried onions probably.” Or a quarter can of Crisco, I’m thinking. “But actually, we didn't end up in El Reno for that. By the time Vern came over, I was waiting in the parking lot. I walked up to his car—I don't know if you know this, but he sold his truck and bought Kat's car before she left for Portland. Well, when he drove up, he rolled down his window and said, "What's up?" I guess because I didn't get in the car right away. He's bought himself some new glasses, I imagine because after I left, he didn't have any he could use to read the paper with. And you oughta see what he got. They're thick rimmed and almost white, for God's sakes. Where he got 'em I'll never know, probably from the Salvation Army Thrift Shop. They make him look like he's watching a 3-d movie. But he's got his own mind now, so what the hell."
"Say that again?" I managed to say.
But she disregards this, if she hears it at all. "'See that over there?'" I ask him."
"’What? over where?’" he asks craning his neck around to where I'm pointing. This always irritates the hell outta me. He's always done that, the least amount. He always answers me the least amount. So I just stand there and I wait for him to get outta the car and take a look at where I'm looking, which he did after he saw my face and knew I wasn't gonna get in the car till he did.
"Once he was standing beside me, looking in the direction I was, I said, 'There," pointing at this big black rain cloud. "I wanna go there, where it's raining. Where do you suppose that is?"
"Well, about at El Reno," he says, taking his ball cap off and scratching his head.
"Okay," I say back to him. "I wanna go to El Reno and sit in the rain because I wanna go where something is happening."
"And this is one thing I like about him--it may be the only thing I like about him, but he doesn't ask boo-nor-baa-nor-kiss-my-behind. He just grins a little and says, 'Well, we can do that, if that's what you want.' And so we drove over to El Reno. We didn't say one other thing all the way over there. Blessed silence, you know? So I say to him, 'Wake me up when it starts to rain, okay?'
"I just sat back with my eyes closed waiting till I thought I smelled the rain and pretty soon, he says, soft-like, like he doesn't want to wake me, ’It's the El Reno turn off, Darlene. We're almost there’. And then it starts to rain, against the windshield in little pitter-pats, and that struck us both funny, like it was raining on cue. But by the time we got in town, it was coming down so hard, he couldn't see where he was going, so he drives into this church parking lot and we sit there with the car running awhile, the air-conditioner on to keep the windows from fogging up, and the windshield wipers flapping back and forth at top speed."
"This is nice," I say finally. "Why don't you turn the motor off."
So he does. And we sit there in the rain, just listening, the windshield wipers in an up position, but it doesn't matter cause it's raining so hard you couldn't see your hand up in front of you anyhow, well, if you outside, of course. He looks over at me once or twice, but keeps quiet. He rubs his legs up and down with his hands the way he always does. He's good this way, though, about waiting, letting me say things.
"Then before I know it, I'm cryin. I just can't stop. Tears are coming outta my eyes before I know it, and I just sit there bawling like crazy. And your father just sits there, looking at me, then looking outta the windshield into the rain, back and forth like that. The rain was coming down so hard I couldn't even hear myself blubbering away, which was both our salvations, I guess. Finally when I'd had my cry, he says, "What's going on, Darlene?" He says this like he did when he drove up and saw me waiting in the parking lot at the apartment complex. I think I mystify this man. He doesn't know what the hell to do with me most the time. He hasn't a clue. I mean, not a clue."
I hear her blow her nose and I wonder if she's crying now, but her voice has a lilt when she says, "So I put him off like I usually do, you know. I said, 'Oh, hell, it's too many hours on the shrimp boards or something like that, and he shakes his head and lets it be. We sat there, listening to the rain for, oh, I don’t know an hour or so. It was a while.
"Oh, we got a half dozen hamburgers and a couple of Orange Crushes before we left. Ate those out in the car in front of the restaurant. The inside of Johnny’s is always so smoky, you can't enjoy what you're eating inside."
"They still sell Orange Crush in El Reno, Mom?" I ask, wanting to be a part of this. I wanted to hold her, like a child, my own child-mother.
"Naw. I call anything I drink that's orange an Orange Crush. They probably stopped making those years ago. It was a Slice or something. I just know you have to have something wet and sweet to get all that grease down your throat. It's that and the fried-all-to-hell onions—what Vernon calls em."
I sit still, not moving a muscle on the other end of the line, when she says, "After a couple of hours it started to get dark and the rain wasn't going to stop, so he started up the engine and we drove back home. We didn't talk most the way back. I just rolled down the window and let it rain all over me. So when we drove into the parking lot at my apartment complex and he killed the engine, I said," she says this so quiet, I almost can't hear her, "'Vernon, I just can't keep workin the way I am. It's killing me. I have to find another way and I was just wonderin if I could come back and live with you again. I was wonderin what you would say to that?
"Well, you know your father, Caroline. He just looked at me so long I really thought he was going to say no; but then he said, 'You wanna come back home, Darlene, I don't mind. That's okay with me.' I didn't like too much how he said 'home,' like that, because you know how I feel about being hemmed in again and you know how he is, his jealousy and all. But I just don't know what else to do. But then he said, 'I'll do anything to help you that you want me to. You want to come back and live with me, I'd like that.'
"So I tell him what I need, what I have to have in order to live with him again. I say I have to have my own place, maybe the back part of the house, you know? Like an apartment out of the extra bathroom and the two bedrooms to the back and side of the house. And I tell him we can eat together, if that's okay, but we aren't gonna be married so I don't intend to wait on him hand and foot like I used to. And I tell him, that I shouldn’t’ve done it back then. You know I thought he’d give me a hard time about some of this because I’m the one who left him, insisted we get a divorce and the house be left in my name. So I lay out all the ground rules and he sits there rubbing his legs and pushing his ballcap up and down over his head and saying, 'Sure, I can do that,' and "That's fine, Darlene, if that's what you need.'"
She takes in her breath on the other end of the line and I know that it's my turn. I wait a second before I say, as even and soft as I can, "It sounds like he means it, Darlene. He's not been drinkin for years and he's had his own life for awhile. It sounds fine."
I hear her breath come out in a rush, "I said 'yes,' not to him, not out loud right away. But I think I'm really going to, Caroline. It feels like I should."
"Well, I declare," I try to sound like a distant relative, like I'm just hearing some gossip, "I can't wait to tell Kat about this! or you told her already?"
"You can tell your sister if you want to, that's all right, I suppose," she says with a sigh. "But don't tell your brothers yet, okay? I gotta figure out first what I'm gonna say."
“It’s Kat that you’ve got to convince. I know that Teddy and Timothy were upset with the divorce, but Kat was livid, Darlene. She’s going to be the hurdle you’ll have to jump, you know?”
“One step at a time,” she says quietly.
I know how hard this is. She’s told everybody he’s a jerk. Now she has to live with the jerk and not just like it but be grateful. It’s a handful. “One step at a time,” I say, thinking how many times Vernon must have thought and said this during his recovery.