This excerpt from Desert Medicine was published in the spring 2001
The Concho River Review.

Home Sickness

by Judy Alexander

 

The gloomy morning overcast had ended with June. The July mornings were clear and warm, threatening to build to hot. Laurelle was grateful that her hair had finally grown out enough for her to pull it back off of her neck and into a ponytail.

It was a Saturday morning. She’d woken up, alone, to find fifty pounds of dog food on the porch. She thought for a second that it was some sort of cruel payback – Chip had laced the food with poison to kill her dog. But it was a brand new bag; the strings still held the top shut.  It was a parting gift, she supposed.  It made her feel guilty about how she’d treated Chip. She shouldn’t have dated so soon after her divorce.

Laurelle decided to start her weekend with a short visit to Rhoda.

“Where are the little ones?” Rhoda asked first thing.

“With their dad.”

“That must be tough, to lose your babies every other weekend.”

“Sometimes I enjoy the quiet.  And Rusty’s good to them.” 

“You’ve changed your tune, girl. I’m glad to hear it.”

Laurelle was no longer afraid of exposing the twins to Rhoda.  She’d chosen to come alone because she wanted a quiet meeting with Rhoda.  So often Rhoda’s stories were interrupted at just the moment when Laurelle’s interest was the highest.

“It’s so nice today, let’s go outside,” Rhoda said.

This time, Laurelle knew what to do. She automatically lowered Rhoda’s leg for her. Laurelle opened the door, then came back to take Rhoda’s arm, an arm that was frightening in its thinness.  Laurelle felt like she was gripping only bone, so she tried not to squeeze, yet at the same time she had to exert enough pressure to help Rhoda rise. She put her arm around Rhoda’s waist and walked hip-to-hip beside her.  Rhoda was wearing another one of those snapped cotton smocks and crocheted slippers.  Laurelle was so tall and strong next to Rhoda’s shrinking body, but instead of feeling judgmental about Rhoda’s bad health habits and haughty about her own good health, Laurelle felt humbled. This woman, too, had once been young and strong. Would some younger person take an interest in Laurelle’s life when her health failed?

Rhoda lowered herself into the lawn chair. “How’s that sister of yours, the one what give you such a scare?”

“She’s doing a lot better. She’ll be moving out of my mom’s house the end of this week.”

“I’ve been thinking on what you told me, how you prayed for your sister. It was like you was practicing for a life of ministry, how you listened to God.”

“You’re forgetting that wasn’t my first instinct.  I’m not good in hospitals.  They put my teeth on edge.”

“See, that’s what I’m saying.  You realized you didn’t have all the answers, then you turned to the One who does.”

“I’m a nursery woman.  I’m great with plants.  But most times I don’t have a clue when it comes to people.”

“I don’t see how caring for plants is all that different from caring for God’s people.  Don’t you remember the school God sent Moses to?  Forty years of working with sheep.”

Laurelle was ready to protest, but Rhoda continued.  “You were able to help your own family. That’s the hardest place to start. Sometimes it’s downright impossible.  Father’s Day, while you were at the hospital with your sister, I tried to forget what day it was. I for sure didn’t call my papa.”

“He’s still alive?”

“Yes ma’am.  Enlarged liver and all. I haven’t seen him since I was sixteen.  God knows, ’cause I’ve told Him, I forgive my Papa, but I can’t ever see him again.”

 

         Rhoda

 

When I got back to Amarillo, I had big plans.  I planned to tell Papa I forgive him, that I wanted to be a good daughter.

But just as soon as I hugged Mama, Papa says, “This was your mama’s idea, not mine.” At least he carried my bag in.

Mama was crying, ’cause she hadn’t seen me in four years.  But it wasn’t just the crying what made her look old. Her lipstick run into the downhill corners of her mouth. Her fingernails was gray and curved in on the sides, like they was pinching her fingertips.

“How you feeling, Mama?” I says.

“She’s fine, real fine.” Papa wouldn’t even let Mama answer for herself.

“It’s hotter than I remember,” I says.

“We’re in a drought. They say little ones would be feared of rain, since they ain’t never seen any.” Mama tried to smile, but her mouth seemed like it was pulled down permanent at the sides.

“You’ll have to earn your keep,” Papa says.

My schooling stopped right there.  Every day in Amarillo I worked the café.

        

The farm was gone long before I got back.  Remember that café where Papa used to deliver moonshine? Papa bought the place off of Wilbur real cheap when Wilbur’s liver failed.  And he and Mama, mostly Mama, had turned the café into a real restaurant with meals three times a day.  The café was small, three booths on one wall, three on the other, and a counter with six seats facing the kitchen.

Amarillo had built up some since I’d been gone, so there were more customers.  There was no moonshine crowd ’cause liquor was legal by then.  It was Mama’s pies and cakes what brought in the customers: Pineapple Marmalade Cake, Lemon Ice Box Pie, Caramel Cake.

The customers liked papa ’cause he could talk. But he didn’t do a lick of work.  He sat in his favorite booth all day long, even when the place filled up and we could use the table.

My first day working there, Papa asked me to fill his coffee cup.  I poured him a good tall cup. He got real mad. “You stupid girl.  It’s too full.  Pour it out.”

I brought him back an empty cup.

“We’ll teach you yet, if you’re not too dumb.  Just pour to there this time.”  He pointed to the halfway mark. After I poured, he pulled a flask out of his pocket and filled the cup the rest of the way up.

He was always onery with me.   He’d ask me questions, but if my answer lasted longer than ten seconds, he’d grit his teeth. He had no patience.  His face looked like it was fighting him.  He willed it to smile and be civil, but it wanted to grimace.

But I still had my big plans.  I’d come back to set things right.  I figured the truth would set us all free. One day, I got up my courage to ask him point blank why he always sat in the best booth drinking all day while me and Mama worked our tails off.

“Leave it be,” Mama says.

“You know what the problem is,” Papa says. “You’re the problem, Missy. You think you’re always right. Why can’t you be more like your Mama?  She’s a good woman.  And she don’t put up a fuss.”

Lonnie headed for the door.

“Where’re you going?” Papa asks. “You got dishes to wash.”

“It’s not my fault.  It’s Rhoda’s. I’m not staying around here to watch her cause a feud.”

See, neither Mama nor Lonnie would back me up. They wouldn’t admit there was anything wrong.

Papa just watches Lonnie leave, then he lights into me.  “Your brother never acted this way when you was gone.”

        At first, I was still mad at Mama for sending me away. Mama must have figured that, ’cause one day, in the early afternoon after the lunch gang left but the coffee drinkers hadn’t yet come in for pie, she called me into the kitchen to see what she hid there.  It was her chocolate box, and on top were all the letters and postcards I sent.  Mama’d saved every one.

“Why didn’t you write back?” I asked her.

“I was afraid the authorities would know where you was.”

“All they had to do was look at the postmark on my letters to you. Calexico’s not that big of a place, and everybody knows Aunt Ione.  She’s got the only hospital in town.”

“Times ain’t been easy.  Seems like we always had so many things going on. I just couldn’t think on it all at once. I knew you was safe with Aunt Ione, so that was one less thing to worry about.”

Mama didn’t make a bit of sense, but she had a way about her.  When she rested her forehead against mine, I just couldn’t hold a grudge against her.        


Mama and Papa lived with my brother Lonnie in a little shack back behind the café.  It was real primitive, no insulation at all.  No icebox, just a box on the windowsill that you covered with wet burlap to keep the milk cool.

Lonnie slept in the parlor ’cause there wasn’t but one tiny bedroom. Of course there was no toilet, you had to use the privie out back. Lonnie washed up on the porch, but Mama brought in a big tin tub for her once-a-week bath.

But when I told mama wasn’t a soul in California still living like this, Mama said,  “We don’t need more than a bed out here, ’cause we practically live in the café.”

        

Cause of my letters in the chocolate box, I got it into my head that I could save Mama.  I’d take her back with me to California, ’cause I’d already decided early on that I’d spent too much time away from Texas, I couldn’t get used to it anymore. I belonged in California now, where most everyone was a newcomer, where most everyone was starting over. Didn’t matter where you come from or what your past was.

Esther had rescued her people, why couldn’t I?

        

The day of the Cotton Festival, Eleanor Roosevelt come to town.  Mama got an order for ten of her peach cobbler pies to be delivered to the Amarillo Hotel. It was my job to drive the truck, ’cause Papa was in no condition to drive, and Mama never learned. Lonnie was too young.

Amarillo was a pretty place with its brick streets.  But it was still a real cow town back then, with stockyards and cowboys and cattle drives through town.

Papa come with me to the hotel, what in them days was the nicest place in town.  We ended up in the same elevator with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was going to give the speech.  I was real quiet, I’d never been in the same room with someone that important, let alone in a tiny elevator. But Papa says straight out, “You’re the ugliest woman I ever seen.”

I just about dropped the five pies I had balanced one on top of another with cardboard in between each one.

But Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t let Papa get the better of her.  “And you’re the drunkest cowboy I’ve ever seen.” The door opened and she stepped out ahead of us, so Papa didn’t have a chance to get vulgar.

I was so proud of Eleanor Roosevelt. Here was as woman as homely as me, but I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever lived.

After we delivered the pies, Papa went off to visit some drinking buddies at the Cotton Festival. I went to buy a chance on the cows.  In them days they chalked numbers on the floor of a cow pen. Everybody bought chances for their favorite numbers.  Two or three cows were put back into the pen, and you waited for the crap to fall. If it hit your number first, you were the winner.

The day Eleanor Roosevelt got the better of Papa, was my lucky day all way round, because that white-face Texas longhorn crapped on my number first.  Won me fifty dollars, what was a lot of money in them days.

I had enough money to buy a train ticket to California for me and Mama both.

Amarillo wasn’t near as big as it is now.  Didn’t take Papa long to find out I’d won some money.  He told me it was time to go home, and I drove back to the café and parked back of the house, like I always did.  Before we got out of the truck, Papa says, “Rhody, you owe me a bit for your board and keep.”

I was feeling brave, ’cause I just seen how Eleanor Roosevelt spoke up to Papa.  So I says, real tough.  “I think you got it ass backwards.  I’ve been working in the café for weeks and I haven’t seen a single paycheck.”

“What you all be wanting to do with that sum of money?”  He leaned in close to me, and I pulled back. “You know what you need, Rhody?  You need some taming.”   He put his arm around me and pulled me close up to him. “It works every time on your mama. You just have to know what to give a woman to shut her right up.”  He leaned over and kissed me on the lips.

Now, I’d been thinking that I could save Mama by being brave like Queen Esther, and it’s true Esther used her sex appeal to get the king to give her what she wanted.  So when Papa done that, at first I felt guilty. Must have been something I done what give him the wrong idea.

And, I have to say, there was a part of me that got all confused, maybe this meant my Papa loved me after all.  This was the first time in years and years he’d shown me the least bit of affection.

But when he pulled me close, and when he tried to put his tongue in my mouth, my insides felt like they would explode. It was all so terribly, terribly wrong.  I bit down, I think I got his tongue and lip both. And then I screamed. Mama come running out of the café, and Papa pushed me out the door and drove himself off.

“Mama, quick, let’s go,” I says.

“What’s going on?”

“I got the money for the train tickets to California, you come with me.”

“I got customers waiting on me.”

“Now, while Papa’s gone. We got to leave fast.”

“Have you gone crazy?  I can’t leave my husband.”  Mama turned and walked away from me, right back into the café.

I knew better than to waste my breath on Mama. Papa years ago had messed with her mind, so she didn’t have a bit of common sense left. 

Hadn’t nothing worked out the way I planned. But as I packed my few things and walked to the train station, I felt like I was escaping from prison. Papa hadn’t changed, mama hadn’t changed. But I could change.  I wasn’t safe living with them.  I don’t think Queen Esther herself could have helped them people.
============
Judy Alexander, a marketing communications writer from Santa Ana, California, was inspired by stories from Texas old-timers. Home Sickness is excerpted from her recently completed novel, Desert Medicine, which is under review at several publishing houses.  Other excerpts appear on the Calvin College web site at
http://www.calvin.edu/worship/em and on her own web site at http://www.judyalexander.com

Copyright 2001 by Judy Alexander
Do not reprint without permission
of the author (
judy@judyalexander.com)

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