Five very different stories; one common tie. While battling poverty, infidelity, a difficult past, or parental rejection, four pregnant women are brought together by a kind soul facing trials of her own. Written in alternating first-person perspectives, in a style resonant of country music and Southern classics, this promises both laughs and tears.
If you ever find yourself feeling quietly confident about your capabilities as a mother, turn your guest room over to a teenager you’ve never met, and see what happens.
The night she arrived, Payton was so tired from the journey that she went to bed as soon as she had finished eating. She didn’t even get to finish telling us her story, although it wasn’t difficult to fill in the blanks: she was young, and dumb, and pregnant by her on-again off-again boyfriend. She had half been kicked out by her parents and half fled their tyranny of her own free will. She had hoped that Marty, who she hadn’t really spoken to in years, would have room for her.
Since he only had the studio apartment, Marty and I agreed that Payton would stay with me. She had pissed me off within twelve hours by fiddling with the AC in the night. She must come from money, I thought, as I bumped it up again from 65 to 74, telling myself that someone like her could never understand not having enough money to pay a power bill. I voiced these concerns to Marty when I called him on my lunch hour.
“Joanne, YOU don’t know what it’s like to not be able to pay a power bill,” Marty said, his tone not at all playful.
“I did, growing up,” I snapped, remembering sweltering in the middle of August in a tin-can house because the power had been cut off, again; remembering winters spent shivering under two blankets in my clothes, afraid to move, in case the little pocket of warmth I had created for myself didn’t extend any farther than where I lay. I remembered living in childish fear that one day the propane camping stove would explode, or Mama would spill her liquor onto the flame and set the whole house ablaze. In winter, when the well water ran its coldest, my brothers and I went to school early and took showers in the gym. Mama would just try to stay clean, knowing that if she got sick from showering under that icy water, she could not work, and we would not eat.
Payton was the girl in sixth grade who mocked my knock-off Converse sneakers. She was the boy in eleventh grade who said that I might have been cute if I dressed in nice clothes. She was the group of ninth-graders who asked me how I could be so fat if I was poor. Every time she left a light on, or bumped the AC down, or took a too-long shower, she became any number of those children who made my life miserable. There was the same hurt in all of our hearts – whether it be poverty, or an addicted parent, or a neglectful one – in that town we all had the same stories, just different trailers. It didn’t stop hierarchy from setting in. No one had rich parents, but some had parents who at least had enough to give their children brand-name clothing or shoes; some were rich enough to keep the power on year-round. Some of us didn’t make it to adulthood, instead finding booze or pills along the way, and ending up in prison or worse. Some of us reached adulthood with children of our own. I was one of the few who escaped, but something as simple as a light left on could always drag me back.
On day five with Payton, I took a personal day from work and went to see Mama. Even on the drive, memories came flooding back. My hometown had past, but no future. On Mineral Springs I got my first speeding ticket, and Mama cried. To this day, I can’t drive along that road without a pang of guilt.
It was strange to see Mama’s entire life packed away into boxes. They were piled high in the living room, all old liquor boxes.
“Are you a bootlegger now?” I asked, gesturing the stack of Seagram Seven boxes.
“Joanne!” Mama leaped from the couch and threw her arms around me. “I didn’t know you were coming!”
“I thought I’d surprise you. But seriously, Mama, what the hell?” There had been no alcohol in her house for years.
Mama shrugged. “I’m not paying a dollar a box from Uhaul when liquor stores give them away for free.”
“And the liquor that was inside them?”
She slapped me on the rear. “Still at the store, smart ass. I know better’n that.”
I looked at her and saw no murkiness in her eyes. I was proud, then, of what she had achieved. To walk on in to a liquor store, after all these years, and leave with only boxes – to face her demons in the most literal way, and not succumb – it was a strength I had never had to possess.
“Can I help you pack anything?”
“Naaw, I’m all done now. Got nothing left but the clothes I’m wearing. Truck comes tomorrow.”
It occurred to me that Mama had never really moved before. Of course, she wasn’t born in that trailer, but when she moved there with my father, they had nothing. No possessions to carefully place in crates and move from one home to another. No family heirlooms to carry themselves instead of entrusting to the moving men. Everything in that little house, from the TV to the can opener, was purchased after they moved in. Tomorrow, men would come to disconnect the singlewide from its power and water supply, and move it onto her new land. Another truck would take all of her belongings. Like me, she was going to be free. She was getting out of this town alive.
I shook my head. “I already ate. I do want some water, though.” I opened the cupboard where she kept her glasses, and found it empty.
“Oh!” Mama dashed into the living room, and busied herself with unstacking boxes. “Here, I think they’re in this box. Or they could be in this one at the bottom. You look through one and I’ll look through the other.”
“You should have marked these, you know.”
“Yeah,” Mama said, “I sort of threw things in without thinking. There are cans in the fridge, if you want one of those?”
“Sure, that’s fine,” I said, and grabbed a Coke. I sat beside her on the worn-out couch, and we watched TV together. Mama was into those talk shows where someone is always having a baby that isn’t their boyfriend’s. It was all lie detector tests, and Big Mommas beating up cheating no-good Baby Daddies. I didn’t know why she paid to watch something she could have seen in the neighborhood for free, but that was none of my business.
Mama sat wringing her hands and squirming, like she was uncomfortable. She had never really asked me about the baby, and I was thankful for that: I knew that she couldn’t stand to see pregnant women being mollycoddled and treated like the only thing interesting about them was their uterus. Watching her fidgeting, I wondered if she had a question she was too polite to ask.
“Everything okay?” I said, an eyebrow raised.
“Oh, yeah. Just thinking about this couch,” she said, giving the couch a pat, but she had said ‘oh’ in such a high tone that I knew she wasn’t being truthful. “When I get this house moved, I’m not going to sleep on the couch anymore; I’m going to give myself a bedroom. Turn the spare room into a nursery, so you can come visit. Does that sound good?”
“That sounds great, Mama,” I said with a smile. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she was just embarrassed, as she always was, about being affectionate. We went back to watching TV.
“Joanne, I found a load of your father’s things and I’ve got them if you want them,” she blurted out, without pause; as if spitting the words out faster would make the issue go away.
I felt like the couch had been jerked back and I was laying there on the floor, winded. “You- You found what?”
“I thought I threw everything out, but I guess I held on to some stuff. It’s things like photos and baseball cards. I don’t know if maybe, one day- The baby might want to know about his granddaddy.”
I began to shake as I tried to process this. All my life, my father had been a mystery figure. He wasn’t listed on our birth certificates, so we never even knew his name. Mama always said that if he was going to leave, he didn’t deserve to have us go find him. We never had a picture of him to look at; we were never afforded the privilege of knowing which parent we looked like; no one stopped us in the street and said “how’s your daddy doin’?”.
“Where was the box?”
Mama shuffled a little in her seat. “It was a little shoebox, inside the crate where I keep my extension cords and lightbulbs and things.”
A place where a child would never go look. My father had been a fingertip’s touch away. Every time Mama asked me to help her change a bulb and I begrudgingly agreed, I had held that crate while she balanced on an end table. Every time I rummaged in there to grab her an extension cord so she could vacuum the car, I came this close to finding the shoebox, and the secrets held within it.
But I put up a hand. “I think I should be getting back home now.”
“Please don’t leave. I’m sorry!” there were tears in Mama’s eyes now. “Every time I thought about telling y’all, I would write to him to let him know how you were doing and never get a letter back-”
“You wrote him? You knew where he was?”
Mama’s voice was small; pitiful. “At one time, yeah.”
“And you never told us?”
Mama hung her head. “He left us. He left you.”
“And you never forgave him, so you never let us know him.” I shook my head. “That wasn’t your decision to make.”
I wish I could say that as I pulled away from her house and she came running after my car, I felt a bit of remorse. I wish I could say that the whole scene didn’t look to me like history repeating itself, like some twisted cosmic circle. I wish I could say that it never occurred to me that in that damn town, perhaps no one gets a happy ending. I wish I could say I immediately regretted telling her to forget the nursery, because I wasn’t going to be visiting anymore; but I didn’t.
Back at my apartment, Payton was sitting in my guest room on her laptop. She had left the TV blaring in the living room. I yelled at her until she cried, and ran out the door, saying she was going to go sleep on Marty’s couch.
I wish I could say that I felt guilty later, when I got a call from Ethan at the liquor store, telling me that Mama came to him in tears and tried to give him two hundred bucks for a thirty dollar bottle of whiskey.
But I didn’t.
I had now been Joanne’s prisoner for a week.
I say prisoner, but I suppose it wasn’t all bad. Joanne was the kind of woman who visibly stiffened if you didn’t use a coaster. She reminded me of my mother, in all the worst ways, especially when I had only been there three days and she flipped her shit at me for leaving an empty Coke can in the living room. I called uncle Marty in tears, and he had to come over to do some damage control. He talked with her, and then with me, and then with her again, like he was some sort of mediator. He didn’t think I could hear their conversation, but I heard snippets. The part I remember is Joanne saying that I was a nightmare house guest. Marty said to her, “Joanne, my sister is such a bitch that when she finally asphyxiates clutching her pearls, even hell won’t want her. Payton is probably just unwinding. Just give her time.”
“So you’re saying I should let her break all my house rules, just because her Momma is mean?” Joanne said.
“No,” said uncle Marty. “I’m asking you to remember this: Payton’s parents didn’t even notice that she’s pregnant. Try to think about what that really means.”
Thanks, uncle Marty: I had never thought about what that ‘really meant’ until right then.
I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and dashed back from the door to my bed, where I couldn’t be accused of eavesdropping. I tried, with Joanne, I really did. I made sure I said “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am”. I thanked her each time she cooked a meal; I washed the dishes when we were done; I even vacuumed the living room once. Maybe it was hormones. Maybe putting two pregnant women in a house together and expecting them to be friends is a recipe for disaster. But every day, without fail, I heard the same things:
“Payton, can you please be more careful the next time you take a shower? If I have to pull hair out of the drain every day, I will not be happy.”
“Payton, did you bring your laundry down yet? I’m happy to do your laundry for you, but you need to bring it down here every day.”
“Payton, turn that music down.”
“Payton, have you given any thought to getting a job down here?”
That one stung, because it was such a thinly veiled way of saying “when are you going to be out of my house?”. I wished that Marty had a spare room. That was what I had expected: that I would stay with Marty, and it would be a hell of a lot of fun. It had been years since I’d seen him, but he got in touch on the holidays to ask after me, and when I was younger we had always got along very well. Surely my parents know I’m here, I thought, and even though I knew there was nothing to see, I looked at my phone for any messages or calls from them. As I expected, there were none.
There was a knock at my door, and Joanne poked her head around. “You busy?”
“Good. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
I swear, I instinctively reached for a coaster. From the look on her face, I could tell she thought I was mocking her.
“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for yelling at you yesterday,” she said, but the forced smile on her face told me she was anything but. “I’m… Going through some stuff.”
What she didn’t know was that she had met the queen of false pleasantries. “It’s okay,” I said, my smile outshining even hers, “I’ll try to be more careful from now on.”
We looked at each other, then, as predator and prey. The only thing was, it was impossible to tell who was who. She backed away, closing the door behind her and muttering something about having some stuff she had to get on with, so I supposed that meant I won.
It was a strange feeling. I wasn’t used to winning, but any satisfaction that should have come from it was not there. Instead, I was just left with my memories.
As I drove away, my grin got bigger with every mile. Screw them, I thought, as I blared Bad Company so loud that even as I screamed along at the top of my lungs, I couldn’t hear my own voice. This was the American Dream, this is what our forefathers had done: they had hopped into their cars, or their wagons, or onto their horses, and just gone. Packed up and left when shit hit the fan; strolled into another dusty town with just the clothes on their back and sign saying will work for food. If they could make it, then so could I; with my car and my belongings, and with every penny withdrawn from my bank account before my parents could snatch it out from under me. I wasn’t sure where to go, at first. I thought of all the places that so many country songs had promised to me. I thought of Jackson, of Johnny and June; of Amarillo; of Nashville; even of Marina del Ray. I hadn’t been paying attention to even the direction I was going in, until I turned off 287 and onto 65, and decided I may as well follow the interstate. I drove on, all the way past exits for Bay Minette, until I had been on the road for two hours and I was beginning to regret leaving before dinner. At the next exit, I pulled in to one of those kind of roadside diners that doesn’t display its health and safety rating. I was hungry enough to not care.
“What can I get you two, hon?” asked an elderly waitress, smiling at my bulging stomach.
“Sweet tea, two eggs, over-easy, bacon, and grits, please,” I said, and I could tell by the look in her eye that by not asking for something like deep fried pickles with a side of whipped cream and hot sauce, I had disappointed her. You’ll get used to it, I thought.
When the tea came, I paused to think about where I would go. The idea of getting in my car and getting lost somewhere had seemed so wonderful, but after two hours of following the same road, two hours of being kicked from the inside and not being able to stretch it out, a lot of the appeal had been lost. I guessed I had to be near Montgomery by now, but when I whispered “Montgomery” under my breath, I didn’t even smile. I wanted to find a place where the very name would make me feel warm on the inside.
The waitress laid a plate of steaming food before me, and refilled my tea. “Anything else I can get you?”
I shook my head, and she turned to walk away.
“If you could go anywhere, anywhere in the US, where would it be?”
She smiled. “Ever been to Savannah, Georgia?”
“No,” I said, and I repeated the name in my head and again, there was no sparkle.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s beautiful. I guess I’d go to Savannah.”
As she attended to another table, a thought came over me. Maybe Savannah had no ring to it, but Georgia? Now that was a start. Even as the idea entered my mind, even as I was imagining hopping back on the road and following signs to the peach state, I remembered uncle Marty; and I could have slapped myself for not thinking of him first. I had even written to him recently, when he sent me some money for my birthday and mother insisted I send a thank you card the traditional way. Excited, I checked my email from my phone, hoping his address would still be there. It was.
The waitress passed by my table again, and did a double take when she saw my empty plate. “Wow,” she said, “where did it all go?”
I patted my belly. “We were hungry.”
“Well, are you still hungry?”
I thought of the road ahead of me. I thought of how exciting all this was, after all. “Yes…” I said. “Can I order a piece of pecan pie?”
And, just to make a sweet old lady smile: “This will sound crazy, but can I get some pickles with that?”
She laughed, then. “You can have whatever you want, honey.”
“I just have to stick my phone on charge in the car, I will be back in just a minute.”
“Sure! I’ll have the pie waiting on you.”
I skipped out on the check and headed east; and I don’t know a thing about Bonnie and Clyde, except that as I hit 85 with a smile on my face and the wind blowing through my hair, I sure as hell felt like them.