There’s nothing like waking up to a dead body. - On the couch, in the easy chair, or nyou in a car. - In the park across the street. There’s nothing like waking up with a dead baby. - In your womb. Falling out a wad of wet, slimy toilet paper, into baggy underwear stretched from a night of no sleep. They’d taken the tiny knob out a day prior but there was excrement, left over mess. I couldn’t remember the relationship, flushed the medication needed to keep quiet. Keep shut up. The head cleared in one day and Mel called Memaw. Couldn’t remember names, just Lisa spray painting and setting fires. Just wanted her own room, alone. Sometimes people die. Sometimes, the ones you love never love you back. She’d taken $1000 and driven to California once seeking something that didn’t exist, an imaginary lover, or a secluded and secret community. Hitchhiked every other year to get away from the stink of east Houston, the stench of death. In the 1970′s they kept their babies even when they didn’t really want them, pretended the nuclear family was alive and strong - until it fell apart.
The metal slide in the park across the street burns the skin, scorches our legs with a sting stronger than dishwashing hands to the backside. A metal seesaw, a hobby horse, hobby-pig, and gravel court. We can smell the coal, the butane, the gases and toxins; the burn-off of industry. Late at night, the glow of the smoke stacks is like a midnight sunset. The steel dust in the air leaves a film across cars. Smoke again Memaw, smoke a pack and block it out. One for your dead, one for his Navy buddies, and one for the day you were brought to bacon and eggs on a stinky Sunday morning. To gurgling metal coffee pots on gas stoves, old wooden homes with pastel paint, and grandchildren who hop the train on the edge of the backyard when you’re not looking.
“Where did those come from?” she asks about the encyclopedias stacked against the wall. Her memory is failing and she doesn’t remember that knock on the door many years ago –
-Those damn solicitors.
She’d said as she lit a cigarette to ‘keep the pests away’, mosquito deterrent. The man had held several in his hand, the rest were in his car at the curb. He waved his arm before his face. It was a hot summer in the seventies - simple times of ceramics, auto mechanics, hair-care products, olive green and Tupperware parties.
-What, no puppies?
It’s her silly humor.
-No ma’am, encyclopedias.
He didn’t know Memaw was, and still is, a little nutty, convinced us grandchildren that she was a witch in order to keep us in line. She’d yell from the back back room with a cigarette in her hand, ‘put that make-up back in the cabinet’ or ‘leave my crosswords alone’, her imaginary eyes in the back of her head.
She was always suckered in by visitors, enjoyed their company. She’d taken the encyclopedias one by one, running her fingers along the spine and turned back to yell.
-You kids are too old to be jumping on beds. You should read more!
As the squeak of springs and spinning of Elvis records came from the bedroom. Mel was in my pajamas with little feet. Elvis’ greatest hits and others; a small stack of records from the larger sat on the cedar chest next to the bed. Inside the chest were remnants of Roy’s life, the first dead husband; the folded U.S. Flag from the funeral never spoken of. They say he died in his sleep, heart attack from alcohol withdrawal. Was it because of a rotten birth? Mel’s mother wouldn’t allow him near us kids until he sobered up. So, he did. And then he died.
-These kids can sit around and read while I go out dancing. Ben loves dancing, whiskey and figure 4.
She’d told the solicitor and took a drag of cigarette in preparation to ‘blow smoke’. He left, we had encyclopedias, and no one came to the door again for quite some time. The bacon sizzled, she left the boxes of encyclopedias at the door and brought her purse, the one she still clutches against her chest to this day, and turned on the T.V.
Her stories are changing over the years, adding nationalities and Indian-territory. The great aunt in Baytown who disappeared, the brother in Alaska, and an uncle who died of brain cancer. In a few days, the dog next door will be having puppies beneath the house, little pink nubs; blobs of dog. She says she married Roy to get out of that small town, eloping. Three children, a vinyl couch, hair curlers, and hundreds of pots of beans later, she’d waited for him to die. But not Ben, she loved him and he wasn’t supposed to die.
He left her the record collection; a stack of old country and Polka albums gathered together from flea markets. The 1970′s wire-cage flea market bargains. Ben’s coping mechanism after finding out that his grown son was a cross dresser living in Baytown, TX, mowing the lawn in dresses beneath the laboring men and smokestacks of refineries. Back before Ben died in the easy chair in the corner. Where the cats piss and shit now, cover the odor of death with feces.
Hattie, a neighbor from down the street, gave Memaw this tan brick home on the east side of Houston when she died in 1983. Memaw ran the lunches at the middle school around the corner. Silver trays screeched down rails for a scoop of mush and occasional conversation. (We’ve always known her as retired.) She smokes cigarettes between breaks. That’s her threat; her keep-away, “blow smoke in your face”, like all the old dolls smoking their way through the depression era, industrial age, and WWII. Over from Arkansas to Texas with an alcoholic husband, married at 16, raising three children with an iron fist. Her cigarette rebellion goes on for years, sixty to be precise.
The trains sound in the night behind the old house. 3 or 3:30 a.m., the two-bedroom bungalow trembles as they pass. Built in the 1940′s during Houston’s peak growth period, back when the port was in its prime and the ship channel widened to 300 ft. from Fidelity Island to the turning basin, it still stands but cracking around the base as the wood begins rotting from beneath. The Goose Creek oil field in 1903 contributed to the Texas oil boom and gradual industrialization of Houston by 1940. Thousands moved to Houston for the steel, for the industrial clamber, for the oil. Black gold. Texas tea.