Claire Rudy Foster
Liz was a chain-smoker. She sat on the roof at night, lighting cigarette after cigarette, one off of another. She rarely got caught because she kept all the stubs in one of Pop’s empty beer cans. The section of the roof where she sat was right next to the dumpster, she would drop the can over the edge of the gutter and listen to make sure it landed in with the rest of the trash. It made a good noise, a hearty thunk that somehow sounded also thin and far away. She could sit there for an hour and go through half a pack of Merits on the nights she was thinking hard.
She showed me how to do it, too. Showed how you only need one match, if you’re careful. The first puff of sulfur made me cough, and she laughed at me.
“Watch it, Ray,” she said. “That was just the match. We haven’t even gotten to the main event.” My real name is Ramona. Liz’s real name is Elizabeth. She was seventeen. She wasn’t supposed to be smoking because Pop said so. I wasn’t supposed to be smoking because I was nine.
The hard part was keeping the tip of it in a perfect cone, so that the cigarette was shaped like a dart. When Liz was talking she gestured with hers, and the glowing point of it was like an arrow in the dark.
“Did you watch Oprah today?” I asked. Liz worked at the Casino Magic, one of the brightly-lit gambling joints on the strip in Biloxi. Liz had been hired as a root beer girl by the casino manager, Mel. Liz said Mel was vain about his looks, always wearing a neat white shirt and a bolo tie. He was balding, and carefully combed his head in a way that was supposed to make him look hairier. Mel said things to Liz like, “I can’t believe you’re not eighteen, girl.” He would ask her when her birthday was. He never tried to touch her, she said, because he knew she’d pour her whole tray of root beers on him and make a scene.
Liz got to watch Oprah at work because one of the bartenders, Andie, was a woman, and the bartenders got to pick what was on their televisions. Liz would take her break as soon as Oprah came on. She’d sit for the whole hour, two breaks stuck together, chain-smoking and watching without anyone trying to feel her up .She told me she’d even take off her shoes, the high heels she wore every day, fulltime.
“Part of the rules is always looking the part,” Liz said about the casino. “You gotta look happy all the time, like at Disney World. Happy people spend a lot of money. The only person spends more than a happy person is a drunk who’s got no reason to go home.” Then she looked at me sharply. “You remember what I say, Ray? You always remember every word. You just remember it’s all true.”
Liz’s shoes used to be Mama’s. They weren’t real high heels, fancy shoes. They were snub-toed, faded-blue leather, with a four-inch heel and no back. Liz called them mules. She called herself a mule, too. She’d been working at the casino since she dropped out of school, almost six months going full-time. The snub toes were getting to look battered and scuffed. There were nicks in the heels, too, where Liz had banged into something with sharp edges. She needed new ones, and could have bought them with her paychecks, but she didn’t want to. She said they were just getting broken in the way she liked, and nobody could see how beat-up they were in the casino light that was dulled with cigarette smoke.
Today on Oprah, Oprah went to a school in South Africa and gave a lot of money to the little black girls there. The little girls in Africa were wearing green uniforms, the color of bullfrogs. Their smiles were extra-big and shone very white against their ebony skin. Oprah was smiling and crying, draped like a queen in pink. She was hugging those little girls so hard, like she wanted to squeeze them until they became part of her body.
Liz likes Oprah even though she took Mama away. Mama sent in a postcard for a contest, a weight-loss contest on the Oprah show. Mama isn’t really fat, not the way that people in the carnival are fat, or some of the summer tourists from Louisiana. Mama is shaped more like the “before” picture in a diet ad. You could see that she wanted to be skinny. Oprah must have known how bad she wanted it because Mama’s name got picked to be on television with five other big people.
The week before Mama left for Chicago, she and Pop were fighting every day.
“How long will you be gone,” he’d ask, and she’d laugh. He was drinking a lot. He told her she was damn irresponsible and selfish, and that she ought to stay.
“I’m staying until Oprah sends me home,” she said. “Don’t you bother me til then.” She was picking out clothes to wear, trying to decide how small a size she’d be when she came back. Mama wrote to Oprah on the postcard that she wanted to lose 85 pounds. That’s as much as I weigh. It gave me a funny feeling to see that number written on the postcard, as if Mama wanted to lose a piece of herself that was as big as me, shaped like me. I wondered where all those pounds would go when she lost them. I saw them leaving her in a silver string, one pound after another, and stacking themselves up into the shape of a little girl. I didn’t like thinking this way. It made me uneasy.
Mama and Pop had a big argument on the morning before Mama’s plane left, but he drove her to the airport anyway. Pop worked weekends at the airport, and he waved at a few of the other security guys when we walked Mama up to the gate. Liz wasn’t there. She’d got an early-morning shift at the casino and couldn’t get out of it. I thought of her, in Mama’s busted-up heels, pushing her drink cart across the casino floor. I gave Mama an extra kiss from Liz, and she gave me two back, one on each cheek.
We couldn’t go past the first security checkpoint with Mama because we didn’t have tickets, so we watched her wade along with her two duffel bags. She stopped, one time, to wave at us once we were safely separated by the wall of metal detectors. At a distance, I could see why she wanted to lose weight. She was short, and lumpy under her KLPN Radio shirt. As she walked away from us, she seemed smaller and squatter, until she blended in exactly with all the un-special tourists coming in from Florida or Cincinnati to throw their money away in the casinos.
I told Liz, when she asked, that Pop hadn’t said anything in the truck on the way home, this was a lie. He took us back the slow way, bypassing the interstate a few times and keeping us in sight of the coast. He said he wanted to look for hurricanes, which made me nervous. I stuck my hands together in the shape of prayer and pressed them between my thighs.
Pop looked for hurricanes when he was angriest and saddest. The time he’d lost his job counting shipyard stock, when Pappy died, when he’d thought Mama had left him because they were fighting all the time—that’s when Pop started checking the horizon for bad weather. At home, he’d put on a Merle Haggard tape and sit on the porch watching the sky for hours, drinking beer. But all this driving in circles made me worry.
“She’ll come back,” I said. “She’s not running away.”
Pop shook his head. “She wants to be away. She’ll come back different, Ray. She thinks being different is gonna make her happy.”
I leaned my head on the truck window, close enough that my eyelids brushed the glass. Over the Gulf, the gulls went singing by in a quick wind. I looked out, further, towards Cuba. There was a fat ribbon of cloudbank sitting there, stubborn as a toad. “That looks like a hurricane,” I said, and I figure that made Pop feel sorry for us both because he got us cokes at the gas station and took us straight home.
Later that week, Liz was watching Oprah on her break when Mama came on. She called me at the house and I flipped on the tiny black-and-white set in my bedroom. I pulled the television close to me on the bed, and flopped down on the quilt to watch Oprah meet my mother.
We’d got the TV from the Goodwill, so the picture was grainy as diner coffee. I had to get my face pretty close to the screen—something my mother always said would make me blind, but I wasn’t much concerned. Oprah’s big, black, smiling head bobbed around the screen. The audience was full of pearly-faced white women who all clapped together when Oprah announced her fat-person candidates. She was sitting with a skinny white man with bug-eyes. He was from New York. Oprah and the skinny man, (presumably her personal dietician) started to talk about health, and Oprah put her hand on the white man’s knee several times, as if they were friends and she wasn’t paying him a lot of money to reform her body so the tabloids would leave her the hell alone.
She said a lot of things about health, and about nurturing yourself, and some of the women in the audience, especially the fatter ones, started to tear up. Oprah always makes somebody cry on her show. I’ve never seen one where the people are happy the whole way through.
Then the skinny man looked expectantly off into the wings and Oprah said, “Here they are! Let’s hear it for our challenge’s candidates!” Everybody clapped, and the TV camera swooped around the stage. I had to lean back from the screen, because the excitement made me dizzy. They began to file on stage, one at a time, people wearing their fat like wet overcoats. They were a bunch of women, with but one man. They sat on high stools in the middle of Oprah’s platform, so everybody could see their bodies. It reminded me of a trick I’d seen at the zoo in Florida. A zookeeper made a family of orangutans all sit on stools, just like that, and clap their hands while he threw to them fruit and pieces of candy. I was only about five, and hadn’t liked the orangutans’ sad, pouchy faces. Their hands were big and chalky, like Pop’s when he came home from hauling crates at the shipyard.
She was sitting second from the right, and she was wearing a dark pullover shirt I’d never seen before. It was impossible to tell the color on account of the black-and-white TV. Her hair had a lot of extra spray in it, like she it when she was going to see Pop’s Maw-Maw and she was nervous about anybody saying anything to her. Her hair was big and stiff, like it was full of wind. I could tell she’d done her own makeup, too, because she always did her left eyebrow a little higher than the right one. I put my finger right over her face while the camera did its swoops and dives around the stage. I felt a sudden rumble in my gut and wished I had some peanuts or candy, but I didn’t dare get off the bed and go to the kitchen. I was waiting to hear what she was going to say—and what Oprah would say to her.
Mostly it was pretty boring, up until Mama. The other people talked about their families, and their jobs, and the places they lived. There was some footage from these people’s audition videos to be on Oprah’s show. They were holding their fat like wet laundry, shaking it, pointing at it. They didn’t look anything like my mother. My mother was all in one piece, one whole person who wore out a new swimsuit every summer and loved to sit on the porch, baking her big arms red in the sun. The others, gripping their rolls in their two frustrated hands, seemed monsters in comparison.
“Well, my name is Marilou,” my mother said when Oprah got to her turn. “I’m from Biloxi, Mississippi.” I got my face up close to the screen again. “I’ve got a husband and two children, and we live near the Gulf by the casinos.” Oprah nodded. My mother wouldn’t look into the camera, out at me and Liz and probably Pop, too, in the living room. Her eyes kept sliding sideways to look at Oprah. Oprah nodded a lot, and looked interested at what everybody said. It was hard to tell if she was actually listening, or only hearing my mother when she spoke.
“I love my children and my husband,” my mother said, “but I feel that I do not have time for myself. I take care of them all day, and aside from my sister-in-law who lives across town, I don’t really have any friends. I have nothing to do and I feel bored.” Her eyes started to get all sticky, and I smudged them on the screen with my finger. I bit my lip, like she was doing. I could feel myself starting to tremble.
“I wanted to go to real estate college after I graduated high school, but we just couldn’t afford it, and I was pregnant right off the bat. Life’s been hard. I love my family, but they’ve been a trial to me since I married.” A tear started to muddle up her eyeliner. Oprah nodded a lot, leaning forward in her chair.
“I guess I just feel like I eat because it’s how I remember feeling loved when I was a child myself. My mother died last year in the hurricane, and at her funeral all I could think about were the recipes she’d lost in the flood. I remembered sitting on the floor of her kitchen—it was underwater for weeks, there was no getting back to it—and she’d just feed me little tastes of whatever she was making. My daughters are both good girls, but they’re no great help in the kitchen. Not my husband either. So it’s just me, every day, cooking for the four of us and feeding myself the whole time.” The tear made a gray track down her face. I could tell that her eye makeup was about to start running at full speed.
“I miss my mother,” she said. “I miss the taste of what she made, and I’m sorry that I can’t seem to give that kind of love to my girls. I feel like I’m so full up inside, and it’s got nowhere to go. I just can’t seem to get rid of it, even giving it to myself.”
She began to cry, the hot wet sobs of a young child. Oprah reached across the skinny man from New York and put her hand on my mother’s lap. “We all need love,” Oprah said. I wondered what Oprah’s hand felt like to my mother. Was it dry or soft? Did it smell like the hands of the black women we knew in town, whose coconut scent clung to the paper bags of groceries they sold us at the corner store? My mother bent down her head and looked at Oprah’s hand. She probably was trying not to dribble tears on it, it was such a precious thing. My mother had probably been waiting her whole life to see Oprah. Seeing my mother’s pale fingers crooked around Oprah’s brown ones, I thought that to be able to hold Oprah’s hand and be comforted by her was all my mother ever wanted. Looking at them on the television, I saw that Oprah was only about five years older than my mother, but aside from being black and white they could be sisters like me and Liz.
“We all have a lot of pain in our lives,” Oprah said. “But we need to learn how to carry it. Not in our own bodies“—a few of the fat women in the audience nodded like chickens—“but in other ways. We need to nourish ourselves, but not with food. We need to learn to feed our pride, our hearts, and take care of our bodies so that we can be strong.” I felt my eyes begin to pinch. The audience started to tear up, and even Oprah had moved herself enough to start glistening around the eyes. My mother just kept looking down at Oprah’s smooth, brown hand, as if she would like to stroke it, or tuck it into her blouse like a pendant. Oprah put her other hand on my mother’s wide shoulder and leaned against her. She smiled over the top of my mother’s head into the camera, and then the whole show went to commercial.
I went down to the kitchen as quickly as I could, down the sun-warmed wood of the stairs and across the chill linoleum. I didn’t want to open the refrigerator on account of Pop, who might hear me from the living room and feel like talking. Instead I lifted the lid of the ceramic jar shaped like a rooster and pulled out a small paper bag of Mama’s homemade candied pecans. She saved them to use in her special pecan pies, for our birthdays or around the Thanksgiving holiday. I took the bag back up to my bedroom, careful not to step too heavily on the stairs. As I slid my door closed, I heard Pop sidle into the kitchen and crack open the refrigerator. It was strange knowing that we were all watching—me and Pop at home, and Liz at the casino. I wondered if we should be taping it, for Mama—but then, we didn’t have a VCR, and she probably wouldn’t care to see herself on TV anyway. It couldn’t compare to the feeling of really being there. As it was, I knew I would remember everything she said. I would save it up to roll over in my mind for days and days.
I lay on my stomach on my mattress, curled up to the television. The pecans rattled in their paper bag, so I opened the wrapper and began to eat them. They were sweet at first, and then I began to taste the tiny amount of cayenne and salt Mama had rolled them in while their layer of candied sugar was still hot and sticky. I ate steadily through the second half of an advertisement for Stouffer’s meals and watched a happy family drive their new hybrid car through their tidy neighborhood. I had never seen anything on television that approximated the place that I lived, or the people I knew. I wondered if Mama had seen these things, and if it was for this reason that she so craved the happiness that Oprah could offer her.
Liz came home that night after work, sweating from the end-of-summer heat. She took off her borrowed high heels, and I could see where the navy blue suede had stained the tips of her toes. “You have Gonzo feet,” I said, and tried to tickle her, but she kicked me away and went to get a soaking tub from under the kitchen sink. Today, she didn’t even bother to hide her smoking from Pop. She sat in Mama’s regular place on the porch, her feet relaxing in a basin of warm water with plain Epsom salts. She had her usual pack of Merits, and she smoked them one after another, letting the ash drift down onto the smock of her plain yellow dress. Her dark hair was tangled around her headband, as if the piece of plastic was being eaten by a ditch full of soft brambles.
“Ray,” she said to me, “you’ve been eating candy or something. Your lips are all sticky.” I tongued around, trying to get rid of the sugary pecans. I could feel the leftover bits of sweet nut sticking in my teeth when I closed my mouth after speaking. They stuck my jaws together, tighter than a secret. Inside my head I heard the things that my mother had said to Oprah. I had not ever known that to eat was the same as to be loved.
“Just a treat,” I said. Her feet, in the basin of water, looked fat and white as defrosting shad fillets. I wondered what we’d eat for dinner, now that Mama was gone. I supposed it would be macaroni again, or something bought and cooked from a box. Pop didn’t care to cook, he’d make to do with sandwiches, and I’d never seen Liz do more than boil water. I tried to remember the quick pinching movements of Mama’s hands, laying pie dough or dressing a whole chicken, but I was unable to comprehend what she’d done. I had never thought that she’d be gone for dinner, and that we’d have to scratch it together on our own.
“Did you watch Oprah today?” Liz asked. She lit another cigarette, twiddling the burning stub of the old Merit into the barrel of the fresh one. The cigarette caught fire slowly, and she had to sit puffing for a minute, trying to encourage the transfer of the spark.
“I got out my TV,” I said. “The picture wasn’t very good, but I saw.”
“What’d you think of it, Ray? Was it what you expected?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and I glued my mouth shut again, biting down on those pecan fragments in my teeth.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Liz said. She smoked a little, quietly. She let the smoke blow right back in her face, and in her hair. I wondered if Pop would give her hell for smoking, and I didn’t think so. It wasn’t the kind of day when anybody could get in trouble for anything. Liz squinted in the smoke, looking out at the scrub grass that lined our chain-link fence.
“I felt sorry for Pop,” she said, thoughtfully. I stuck my finger into the basin of water and watched it wiggle at her toes.
“I feel sorry for us,” I said, without thinking. “She didn’t even say she missed us.”
“She doesn’t miss us, Ray. She’s in Chicago. She’s probably staying in a hotel and sleeping on clean sheets every day. She probably has room service, and she gets to see Oprah every week, and be on television with her. Think about it.”
“She should miss us,” I said. I pulled my finger out of the water and flicked a lazy bead onto the porch.
“Yeah, she should, but I don’t think she does.” Liz took her feet out of the water and dropped her cigarette butt into the basin. It fizzed out immediately, but her hands were already busy lighting another one. The butt turned the water a pale, sickly brown. I didn’t like to look at it, so I dragged it to the edge of the porch and tipped it into the yard, water, cigarette and all. I left the basin sitting upside down on the porch, its lip hanging a few inches over the edge to dry overnight.
“Why do you feel sorry for Pop?” I asked. I looked back at Liz, in her yellow dress. Her wet feet were planted flat on the wood.
“Because she didn’t hardly talk about him,” she said. “She said a lot about herself, and some about us, but nothing about him.”
“I didn’t know she wanted to sell real estate,” I said.
“Well, maybe she doesn’t anymore,” said Liz. “But you don’t watch as much television as I do, being at the casino all day. As soon as a person gets onto a TV program, they remember everything that ever happened to them, and every thing where they didn’t get their way. Half the talk shows are like that, people rehashing all the bad that’s been done to them. They never think about what they’ve got, just what they missed out on.” Liz stuck her cigarette in her mouth and rolled her lips around it. The sun was hitting the neighbor’s rooftop nice and low, and it made her face turn golden in the light. She screwed up her eyes and looked into the sun.
“That Mel made a pass at me today,” she said. “On account of my birthday being in two weeks. He saw it on a piece of paperwork or something.”
“What did he say to you?” I asked.
“Oh, he sat next to me when I was on break. He sat next to me that whole time I was trying to watch Mama on Oprah today. He tried to play with my hair.”
“Did Andie say anything?”
“No, she can’t. He’s her manager too. But when he tried to order a drink from her, she pretended not to hear him. We both just tried to ignore it, but he didn’t go away.”
I remembered what she’d told me of Mel, his sweaty cheeks and pencil-thin tie. I hated him. If I was Pop I would have insisted that she find another job so she wouldn’t have to be around a creep like that, but I wasn’t old enough to boss her.
“Did you tell him to leave you alone?” I asked.
“Well, not in so many words. He just tried to talk to me, see what I was doing after work. It’s not the first time it’s happened, with him or anybody else. Lots of men do that at the casino. It’s part of my job. They’re on vacation, and they’re drunk and feeling good about themselves. Nobody ever said anything nasty to me, but I get a lot of come-ons from the gamblers.”
“You should quit,” I said. “You should do something else.”
“Ray,” she said. “I’m seventeen, and I’m a girl, and I’m not ugly to look at. It doesn’t matter what I do for a job, somebody’s going to say something to me eventually.”
“Not fair,” I said. She lit another cigarette, and rattled the box, looking in to count how many were left.
“No, it’s not. It’s not fair that Mama loves Oprah more than her own family, and it’s not fair that some seedy jerk thinks he can chat me up when I want some time to myself. It’s not fair that half the people we know lost their houses last year, and it’s not fair that most of them are still trying to get themselves together when the casinos are making so much money. Lots of things aren’t fair, Ray. We just have to get by inside of what there is.”
“I can’t believe Mama sold us out like that,” I said. I picked my toes. I didn’t know what to say. Suddenly Liz seemed very old, and strangely wise. I wondered if she’d been this old the whole time, when she was teaching me to roll the beer can off the roof straight into the garbage. “Like we were nothing but trouble for her plans.”
“She’ll forget all about it when she comes back,” Liz said. The golden light rested on her face, light as a veil. She blew out another sigh of smoke.
We watched Mama on the Oprah show. We got to see her learn how to use a treadmill, and how to put salad on her plate first. It hurt my heart to see my mother in Chicago, so very far away, her life changing before the eyes of millions of strangers. I wondered if she’d ever come back to us, or if she’d just find a job up north and leave us to our worry here at home.
August got nearer and nearer, and the weatherman on the news started to talk about hurricane season. The station showed all the clips from last year: the family camping on their own roof only a few feet above the flood, the dog rescued by the Coast Guard helicopter, the historic houses and trees lashed by weeks of rain. They showed all the strangers who came to volunteer with the cleanup in New Orleans. They interviewed weather experts and Katrina survivors, all of whom predicted that this year’s hurricane season would be even worse. For Liz’s birthday, Pop bought her a cake from Mrs. Williams’ fancy bakery. We sat in front of the television, crowded into cushions together. We ate cake and watched last year’s storm rip up the coast.
“Some party,” Liz said, but I knew she was joking. She didn’t want any friends, because she said they were more trouble than they were worth. It had been her idea to stay in, anyway. When Pop showed her the cake, she’d almost started to cry.
“You don’t like it?” he’d asked. The cake was high and pink, two layers, with Liz’s name done on it and decorated with roses.
“I love it,” she said. “All of a sudden I just missed Mama.” She cut a big slice for me, and put three of the buttery roses on my piece. “Cake for dinner,” she said to me, and winked to show that it was okay. Pop said he wasn’t hungry, but he ate plenty. We were all getting pretty tired of macaroni and sandwiches, and the cake was a good change.
We only saw Mama on television once a week, when the newest episodes were playing. She always showed up right on time with Oprah, standing in a row with the others, holding their hands and smiling out at the audience. Her face, over time, seemed more and more polished, and her smile had been subjected to some kind of tooth-bleach. After Oprah sent the ladies to the hair salon, she grew blonder, and, after clothes-shopping, more stylish. At three months, she announced to the camera with glee that she had lost the first sixty pounds.
“This is the best day of my life,” she said, and her face, no longer quite so soft, picked up the glare of the television lights and sparkled out of our screens, in a beacon of total happiness. I decided that I didn’t really know her any more. The woman who had gone away and become this strange, skinny figure on the TV wasn’t my mother. It was as if she had eaten up the big body of my Mama, and yet somehow managed to become smaller and smaller. Oprah more than once laid her scented hand on my mother’s shoulder. I could see her squeezing it, and I could see Mama glowing from that squeeze, as if Oprah had found her tiny, secret switch that the rest of us had been looking for all the time. Mama lit up under Oprah’s touch the way that even a perfect report card or an extra-special after-dinner kiss could never make her. She looked alive, finally, without us.
Mama’s final episode on Oprah was late in the season. The sky down towards the Gulf was looking sulky and bruised. I watched it from my place on the roof.
“Ray, you coming in?” Liz called from inside the upstairs window. “It’s fixing to rain, you ought to come down.”
I didn’t want to. The evening air seemed to crackle under its own thickness, which was as the consistency of buttermilk poured through beer. The hair on my arms began to lift up with the electricity. Inside, on my bed, my tiny black and white television burst into spats of static. The opening music for Oprah’s show began to play, and the camera swooped down to the stage, where my mother stood with the others, arms outstretched, welcoming the crowd of hopeful worshipers. Her face filled the screen, its newly luminous curves in shades of gray. Over my head the sky turned purple, and across town I could see the lights in the houses begin to shut down, whole blocks of them.
The rain, as it opened its first hail of wet bullets on the roof, soaking my hair and the shoulders of my thin shirt, was as warm as a kiss.
“Ray!” Liz called for me. “Ray, now!”
I tilted my face up to the sky and curled my toes on the roof tar. Already I could feel the water lifting from me, like steam, like smoke, rising up from me the way souls do when they have passed their time on earth.