Kathryn A. Brackett
My mother’s mind is like an attic. All her memories of my father are trapped in boxes, and she refuses to let them breathe. It happened eight months ago. A heart attack. At least with a long illness you have time to prepare yourself, but there was nothing. He was just gone.
She rarely had long conversations about him after the funeral, and because of her distance, it didn’t take long for me to channel my resentment into becoming the wonderful, bratty teenager I am now. So far, it’s working for me, but Mom would disagree, especially at work. She’s the CFO of Denny’s Corporation in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I’m working here for the summer, taking care of the switchboard and signing in visitors. I started two months ago, first on the twelfth floor in the marketing department. Within three hours I had broken the copy machine and given away free Denny’s vouchers to the wrong company. Then Mom moved me six floors down. That time I accidentally spilled coffee on my supervisor. He exploded, and I yelled back. My smart mouth got me placed downstairs at the front desk where I sit now in a stiff rolling chair surrounded by perky ferns. Two display cases full of Denny’s Corporation plaques hang from the walls beside my desk while the promotional sign looms above my head. Bold red words with a bright yellow background greet the customers, practically smacking them in the face—Denny’s—Great Food and Great Service by Great People…Every Time.
I’m sixteen years old and this is my life.
Really, though, it’s not that bad. The most annoying thing is how many times people remind me of how much I look like Mom. Seriously, people tell me I’m her young replica at least twenty times a day, or so it seems. I share her hollow green eyes and diplomatic smile, even her tiny mole at the base of her jaw. I want to tell people that she has my face, that she stole it in my sleep, but I soften my sarcasm by using phrases like “You don’t say” and “Funny how that happens.”
Despite all the experience I’m getting here, I still wonder what it would be like to work in a big mall, selling faded blue jeans or stick-on tattoos or panties with hearts stitched on them. I’d place peoples’ purchases in bags and give back change with a smile. But who’s to say I wouldn’t get lost in my fantasies as I stand behind the counter handling money? The panty-buyers would not like that.
I pick up the visitors’ pad and write the word PANTY in the margin. It sounds weird, like jockstrap. Mom would agree. We used to play this game where we wrote down words that came to us in our thoughts. We’d make a story out of them, then read the narrative to my father. The words never made sense, but they always made us laugh, and it was something fun we did together.
The front door opens and Dianne Jenkins stumbles inside. She’s a jovial accountant who loves three-inch heels. She flashes her bright white teeth at me, waving so enthusiastically that I wonder if her hand will fall off. Her heels tap across the shiny, marble floor as she makes her way to the elevator, takes a deep breath, bends down and rubs her ankle. Every morning I watch her do this.
The phone rings.
“Denny’s Corporation,” I say. “How may I direct your call?”
“Uhhh…” This is what I hear for about five seconds then a man in the thickest Southern accent this morning says, “Ma’am… I just had her name in front of me…uh… it starts with a ‘t’….” Papers shuffle on the other side of the phone. “Hold on for a minute.” And the next thing I hear is “people…people who need people....” We don’t play Streisand here. Our regulars are Barry Manilow, Christina Aguilera, or melodramatic renditions of movie tunes. But Streisand is nice to hear. Mom likes her music. When the part “luckiest people in the world” comes, a charge of emotion stabs at my head, and just like that, I’m thinking of my father. Once, he walked through a Publix Super Market as the hundredth customer for their grand opening. Confetti started falling around us and we danced in it like no one was looking even though everyone was. LUCKY. That word goes on the top of my pad.
“Hello, ma’am.” His voice startles me. “You still there? I got that name.”
“I need Becky Tit.”
“You mean Tith.”
He’s quiet. I think I’ve confused or embarrassed him, because really, no man should say the word tit to a woman they don’t know personally.
“You’re right,” he says. “I can’t read my writing!”
“Mistakes happen. Ms. Tith is in the information technology department, and her extension is 6671 in case you ever need it again.” Most of the employees’ extensions are burned into my memory.
“Thank you,” he says.
I switch him over. Some people would be so lost without my genius.
Beyond the glass doors is a tidy private park, trimmed neat with azaleas, dogwood trees and magnolias. There aren’t any surrounding gates, and you don’t need an access code or anything, so some people ignore the signs and trespass. I’ve seen the security guard throw people out, which is stupid. Pretty places like this should be open to everyone. All the benches are white with pink and red flowers painted on the armrests. Intricate paths lead through the trees, making me think of a quiet place to get lost in. One time I discovered a cluster of four leaf clovers while eating lunch near an old fountain. I’d thought of plucking all of them. Then I reconsidered and took only one.
That’s a word I like. CLOVER. It’d be a snappy name for a dog. I write the word in the margin of my pad then print TIT just beneath it. I appreciate the difference in these words. No room for confusion. A few years ago, Mr. Feldman, my English teacher, tried to help me understand the difference between there, their, and they’re, seeing how I’d confused them in my midterm paper, which he gave me a C- on because of my constant misuse of the homophones.
“What kind of person spells one word three different ways?” I’d asked him after class.
“They all mean different things,” he’d kept chanting.
I add HOMOPHONES to the list. Then the lobby door swings open and a middle-aged man walks in carrying two grocery bags knotted at the top. He’s wearing a gold sweat suit and a baseball cap backwards. His hair is short and black, from what I can tell. A wide, solid jawbone protrudes from his face, and a deep dimple punctures his chin, like my father used to have.
A strange heaviness moves inside me. The man limps as he walks closer to my desk. He puts the bags down and leans forward. His brown eyes are gentle.
“Hello,” he says. “I’m trying to find the Krispy Kreme.”
Now that heaviness is breaking apart inside me, and there are flighty sensations filling my stomach.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
“You…remind me of someone.”
“I get that a lot. The dimple. John Travolta.” He turns his head from side to side, posing.
“So is the doughnut shop close by?”
I start to walk him toward the door when he grabs his bags and moans. “Bad back. Probably shouldn’t be eating doughnuts either, not with this gut.” He pats his belly.
“It’s okay. I won’t tell.”
He stares into my face. Something in his eyes puts me at ease.
“So…I go this way?” He points in the wrong direction.
“No, if you go four blocks down East Main, and then take the alley down St. John, you’ll get there pretty quickly.”
He thanks me and pushes through the door to the park. I want to go outside and keep the conversation going, but then I hear the ding of the elevator, the penetrating click, click of high heels, and now Mom, at my back, saying, “Everything okay down here?” in that complacent voice of hers.
I turn around. There she is in her business coat buttoned to her neck and pencil skirt hanging daintily across her slender hips. I’m certain she hasn’t noticed the run crawling up her left leg. She’d be upstairs in a flash if she had, tearing open the extra pair of stockings in her work drawer.
“Everything’s just dandy!”
“Yep. In fact, I’m getting ready to order a pizza and a stripper.”
She tugs at her coat, smooths the wrinkles across her bosom, tucks a strand of dark blonde hair behind her ear. “This is better than working at a drive-through. You’ll get experience here.” She moves over to my desk and picks up the visitors’ pad. “Annie, how many times do I have to tell you? This is not the place to do this. It’s unprofessional.” She starts to rip off the page, but I rush across the room and snatch the pad from her hand. Mom hasn’t played our game much since my father died.
She grits her teeth, then looks over my shoulder into the park. The next thing I know, she’s at the door, stretching her neck to look out. “Where did that man come from?” When I ignore her, she repeats the question with more force.
I follow her eyes. My new friend is several feet away. His back is to us, and he’s rummaging through one of his bags.
She slants her eyes at me. “How long has he been there?”
“He’s looking for doughnuts.”
“In his bag?”
“No, I mean, I helped him with directions.”
“And I suppose you told him he could stay in the park?”
I arrange my face into a defiant stare. Mom struts my way, reaches over me to the phone, and pushes the red button for security. I try to stop her, but she blocks me with one strong arm. “Roger,” she says through the receiver, “I need you to escort a man out of the park, please.” Then I hear him say, “Be right there, Mrs. Pillar.”
She hangs up, points out the window. “People like that don’t need to be hanging out in places like this.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Annie, important clients are coming after lunch, and everything has to be perfect.” She pauses, stares at me. “That includes you.”
“I’m not perfect, and neither are you.”
“I am today.” She scrambles back to the elevator. The wide doors open to swallow her. She steps inside, does a spasmodic double take at her leg with the run, and starts wiggling her hips.
When she’s out of sight, I run outside. Strange wheels turn inside me as I look for my new friend. I don’t see him or Roger. Thunder rolls above my head. The edges of the sky are bubbling with a sick grayness. I wonder how long it will take for the summer rain to push its way through this time.
The phone never stops ringing here. After I hang up with a westerner who pronounces Denny’s as Danny’s, and a part-time worker from human resources arrives to relieve me, I head to lunch, but not before adding the words DANNYS DOUGHNUTS to my pad. At an Indian food cart, I try to figure out if I want chicken masala or chicken vindaloo. I love the sound of those words.
A pretty brown-skinned woman leans down from the cart and asks me what I’ll have.
“The chicken masa…LA,” I say, putting extra spunk into the words.
She smiles and fixes my plate. I look at other words on the menu: byrani, korma, piaza, aloo.
I pay for my food and head off to a quiet place in the park. Most days I eat lunch while sitting on a bench. I listen to the traffic or watch pedestrians stop and go to the white light of the crosswalk sign across the street. But today I feel like sitting under a tree, away from people, which I need sometimes. It’s good to spend time alone because it pulls you back to your core, to a place where things make sense. In this special place, you recall things you once loved, and those memories fill you up like air, and suddenly, somehow, you’re different, though you can’t explain how.
I start to sit down when I spot my new friend resting under a dogwood tree. My legs move toward him while my mind struggles to piece together what I’m doing, in that moment, as I approach a stranger I feel too comfortable with.
He holds up a glazed doughnut. “I remember you.”
“John Travolta, right?”
He smiles. “I saw a sign that said this was a private park. You think I’ll get in trouble?”
“Not if you’re sitting with me.”
He motions to a place beside him. The grass is thicker and greener because of the rain we’ve been getting. It feels like a big plushy pillow is underneath me when I sit down.
The man takes another bite of his doughnut.
“You must have a sweet tooth, huh?”
He shoves the last piece into his mouth, then pulls a banana from his bag, which is filled with various fruits and fabrics I can’t make out. “I try to balance my addiction with healthier things,” he says.
I offer him some masala.
“That stuff gives me gas.” Then he points at Denny’s, a tall, Pepto-Bismol colored building with too many windows. “That’s a real pretty place. I meant to tell you that before.”
“Oh, don’t be deceived. It’s full of boring people with staplers stuck up their butts.”
The man laughs out loud. It’s a clean, warm sound.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Pretty name for a pretty girl.” His tender voice curls into a ball inside my chest.
“So what do you do?” I ask.
“I’m a collector. Just passing through.”
“Really? What do you collect?”
“Stuff that people don’t want anymore. Things that help others.” The man points to his chin. “You got some of that Indian juice on you.”
I hunt for a napkin, but he hands me one from his bag.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I say.
We sit quietly for a while, watching birds hop in and out of the grass. I barely hear the traffic revving in the distance. Every muscle in my body is relaxed. A soft breeze sweeps across my face, and for the first time in a long time, I actually feel balanced.
“Smells like heavy rain,” the man says, peering upward.
I look at the bruised clouds, think of how right he is.
“I better get going.” He stands and gathers his things. “Here’s another napkin for your life, in case you need it.”
I tell him thank you, and then he strolls down the cobblestone path, into a shaded trail, disappearing under the trees. A few moments later I head back to the building. Halfway there, I scan the park, hoping to find him. I can’t believe I didn’t think to get his name.
An hour later at my desk, somewhere among the words NAPKIN, HEAVY RAIN, TIT, and ALOO, four men in Armani suits and narrow eyeglasses come barreling through the doublewide doors, their faces screaming, AGENDA! AGENDA! The tallest man in the group plops his briefcase on the counter, takes off his glasses, and stares at me with friendly blue eyes. I quickly return the visitors’ pad to its proper place.
“How are you today, young lady?”
“We’re here for a two o’clock appointment with Jean Pillar.” He arches his eyebrows at the visitors’ pad, pointing at certain words as he speaks. “Do I sign there, they’re or their?” He chuckles too hard. Since when did homophones get to be that funny? He collects himself, turns to the other men, speaks in a foreign language, and then makes contact with me. “Is there a bathroom on this floor?”
“Around the corner.”
He relays the message, and two men scurry off while one lags behind and checks out the plaques. I let Mom know that her clients have arrived. She reminds me to greet them warmly, and then, before hanging up, “Be professional.”
I put the phone down, smile big at the man. He squints and furrows his brow, a careful scrutiny that prepares me for what comes next.
“Are you Jean’s daughter?” he asks.
“I certainly am.”
He snaps his fingers. “I thought so when I first looked at you. You are the spittin’ image of her.”
“You don’t say!”
“That’s a compliment,” he adds. “Your mother’s a beautiful woman.”
Now the other client walks over and stares at me, his eyes lighting up. With the way his grin grows full and satisfied across his mouth, you’d think I was dressed in a bikini and tacked on the wall, offering a body part. What am I? The calendar girl from Denny’s?
“What’s your name?” the tall man asks.
I try to think of something good.
“Bessie Mae,” I say with pride.
“Nice to meet you.” And the sincerity in his voice sticks me like a pin.
The other men return from the restroom as Mom appears. Introductions are made. Then they pile into the elevator. The tall man throws up a hand, and I return an effortless smile.
“I just met Bessie Mae,” he says as she pushes the button.
Mom cuts her eyes at me as the door closes.
For a while the main lobby is quiet, except for the occasional hum of the elevators pulling people up and down. I’m working with the words ARMANI, FOREIGN, and BEAUTIFUL when I look into the park and see my new friend sitting on a bench, drinking a bottle of water. I start to join him when the front door flies open, delivering a petite woman in a navy crepe dress, open toe sandals, and a sky blue scarf jerked tightly around her neck. She rushes up to the desk, breathing hard.
“Hello. I’m late for a meeting with Jean Pillar.” She grips her handbag, her lacquered nails shining under the florescent lights.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “She’s already in a meeting.”
The woman seems puzzled. “She scheduled it last week.”
I check Mom’s list of appointments and see that she’s mistakenly scheduled two conferences at the same time. This is PERFECT.
“What’s your name?” I ask the woman. She starts to speak, but the phone rings. I throw up a finger and answer the call. It’s a cranky northerner, bitching about unpaid invoices and unordered supplies.
“Give me Jean Pillar,” he demands. I gladly transfer him.
I get the woman’s name, tell her that I’ll let Mrs. Pillar know she has arrived, and ask her to have a seat in the enclosed waiting room around the corner.
Mom rushes out the elevator within ten minutes, her cheeks flushed, her eyes darting back and forth across the room. LUNATIC. She scurries to the appointment book on my desk, flipping pages and mumbling to herself. I shift my attention out the window. That funny feeling enters my stomach again when my new friend gathers his things to leave.
“I can’t believe I did this.” Her voice is a rush of panic. “Annie, do you believe I did this?”
I don’t answer. She must follow my gaze, because the next thing I know her fingers are twisted around the phone receiver while her other hand presses the security button. I end the call with one finger-slam. She presses the button again. I snatch at her arm, but she yanks it away. Her eyes, demanding an answer, shift back and forth across my face.
“He’s a nice guy,” I tell her.
“You don’t even know him.”
“But I know his type.”
“People like him. Good people who deserve a chance to sit in a park and not be bothered by a lady who’s having a stressful day. He likes this place.”
“Today is not the day to be extra stubborn with me.”
“Mom, just look at him.”
She starts to press the button.
Maybe it’s the urgent tenderness in my voice that causes her to stop, or the heaviness filling my eyes, but something moves her, and she puts down the phone. Together we walk to the door. I watch her as she stares into the park. One slow breath at a time, the boxes in her attic begin to shuffle around. I see their movement in her eyes as my father’s memory adds light to her face. I know it’s hard to carry the weight of this moment. After the funeral, I overheard her tell someone that our loss would make me grow up faster than I needed to, and it would change the way she loved people. I get what she meant. There’s nothing easy about losing someone you love, and even with time, the pain is still there, wrapped in a box inside you, waiting for you to remember the person you were before you changed.
I look directly into her face. Beads of sweat have popped up on her forehead, and her eyes are caught in a slight daze. “You’re right about this guy,” I tell her. “I don’t know anything about him, but I feel better when I look at him.”
“He’s built like your dad,” she says gently.
“And he has a dimple in his chin, too.”
A tiny smile creeps from her mouth. “He was so proud of that dimple.”
“You remember how he used to say that God pasted a miniature version of his butt to his chin?”
She chuckles loudly, and then cups a hand over her mouth, looking around for spectators. She grabs a Kleenex from the desk and pats at her face. Thunder plows through the sky, pushing a hideous sickness upon the clouds.
“I hope that man has an umbrella,” she says, peering back over her shoulder.
“Me, too.” It’s nice to agree on something this simple.
She sighs when she glances at the visitors’ pad, mulling over something. Then she scribbles across the front, tears off the sheet, folds it and hands it to me. “I wrote the first sentence. You finish the story, then put it away for now. Okay?”
When Mom leaves to greet her client and things have settled down in the lobby, I go outside with the list of words. An eerie feeling has settled over the park, and the man has disappeared, which is probably for the best. Still, I wonder where he’ll go when the rain comes. I can walk, I can run, I can find shelter anywhere from it, but I have a feeling he can’t. I think I’ll work this thought into a funny story. Maybe it will help my mother unwind. I know how important that is after a long day.