ALL COLORS LEAD TO PLATINUM
After three years clean, I’d fallen off the wagon again. I’d been wallowing in the mud for months when the universe decided to throw me a bone and get me arrested. Good because at least I was off the street and getting three square ones. Bad because they contacted my father – since, technically I’m still a minor. So instead of jail, I got rehab, which situation-wise falls somewhere in the purgatory between summer camp and prison.
Lots of people in group talk about having blackouts. But if I had to pick the color that has overshadowed my drug and alcohol induced states of oblivion for the past five years, it would have to be platinum. But it wasn’t until today’s session that I understood why. Something Charlie Fry, a meth freak since he was fifteen, said set it off.
Charlie and I go way back. We met at Riverside Retreat near New Hope when we were both fifteen. White would definitely be the color for that place which catered to people with deep pockets, or like in my father’s situation, for those who want their offspring to socialize with the kids of the moneybags set. I guess a rich drug addict is better than a poor one. Thousands of dollars later it appears that both of our parents had exchanged their arrogance for financial temperance and picked this way more modest facility in Manayunk, where the group is, shall I say, more diverse in palette.
It seemed that Charlie had gotten sidetracked from his primary purpose as the newbie to tell us how he had ended up back in rehab. He was riffing on how much he hates navy blue and some guy in a bar in South Philly wouldn’t take off his jacket of said horrifying color which was making Charlie seasick (his words). Turns out, Charlie wasn’t off point at all. He had K.O.ed jacket-man and ended up in juvi after a harrowing night in the adult detention center. Guess that’s the downside of passing as an adult.
His ramblings about his color sensitivities, forest green gives him a headache, baby blue reminds him of his binky, ignited chaos in the room as everyone chimed in with their pigment preferences, while I was suffering my own negative reaction to a blinding silver-white light searing my eyes.
“You okay?” Lesley our staff leader asked, silencing the room. All eyes focused on me, and my pounding head.
“I don’t know,” I answered while massaging my temples. “All this talk of color seems to be making me sick.”
I was just about to take up Lesley’s offer to be excused when it all flooded back, as clear as if the experience had just happened.
My sister, Peggy and I trail, wide-eyed, behind our father who is carrying two large suitcases. I’ve got on what I quickly recognize as my favorite pedal pushers, patterned with green and blue diamonds. It’s hard to believe that was only seven years ago. A lifetime ago, when my face still reflected the innocence owed to a ten year old.
Mommy (even the incorrigible me stills calls her that. Otherwise I might be completely lost down the toilet bowl of life). Anyway, Mommy follows us off the porch and down the stairs to street level where my father is already loading up the trunk of his brand new sedan. I always hated that he let her drive used cars while he rode in luxury – a perk of his job as a car salesman. It was only when she handed us our overstuffed straw tote bags that it hit me that she was still in her summer robe.
“Mommy, you gotta get dressed or we’ll be the last ones there,” I said, excited to start my two weeks at overnight camp.
She just stared at me like a zombie. Finally she shifted her eyes over to my father with a helpless look that was met with no response. She turned away, head hanging. I could feel a deep aching radiating from her. Peggy and I stood there, frozen. A childhood full of moments like these had trained us not to get in the middle of their ‘conversations’. Our four stiffened bodies looked like those arranged in a museum diorama on which a bronze plaque would denote ‘The Broken American Family’.
“Okay girls, let’s go,” my father ordered without a hint of recognition of her silent question.
I wanted to say, “what about Mommy?” But a childhood full of moments like these had trained me not to ask anything.
Under his watchful eye, Peggy and I skulked over to her and made a Mommy sandwich, hugging her so hard that the tears she had tried to hide turned to laughter and she squeezed us back. We pulled away slowly, uncomfortable to be leaving her fragile soul behind, heartbroken at his apparent lack of concern for her, but eager to get to the fun awaiting us at camp.
We took our usual seats, me in the front and Peggy behind the driver. I blew Mommy kisses and then watched her grow smaller and smaller as we motored away from her. He never even said goodbye.
He took East River Drive into Center City and pulled into a parking spot on Race Street.
“Hop in the back,” he said before shutting his door. “I won’t be long.”
I obeyed, but not without sneaking a look at the narrow row house building he entered. Peggy and I kept our heads low and our eyes locked on that doorway until he came out. Then we snapped our attention towards the front of the car and waited. A childhood full of sharply defined boundaries had taught us not to get caught spying on him.
Instead of coming to the driver’s side, he surprised us by opening the passenger door. In slipped a woman dressed like she was ready for a night on the town rather than taking a five hour drive to upstate New York to drop off a couple of kids. She didn’t bother to turn around and say hello until he’d gotten into the car.
“Girls, this is my friend Cindy.”
She turned towards us without shifting herself in the seat. “You must be Rocky,” she said, looking from the corner of her left eye. The blank look on my face masked the surge of feelings going on inside, from confusion to understanding to disappointment and finally anger. I could see his tight-jawed eyes waiting for my schooled response. I wanted to scream. I wanted to break out of the car. But a childhood full of fear of what might follow that look bent me to his will. I worked up my best fake smile.
“Yes. Nice to meet you.”
“And that means you’re Peggy,” her eyes didn’t have to strain to look in my sister’s direction. She turned back around and he drove off. She never said another word to us.
I couldn’t tell you much about her other than that she was stylish, white, and had shoulder-length platinum blonde hair. I looked at the back of that hair on and off for five hours. I watched as her well-manicured hands, adorned with cherry-red nail polish flipped down the visor to use the mirror. I watched while she pin-curled her pearly locks and wrapped a scarf around her head like she was Audrey Hepburn. I watched as those same hands played with the radio dial in search of a station with better reception. After my father said we were almost there, I watched as she unpinned her hair and styled it with a tiny, pocket comb. I watched as we drove through the one horse town a few minutes away from camp. He pulled in front of a bar.
“I’ll be back within the hour,” he said to her, withholding any indication of his fondness for her. I watched as she gathered her things, exited the car and retreated into the darkness behind the tavern door.
For five hours I had wanted to ask what all this meant. For five hours I had wanted to ask why he was acting like everything was normal; like that woman was our mother who loved to take family drives in the countryside, like we’d always been the children of an interracial couple. But after a childhood lacking in emotional availability, I knew not to bother.
I watched the back of his head as we continued on to camp in silence.
“For five hours I had stewed in my feelings until they had dried up and left me numb.”
“And how do you feel now that you’ve remembered this,” Lesley asked.
I began scanning my body for my feelings, but all I felt was pressure to perform, like on a quiz show that requires quick recall. I realized that after a childhood full of moments like those I had just remembered, that I had learned to submerge my feelings, so I could keep afloat. But the harbor I had constructed to protect me had been decaying from years of drink and drugs, leaving me listing on the edge of a life that was little more than existing and far from joy.
Revelation flooded forth as I understood that my feelings had never left me. However deeply they had sunk, they were still inside, aching to be remembered, longing for me to reconnect, to be whole again.
“Can you tell us what you’re feeling?” Lesley asked again.
“Hurt,” choked out through my tears. “He had made me his accomplice. And angry that he didn’t care enough about me to protect me from his dirty little life.”
Charlie held me close as the feelings filled me up. How I wished for a drink.
He was pointing a knife at me. I had just rinsed the soap from my favorite stainless steel pan; the one I boil fresh beans in every morning, when I turned to find him stiff armed and resolute. He had not been his usual self all week, ever since that segment on the Sunday news. We had all watched it together like we were witnessing the debut of what was going to be a long and successful acting career. After all, he was the star of the segment. They called it Sunday’s child. Made me think of that rhyme, “but the child who is born on the Sabbath Day, is bonny and blithe and good and gay.
We were all gay as we turned on the television set and munched on the chips we dunked in the salsa I had made special for the occasion. I drank a coke while he and the other children sipped from juice boxes. We were antsy as we suffered through the last of the real news stories before we would get to his big moment.
He enjoyed being the center of attention. He shook his leg trying to calm his stage fright. I was so happy that he was getting this chance. Now maybe he would find a permanent home with a loving couple who would cultivate his naturally inquisitive nature into a high achieving member of society. I hoped that the couple who would see the segment and fall in love with his happy face and athletic body would be black, so he would look at them and see himself.
I had taken him in when he was eighteen months old and showered him with the love I had given to my own, now grown kids, and the other foster children we had taken in when our nest became empty ten years ago. I relished the first time he spoke, looking at me and saying “Mama.” I took pride in his ability to make friends easily and his natural curiosity about the world around him. But I knew it must be hard for him to look at our family and see the brown skin and wavy, black hair that our grandparents carried with them from Mexico. At five years old he was starting to notice these things.
After an endless series of commercials, his segment began. We all clapped with joy when they showed the first shot of him. His smile lit up the screen. I turned in time to see that same look on his face as he stared at himself. They showed footage of him playing on the beach and climbing the monkey bars. The other kids patted him on the back. He was a star – at least in our house.
But then the man’s voice narrating the story became serious as he told us, and who knows how many other thousands of people about how our star had been born in the county jail. In all of our excitement that unpleasant fact might have slipped by us, but the narrator continued to report more heart breaking information about a mother who was a crack addict and multiple-offender. My mouth fell open, my heart raced. It took too many seconds for me to comprehend the blow being delivered to him. It took me too long to grab the remote and turn the segment off. It was too late to erase this memory from any of our minds
He was the first to try and save the day. He played the celebrity and boasted how he was the only one who had been on t.v. I hoped that he was as they say about children, resilient, able to forget a bad taste in the mouth as soon as he put a better one against his tongue. I refused to see how with each passing day he grew more quiet, less playful.
As I washed the dishes, I asked him to put the dirty napkins in the trash. I heard him say “no” with a particular venom in his voice. I put my favorite aluminum pan in the dish rack to dry, and turned to scold him, discovering the knife in his little hand. I was relieved to see it was only a butter knife. But the anger on his face vibrated through my body and my knees buckled. I begged him to put the knife down but he stood his ground. I don’t know what would have happened if my husband hadn’t walked in.
The knife hit the tile floor with a dull thud and he ran out the back door. My husband held me tight. He did not ask for details. He did not say anything. But I knew what he was thinking.
A few days before Christmas he was taken from our home. I never saw him again. My husband and children were full of anger and fear. I knew they had never seen him as one of us like I had. I knew there was nothing I could say so that he could stay with us
Now each Christmas fills me with melancholy. I wonder what ever happened to him. I wonder if he remembers me whom he used to call Mama. I wonder if he ever found that couple and made that perfect life I had pictured for him. I hope the system didn’t fail him the way I did.
Like the farmers who have gathered this summer’s seeds
I too am culling.
Kernels of an idea
for a new novel
from the heat of my excitement.
As they crowd out the air of doubt from my wily ego-mind,
I am drawn to the seat of creation.
My heart-soul soaks up the fertile thoughts
as it celebrates the gestation,
encouraging me to play.
My ego-mind begs
to organize the spores,
(it loves doing that).
I say okay.
But please be quick about it.
I so want to put words to paper.
And so the season begins…
STORY SPROUTS ANTHOLOGY went live on Amazon on October 29th!
This summer, 19 talented children’s book authors accepted a challenge to workshop, write, revise, polish, and submit two stories – in public, under the pressure of a six-hour deadline, with the promise of publication. On October 29, 2013, their work was revealed with the global release of Story Sprouts Anthology 2013.
Guided by the writing exercises and handouts, anthology authors produced two pieces. One revealed insights “On Writing” and the other was a fictional piece based on a photo prompts. Submissions range from poetry and narrative essay to flash fiction and picture book manuscripts.
Some of the author names will be familiar to Hollywood and literary insiders. Contributor Abi Estrin wrote the animated adaptation of Ben Hur and produced several episodes of On the Road in America. Contributor Lynne Southerland has 20 years experience in Hollywood; her credits include co-directing Mulan 2 and co-producing Disney’s An Extremely Goofy Movie and HBO’s Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. Contributor Donna Marie Robb’s stories have been published in several literary magazines and she her children’s book reviews have been published in the School Library Journal.
Please encourage our efforts by buying the book in either print or for Kindle atAmazon.
Thanks for your support. Lynne
THE SILENT PARTNER
Our shoulders are in lock step, like in a sack race. We move back and forth on a circuitous path around chairs, a dirty clothes hamper and the morning’s rejected clothing choices in my parent’s large bedroom. Although I am tall for someone who will turn thirteen in a couple of months, I do not have the physical strength of a woman and have a difficult time keeping up with the woman on the other end. She is my mother’s best friend, Joan. The woman in the middle, whose eyes are fighting to stay closed is my mother. Not only are her eyes heavy beyond sleep, her head hangs limp like a broken bobble-head doll.
I try not to think about how the sight of her in this state makes me feel. I’m used to doing that. The way I see it, feelings produce moments like this disastrous scene we’re in now. So instead, I count out each step we take. I don’t want to focus on what could happen if Joan and I can’t get her to wake up, or the ambulance doesn’t get here in time.
My eyes divert to the nightstand on her side of the bed. It has always been a source of fascination to me since Mommy keeps her private stash of candies behind its closed doors. I think about the times when the stars have aligned just right and she opens those doors to share one of her precious delights and what seems like the inner sanctum of her soul. I can see her unsealing the wrapper of the Mounds Bar and letting the first of the chocolates slip out. She presents it to me in a manner that turns her simple hand into a sterling silver tray. Once she crushes the wrapper she looks at me, and smiles. Mmmmmm. I learned to love dark chocolate sitting on the edge of Mommy’s bed, next to that nightstand.
But now my eyes are drawn to the brownish yellow bottles on the top of the table, their lids capped tight. A full glass of water sits next to four pills resting loose near the edge.
Just a half hour before, I had played the role of the can-do daughter, a role which, at that time I was proud to own in our family. It was 11 P.M. – an hour past my bedtime. I had used the excuse of tending to her to cheat the rules and watch a little more TV before delivering another dose of medication to her.
She had come home later than usual. We sat down to dinner, without my father who often ate with some of his car dealership associates. It seemed to be a very normal evening.
But, as my siblings and I did clean up duty, my mother calmly explained that she had not been feeling well and the doctor had prescribed something.
“I need to take four of these pills every hour. Rocky, you’ll have to wake me so I don’t miss a dose.”
“Okay,” I responded despite thinking that she didn’t seem sick.
With unquestioning pliancy, I woke her at eight, nine and ten o’clock. Between these markers, we finished our kitchen duties and then did our homework and watched television, an advantage to being beyond my mother’s watchful eyes.
My father called around nine thirty.
“Rocky Road,” he said when I answered the phone.
“Where’s the old bag?”
I hated that he called her that. She was a beautiful, petite woman with great legs. Where did he get “old bag” from?
Using me as the go-between, he explained that he was stopping off for a drink and she should not wait up for him. Of course now I realize that she had heard those very words many times and they probably contributed to her state of mind for weeks before tonight.
Blissful at the guilty pleasure of having stayed up late, I gladly approached her room ready to give a last dose before going to bed myself. I filled the glass from the bathroom sink, placed it on the nightstand and then poured four pills into my cupped hand. Now that all was ready, I spoke quietly into my mother’s ear, hoping to arouse her gently. I knew this is how she would have handled the same situation if it were one of us.
Unlike earlier in the evening, she did not respond. I then tried a soft jostling of her shoulder. She moaned at the disruption to her unconsciousness. Seeing her that way made my stomach queasy. An instinct tugged at me – something was very wrong. I patted her hand in another attempt to arouse her, but it was limp and clammy. I wished to hear the sound of the front door opening and my father coming in, just in the nick of time, to save the day, to save my mother. But that sound did not come. And neither did he.
Thankfully, the can do part of me took control. Joan was the only other person to call. It seems like forever until the ambulance arrives. Numbness is the only feeling I’m willing to take on. This is happening in our house, to my mother, but it seems so unreal – like I’m watching that movie with Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine – only my story has a different ending.
My siblings slept through the whole thing. I wish I had too. Then I wouldn’t have heard her moans as the EMTs tried to revive her or seen her lifeless face as they carried her down the stairs.
I stare into my closet, realizing I own nothing black – if you don’t count the empty, dark feeling squeezing my heart. I consider the option of burying myself underneath the pile of dirty clothes lying on the floor. Maybe in there I can snuff out this burning feeling that if I weren’t such a stellar can-do girl she’d still be alive.
In 2010, I had the great privilege of my PB manuscript,
RED DOG AND THE KANGAROO KIDNAPPING
chosen for publication on a fabulous website, smories.com
Smories is a place where kids get to read aloud
original stories to other kids. The readers are all from South Africa.
I love hearing my story read with a British derivative accent!
Hope you’ll enjoy it too.