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Sunday Stories from the South
I guess I was about thirteen years old when I came to hate roses. School let out near the end of May and that meant that it was time to make the drive from southeast Arkansas to Texas. It had become a ritual by now. From the time my parents divorced when I was two, every summer I rode west to spend a few months with my mother and her new husband. Ted to everyone but his mother who still insisted on calling him Terry Don, the name he wore home from the hospital.
Ted was always good to me. When I was four he rambled around in his mother’s overstuffed attic until he found an old train set he had played with as a child. Everything still worked. He and I bonded over a scaled down model of the Union Pacific railroad. I would jam tinker toys through the open doors of tiny box cars and he would pitch Black Cat firecrackers toward the engine in an attempt to dynamite the tracks. That is, until his own mother, Granny Sally, came into the den and told him to cut it out before he set the thick shag carpet on fire.
“That old rug don’t stand a Chinaman’s chance between the two of you,” she said, trying to suppress a chuckle long enough to feign displeasure.
I looked forward to those trips to Granny’s house, and not just because the trains always ran on time. She was a kindly lady with big blue hair who always had something sweet on the table. She had been something of a pastry chef in earlier days. But the pies and cakes and cookies weren’t half as sweet as she.
My mother didn’t work but she had her routine that allowed little time for trains. I think she was still chasing what little was left of her youth. So in the mornings, Ted would take me over to Granny’s house on his way to paint cars at Town East Ford in Mesquite. Mom would head off to the gym and then to champagne brunches and three martini lunches. These would keep her busy until Happy Hour and whatever cocktail party she had invited herself to in the evenings.
Granny would usually have breakfast waiting for me by the time I arrived. Blueberry or strawberry muffins as big as softballs. Bubber, her husband, would be sitting in the recliner nursing a Marlboro and watching the weather. He would call to me while I was still at the table elbow deep in sugar bombs, saying, “Better get that engine rolling. People are waiting on their trains.” Since his six kids were all grown and gone I think he liked having the small racket of playing children within earshot.
After I got too big to play engineer, I would go outside after breakfast to help Granny in her flower beds. Her front lawn was always a beautiful display of annuals, perennials, and well-tended shrubs. She tried to teach me the difference between Pansies, Begonias, Irises, Daffodils, Impatiens and Zinnias, but they were all just “flowers” to me. Except for the roses.
She had the loveliest China Roses. Deep purple as though they had been carved from amethyst. There were the pink Climbing Roses crowding around the front steps of the porch like hundreds of pieces of cotton candy blowing in from a nearby fair. But the queen of them all was the Lady in Red. Dozens of proud bulbs standing upright around the corners of the house. They swayed in the breeze like blushing lovers waiting at some secret trysting place.
But there was more to them than just the crimson petals. I soon learned that, just like the fiery love they symbolized, they could wound you. Being an impatient novice, they often left me with bloody hands and arms. And I must admit, I became more adept at cussing than gardening.
“You can’t just grab them,” Granny said. “You have to watch for the thorns. Roses will cut you.”
Eventually, I gave up on trying to prune them as she would do and stuck to the safer tasks of spraying and watering and simply enjoying the way they danced in the wind.
One Friday evening Ted picked me up from Granny’s and said he was dropping me off and my mother’s. He had made plans to go to the old homeplace in Paris with his brother, James. I desperately wanted to go with the men. Not only because I wanted to do “man things,” but because I didn’t want to be left alone with her. She was always mercurial. But her belligerence seemed to sprout up like a fast growing weed in her cups.
She wasn’t home when we arrived. She wasn’t home when he left an hour later. She wasn’t home when I went to bed after watching reruns of “I Love Lucy” at eleven. But I heard the back door rattle shut around two or so. And the sound of keys hitting the floor and dining room chairs being shuffled around on the rough hewn floor.
I found her in the kitchen hugging the wall as if it were the only thing keeping her upright. “What are you doing up?” she said. “You should be in bed.”
“I heard a noise. Didn’t know what it was.” But I did.
“Well, it’s too late for you to be up.” She said, half-yelling, half-slurring.
“Let me help you to bed. Then I’ll go.” I said.
She rested her weight on me as we both staggered down the hall. She wasn’t a big woman, but even so, a drunken mother is still a lot of weight for a thirteen year old boy to bear. Through fits and starts we made it to her room. And just as I was heaving her onto her bed she vomited down my chest and onto the floor. All she said was, “Damn.”
I grabbed a towel and cleaned her up as best I could before turning to the floor and then to myself. She was already asleep by the time I had made a quick trip through the shower to wash off the evening’s events. As I went into the kitchen to turn off the lights, I saw her purse which she had slung carelessly across the kitchen table. Its contents lay there like scattered debris after a summer storm: a tube of lipstick, a compact mirror, five dollars, and an empty bottle. I still remember the Four Roses etched on its face. Thorns and all.