Saturday, July 29, 2006

Looking up at the bluest sky possible

Shanghai in the summer reminds me of the last summer of my teens; traveling, finding myself, anxious to know who I might one day become. Summer, random cafes, and the heat always remind me of times with my mom. That is when we had our best times together.

My mom – a few years after she left my dad, left her position as a nurse at the family planning clinic in Bartlesville to become a contract nurse. Actually, in between the two phases in her life she pursued a career in real estate which lasted long enough for her to get her realtors license and trade her small car in for a Buick Century. A few months into the endeavor, she decided she did not like the real estate profession and that is actually when she became a contract nurse and traded the Century in for a 1980 blue Honda Civic hatchback.

Her first gig as a contract nurse was in West Texas in Plainview. By this time, I was a few years out of high school and was just knocking around trying to decide what to do with my life. This was back in the time of easy summers, the good life or I remember them as good at least. That same summer, I sold some stock and with some added money from my father went to London on a whim with a friend. Later, that summer, I hopped in a 1976 Datsun B210 with two other friends and went to California. On the way back, they dropped me in Plainview to stay with my mom for a few weeks.

In their divorce settlement, my mom made my dad agree to help us kids through college. By this time, my oldest siblings had families. Curtiss who is six years older than me had a year or so to go in college. Gentry had no interest in college at the time. He divided his time between being a bass player in a southern fried rock band and being an electrician’s assistant to my Cousin Duane. (Later, Gentry would surprise us and graduate from UT on the dean’s list in the unheard time of three years.) After Curtiss graduated from college, I would be able to go, if that was what I wanted.

At this point, I was happy knocking around doing nothing. I have never been one to plan much in advance. I earned a little money that summer cleaning up some junk around my Cousin Duane’s house. He was in many ways like an older brother to Gentry and me. I remember he paid me by the hour and then he gave me an extra twenty.

Anyway, my friends dropped me off in Plainview to spend some time with my mom. While I was there, she had three or four days off in a row. She thought it might be fun to drive to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. This sounded like fun to me. Now, more than 20 years later, I do not remember that much about the trip. I remember driving through the vast stretches of nothingness that define most of New Mexico and Texas.

Most of the time, we tried to get oldie stations on the radio. For some reason, I remember hearing that song ‘Spooky’ as we were driving - looking up at the bluest sky possible - through the New Mexico desert. We were in that 1980 blue Honda Civic; which during the trip she told me when she got a new car, she would give the 1980 to me. This would have been the summer of 1982.

On the last day of the trip, when we were leaving Carlsbad, we tried to decide if we wanted to eat an early lunch or wait until we were on the road and eat then. We were usually in agreement about most things and this time was no different. We decided to put some of the road behind us before we ate lunch. My mom was a big fan of cafes and diners as am I. At the time, I do not remember if I was or not. I assume I was a fan but I do not remember those sorts of details.

We drove. We drove. We drove. For hours, it seems; we drove. Both of us were getting hungry. Actually we were beyond hungry, we were famished. There seemed to be nothing for many miles. We saw no signs for towns, no signs for rest stops, nothing.

At last we saw a sign, a big sign for a place twenty-five miles away. The sign was big. The restaurant looked very reputable by the sign. There seemed to be something on the sign saying family owned for like fifteen or twenty years. That seemed like a glowing endorsement to us. We decided that was the place for us.
Finally, we reached our destination. From what I remember, the outside needed a fresh coat of paint but that did not seem to be a warning sign. That indicated that the place stayed so busy that the owners did not have time to paint. This seemed like another endorsement for the place.

We walked in and sat down. There was a jukebox. Some innocuous tune was playing. I excused myself to use the restroom which was my first mistake.

At the time, the dirtiest restroom I think I had ever seen was the restroom in my Uncle Harold’s gas station. It was the typical backwoods gas station restroom that has not been given much attention by the cleaning lady who of course was my Aunt Connie.

The restroom in this restaurant was off the scale when it came to dirty. Without getting obscene, I do not know how to describe it. All I can say is imagine a restroom that has not been cleaned in two or three years with a toilet that has not been flushed in that same amount of time; this was worse.

Needless to say, after my trip to the restroom, I was a little gun shy about ordering. Like in a horror movie, I do not know why we did not leave. Without a doubt, I could have asked my mom if we could leave right then. She would have understood. Looking back, I don’t know why I did not say anything at that point.

When I got back to the table, we ordered our food. Or actually, we may have ordered our food before I went to the restroom. That makes more sense. That would explain why we didn’t leave and I did not really say much – if I said anything – about the restroom.

In any case, I believe I ordered roast beef and green beans. Mom ordered meatloaf and mashed potatoes. We could usually go anywhere to eat together because she and I loved the same type of food. Sometimes, I was the one to order meatloaf and she would sometimes order roast beef.

After we sat down to eat somewhere, we would always talk for five or ten minutes after we ordered. This was never planned; it just always happened. This day, I am sure was no different. Our talks a lot of times centered on my friends whom my mom adored. Sometimes we would talk about the future, college, her job. She never pushed me. She told me I did a good job of that on my own. Which now, seems weird to me because I was not working or in college at the time. Nevertheless, I had worked from my junior year in high school until I had just recently quit a job managing a small restaurant. Their was a lull in our conversation.

About this time, one of my mom’s favorite songs came on the jukebox – a gospel number, Christy Lane’s ‘One Day at a Time.’ My mom loved to sing along to songs. Often she loved to sing the wrong words along to songs but she did love to sing along to songs. Whether it was Christy Lane, Rod Stewart’s ‘Do you think I’m Sexy?’ (One of her favorites), Rufus’ ‘Tell Me Something Good’ or Supremes’ ‘Love is like an Itching in my Heart,’ she loved music and she loved to sing along, no matter where we were; crowded restaurants were not excluded from this pastime of hers.

Usually, when she got to the chorus, she would really start belting it out. Or in my young mind, she seemed to be belting it louder than anything else. I was never one to tell her to stop because she enjoyed singing so much that I just could not hurt her feelings. Instead, I took the coward’s way out and leaned back in my booth and listened to the conversation in the booth behind me.

The diners in that booth were just being served their food when I tuned them in. I heard the waitress say:
“And here is your roast beef and mashed potatoes, mam.”
Soon after, I heard the woman respond:
“I can’t eat this, you could not pay me to eat this.” She then added in disgust, “Take it back. Bring me a hamburger.”

Since she was behind me, I could not see the offensive platter of food. I could just imagine what the offensive platter of food resembled. Remember, I had the bathroom visit as a reference point.

The song ended approximately the same time that the discourse with the waitress ended in the booth behind me. For some reason, I started to laugh because I thought the whole thing was amusing. My mom - who was not privy to the hygienic state of the bathroom or the woman’s conversation with the waitress - wanted to know why I was laughing. This made me laugh even harder. At this point, I was laughing so hard that I could hardly speak.

All I could say was “I think she had what you are having,” as I discreetly pointed to the woman sitting behind me. My mom just looked at me perplexed. She still had no idea what I was talking about. To her, this was still an idyllic restaurant.

A few minutes later, we were served our meal. She tore into her roast beef like a savage. She had no fear when it came to ptomaine. Once, as an adult, I asked her if hardboiled eggs went bad. She told me no that when my brothers and I were kids we would find Easter eggs months after the fact out in the yard and still eat them.

When the waitress sat down my meal, I was terrified to take a bite. My mom noticed that my green beans looked a little weird. “Are they supposed to be that color?” she asked. They were an elephant grey.

Her courage - or ptomaine naiveté rather - was encouraging to me. I started eating my meal. Now, I do not remember how it tasted. I am almost positive it had some sort of off taste to it but that might have just been psychosomatic. Without a doubt, I know that the meal was most certainly not delicious. Nevertheless, my mom seemed to enjoy her meal so I kept my mouth shut.

We paid the check and headed back toward Plainview. We were still in New Mexico.

My brother Gentry, as I said earlier, played bass in a southern rock boogie-woogie band. Diamondback, his band, were on a regional tour and playing that night at a club in Grants, New Mexico. The clubs his band played were at places with names like Rockers, Rockies, Snookers, Whiskers.

Grants was either on our way back to Plainview or not too far out of the way. We decided we would try to track him down. Of course, this was way before the time of email and cell phones. Fortunately, Grants was a small enough town that we could probably locate the club and the hotel where his band was playing and staying without much difficulty, especially if we had a little luck on our side, which when I was with my mom we always seemed to have.

A few hours after leaving the restaurant, we pulled into Grants. As I said, this has been over twenty years ago, but it seems like we immediately drove by a hotel and Gentry and the rest of the band were getting out of the band van – a somewhat mod Dodge. Our encounter was brief. We told him we were driving by and thought we would say hello which we did and then we headed on back to Plainview.

We had debated staying and watching his band but neither of us was too enthused about going to a biker bar in Grants. Gentry may have even helped talk us out of going. Whatever the case may have been, we did not stay; we drove back.

Now, this is where my mom and my dad were very different in their views, in their views about travel, specifically their views on when to fill up the tank. On family vacations was the only time when I truly was a witness to my dad’s gas tank logic. Once the gauge had dipped past half a tank, my dad told us to keep our ‘eyes peeled for a gas station.’ If we did not find one by the time the tank got to a quarter of a tank, there was a full fledged panic. At that point, he would begin to make a plan for who was to walk for gas if we ran out.

With my mom, about the time the gauge would dip a bit past the eighth of a tank mark, it would dawn on her that maybe we should think about at some point getting gas but really there was no hurry. We had time. She did not panic. She was very nonchalant about gas and those sorts of things.

On the last leg of our trip, when we were down to a little less than an eighth of a tank, we passed a station. As we passed it, I remember her saying maybe we should have got gas there. I agreed but said there was probably another place close. She agreed and we kept on driving….and driving….and driving. We were now in West Texas where the gas stations were no more plentiful than in East New Mexico.

At the point, when the gauge had dipped past empty, we saw a sign – Plainview 21 miles. We thought there might be something before then. We thought for sure there was something ten miles out of town or so. We both prayed and crossed our fingers. It was way past dark. Back then, as I said, there were no cell phones. We certainly did not want to run out of gas in this untamed ‘the Hills Have Eyes meet the Chainsaw Massacre’ country.

We kept driving. Ever so often, I thought I felt the car lurch. That might have been psychosomatic or my mom – who could be quite the prankster – messing with me. The whole time, I thought of Leatherface and that movie ‘Last House on the Left.’ Fortunately, I had not read ‘A good man is hard to find’ at that point.

Finally, we hit the outside of Plainview and a gas station. We rolled in on fumes I am sure. We filled up and Mom said something like “I will sure never do that again,” which I most definitely think she forgot she said a few tanks later.

When we got back to the apartment, within an hour or so, I became what I thought was deathly ill. There is only a few times I can remember being that ill, that is a few times before I was a mad drinker. Later, when I became a drinker of inestimable proportions, I would get that sick routinely. But as a youngster, who had not yet been gripped by alcohol, I was as sick, or sicker, than I had ever been before. At the time, I was positive I got food poisoning from the restaurant with the elephant colored green beans.

Now, I am not sure. A year later, when my mom was a contract nurse in Miami, FLA, I had to be taken to the emergency room because I had the start of an ulcer. I was once a nervous person.


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