Monday, July 16, 2012

One More Excerpt from My Work in Progress

Day 18

Robert and I drove along the Gulf Coast through Grand Bay, Alabama Port, and Bayou Le Batre (proclaiming itself “The Seafood Capital of Alabama,” with signs for shrimp, grouper, flounder, and cigar minnows), and out over a tall hump of a bridge to Dauphin Island.  In Alabama Port, we passed the Clyde Sprinkle Volunteer Fire Station.  Later in the day, I looked Clyde Sprinkle up.  He died at the age of 94, in 2005.  He owned and operated Sprinkle’s Grocery Store and Sprinkle’s Can Company and he was a co-founder of the fire station in Alabama Port.  A note on indicates that as late as 2000, he was “a joy to listen to and had such spirit.”
The predicted rain never arrived, despite thick cloud cover and oppressive humidity.  A stiff breeze was blowing as we pulled onto the Mobile Bay Ferry—our craft was the Marissa Mae Nicole—for the trip to Fort Morgan.  We were sent on our way by a blue heron patrolling the dock, and by flocks of pelicans.  The pelicans are something of a mystery.  No one knows where they go in the winter: Mississippi?  Florida?  Mexico?  Scientists are tagging them to see.
It took forty-five minutes to get to Fort Morgan, chugging over choppy seas.  We passed more pelicans and several oil rigs.  We hung out with a worker on the boat who grew up north of Minneapolis.  There was no reason to ask him why he lives here now, but Robert did anyway.  When the man said, “Winters,” Robert—a native of Joliet, Illinois—laughed in knowing solidarity.
Once we docked, I let Robert off to ride and drove along the shore, past houses in pastel shades of yellow, green, blue, red, and gray.  Almost all of them were built on tall posts on the beach, in what seems like random relation to each other.  They are rustic rather than grand: faded and weathered.   The overall effect is informal and charming. 
At Gulf Shores, I drove north, over a toll bridge crossing the Wharf Parkway and Brown Lane.  The toll collector, anticipating tomorrow, wished me a happy Mother’s Day, as though my maternal status was tattooed on my forehead.  I drove to Foley, which was having an arts festival.  I parked the car and strolled through the park where the festival was being held.  At one booth, I stopped to admire a piece of stained glass.  “I love this,” I said, “but I’m traveling and I’m afraid it might break.”
A woman standing next to me overheard. 
“Where are you from?” she asked.  She was young and heavy, with pale, pocked skinned.
“Oh!  California,” she murmured, as though I’d said I might be having an allergic reaction to shellfish.  And then, “I’ve heard about California.”
“Heard what?”
“Just how it’s different.”
We smiled at each other.  It made me feel as though I wasn’t the only one wondering.  We both were, across the divide. Both hearing stories, trying to imagine ourselves living unimaginable lives.

We came to rest in Pensacola.  On our way to dinner at the Oyster Barn, the sky finally opened, shedding rain.  Just as we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant—a little shack overlooking the bayou and a lovely bridge—the rain let up, and we went in.  Robert had his raw oyster fix.  I watched some young men fishing on a dock.  The rain started again, but they kept at it.
At a table next to ours, a young father and his seven-year-old son ate oysters and hush puppies.  They knew the owner and all the waitresses, who ruffled the kid’s hair and teased him.  The father let the kid be teased, let him answer questions as though he was a regular person, not as if his own self-image was wrapped up in whether his kid proved sufficiently smart or funny or cute.
The owner of the restaurant approached them and introduced them to an elderly man who had been sitting at the counter.  “I’ll pay you if you take him off my hands,” he said, comically at his wits’ end.  “He eats here every night.” 
The elderly man didn’t know the younger man or his son, but they all began to talk.  The old man sat down.  “Do you like your teacher?” he asked the boy, who said he did.  The owner went back to the kitchen.
They talked for another ten minutes, until the elderly man left the restaurant.  The father did not seem irritated to have a stranger at his table.  The little boy was polite: talkative but not insistent on being the center of attention.  And the elderly man, who ate alone at an oyster bar every night, was gracefully included in someone else’s family for a few minutes.
It was really quite extraordinary.  It felt like something I had never seen before, this human dance in which all the participants knew exactly where to put their feet.

Until five years ago, I lived only a few miles away from my mother.  She dropped in unannounced several times a week, mainly to see the kids, one or the other of whom was usually still around then.  We often went out to eat together, and she was always at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  At Thanksgiving, she brought Marie Callendar peach pies, because she didn’t like apple or pumpkin or pecan.  At Christmas, she proclaimed routinely that “it’s not my holiday” and didn’t bring presents.  Perversely, though, she bought almost every ornament that hangs on my tree to this day.
She was part of our everyday lives.    
Occasionally, we traveled with her.  We took two cruises together—one to Alaska and another to Hawaii.  Once, when my then-husband was away, she and the kids and I drove to Disneyland for a few days.
On the drive home, merging from 580 onto 680, I was nearly cut off by a woman who tried to squeeze past me on the ramp.  “You bitch,” I said more to myself than to anybody else, positioning the car to prevent her from passing me.
My mother was furious with me.  “Gina!” she cried, tipping her head toward the back seats, where my kids, aged 11 and 8, were sitting.  “I don’t like that kind of talk!”
Not a minute later, we were safely on 680 heading north, and she rolled down her window as the offending driver passed us on the right.  “Asshole!” she yelled, both middle fingers extended prominently.  She was 77 years old.
The four of us laughed so hard.  And the kids and I still do, when one of us brings it up.   It reminds us that my mother had spirit, that she was never afraid of confrontation, that she was funny as hell and knew it, but could laugh at herself a little, too.

On the drive back to the hotel, the rain came down so hard that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up.  The thunder felt as though it was inside my body.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the old man driving home.  I hope he has the kind of house that looks cozy from the outside.  I hope he has an overstuffed chair to sit in, and a quilt to put over his legs that someone made just for him.