Authors: Liza Palmer
“It's fine, you know. Same ol', same ol'.”
Merry Carole is quiet.
I continue, “I know what you're thinking, butâ”
“Don't you say this wasn't your fault, Queen Elizabeth. Don't you even think it.”
“This jerk-off asked for ketchup and he was going to slather his eggs with it. What was I supposed to do?”
Merry Carole muffles the phone and continues to talk to Fawn. “Some poor man had the nerve to put ketchup on his eggs! Yes, ma'am! Right in front of her! It's like he didn't know who he was dealin' with! I know! Hahahahahahahahahaha!” Merry Carole says through the muffled receiver and the peals of laughter begin.
“It's not funny!” I say to no one.
“So what are you going to do now? Are you going to stay in New York or are you on to the next city?”
“I haven't figured that out yet.”
“How long you got?”
“They've given me three days.” I look around the room. Open suitcases with clothes strewn from them like blood spatter at a crime scene. I realize I haven't washed my hair with anything but a fun-size bottle of hotel shampoo in years.
“That's not a lot of time.”
“I know.” I think about maybe going to Philadelphia. Or Chicago? Maybe I could start fresh. Find something, shit .Â .Â . anything. Even in the abstract, I'm having a hard time giving up my dream of being in New York. I've wanted to be here my entire life.
“New York, New York! If I can make it there I'll make it anywhere.”
Well, what if you can't make it here? What happens then?
“It's not the end of the world, but you can definitely see it from there. You've seen worse,” Merry Carole says.
“I know.” I tuck my legs underneath me as my mind darts around its darker recesses. As Merry Carole muffles the phone and directs Fawn through Mrs. Beauchamp's color, I hate that it's always about enduring and surviving. Crawling through and out of some muck to get to the other side.
Yes, I'll survive this. Merry Carole's right. I've seen worse. Much worse. But just once I'd like to simply .Â .Â . have something. Just .Â .Â . be. Get a job somewhere where someone isn't “taking a chance on me.” I'm now officially pouting. My hangdog expression reflects back at me in the window. I look absolutely pathetic.
“I'm going to throw something out there and I need you to just think about it. Will you do that for me?” Merry Carole asks.
“As you know, the big Fourth of July festival is next weekend.”
“Sure,” I say. North Star's summer season is bookended by two big events: the Fourth of July festival starts it out with a literal bang and the North Star Stallions opening football game finishes it.
“Well, they're going to announce that Cal will be the quarterback for the North Star Stallions. We'll get our sign for the front yard and he's going to be presented with his varsity jersey in front of God and everybody. I know he'd love it if you could come back to see him.”
I look up and am met, once again, with my own reflection in the window. I stare back at myself.
THIS IS YOU. THIS IS NOW.
I don't know how else to cut it. I'm a shadow of who I once was. I hang my head. It's not as if anyone is going to mourn my departure. I never bonded with anyone in the kitchenâturns out people didn't really take to a bossy know-it-all who hammered them with cooking tips and tricks while they tried to dice that day's onion allotment. If I did hit it off with someone, it was still well within the boundaries of “work friend.” Even walking out of the kitchen after work turned labored when there wasn't something cooking oriented we could talk about. It became clear that, unlike the other people in the kitchen, all I had was cooking. No family in the city. No history I cared to share. No hobbies. As long as I've been away from North Star I've been a cipher. And while I treasured the anonymity and the clean slate, it never dawned on me that I'd erased everything about me: good and bad.
I can't stomach quitting, never could. This will be temporary until I plan my next move. I'll recharge my batteries and really plan where to goânot just make another lateral move. I am also thirty-one years old and no longer believe the world begins and ends with North Star, Texas. I should be able to return without falling victim to the perception that I'm something to be hunted with torches and pitchforks. I will go back on my terms. It will not have the same power over me this time. I am older now. Smarter, I'd hope. Stronger.
“I think I can do that. It'd just be for a few weeks. Until I find a new job.”
“Oh, he'll love it!”
“I can't wait to see him. I can't imagine how big he's gotten.”
“He's not in diapers anymore, that's for sure.”
“Okay, well, I'll settle things here and be there in a couple of days.”
“Oh Queenie .Â .Â . this is just .Â .Â . I love that you're coming on home.” Merry Carole muffles the phone and continues, “I KNOW! She's coming home! Can you believe it!? Well, where else has she got to go, though, bless her heart? Hahahahahahahaha .Â .Â . Who are you telling?! Yeah, she's coming back to see Cal get his jersey! I know! That's what I said, Fawn, aren't you hearing me over here! Queenie, honey?”
“You be sure to call when you're on your way.”
“I just couldn't be happier. I'll see you soon then! Don't you just love saying that?”
“I'll see you soon. Bye,” I say.
“Bye-bye now,” Merry Carole signs off.
I beep my cell phone off and let it fall onto the bench. My haunted gaze stares back at me.
THIS IS YOU. THIS IS NOW.
I'm lost. I'm alone. I've got nowhere to go.
Nowhere but home.
Lipton tea and a 3 Musketeers
Several inconvenient truths have presented themselves in the last forty-eight postfiring hours. While I've bragged about living in the greatest cities in America, I have yet to actually become a part of any of them. I've worn the carpet threadbare on the tiniest piece of real estate these cities have to offer. I've created an agoraphobic triangle between the inside of a kitchen, the closest restaurant to catch my fancy, and whatever subway station is the nearest to the aforementioned. As I lay awake last night, I realized that it never mattered what city I was in, I never interacted with any of them. I vowed in the panicked haze of my last early morning in New York City that I would jump in with both feet to my next job in the next city. My future decisions can't be based on just not wanting to be in North Star, Texas. Deciding
not to be
somewhere is no choice at all.
As the sun comes up on my last day in New York, I put my clothes in the same two suitcases I've been lugging around for ten years. As I fight with them while leaving my room, the door clicks shut behind me. No fanfare. Nothing. Instead, my last moments in that New York City hotel room were a frustrated symphony of various four-letter words aimed at inanimate objects. The elevator dings open and I step in with all the other exhausted tourists who are ready to go home.
I've already pulled around the 1998 Subaru Outback I bought in Brooklyn yesterday and parked it in front of the hotel. I bought the car for three reasons: 1. it was cheap; 2. it has a hatchback; and 3. it has New York plates. Apparently having a few epiphanies in the early morning haze doesn't trump sheer pettiness (thank God).
I walk through the lobby of the McCormick one last time. Sassy Keryn is not working today. Too bad. I go out the revolving door to where the car is parked with its hazards on.
“Checking out?” the doorman asks. I've worked with this man for six months.
“I used to work here,” I say, opening the hatch and lifting in one of my bags.
. You need help?” he asks, lifting the other bag in and closing the hatch.
“Oh, thanks,” I say, now awkward. Do I tip him?
“Don't worry about it,” he says, watching me fumble around in my jeans pockets for any loose change.
“No problem. Good luck then.” I nod and smile.
I walk over to the driver's-side door and climb inside. The doorman walks around and shuts the door behind me. He scans the busy street and gives me a tap on the roof of my car when it's safe to go. I give him a wave and pull out from the curb.
The leaving is always so painless. One minute I'm in New York and the next I'm hurtling through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and then crossing into Virginia. I have officially left. But leaving one place means I'm going somewhere else, right? On to the next. I turn up the radio and sip the tea I bought just outside Roanoke.
After driving for sixteen hours the day before, I finally crashed at a motel just outside Birmingham, Alabama. The drive from New York to North Star is just over twenty-four hours and I completed a little more than half of it. Twelve hours to go. I called Merry Carole and let her know I'd be getting to North Star that night around dinnertime. She said she hadn't told Cal yet that I was coming. She did that not because she wanted to surprise him, but because she doesn't trust me. I've said I'm coming home a thousand times, then called with regrets from some new place.
In that scratchy bed, with the seemingly unending scan of headlights hitting my motel room window, I couldn't sleep. Guilt. Going home to Merry Carole and Cal made me feel apologetic and heavy. Did I abandon them? Or was it better for Merry Carole not having me in town? I wanted to believe my absence made it better. Merry Carole was always way more palatable without me aroundâwell, me and my temper anyway. As I gathered my things early that morning, I knew the answer. I'd been selfish. I guess I just didn't know what else to do.
Despite promises several times to come home, I've only been back once. I put everything I had into getting into the University of Texas. When I did, I'd never been more proud of myself. No Wake had ever gone to collegeâMerry Carole chose cosmetology school and had worked up to owning her own hair salon by twenty-four. We are a family whose bad reputations are earned. Our ancestry is lousy with convicts, murderers, and drug addicts, and that's just the women. We come from a long line of beer-joint broads and low-life criminals. We have a pedigree of bastard children and their inconvenienced parents. This has always been our place in North Star, despite Merry Carole's tireless efforts to change the legend. Having a mother like Brandi-Jaques Wake only solidified our lineage. And there was never a father in sight. We were the babies trotted out to blackmail the men in neighboring towns. The men who'd had a good time with our mother and now regretted ever laying eyes on her. We had this man's nose, that man's eyes, and this other man's hair color .Â .Â . whenever it was time to pay the rent. Merry Carole counted up at least fifteen men who thought they were our father. This was not a happy revelation for them. We still don't know if we're true or half sisters. What we do know is we're the only family we've got.
It seems apt that I would pull into North Star under the cover of darkness. I sit at the blinking red light on the edge of town, just off the highway. I remember sitting at this light when I decided to leave Texas for good. I'd gone to college, worked in restaurants in and around Austin, and had gone home to North Star for a couple of fateful weeks. I sat at this very light and knew I was destined for greatness .Â .Â . anywhere but in North Star. I was going to take on the world. I was going to show them.
The red light blinks. Welcoming me home. What's the exact opposite of a blaze of glory? I look around at my dusty Subaru, cut-off jeans, and think: me. This. This is what the exact opposite of a blaze of glory looks like.
I'm close to tears as I drive through the intersection and into the main square. The multicolored, exposed brick storefronts invite you to come on in! Air-conditioning! I pass the Homestead. The diner where you go to see and be seen. Old men talk about World War II and teenagers gather after football games. The Old Westâstyle sign is still gnarled and just as tacky as I remember it. The church at the center of the town square is alive and welcoming. I roll down my window to hear the cicada song that so defined my childhood. Each storefront boasts its own rearing black stallion out front. North Star's Stallion Batallion: the booster club for the high school football team.
No denying it. I'm back.
I slow down in front of Merry Carole's salon, which is just on the outside of the town square, two large windows with “Too Hot to Handle” written in blue-and-red script as pretty and feminine as my sister. It's a beautiful aged brick building with red doors and trailing ivy. A rearing black stallion statue is proudly in front. This one, unlike the others, is emblazoned with a gold number 5âCal's number. I pull down the long driveway to Merry Carole's house, just behind her salon, and turn off the car. I am hot immediately. I step out into the humid North Star air for the first time in years and it's as if I never left. It's been waiting.
“Aunt Queenie?” a man's deep and drawling voice asks.
“Cal, honey?!” I say, unable to control the emotion. He hurls a garbage bag into a bin just behind Merry Carole's salon and looks at me, his head tilted and curious. He still has the same blond hair he had as a toddler. But now it falls across his clear blue eyes with an ease I could never muster as a teenager. As he walks over to me, I notice he has that Wake swagger, which, now that I see it on him, is nothing to be ashamed of.
“What are you doing here?” Cal asks, lunging in for a hug. I am engulfed in pure power. If he squeezes me any harder, I'll break in two.
“You need to stop hugging me so I can see how truly giant you've gotten, sweetheart,” I say, holding him away from me. He's wearing low-slung cargo shorts and a white tank top.
“What are you doing here?” Cal asks again. He continues, “Does Momma know you're here?” Cal looks into the warmly lit house just behind us.
“She sure does. I think she wanted to surprise you. That and she didn't believe me when I said I was coming on home for real this time,” I say, reaching up to swipe the bangs out of his eyes.
“I don't know why you'd want to,” Cal says, with a sidelong glance and rolled eyes.
“Want to what?”
“Come back to North Star,” Cal says.
“Well, despite the time apart, it appears we are definitely related,” I say, laughing.
“Last I heard you were in New York.”
“I can't believe you'd want to leave a place like that.”
“It's just not what it's cracked up to be, sweetie. At least it wasn't for me,” I say, lacing my arm through his and walking up the manicured pathway flanked by gold marigolds and white perennials (the North Star Stallion colors) to Merry Carole's crisp red front door.
“I'd like to put that statement into the column of things people say who haven't been cooped up in North Star their whole lives.”
I can't help but smile.
Cal opens the front door and I am met with .Â .Â .
. I haven't been inside a house, a real house, in years. I worked at this one restaurant in Las Vegas during the holidays and I got to attend the boss's Christmas partyâmeaning, I was on the catering team who worked the affair. Merry Carole decorates in that way I've always appreciated: not hip enough to be someone you're friends with but inviting enough to be like the friend's mom's house you coveted when you were a kid. There's abundant usage of the Lone Star flag, bits and bobs of Christmas whimsy (after her birthday and name), and the occasional black stallion; Merry Carole's house defies designer labels. I let it wash over me and breathe in the familiar smell of her cooking. I crane my neck past Cal and am now itching to see her. How have I been away for so long?
“Don't tell me! Now, don't you even tell me that that is my baby sister you brought in with you, Calvin Jaques Wake!” Merry Carole comes out of the kitchen, unlacing her Lone Star apron and poufing up her hair.
“He found me outside,” I say, bringing Merry Carole in for a tight hug. The smell of her rose-water perfume mixed with Aqua Net tickles my nose just as it always has.
“I can't believe the surprise is ruined,” she says, slapping Cal on the arm and then quickly smoothing it over to “make it better.” He smiles, wrapping his arm around her.
“The surprise isn't ruined, Momma. It just happened outside,” Cal says.
“Just .Â .Â . just look at you,” Merry Carole says, her voice catching.
“You look just the same,” I say, taking her in, my smile wide. Blond Texas hair as high as she can get it and the tightest wardrobe only she, and her Jayne Mansfieldâlike curves, could pull off.
The room falls silent as Merry Carole remains quiet, her face haunted and unable to hide that I, unlike her, do not look just the same. Cal, sensing her mood, rubs her back and tugs her closer. Great. It seems Merry Carole must be consoled by her only son to soldier on in the face of my gaunt appearance. My face flushes as my smile fades. The once welcoming living room now feels tight around me.
“You just look thin and tired, sweetheart. The drive must have really taken it out of you .Â .Â . I, uh .Â .Â . you need to eat and get out of those clothes. Then I'm gonna burn everything you brought with you. Oh, speaking of, Cal dearâcan you go get Queenie's bags?”
“You don't have to .Â .Â . really,” I say, trying to gather myself.
Merry Carole just looks at me. I dig my keys out of my pocket and flip them to Cal. He immediately heads outside.
Once Cal is outside, Merry Carole walks over to me, her eyes welling up, black mascara rimming them. Her hand is clutched at her breasts, a silver cross suffocating in their depths. I can't help but feel ashamed as she looks at me. What have I let happen to myself? Who have I become? Why didn't I notice how bad I'd gotten? How much of myself did I erase?
“It can't be all that bad?” I ask.
“You're home now,” Merry Carole says.
“It's like you've seen a ghost,” I say.
“No, no .Â .Â . time just goes by so fast is all,” Merry Carole equivocates.
I see her studying me. This is not good. While I've always viewed Merry Carole as the only family I've got, Merry Carole has always treated me as her very own life-size doll. My entire childhood consisted of her dressing me up, doing my hair, and slathering me in makeup. She would hold entire beauty pageants in our backyard. I'd come out in different looks, her commentary peppering my walk down the plywood runway until she tearfully put a tinfoil tiara atop my perfect hair.
Merry Carole flips my lank brown hair over my shoulder, letting my split ends trail through her long fingers.
“Don't even think about it,” I say.
“It's just .Â .Â . there's no body, no height at all. Are you using any products? Any products to speak of?”
“Yes, Merry Carole. I'm using a can of hair spray every day and this is the end result.” I can feel my smile coming back. Having Merry Carole step back in as my constant caretaker makes me feel safer than I have in years. She and my split ends will be dueling in the town square at high noon.
“I don't even understand what you're talking about right now. And you're not wearing any makeup, not even lip gloss. I can'tâ” Merry Carole is beside herself. She wouldn't dream of going to the mailbox without her face on. I have visions of her house catching on fire and she takes a quick second to check her face in the mirror before fleeing.
“I showered this morning.”
“A shower is just the .Â .Â . I can't deal with
right now,” Merry Carole says, waving her hand over all of me to indicate that I am the offending
. The front door opens and slams shut.