Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In the Wee Wee Hours

I follow her in and snap the door closed. She walks ahead of me, her heels making sharp tight tapping sounds on the hardwood floors. I see right away that it’s a 1950s kind of place, white blonde furniture with rounded edges. Something like a buffet in the living room catches my eye, but it’s hard to make out much in the dim nightlight of the hall. It’s not a big apartment but feels light, airy. I don’t want to but I allow my eyes to search for the bed when she’s not looking. Her dark shape takes familiar form only after she clicks on the lamp and she turns to face me, her hands behind her back; they seem to hold her out toward me as she leans against the wall. She stands there like this for far too long. I can’t look away—that would say far too much about me so I stand there, trying not to swallow or breath out loud. She runs her shimmering nails through her long hair, as though releasing some inner tension in us both, but I know I’m the one that’s nervous.
            "What can I get you?" she asks, turning toward the small kitchen I see now through the archway. The refrigerator hums with an oscillating regularity. I hear a clock chime somewhere upstairs. There are stairs, I reflect, so the bed’s up there. That’s miles and miles from where we are now in the kitchen. I’ll give myself away long before making those stairs. My eyes settle on the swaying arch of her backless dress, and the back and forth movement of her thighs. From there I follow the gentle line of her stocking seams down her leg to her ankles and the long spiked heels of her feet. "Never trust a woman with thick ankles," I remember someone advising me once but I wasn’t about to trust this one, thin though as her ankles are. Anyway, not yet. Everything about her is dressed for me when I was in high school, wanting to be Rita Hayworth as Miss Sadie Thompson with Aldo Ray. But it wasn’t the Aldo Rays I wanted it for.
            She pulls the Shelvador’s handle out and lets it snap back without turning around, blasting white light on the outer edges of her dress as she bends over slightly to peer inside. "Oh God," I think, "Take me soon," but I say instead, "Oh, just anything."
            She turns around, says, "Just anything?" A smile's on her face, mocking me.
            "Well, not really. Something strong. Anything strong," I say too loudly. I smell the perfume of my martini in my nose, the one—or was it two—I had only an half hour earlier at the bar. Does she bring everybody she meets—I stumble over my thinking word choice—to her home? Not “meets.” “Entertains”, that the word I looking for.
            "Of course. I don’t serve ‘weak,’" she says, almost laughing, and turns back to the refrigerator, pulls out an ice tray, noisily jerking the handle so that ice cubes clatter onto the counter and fall to the floor. With curved fingers, she picks up several from the counter and drops them into two glasses, two heavy glasses with long beveled sides that immediately begin to bead and sweat.
            I reach down to pick up the cubes on the floor, one very close to her leg and it's then that I notice the barely discernible budge, a small, hard line around the muscle of the back of her leg that throws the black seam of her silk stocking slightly off before it reaches her ankle strap.
            I reflexively reach inside my trouser pocket—I’m all gussied up like Hepburn from another time and place, just like she is—and I finger the large gift condom I've taken from the basket at the door as we left the bar. I don’t know why I take them. I do, I guess, because I think they’ll come in handy sometime. Perhaps. You never know. But they sit in my chest of drawers in my bedroom, waiting. Every time I go out, I tell myself, I’ll do what I’m to be doing now, what I think I’m doing but I never admit I’ll do it as I dream I will. I sigh silently and hold out my hand to take the glass full of gin with two olives.
            "Come," she says with eyes meeting mine. "Let's get to know each other."
            In the living room she sits down on the couch, slipping her skirt belt off with one movement. It whips past me like a striking snake. She releases the side zipper slightly, and sighs. "You go to the bar often?" she asks with her lips on the edge of the glass.
            "No, no," I lie. It was true that I didn’t go to that bar often, actually never before. "I, uh, just went tonight because..." I sit on the opposite side of the couch staring at her. She stops drinking and puts her glass down with a clank on a blue coaster on the end table. "I don't know why I went actually," I say. "I never do."
            I start to go on, thinking that I will invent along the way, but she says, in a liquid, throaty voice, "That's true. I've never seen you there."
            "Well, it's my first time," I say, and watch the gray glitter of her eyes flicker. "I mean, at the bar. The first time at the bar." I take a long swallow that burns my throat. Then, "This bar," I add with false courage.
            "How come you’ve never been to this bar?" she asks easily, her hands open, palms down by her sides. The thought crosses my mind that she just might push herself up and ask me to leave.
            "It's hard...for me...to go alone. I don't know anybody....who goes ..who’s there." I stumble along.
            "Uh huh. It's difficult coming out where you’ve gone regularly, you mean."
            My heart is pounding and my breathing is not flowing in and out like I want it to. “I'm not coming out. I said going out alone, that’s what’s hard.” I rush on, “I go other places but not often. I really don’t know anybody, anywhere… not really.” I place both my hands by my sides, now ready to push myself up and out of what I think I might be sinking into.
            She toys with a strand of hair that gives her suddenly a youthful air. Then she stops abruptly, flips her hair back with her hand and finally clasps both hands together with great flourish around her knees. Her fingers are heavy with rings. "That's all right," she says, her voice deepening. "We can do it, of course," she pauses, then laughs, "whenever you like, as you like." and her laugh tumbles easily out toward me. “But I do have a question. Why this bar, luv? I mean, it’s an openly gay bar. Surely you knew this?”
            She’s trying to find out if I’ll keep lying so I tell her the truth. “I knew but usually I’ve found…well, I thought there would be some lesbians in those bars…gay bars…some times. I mean, you were there.”
            Her laugh is breathy, open. “Diesel dikes are what you were looking for? I’m hardly that.”
            “I know, hell, I don’t know. I’m just looking.”
            “Shopping. Like trying to find that something you’re hungry for at the grocery store but you don’t know quite what you want.”
            “Maybe,” I say again. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
            “All that’s thunder in your head, honey. You know.” She reaches out and touches my leg. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Try on as many coats as you need to in order to find the right fit. I did.”
            “Are you happy?” I ask stupidly. Where this comes from I’ll never know. I’ve drunk a lot. But perhaps better this stupid than the one I’m terrified of showing.
            I think she isn’t going to regain her composure. She is laughing so hard she’s bent over and back again until I think she’ll break into. I don’t feel upset with this. I’m mesmerized by her gorgeous demeanor. I can’t help but smile, laughing a little myself. Finally, she takes a tissue from the end table nearby and wipes her eyes. “Oh Lord, girl. You are refreshing as a summer shower.” Her accent is deep and slightly southern, which I hadn’t noticed before. She searches my face a bit and says, “You mean, how can I be happy given all the camouflage?” I start to protest but she holds up her hand and actually lets her wrist flop down.  “It’s the purchase I’ve made. I’ve worn this coat for a long time and I’m comfortable with it. Everybody I know and even some I like and love aren’t comfortable with me in it, but that’s true regardless of what you wear out there. I’m not living anymore for anybody else.” She taps her finger in the air around the room. “All this and this and that are things I enjoy. They aren’t props for show, though in a way they are, but then that’s how I see all of it. A stage we design and the actors we pick to play with us on it. What I want to tell you since you’ve asked—and by the way nobody asks because I think they assume I’m not happy, gotta be conflicted if you’re like I am, you know—but I’ll tell you this, I like to play and so many people don’t.” She pauses a moment. “You know something,” she says scooting over closer to me on the couch, taking my drink, leaning over and putting it on the coffee table in front of us. “I used to be a sales clerk at a clothing store for men. I was good at it because I was…good at sales. But I wasn’t happy. Now,” she holds both arms up in the air for a moment before taking her hands and running them through her hair, “I’m much, much better at selling this than I was at selling clothes.” She leans over and kisses me long and full on the mouth.
"Never trust a hair flinger," I hear that same someone in my head advising me, but what I say to her is, "I’m buying” And then I ask, “Could I try on my coat now?"
            The walk upstairs was easier than I thought. Maybe all those drinks helped but I didn’t just dream it this time. And I didn’t have to bother with my condom. She was prepared. So my first lesbian experience was with a guy. Go figure.


How to Iron a Shirt

I learned how to iron a shirt when I had a nervous breakdown that sent me back from California, another one of those moves I’d made in the sixties to get out and away from home. The breakdown brought me right back from where I’d started, but this time everything was a bit darker and less solid. "Like a hole that's a tattoo," my mother said, not asking, telling me like only she could know what I felt like. These little aphorisms sprinkled here and there were her idea of putting me back together again. How a hole was like a tattoo I wasn't exactly sure yet, but I knew she would be sending the meaning along during the length of my stay.
            After a few days of allowing me to oversleep and mull around the house in my slippers, eating only saltines and a little cheese, she came into my bedroom one morning and announced, holding my breakfast steaming in her hands, "This hole you are in is really just yourself. You gotta get out and start doing something. You need to look around you, see that the world hasn't caved in with you." She put my breakfast on the night stand to my side. I didn't even look at it. I knew the message wasn't over, "Do you think Albert Schweitzer worries about the things that worry you?" This time I took her on, mainly because she brought me breakfast, "Okay, Momma, what am I thinking that's so hard on me?" I asked.
            "Yourself," she said, picking up where she'd left off. "You are just caught up with yourself. You know, it's like you walk around with this mental thermometer that you put up your butt every few minutes and pull it out and get a reading. "How am I today? Did that hurt? Am I today as bad as I was yesterday?" And she jabbed me one with her elbow as she sat down on the bed next to me. She laughed lightly, "You see what I mean?"
            How could I tell her about what was really happening to me? I didn't know. What was I going to say that would convince her that this hole she saw me in was not some tattoo on my arm that she thought I was wearing around?
            This morning while I nibbled at my toast, smearing some thick, hot oatmeal over the top, making a mess she was choosing to ignore, she said, "I got to thinking, you know a lot of women work now and they don't have the time to do their laundry, so why don't we take in laundry and ironing? It will be some way to get your mind off yourself and at the same time earn a little cash. What do you say?" This may sound downright silly now but back then before laundry services were offered in every town with a population of over a thousand, this wasn’t so out of the question. My bafflement wasn’t over the idea. It was over the notion that I’d actually participate in such a thing.
            "Laundry ?" was all I could come out with. It sounded like a croak to me.
            "Why not?" she said. "In the state you’re in, I don't think you can sit there thinking it's too low a job for you to do. Just look at yourself. Go on. Go to the bathroom right now and give yourself a good look. It's scary what will be staring back at you."
            I knew what would be staring back at me, so I declined to take her suggestion. I said instead, "Not that I will do this, Momma, but how do you propose we get the customers?"
            "We'll advertise, of course."
            "In the paper?"
            "Sure. Oklahoma City even, I was thinking. Those rich people up in Nichols Hills probably aren't going to come all the way down to Moore to give us their laundry, but people in the south part of town might. Del City. Midwest City. They’ll even drive up from Norman, it’s only ten miles, after all; I mean, all those professors’ wives? Well, they’re professors themselves, aren’t they, at the university? They don’t have time for laundry. And let me tell you, these people will love hand-iron clothes, a real pressed look, instead of that overly stiff and creased shirts and dresses they get from wherever in the heck they get their laundry done, if not by their maids. C’mon, this’ll work. You'll be surprised."
What I heard was the operative word, “work” and felt like running and not looking back. But instead, I heard myself saying,
            "Well, okay. Let's say I say okay to this. I don't know beans about how to iron. I iron for myself, of course. But I don't know how to iron a white shirt or a fancy cotton dress for somebody else."
            "I know. But I thought it would be nice to teach you. I know how to iron anything, remember. I worked when you were in high school in that hospital laundry not far from the school actually. Don't you remember when you got the cramps so bad that one day at school and you came in the laundry and we had to take you to emergency where I had that big argument with Dr. Chandler about
whether you should take estrogen or not? They brought you into your room on a gurney and I was almost hysterical and he tried to convince me you should have these hormone treatments? He pushed for that at a time when I was so desperate and scared about you. I was so mad at him when I finally gathered myself enough to realize what he was trying to talk me into. I looked at him and yelled, don't you remember, how I told him he was just like the morticians. Doctors are always trying to get you anymore for their experiments just like the morticians are always trying to get you to buy the biggest and best coffin, when you’re so upset you can’t see straight and don't know what you’re thinking. Listen, I'm on to these guys, was even back then."
            "Okay, Momma," was what I got in to stop her. "But you ironed on mangles at the hospital. Ironing with an ordinary iron isn't like ironing on a mangle and besides, you did flat stuff like sheets and operating room covers and ..."
            "Oh, we had our share of uniforms and all; but I know what you mean. But, look, I know how to do just about anything with an iron. You see, when I first married your father, I wanted to be the perfect wife. I used to iron the pillow cases and sheets, not to mention the tea towels. I even lightly ironed our underwear. With a cool iron, you know. And not just your father's boxer shorts but my bras and underpants, can you believe it? While I listened to Stella Dallas and Whispering Streets. I probably could still do a Doan's Pills ad word for word if I had to."
            "Your bras?"
            "Crazy, huh?"
            "Yeah, I'd say so." I ate another piece of toast smeared with oatmeal.
            "Nobody does that anymore but back then our days were filled with ought to's like that. Ordinary tasks seemed somehow elevated by this kind of attention and work. Course your father never noticed unless I couldn't get to it. Then he'd make some coarse remark about what did I do with my time anyhow, just listen to the redio?" She said "radio" like "redio."
            "I don't know, Momma. What if I breakdown in the middle of all this and can't finish my share. That's providing we get a lot of work."
            "Why don't we come to that when we get there, okay?"
            Mother had tried things to get me out of myself before. One of the hardest times was right after I came home from Germany, when I left with Horst to Spain and then took that job in Cologne for International Ford in their manufacturing plant there. I came home in a basket because Horst got scared of me somewhere between Spain and his hometown, and dumped me on this job, where I couldn't understand or speak German enough to know what the hell anybody was saying or telling me to do. When I came home from this, Mother let me sleep a week or two and then tossed me out of bed one morning saying, "Look sunshine, it's getting up and out of yourself time." I was numb and felt the nearest to crazy I'll probably ever feel and she said, "It's hard, baby, I know, but you gotta do something and I've been thinking. Here's the plan. We’re just gonna start driving out in the country every day. Just taking a drive, that's all, but it will get you out of the house and into something else that's going on out there."
            And that's what we did. We drove around. We just went out in the country and drove around. Every day for hours. She'd talk to me sometimes like you do to a little kid when you want them to learn things about what's around them. "See that over there," she'd say. "That used to be a garage where they repaired cars, you know. Now it's a restaurant. Can you believe that? How the heck could they get all the grease and exhaust smells out of there to make it into a restaurant? Beats me." When she talked to me like this, she never waited for an answer at first. She just went from one thing to another talking and talking away. Looking back on it, I can't figure out why she didn't get on my nerves. Maybe I was just too numb to care. But I remember getting into it, you know. I'd look out the window and listen to what she was saying and think about it. And after awhile I'd embellish what she was saying, add to it in some way or disagree with it. Mother would reach over and pat my leg every now and then and say, "That's good, honey" or "That's great."
            One afternoon after we had been driving around the countryside for months and months, I begin to notice the change in the seasons, not just because it began to get colder and we had to wear heavier clothes in the car and turn on the heater, but I began to notice how the color of the sky looked different, how the grass faded in spots and how the bark on the trees grew darker and tougher in appearance. Mother was remaining quiet more as I just looked out the window. I said to her this one afternoon, "Life is so multi-colored and changing. I mean, the natural color of things changes and the whole atmosphere surrounding us never stays the same. Why don't you think we notice that except in the most superficial ways most of the time?"
            "Well," she said. "I think I don't do that. Sometimes I just let all this slide past me like most of us do a lot of the time, but really I have to tell you, that even as a little girl when I played out on our farm, I loved going past the same trees and into the same fields every day, and I noticed changes, even day to day. Some differences, even hour to hour. I loved the animals and their way of just being there. It seemed to me as I watched the birds and squirrels and groundhogs as well as all the farm animals, they had a sort of being into things that we humans lack. A tree changes without….this sounds crazy."
            "No," I caught myself saying, "I find this interesting."
            "Well, it's like things in nature, if we leave them alone, just don't try to do or be anything other than what they are. They are, you know? And it makes me part of that if I get out a little each day and stand and let it come into me and I just am in it, you know what I mean?"
            I made some approving sound, because she got quiet and let me look for myself again. After an hour or so, I realized we had gone far past the perimeters of our other drives and I asked her when we were going to go home. "How would you like to go to my home place?" she asked.
            "Drive to Shirly?" I asked in a kind of panic.
            "Yes, why not? You’re comfortable, aren't you, and you’re with me and it's only an hour or so longer. Why not?"
            "Won't Dad worry?"
            "Oh, no. Besides I can call him up the road on our way. I've done these meanderings for years. Once he found out I wasn't doing anything illicit or illegal and that I always returned, he started making his own supper, reading the paper and going to bed."
            "I don't know if I can..."
            "Honey, you need to relax and trust what you will see and do or you will be at this a long time, this time around."
            I didn't say anything but the anxiety was growing in my stomach. "All right," I said quietly.
            "Good," she said, stepping on the gas. "We will be there in no time."
             As we walked in the fields that afternoon, she told me stories about how she learned about birth and death, about planting and harvest, about sex and love. She told me stories about how she met my father, about her father and his drinking and anger, about her mother and her fear of being alone at night in the darkness on the farm. We stopped to take small twigs from the trees to identify later, snapped dried milkweed pods that showered the afternoon air with white fuzz, and before we left I scooped into a can two handfuls of powdery red shale from the driveway.
            "Stains everything when it's wet," Mother said. "We used to make blood out of it when we played."
            On the way home, we stopped at a small diner in a little town where the waitress brought our hamburgers on thick plates and we drank our coffee from heavy cups. That night, past the reaches of the stars, I slept in the car seat the rest of the way home.
            "I'm not sure why you want to do this again for me, Momma." I said about this ironing proposition.
            "You're my daughter," she said. "I love you."
            "Well, I know. But it's like it's starting all over again. Each time it happens I feel more scared and uneasy. I think I get past it and here it comes again. I never know if all these efforts will add up to anything."
            "But that's the important part to understand, Caroline. You missed something the other times around. You just didn't get it all, you see? So each time you have to go back over it until you get to the part where you are stuck and try it another way."
            "I don't seem to get past it though. Whatever it is. I feel like I'm back where I started again."
            "Oh, but you aren't. Look how quickly you got through this first part this time. You were up and around in days, not weeks; and it took you only a few days to start walking around outside and going with me to the store for groceries. You are shopping downtown now already. It took months of driving in the country the last time before you felt comfortable out of the house, remember?"
            "Momma, what's wrong with me? I'm a grown woman and I can't simply live."
            "You are afraid, baby."
            "That's crazy. Why do I keep falling apart like this? Why can't I just be like other people, just go out there and do things without suddenly falling apart? It's like a disease. I feel like I suddenly have this terrible something come over me, like an aching, a fever. A terror is what it is. And I can't go on. I have to die like this each time before I can go on. I need to go to a doctor or to a crazy house."
            "No, honey," Mother said, sitting down next to me. "You're just mixed up a little yet. It's getting better, surely you see that. And you need to go through this until you don't have to go through it anymore."
            "What I need is a doctor, a shrink."
            "What do you think a doctor will do for you that you can't do for yourself?"
            "Tell me things. Show me things, things I can't see, I don't want to see."
            "And what might that be?"
            "I don't know, Momma. That's the point."
            "More like putting ideas into your head, I think. They did mine."
            "You’re just afraid of doctors because you’ve been through this, and you think they didn't help you."
            "They didn't help me."
            "Okay, but maybe things are different now. They know more now."
            "You can go to the doctors if you want, Caroline, and you might get help there for yourself. I didn't, but maybe you can. But this I've learned, it will always get back to the laundry. Always."
            "The laundry?" I’m groaning inside.
            "It will always get back to everyday things, living an ordinary life. Those who don't are usually running. And those who do, well, they can be running too. It's how you deal with your ordinariness that matters."
            "Like everyone has to do their own laundry, is this the lesson for today? Like we can't take it to someone else to do?" When she didn't say anything, I said, "Then why are we thinking about doing other people's laundry?"
            "It's not the laundry, like the laundry, washing clothes, you know. It's learning to help yourself, to do for yourself, learning to be in the world alone, for yourself. It will take a shrink a long time to take you to an ironing board and show you how to do a shirt, and that's what you need to learn now."
            I felt like screaming and almost did, "I need to learn to iron a shirt to make this craziness stop?
            "You need to trust that when, when is an important word here, Caroline, that when you are ironing a shirt, you need to trust that this is what you are."  
            "Oh, my God, Momma. You are crazy. You are crazier than I am. You’re telling me I have to be Donna Reed?"
            She just smiled at me and said, "Caroline, bring me the ironing board from the utility room and go get two of your dad's white shirts out of his closet. And then I want you to go and get that red shale you took from the driveway of my home place that you keep in that can in your room. First I'm going to show you how to iron a white dress shirt step by step and then I'm going to show you how to get a stain out in a way that you will never see it again."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Momma's Record



                                                             
Momma's Record

"I've gotten myself into some trouble," my mother begins on the other end of the line. "I can hear what you're gonna tell me already about this, but you have a right to know so I'm, well, I'm calling to tell you about it."
            "Are you all right?" I ask, immediately searching for what might be coming next. My mother has always taken unexpected twists and turns. When I was growing up the ambulance and police had been at our door at the same time more than once.
            "You're thinking 'what now?'," she says with a sigh, "I can just hear it." 
            "Darlene, just spill it, okay? Don't try to make me outguess you. You're talking to me, right? So I know you're alive, and okay." And 1500 miles away, so what can hurt me now, I reason. I try to laugh. What comes out is a nervous twangy sound.
            "Okay, here goes," she says. I see her hanging on the receiver, squinting her eyes. "I got arrested last week."
            "What?!" She is right. I'm not anywhere near ready for this, though 'surprised' isn't the word that comes to mind. 'Anxious' is closer to it.
            "That's it, in a nut shell. Your mother now has a record." 
            "What the hell happened?" I ask, wondering if I want to know, thinking I probably do know.
            "Well, I got caught breaking and entering and had to go to the county seat in Chickasha where they almost put me in jail."
            "Good God," I say. "They caught you on somebody's land. In an old barn?"
            "Old house," she breathes, close to the phone. "One outside Rush Springs. Caroline, you should have seen this house! The roof was almost totally gone. Looked like one of those mules, the back of one of those mules when they get old, you know, caved in; Rain had just poured in all over everything.and plaster from the walls all over the floors. The place had been completely  abandoned."
            "I didn't know you were still doing this, Mother," I say. I rarely call her Mother these days. Now it is by her first name because she asked me to, after she had read "Sexual Politics," "The Female Eunuch," and "The Feminine Mystique." When I was little it was "Momma." I hear her breathing so close to the mouthpiece, I think she's in my head. She doesn't answer right away.
            "I'm not doing it anymore, not really," she says, with small resignation in her voice that gives way all too soon to excitement. "In fact, this is kinda funny because I haven't gone out, looking around for houses in ages. But this one house, I had gone out there several times in the past, and I got to thinking about it and then I remembered some pressed glass and some of that salt glaze crockery I saw in the kitchen on my last visit, so I went for a drive out there, went in and some people saw me. I got caught."
            "You gotta stop this, you know that?" I feel removed, the old defenses kicking in. I am on a ride, watching a show, just living it through. I hear my voice flattening, a bad stage delivery, still trying to stay into the part.
            "I know that now. Do I ever!" She sounds light, easy. It takes only a little off the edge of my fears.
            "I really thought you had. How..." I start and stop, "Why do you keep doing it?"
            "Well, after you left, I took other people with me. Sometimes, toward the end, I took Kat with me too."
            "Katharine? You took Kat ? Momma, that's just crazy!"
            "Is it?" she asks, innocently. "It's not, not really, Caroline. What was I supposed to do with her? There was nowhere to leave her in the summertime. Except with a baby sitter and I can't afford that."
            "Mother, do you know how crazy this sounds?" I get this far and realize my subliminal release. "Do you see how..." I skirt the word 'crazy' this time, "how illogical it sounds to say you can't afford to leave your child with a babysitter while you go out to steal, Darlene?" Then I just let it all surface. "It's even crazier to take her along." I can hear I am shouting. I also catch that I am jumping all over the place, trying to figure out where I fit into who I think she is to me now, and then how that fits with what she's just done; but deeper inside, beyond the usual fears of my childhood, I know. Above all else she’s my mother but she’s also become my friend, crazy friend, but my crazy best friend really. She can withstand anything, or so it would seem.
            "Caroline!" she yells back.
            "I'm sorry," I say. "it's just that...."    
            "Well, you’re right, of course. It's exactly what Kat said too, and that got to me," she says, a little mollified. "She looked up at me when I was carrying a box full of china out of this one place we went to and said, 'Momma, should you be doing this? You’re stealing, aren't you?' Well, of course, I had to justify it, you know. I've taught her to be so honest and all. So I said, 'Honey, these people don't want this. They've abandoned this stuff and it's okay if we take it. It's just gonna rot out here and then nobody can enjoy it.' That's how I reasoned about all this. And that I started it because I was helping you."
            I groan, but decide to withhold any more comments until I get the whole story. "So what happened, for God's sakes?"          
            "Well, like I say, I had gone out there several times. I had to go under a fence and walk across this field quite a ways. It was pretty isolated. And there was no way I could get the truck up to it. The driveway was long gone." She pauses, but I remain silent.
            "I had taken Teddy out there when he came to visit by himself without Sara, right after you left for Long Island. He laughs about it yet. I mean, that's how long ago and how many times I went back to this one place, Caroline. This house was filled with treasures. Treasures.  Teddy was terrified, you know, like Vernon..."
            "You took Daddy?" I nearly drop the phone.
            "Oh my yes, I took all the members of the family, except you, of course. I even took Leon and his wife once. Not all of them to this house where I got caught, but to others. Teddy still tells me that it was the thrill of his life. He went only once."
            "Dear God," is all I say. My fingers are pressing against my lips so that I can't say more.
            "This house where I got caught was the house of all abandoned houses! There was even a secretariat there that had to’ve dated earlier than the 1900s. It had those small cherubs on top with wings, like those on the tombstones back in the late 1800s. It had beveled glass and those curved drawers with the original  brass handles. Solid tiger oak. No lamination anywhere. God, I would loved  to’ve had that piece, but there was just no way we could've dragged it across that plowed field without ruining it. The glass never would've made it."
            "It's good to see that you were thinking during this ordeal!" I say.
            "Okay, you can poke fun about this now but it probably saved your life, you know."
            "Darlene..." I start, feeling my mouth open and then close.
            She waits and when I don't continue, she rushes on like I am a Dictaphone.
            "Anyway, you need to know that your father participated in these outings fully. It took a while to convince him that he wasn't really stealing, but it didn't take all that long. We went together mostly after dark because he was such a scaredy cat that he wouldn't go out during the day, not even when it was raining."
            "It's good to see that somebody had some sense about this," I say sarcastically, making another stab at getting through.
            "Well, what I see is that it was a mistake to call you, Caroline. You're just going to be snotty and not really listen so I'm not going on with it." She has the tone that means she is getting ready to bang the receiver down in my ear.        
            "Don't you hang up on me now," I say hotly. "You call me up, tell me you’ve been arrested and gone to court over stealing and when I get a little provoked by it, you want to hang up? Come on, Darlene. I'm overwhelmed."
            "Well, you shouldn't be. You know perfectly well how we did this. You and I did it for, how long? Well over a year, I'd say. So don't act like this is foreign news here."
            "We did it, yes, but it was different. We just fell into it, it just happened and it was...." I falter. "It was different."
            "Uh, huh," she says, self-righteously. "Different because you were doing it. We went out there knowing what we were doing. At first, you're right, we did just fall into it. But it didn't take long before we were jumping into the truck and looking for these abandoned places intentionally. We got so we talked about it days before we left, deciding what part of the state we would drive to next. So don't act like you are outside this whole business."
            "You have me there." I admit, sheepishly. My mother is so confounded honest in this strangely dishonest way. It's like trying to talk to a philosopher or a lawyer. There is no simple straightness about anything. "But we took stuff out of old barns I used in my art work, Momma," I say, a plaintiff sound coming into my voice. "You and I never once went into a house together and carried out furniture and glassware or old china."
            "What about that time we took those old jars outta Lenora Pjesky's cellar?"
            "You said she had taken everything she wanted and she told you that anybody who wanted anything could just go on into that 'sad sack of a farm' and take what they wanted. I thought we had permission, license."        
            "Abandonment is license," she says. "That's why we, why I, did it. This stuff was going to rot." She pauses here and reorients herself, "Anyway, how the
heck did you think we filled our house with antiques, Caroline. When you came home and saw all this old furniture in the living room and bedrooms, different
pieces each time you came to visit, where did you think they were coming from?" Now, she is the exasperated one.
            "I guess I thought you were buying them."
            "With what? On your father's salary? Come on." She’s building up steam fast. I can see her lips moving non-stop from a long time ago. "You know what? People don't ask questions they don't want to know the answers to. And you didn't want to know. So you didn't ask."
            She has me by the heel. I'm not going anywhere fast. "I didn't think about it, I guess. I just figured you were living your own life and I was living mine.      But you're right, Mom. I didn't ask. But then you didn't tell me either. When I'd say something like, 'That really is a great dresser in that back bedroom,' you'd say something like, 'Isn't that nice. I'm guessing it dates before the turn of the century' or when I asked about the Hoosier cabinet that one time, you said, 'I'm sure that belonged to a Mennonite family.' You never offered anything more. And for all our driving around together, you never suggested I go into old houses with you when I came home."
            She grunts is all. Then, "I even took your Aunt Lizabeth out there with Shannon."
            "You didn't!" It seems impossible. Aunt Elizabeth is a staunch Southern Baptist. Profound  fundamentalist. She would never approve of this kind of sashaying around the law.
            "Sure I did. And they loved it. Shannon got a flag with 13 stars. Not one of the originals, of course, but a good replica worth something probably. He still has it. I saw him at the reunion last summer and he told me he has it hanging in his room." I’m seeing it with two nails driven through the corners into the wall.
            "And Dad did this with you?" This is the greater wonder to me.
            "Well, he was scared to death, but he loved it like the rest of us. Caroline, out of another house, God, where was this one, somewhere between Kingfisher and Hennessey, I think it was the first place we went to after you were gone, we took this dresser." I notice that nowhere in these recollections is she using the word "stolen." She is saying that she picked up or took this or that as though it was a given and she just reached out and claimed it or even, for the love of Humanity, saved  it. "Gave it a home," is the idea that crosses my mind.   
            "It was your father who dragged it across this plowed field. It was banging over the clods and clumps of dirt and I kept yelling, 'Vernon, you are ruining this. Stop, for God's sake, stop.' But you know him, he just kept going a hundred miles an hour, the dresser jerking up and down, the drawers rattling. He was making a terrible racket. I just knew we would be heard and get caught and with him scared half out of his mind, God only knows what he would have said or done, if someone had shown up. I ran up to his ear and screamed for him to stop, just so I could get through to him. He finally sat the dresser up, holding it as best he could, its legs sinking down until I was sure we wouldn't be able to get it out of there, and I showed him this place on my arm that was getting bruised and was starting to bleed. I said, 'Look, for God's sake. I am going to have a scar here all because you are doing this like you are crazy.' I finally got him to slow down and together we got the thing in the truck and took off.
            "I wish you could have seen his face, Caroline. Once in the truck, he was a maniac, his eyes all shiny, this terrible grin on his face, like we got away with Fort Knox. He was high as a kite. But he was terrified out there in that field and in the house with our flashlights shining all over this stuff, like real burglars, you know. And his face! His face looked weird, like he was going to go screaming crazy any minute, but he didn't stop and run back to the truck like I thought he was going to at first. He kept saying, 'Oh, my God, will you look at this. My mother had one of these ice boxes only it was made out of oak. This is probably pine.' Then he got his nose right up to it, shining his flashlight on the brass label. He ran his hand all over it like it was something special. 'It's a Biddle from Philadelphia, Darlene, registered 1857, and I think it's green poplar. Will you look at this! This is just beautiful!'  Of course, he didn't know a Biddle from a bobcat, and neither did I, but it was so very beautiful, and authentic. This  we knew. The flap where they kept the draining pan was water stained, and the pan was still under it. It was original, all right. Then he wanted to know if we could take it. I told him we could do that or take the dresser, and when he saw the dresser, he thought maybe that would be lighter and maybe easier than the ice box. 'We could see how it goes,' he said to me, 'and then come back for the ice box another time.'  Which we did, of course. He was just as scared that night as he was the first time, though. He never got over being scared, but he went with me on regular runs after that. All over the state. I got a scar from that dresser time, though. The bruise is so deep, I don’t think it'll ever go away."
            "How often have you been doing this, for God's sake?" I ask. "It's a miracle you haven't been caught before." I hear myself joining in, like this is normal everyday activity in American homes everywhere.
            "Get caught, you say? I used to come home and lay in bed at night and just shutter over what how close some of my calls were. I went to this one house once where I was looking in the windows when an old, old woman came out the side door and said, "What the hell are you doing anyhow?" I told her I was just looking around. I mean, you should have seen the place. Who would believe somebody was living in a house that dilapidated? But getting caught should have been the least of my worries. This place where I did get caught, I discovered when we went out there with the police, after I was charged and met this guy who owned it, it had a well. An open well, Caroline. I didn't know that then, but I took Kat with me, you know, on those earlier trips, sometimes at dark and she'd run around while I looked over the stuff. She could have fallen in there, or I could have, leaving her out there without anyone in the dark. God, I've thought of that a thousand times this week. But back then, I didn't think about that kind of stuff, just how somebody could turn us in and I might get in trouble. And I didn't even give that much thought. Not really. Well, obviously. "   
            She makes 'back then' sound like years and years of mischief she has left behind her. 'Back then' is really the first of last week.
            "But you did get caught, you're telling me. You said you've been arrested. Been to court."
            "Well, this car came up while I was out there."
            "With Kat?"
            "No, no. I went out there by myself this time. I left her at that day care center that takes kids for an hour or two."
            "Like Martinizing."
            "Stop that, Caroline," she shouts and I tell her to go on.
            She pauses only a second, changes her voice to the narrative and plunges back into her story. "I remembered a couple bowls I wanted and a J. Norton jug I'd seen in the pantry, stamped in that cobalt blue, which brings several hundred dollars now, so I went back for them. We had carried a rocker, a night stand, quite a bit of furniture, actually, outta there already, so I just wanted a few loose pieces before I stopped going out there. And when I was coming outta the house, I saw a car going real slow along the road by the fence so I stepped back inside the house and waited. They turned around at the corner and came back along the fence, moving very slow this time, then they took off. So I figured they were just curious. But a couple of days later, two policemen showed up at our door. Thank Almighty God Vernon was at work and not home." She pauses briefly, then goes charging on, "Anyway, they asked to come in and what could I do, I mean, they're the law. They sat down and asked me if I knew anything about a burglary that had taken place at this farm that they named, and I felt a little panic, but it didn't sound like where I'd been, though it was somewhere around that area because they were from Chickasha which is the county seat for Rush Springs. I said, No, I didn't know the place they were talking about, and that I certainly hadn't been a part of any burglary. And then they asked what I was doing in front of the Darrell Lovell house. I didn't know the name of the property I'd been at, I never thought about it having a name, belonging to anybody, you know, so I said I had been out in the country at an old abandoned house, just outside Rush Springs last Sunday late in the afternoon and had picked up several things while I was there. And then they asked me if I had ever been out there before and I said that I had. They asked me if I took anything out of this house at those other times and I said 'yes,' and they asked me to tell them what these were and I named a few. They asked to see these things and I showed them a rocker and some china and a few bottles. And that's when they told me that they had a summons for my arrest. They must've thought that I was part of the other burglary going on in the area that day so they had a summons right on them. They said I was being charged with a burglary at the Darrell Lovell residence and that I was to come to Chickasha the following week concerning these stolen goods. They walked out with the rocking chair and two boxes of glassware, bottles and such."
            "Momma, this is really, really  serious stuff you are into. Do you know this?"
            "Just listen, Caroline, you can yell at me later. When Vernon came home and I told him, he went crazy, as you might imagine. He first suggested that I call this Lovell guy up and give away all our furniture. Well, I told him that I wasn't going to do that. I had no intention of giving up any more than I had to, and that I planned to go through this thing one step at a time. The law can be absolutely immaculate at times, but at others, it can be downright sloppy and I was guessing that anything coming out of the Chickasha county courthouse couldn't be too terribly immaculate, so I wasn't really scared. I talked him into settling down. I told him I'd coach him..."
            "A real Ma Barker," I interject glumly.
            "Caroline, you promised," she pleads.
            "Sorry, go on, Momma," I say.
            "Suddenly, I'm Momma, now," she says, sharply. "You’re as bad as Timothy. When I told him, he said, 'You can't let Dad go with you. You'll end up in jail. This is something I have to do with you." So he went with me. But once there, he was as scared as Vernon would ever have been, and as negative as well. And I have to say, once I got into the courthouse and met the sheriff, I began to see how much trouble I really was in. He came over, a really nice looking man, short, and skinny like your father used to be, but he wasn't as Okiefied. He was probably 50 or so and he started out saying that he wanted me to list everything I had taken out of that house. He handed me this piece of paper and a pen and started to walk off, but then he came over and sat down next to me on this bench. Timmy was sitting on the other side of me, but he wasn't looking at us, just listening, and the sheriff looked right at me and said, 'You are in a lot of trouble. I wonder if you know how much trouble you are in. You took things out of someone else's house and put them in your house. In the eyes of the law this is breaking and entering and possession of stolen goods. This is larceny.  Do you understand this? This was a burglary you were engaged in. You could go to jail.  I'm talking about serving time here.'
            "Caroline, until this moment, I just didn't get it. I mean, I just didn't see what I was doing. It never dawned on me that I was taking anybody's property,  that I was stealing. And then he said, 'I want you to tell me in your own words why you did what you did.'
            "I began to shake, now. I mean my teeth were chattering. It was like I had been hit all at once by a two-by-four. I looked at Timothy and his eyes were coming outta his head. I could hear his breathing in little jerks while he sat beside me. He was white as a sheet. Thank God, he didn't say anything. He just sat there, looking away down the hall. I said to the sheriff, 'You know what? I did this for my daughter.' I thought this guy was going to drop his eye teeth. 'I know how weird this is going to sound,' I said, 'but I got started with this because my daughter came home from Germany in a basket. Her boyfriend had abandoned her and she didn't have any place to go but back home’…” Here she was inventing in order to make the story good for her because I was the one that ditched Wolfgang Schröder and she knows this. “…and, Caroline, then I just told him all about how sick you had been, how I tried to get you back into things, especially your art work, and that we went out driving each day for ever so long, just trying to get you to feel normal and real again, and one day we saw this barn that looked like nobody was using it anymore and we went in there and we found all these old rusty tools and we carried some out in buckets we found there. I told him how your father got a welder for you that you could use in your artwork and how you started welding pieces together in the garage and that we found buckets and buckets of old rusty nails in other places, abandoned sheds and barns, that you took home and pounded into pieces of wood we found in fields and that you made art pieces with them. I told him that one of these was still sitting on our front porch, if he wanted any proof. And that some of these sculptures were still in the attic of our garage, although some you gave away and a few you sold for a few dollars. I told him that you were an artist and that when you came home I wanted to help you and that we didn't have any money for a psychologist, at least not for very long, and that once we fell into this and I saw it was helping you, I just kept it up for your sake. And that through all this you forgot about yourself, you got lost in your work again and that the stuff we took, we thought of, well, like we found it, really. And that through this you were restored. You got back to your old self. And I told him that you weren't the only one who benefited from this. That I did too. I got my fire back. I felt like I was alive again, because I needed to help you and that I had been really sick too, but by the time you came back home, I was working on myself enough to be able to help and that I needed to do that. I told him how I was so crazy the whole time you were growing up and how I had passed on my shit to you, and I needed now to be there for you when you needed me. I talked and talked and Timmy just sat there with his head in his hands. He didn't look at me, but I could see his face was getting redder and redder under his hands. I wasn't embarrassed, you know, I just told the sheriff the truth. Nothing embarrassing about that.
            "When I got done, this sheriff looked at me, actually he never took his eyes off of me, and he said, 'You did a wonderful thing for your daughter.' I nearly fell off the bench. That's what he said. 'You did a wonderful thing for your daughter.' Then he got up and told me to make my list of what I had taken and he said he was going to go in and talk to the District Attorney."    
            "Good God, Mother. You had to have been terrified."     
            "Oh God, yes." she said quickly. "I've never been so scared in my life. And Timothy. He was breathing in these short little spurts. I thought he was going to do-do himself right then and there while we were waiting. We sat there six hours."      
            "Six hours ? You're kidding!"         
            "No, I'm not. We were afraid to go to the bathroom even. I mean, we sat there for six hours, Caroline, while these guys decided my fate. I mean, I could be in jail  right this minute."
            "Was Timothy any help?"
            "I was terribly glad he was with me but he was too scared to help. And what's so funny is that while we were waiting we talked about little things. He's getting ready to marry Lynelle in January. I don't know if you even know this yet, and he talked about where they might get married. We talked about his work, how it had slacked off. Just stuff. Most the time, we were just quiet, just staring off into space, waiting. We both shook for six hours. My blood pressure was up and down." She pauses and it sounds like she is drinking something, though she rarely has alcohol. At this moment, I feel like I could guzzle Jim Beam right out of the bottle.                 
            When she starts again, she is sputtering, 'Then the sheriff came out and I thought, 'This is it!'  He walked up to us. I didn't look at Timothy but I felt him stand up next to me. 'We want you to come in. The D.A. wants to talk to you,' was all he said. So we followed him into the D.A.'s office.
            "Now, this is very peculiar. I mean, it hasn't been even two weeks yet, but I can't tell you what the D.A. looked like. He was sitting there in a dark blue suit behind this big desk that looked like a small oval office with flags on both sides of him, but he never said a word. The sheriff had us sit down and he said, 'We are going to let you off.' That's exactly what he said. 'We are going to let you off with court charges and the price of one chair. The reason you are going to get a light sentence is because you did this thing for your daughter.' Can you believe this, Caroline?           
            'The court is convening now,' he said, 'and you have to wait until your case comes up. When they call your name, you will hear the charges read against you and when they ask you how you are going to plead, you will say 'guilty.' That's all  you are going to say. Just say 'guilty.' Not another word.'          
            "I stood in court by these two guys who had each broken into separate gasoline stations and were being charged with the same thing I was. They went ahead of me and they both went to jail. I was shaking so bad, I thought I'd fall down, but when my name was read and they asked me how I pleaded, I did exactly what the sheriff told me to do. "The judge told me the charges had been reduced to a misdemeanor for which I would pay court costs and the price of one chair and that I would take back every item I had listed on the paper to the old house from where I had taken it. The sheriff then lead Timmy and me into a side office and when we sat down, I picked up a Kleenex I had held in my hands and broke down completely. Boy, let me tell you, this guy didn't let me off the hook for a minute. He got right next to me, right in my face, and said this: 'Darlene Jantz if you ever, ever, ever go into an old house again I'm going to take you across my checkered apron and whip the hell out of you.' I told him he didn't need to worry. He told me to make out a check for $253.50 to the county court which I did, but, Caroline, it was hot, because I didn't have a dime in my account. Of course, I raced to the bank and made arrangements to cover it the very next morning. I didn't tell Timothy or your father that or I wouldn't've had any peace for days. And he told me one more thing. He said, 'You will have this misdemeanor on your record for six month. If you do one tiny little thing wrong, if you run a red light, get a parking ticket, anything, anything at all, you are back on the books and we start this thing all over again. And I'm telling you now, the D.A. will not be sympathetic to your cause the second time around.'     
            "When we drove out of Chickasha, when we were past the speed limit sign out on the highway, Timmy looked at me and said, 'Mother, do you have any idea how fortunate you are. Do you realize how close you were to going to jail?' I was so relieved, I couldn't talk. I just nodded and when I looked up at him, he was grinning a little, I mean, he had to, Caroline, he'd gone out there with me once, you know.                
            “'I'm going to tell you one thing,' he said then, 'I am going to get so stinkin’ drunk tonight I'm not even gonna know my name.  But you got one thing out of all of this, kiddo. You have something to tell your grand kids.' And he started laughing until tears rolled out of his eyes. And I joined in. We had to stop on the emergency lane and settle down before we could drive on home."       
            "I can't believe this," is all I can think to say. I feel both utterly exhausted and relieved. At least, the anxiety is gone.
            "Well, believe it. It happened and yesterday the police came for me, and we went out to the house, them following me in my pick up half full of stuff I had listed that I'd taken out of the house.
            "When we got inside, this red-headed man, huge, with a real red face to match, was standing there. He looked like he could have killed me and without the police he could have too. The police asked him if he had any questions for me. And they were very specific about it being questions and not comments. He came toward me and I thought I'd die. He said, ‘Did you take a plaid shirt out of this closet,’ and he jabbed the air toward the back bedroom. I told him I didn't even go in there because the floor looked like it wouldn't hold anybody up. He seemed satisfied with that, looked at the sheriff a long time, who was there too, and then walked out the door without another word, walked across the field to his truck and drove off. I helped the police carry the stuff from my pickup back into the house.
            “When I went out to my truck to leave, the sheriff followed me out there and said, 'You will never know who you tangled with. This Darrell Lovell is one tough customer. It’s why we processed your case as quickly as possible. I can't begin to tell you the dealings we have had with him over the years. This house you went into was abandoned by him the day his wife died. He told us that he walked out the door without taking one thing with him, not his clothes or anything. He left everything right like it was the day she died. And his sentiment was that he wanted 'everything  to go down with her.' Those were his exact words. He sees your trespassing on his property in the worst possible light.” He paused for a bit and I thought he was done but he leaned over the truck bed, folded his fingers together, twirled his thumbs like Vernon does sometimes and he after he cleared his throat, he said, “Do you have any idea how close you might have come to being shot over this?'  
            "I shook my head. I had never thought about any of this connected with getting hurt.  I just saw it in terms of maybe getting caught and having to explain myself, you know.
            "'Yes, shot,' he said. 'Mr. Lovell's shot more than one person during his lifetime. Once when a bill collector came up his drive. The man luckily didn't die, but Lovell's been in and out of court and jail so many times over situations of this kind, I can't count them. We have several files on him. And this house is his big thing, Darlene.' Now, this sheriff is calling me by my first name already.
            "And then maybe because he had been so sympathetic during all of this and maybe, too, because I felt like I knew this guy by now, you know, so I asked him, 'I just have one question about all this,' I said. 'I mean I'm going to do exactly what you told me to, this is the last of it, honestly it is, but why do people leave this stuff. Okay in Darrell Lovell's case, he was sentimental about his wife, but lots of people just let this stuff go to ruin and it seems like such a shame.
            "And he agreed with me. Then he told me that years ago when people didn't have ways to travel like we do today, they left things that they couldn't take with them or didn't want anymore, like when they had to move from one place to another. 'Lots of people think that these antiques you treasure so much are just old furniture, so they leave it and buy new stuff from Sears,' he said. 'We have lots of that kind of thinking around here. But the bottom line is that it’s their  property, on their land, and when you across that property line, you are in violation of the law.' I thanked him and left and that was the end of it."
            "Darlene?" I break in finally, my voice as close to the phone now as hers.
            "Yes, Honey."
            "You didn't give it all back, did you?"
            There is a tiny pause, "Course not."
            I just lose it. "God, Mother, what are we going to do with you?" I sound as exasperated as I can, but I'm all played out. Just like old times, I think.
            "Look here, Caroline. You and I both know it’s like your father told me. Those policemen are rocking in that chair right now in their station. There's no way they took it back out there to have the rain and wind rot it to pieces. I didn't
see it anywhere around when I was out there with them and Darrell Lovell. Your father had completely  refinished it. It was beautiful.  All of us, the pooolice," she says 'poooolice' in that sarcastic, drawn out way Southerners do, "the D.A., the sheriff and I all of us know the real  truth behind all of this, but this is the way it is, you know. So we play it out."
            "What did you keep?" I say without affect.
            "I couldn't tell you, really. I wasn't even sure that everything I put in the boxes came out of that house. And this Lovell guy didn't know what he had out there anymore either. He just got hung up on a shirt he thought was out there or maybe he asked because he was testing me. Who knows? Maybe, he's been crazy ever since his wife died. I couldn't tell you if he was crazy or not. Who's to say about any of it."
            "How much did you keep?" I ask, the phone now totally molded to my ear.
            "More than I gave back," she says with a laugh.
            "Darlene!" I whine.   
            "Oh don't be so self-righteous, Caroline. You are going to inherit a lot of it when your father and I are gone. I dare say you won't be throwing any of it back into the rain!"