Whenever love made a Babel of our lives, my mother practiced what she termed cosmology. She'd rent a space in a cheap building and set up shop and line a mirrored counter with tinctures and lotions and homemade concoctions which smelled loudly of makeovers and dilettante chemistry. A beautician by trade, she was a master of appearances. The sign painter she hired at a six-pack's price had lettered HAW RIVER COSMOLOGY on her shop's shingle, so she presented herself as a cosmologist, rather than a cosmetologist. When I confronted her with proof of the discrepancy, she slammed shut the dictionary with a whoof that parted her bangs. She claimed the misnomer suited her better--as if little difference existed between setting perms and ordering the universe.
"Besides." She rearranged a display of skin-care products which promised to rejuvenate, and dusted the shelf with poison to kill the unending string of ants which plagued her parlor. "No one who comes into this one-chair shop will know the difference." They didn't. "They have no class or ambition--just like your gambling father."
Most of my parents' marital battles were waged over my mother's concept of station and my father's misinterpretation of it. As a judge's daughter, she considered herself scissored from a more refined bolt of cloth than the corduroy manufactured in Haw River's one mill. And they fought over money; my father couldn't bring home enough. He had a temperament too generous for his occupation as our county's leading piker (my mother insisted to her clients he was a speculator, not a gambler). Whenever a wagerer lost more than he could afford, my father accepted substitute payment. While my mother thought it was romantic to be married to an outlaw who orchestrated local poker games, screaming matches erupted when my father allowed people to welsh on bets or when he returned home early mornings with a whole side of frozen beef instead of the hundred bucks some butcher didn't have. My father had exchanged a car title for a year's supply of fresh eggs and free moonshine (the backseat had been removed to run liquor, so it was useless as a family car, he'd protested) and a gold wedding band (how could I send him home without that, my father had yelled) for a dozen live chinchillas which he promised to turn into a full-length fur coat once the investment matured. My mother called this his Jack and the Beanstalk mentality. That summer, during the trial separation when they tug-of-warred through me, my father had won a cow pasture complete with a rangy herd of dairy cattle which grazed within earshot of the bulldozers completing the new interstate.
"I'm not going to be a goddamned milkmaid." My mother had spent the morning boxing his belongings in cartons marked SHIPPING DAMAGE. My father had suggested we sell the cows' milk for a profit.
"You don't exchange husbands like merchandise," my father had screamed. "This isn't mail order."
"If it were, I would have ordered from a better catalog."
"That property's got potential. It could be a driving range. Or something bigger."
"I'm pregnant, and you bring us home milk cows."
"Hey," my father had said. "It's even got a new double-wide trailer on it with a good septic tank."
"Then you won't drown in your own shit when you live there." That was the fight that sent her searching for a lawyer.
"How's the big land developer?" my mother asked now, as she swept hair trimmings from an earlier appointment into a careful heap which I would later burn like telltale evidence or hopeful offerings--I could never decide which. The kaleidoscope of local wisdom included the superstition that such offal could be used to cast spells. "You would think there's lost Confederate gold buried in that pasture. Does your father have his country club built yet?"
"It's a driving range, and we'll even have putting greens." Weekends, I stayed with my father and helped him convert the pasture into a property that would impress my mother with its real value. "In fact, we're both learning all about golf." My father had charged a set of clubs endorsed by Ted Williams, the most expensive listed in the Sears catalog. This was North Carolina in the sixties, when everything--my underwear, the bedroom suites, our lives--seemed purchased on the installment plan from a catalog which promised happiness and order if we made sensible purchases. My mother preferred Spiegel's to the Wish Book because it presented a more eloquent scheme for our unkempt cosmos.
I described the state-of-the-art clubs and exaggerated our progress in transforming the pasture into a golf emporium. My mother lit a Viceroy and exhaled a smoky, theatrical sigh which would have caused my father to hurry to her side in comfort. Since her role as Blanche DuBois in the community productionof the play, she had seemed to be practicing for a starring role in a damaged life. She had also developed other staged habits, such as standing before the mirror with a fist clenched to her lips while testing aloud lines from a script for some imagined rehearsal. Her favorite was "How does I do become Damn you?"
She studied the mostly blank pages of her appointment book, as if a crowded day awaited. When I mentioned pregnant women shouldn't smoke, she ground out the cigarette on the floor with the half-dozen others and laid claim to only two a day. A tallying passed between us, and she signaled me to her side for inspection. She scraped dirt from the soft places behind my earlobes and dabbed with a tissue at the lunch left in the corners of my mouth.
"You look like some orphan who's been living in a ditch. Climb into the chair and I'll give you a trim." She had only a handful of customers--mainly family members and the few friends she had not alienated--for a history of nervous breakdowns had blacklisted her. As she snipped, she hummed a few bars from "Camelot." Then she parted my hair and angled my bangs and combed them into a pompadour I would later muss. Instead of pomade she applied a salve my step-grandmother Eugena had brewed to cure the ringworm on my scalp.
My ringworm worried her more than the swarms of rumors the local gossips were stirring. Since my father's departure, old beaus, many of them married, had left calling cards on our doorstep. We'd return home to find a small Christmas of gifts on the porch. I lugged watermelons, a cooler of filleted bass, a battery recharger, and a battered set of The Golden Encyclopedia of Knowledge across the threshold. Male-order gifts, my mother called them, but you could tell the attention pleased the high-school beauty queen in her. The lighter freight included a certificate for a free tune-up, an electric blanket, and a glass eye boxed in a jewelry container which my mother threw away because it frightened her. Most were anonymous and designed to hint at the benefactor's past significance. The more blatant admirers left handwritten messages, such as I'll be seeing you (the glass eye) or No one misses a slice off a cut loaf (a set of knives purchased with S&W Green Stamps).
The most persistent and brazen suitor was Elver Talmadge Shatwell, who delivered his offerings in person. The old fiancé from whom my father had stolen my mother, he was equipped with a James Dean look and swagger. He was a weaving-room straw boss at the cotton mill--a job which had been offered to my father because my mother's family owned enough shares in Cone Mills to snag him a supervisory position. My father's refusal was one of the few marital battles he ever won, citing the dignity of entrepreneurship and reminding my mother that such people were mill grits and lint heads. He pointed out that Elver had to moonlight as a jackleg real-estate broker to make his mortgage payments and that his biggest sales involved funeral plots.
Elver had TALMADGE REALTY embossed on his wallet-sized business cards. He also had the type of tragedy under his belt that prompted speculation and that certain women found irresistible. The versions of his sorrow were as varied as any recipe for grief. In certain accounts, his new bride had had a heart attack while swimming (or stomach cramps) while in others a riptide snatched her. She washed up three days later at high tide, and a tourist hunting sand dollars found her. The funeral was closed casket. The more mean-spirited theorists believed he drowned her on their honeymoon for the insurance money.
"Those weren't jellyfish welts on that poor woman's neck," claimed my step-grandmother, Eugena. She was thrice widowed, and she claimed to possess the gift of augury. "It was handprints. He throttled her."
I heard these stories from the crawl space under the floor joist of the cosmology shop, where I practiced the espionage of childhood. In short order I learned that Hazel Woods, for the past fifteen years, had consented to her husband's advances only on religious holidays, with a flexible interpretation of days like Thanksgiving and Ash Wednesday; that Opal Ramsey and the choir director, a skinny tenor named Virgil, did more than practice organ music; that Buck Loftman loved his cousin Miranda too much; and that the Renfraw girl, Lucille, was not developing normally. One breast was larger than the other, so she performed one-armed Mark Eden bust-development exercises by night and by day resorted to wadded tissue. I learned that a case of the mumps which left the throat and "went down" could ruin the chances of fatherhood; that cold hands are a sure sign of a warm heart; and that Myra Bundy had been lacing her husband's supper for years with saltpeter--in increasing doses but with the opposite effect from the one home science predicted. World news often got seasoned with local myth. The Russians were launching satellites into space to spy on us and blight our corn. The chlorine in the tap water was a Red Plot to soften our brains, or the federal government's immunization scheme against atomic-bomb radiation-opinion was divided. The conversations made me understand that most everyone leads a double life. When one customer left, gossip about her started. Once, when my mother ran across the street to buy everyone Pepsi to encourage business, two customers started in on her.
"I hear they zapped her with electricity at that hospital," one of them said.
"They should have set the voltage dial higher," said another.
"What ails her?"
"Uppity-itus. She throwed away a good husband, even if he does have a weakness for cards. She wants to be Queen for a Day every day, and she gets pissed when it doesn't happen."
"There are some of us who know their origins, and some who don't."
"I hear that baby isn't..." one of them said, but she stopped when I clawed on the floor to make rodent noises. Rats, someone said; did she mean vermin, or damned--their fun was ended? The bell above the door dingled. They greeted my mother and thanked her graciously for the refreshments. I lay very still under the beauty shop, afraid that my exit would announce my presence. I felt like a thief in a house of stories who suddenly recognizes the sorrow of his heist.
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