Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Own Your Own Body
Spent part of this morning writing a new part to a series of essays. I'm going to post the abridged version and will let you know when I finish. Some parts might seem a little jumpy because I'm not all that great at condensing. Thanks for reading!
For one summer, I babysat a boy named Blake every night while his mother worked the graveyard shift at the only factory in town. The trailer in which she and Blake lived belonged to O.D. Miller, a long-time friend of my parents, a guy that ran a small flight school out of the local airport. O.D. was the kind of guy who always had a get rich quick scheme going, an eternal optimist who sometimes slept on the couch in his office to hide from his abusive, jealous wife. The backs of t-shirts covered the walls of said office -- all worn by his students on the day they made their first solo flight. The dates were scrawled in permanent black marker, along with a personal message, usually something like, Thanks, O.D.!, Flying High! No lack of explanation points there. The t-shirts went on the wall as soon as the person landed, still high from the adrenalin of being alive. As my dad used to say, Anyone can fly a plane. It's the landing it that's more crucial.
My mother worked for O.D. part-time for a couple of years. On her only typed resume that now resides in my baby book, she listed her reason for leaving as not enough work. When O.D.’s beige rotary phone range, it was usually his wife who wanted to pick a fight after drinking all morning. By noon she’d already passed that window that every drinker knows, the world is glowing window, and gone into that hurt injured paranoid mode. My mother overheard her yelling at him, telling my dad, sister, and me that O.D’s wife treated him like shit. I didn’t point out that things were pretty strained around our own house since she started having a not very discrete affair with my dad’s boss. That kind of astute observation did not go well over our LaChoy dinner, a nasty concoction out of a can that claimed to be Chop Suey.
What kept O.D. in business at all was his propensity to train Iranian men to fly. Because of the recent hostage crisis, Americans weren’t all that partial to Iran, but O.D. didn’t seem to care. In addition to the ripped t-shirts, he had two small flags in his office -- an American one and a Christian one. Both rested in a tin can, as if he were a homeless veteran selling them on the street. But despite the flags and his refusal to eat “gook” food (a nod to his stint in Korea), he didn’t much care from whom his money came.
My mother supplemented her O.D. paychecks by making rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions and butterflies into paperweights, suitable, as they say, for home or office use. She sold them out of his office, some of them perfect, others exploding because she’d used the wrong chemicals or too much of the right ones. She never measured or followed a set plan. She made one for O.D., a small garter snake in a paperweight shaped like the state of Texas. This gem went on the desk next to the flags and eventually became buried underneath a tsunami of paperwork. O.D. did not like to get rid of anything.
Which explains the trailer. He did not want to sell it so he loaned it out to Cynthia for a few years. A single mother with almost no possessions, she was glad to move into it with its cornucopia of cast-offs. Despite being the last year of the eighties, the furniture brought right back to my childhood -- worn avocado-colored couches, thick glass ashtrays filled with butts, a transistor radio. By this point, O.D.’s mean wife had died of cancer. My mother had cancer as well -- cervical, compliments of the affair she had so many years ago.
I had one year of college behind me. Although I didn’t know it then, this summer would be the last time I lived at home. I hated being in the house, the house where I had been raped by my high school boyfriend. I didn’t tell anyone for fear of being blamed, exposed. My family had one unwritten motto -- Whatever bad happens to you, you brought it on yourself. I believed it, at least more than I believed O.D.’s pipe dreams of wealth or Cynthia’s conviction that her syphilis (she'd confessed that she had been diagnosed with the disease, but wouldn't go back to get the prescription because she was afraid) would cure itself if she lived healthy. Her idea of health involved Hydrox-brand Oreo cookies, cigarettes, and a bottle of Beefeater’s gin for the weekends.
As a child, I had been obsessed with a book titled Own Your Own Body. My mother surrounded herself with exotic types -- foreigners, outlaw hillbillies, new agers. To her credit, she remained engaged and curious during conversations about astral projections, séances, snake-handling, and colonics. I found Own Your Own Body in the room off the garage known as the office -- it contained my dad’s Selectric typewriter, a shelf of books, and two pictures of New Zealand warriors with bones through their noses. Under their watchful gaze, I read Own Your Own Body over and over, a strange choice for a child raised on meatloaf, fried bologna, and KFC. You couldn’t eat anything cooked or canned. You were required to fast and do cleanses. After a few reads, it became clear to me that I would never own much of anything, especially my body. Given that I had enjoyed drinking the leftover sips in the various cocktails that collected in the kitchen while I was supposed to be offering snacks to the guests, I had taken, as they said back in the Seventies, a different path.
I don’t know what happened to Blake or Cynthia. Both my parents are dead, and O.D. lives in a nursing home. The trailer sits in the middle of a hill in Mineral Wells where O.D. got it stuck years ago. He couldn’t get it back down the hill, nor could he pull it to the top. And I can still see myself in it, awake long after Blake had fallen asleep, trying to find a leftover cigarette to smoke, killing time until Cynthia finished her grave and came home, the day already shaping up to be as bright as an overexposed photograph.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I'm too old to do things by half." Lou Reed
Drinking movie suggestion: Downloading Nancy
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Ash Wednesday!