Most often, people think the reason I married the best looking man in both Carolinas who turned out to be a complete psycho and near-murderer was because I was raised all wrong. The psychiatrists tried to mine the depths of a disorder that doesn’t exist, thinking there must be some long-buried secret from my seemingly unblemished All-American past catapulting a girl from homecoming queen to intensive care via her husband.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A fairly normal woman can ignore the gigantic red warning flags if the evil of her choosing shows up wrapped pretty as a Christmas package and is so gorgeous on the outside she forgets to lift the lid.
“I’m saying this is the South. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off. No one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”
– Dixie Carter, better known as Julia Sugarbaker of Designing Women.
Wake up, Prudy. Rise and Shine: A man’s courage can sustain his broken body, but when courage dies, what hope is left? Proverbs 18:14
Mama’s Moral: You may be living in an ugly apartment, but you have courage. And that in itself will bring you hope.
Every morning of this unsure existence begins with a phone call and a proverb from Mama, a moral always attached. I am not supposed to answer the phone when it rings, generally at seven o’clock, even on Saturdays, but instead wait and allow the machine to record it. That way, she says, I can replay wisdom throughout the day “on an as-needed basis.”
Women like me need a lot of wisdom, she figures. Women like me who married hastily and poorly, extremely poorly, then ended up not just alone with two kids and no money—but alone and almost dead. Technically dead at least twice, according to several sets of official records and court testimony.
I wouldn’t know. My mind chose not to remember most of the details, which infuriates counselors and doctors. The events of that premurderous day come to me in flashes, like strobe lights, and I’ve learned to effectively block them. Why remember something so horrific?
It wasn’t even noon and already my mother was in my newly leased fixer-upper apartment, having written a check for the first month’s rent, just to get me out of her hair and home.
“No more checks until you get yourself a job,” she said, treating me as if I were still in college. “It’s high time you secured honest and decent employment. This world stops for no one, sugar pie, and that includes women like you.”
Like me. Lumped in a category and separate from the regular women who marry well—at least well enough to stay alive or unmaimed.
“They need makeup girls at Estée Lauder,” she said, opening the curtains, a defeated gray material, once white, trimmed in a blue ruffle and torn on both ends.
I pointed to my scars, courtesy of Bryce Jeter, his church van and the tools in his glove box. “It pays minimum wage and you have to be pretty,” I said. “These scars aren’t going to lure many women into a vat of mineral makeup, now are they?”
“You’re a beautiful woman. You could wear a scarf to cover that up—and nothing’s wrong with minimum wage. This ugly old apartment isn’t going to cost much anyway.” She removed a curtain rod and snatched the frail cloth from the metal, wadding it up and stuffing the fabric in a huge trash bag she’d brought along. “These old things could be harboring insect eggs and all sorts of petulance.”
“Pestilence,” I corrected, accustomed to her mispronunciations. “I don’t like the attitude of the makeup women.” I rolled over and turned face up on my rented bed, which sagged on the left side. I wondered about the people who’d slept on this mattress before me. Were they happy? Did they believe the exchange of vows would bring them a strength and peace nothing could rip open?
The ceiling fan above clicked with the effort of old fixtures, trying to stir the musty air of this apartment, finally leased after two years of sitting empty while collecting dust and bug carcasses. “The makeup ladies are always talking about your big pores or ruddy complexion. They’ll insult the hell out of you just to get you to buy a $70 jar of fortified mineral oil.”
“Don’t be bitter, Prudy. It’s not becoming for ladies to say bad words and you know how I—”
“It’s Dee, Mama. I hate the name Prudy. From now on, it’s Dee, which is a form of Prudy when you think about it.”
“I knew a lesbian named Dee, but forget it. You never listen to me, and acting all ugly isn’t gonna get you a thing. So just quit cussing. It cheapens women. Just like putting a big cigarette in their mouths . . . or . . . I don’t know . . . one of those fanny tattoos.”
My mama walked back and forth like a frisky goat of sorts, her heels clacking against the worn hardwood floors. She was pumped with some kind of obvious mission, fueled with more caffeine than her doctor allowed. He had told her to cut the caffeine due to blood pressure and life pressure and all the pressures my bad choices had slammed her with the past couple of years.
Eleven months after she took the kids and me into my childhood home—this trio of disheveled and aimless people—the children and I had finally moved out of her lovely sprawling rancher with the giant American flag snapping in the front yard and a long rectangular swimming pool out back sparkling like a piece of the Caribbean Sea. These were to be my first steps toward independence. Renewed independence. Starting over again, not just from scratch but from near death and now, near poverty.
“I just don’t understand,” Mama was saying for the millionth time. “We were good parents. There’s no tragedy in our family tree. How could you have married this . . . this monster? Your sister’s husbands have all been fine men. I’m a good Christian woman and bake more macaroni pies for people with fallen bladders and whatnots, so why did this have to happen to—”
“Mama, I’m sorry but I really don’t want to go into this again. And Amber’s current husband has some issues in case you haven’t been paying attention.”
She shifted around, looking for a dirt-free place to sit. “He’s got medical problems. That’s different than mental problems. And he’s not but 32 and rich as Bill Gates on account of his family’s chicken franchises.”
“They’ve been married less than a year and already he’s had five surgeries.”
“That’s because he didn’t have insurance beforehand, and there you have it. Some men, in case you never gave this
much thought, marry for money. Some marry for the health coverage,” Mama said.
“I just can’t believe he didn’t have coverage.”
“Probably some preexisting condition. But to be quite honest, this one is on the feminine side anyhow if you ask me.” Mama poked out her coral-frosted bottom lip, same trait my daughter inherited. “But even so, Amber’s husbands have all been mighty fine men. None of them ever so much as laid a finger on her in a mean way.”
I had tried to explain to everyone who questioned my marital choice since the incident, which shocked everyone because they’d bought into Bryce’s nice act, that there are women, and I swore I’d never become one, who are perfectly normal and self-assured people until one day they meet someone and a string pulls, rewinding them like fast tops on slick linoleum until they’ve spun back into a state of complete dependence and insecurity. I used to feel sorry for these women, thought of them as invertebrates who needed to get a firm grip on themselves while growing at least a rudimentary backbone.
Without knowing what or how it happened, other than pure physical attraction that drowned the one or two weak warning signs Bryce emitted, I’d become one of them, a process that was so slow I never saw it creeping up. It was kind of like being one of those test frogs they drop in cold water and increase the temperature so gradually the frog never realizes it’s being boiled alive.
Before Bryce Jeter I’d always had a man as a safety net, someone standing there and more than willing to catch the falling parts, make everything better with his gallant availability. But not now. The backbone I’d lost with him I aimed to grow back—one good choice after another—one vertebra at a time.
Mama began a slow pace, moving from one object to another and staring at my belongings with an unveiled disgust, with that expression telling a grown child she is teetering toward complete and total failure, a borderline embarrassment for a mother to bear.
She’s been popping in at my new place at least once a day, sometimes twice, since I moved in a couple of weeks ago. She is afraid I’m dwelling on the second anniversary of my would-be demise. She doesn’t say it in as many words, but I can tell by the way she jitters and huffs around the room that the anniversary of my ex’s evil deed is on her mind.
“I wish you’d at least looked at that other apartment,” she was saying, sitting along the bay window and scanning the older, charming homes of Maple Heights. This was a section of town in the center of Spartanburg, South Carolina, where each house, no matter its size, was an architectural blessing, not simply a box or rancher. Every dwelling in the Heights had character and style, and although some were getting older and run-down, they were affordable. And interesting. “You could have moved in The Oaks and the kids would’ve had a pool and central air.”
“But I’d have had to pay for that air and chlorine,” I said, rolling twice across my bed the way teenagers do when talking on the phone. “Here, the swirl of the fan is free. And heat in the winter is included in the rent. I like it.”
“At least get yourself a new sofa. Let me buy you one, please. That old thing you salvaged has enough dust to sink a lung. You and those poor children are certain to come down with asthma or Legionnaires’ disease.” She was the type who thought all diseases and afflictions were out there waiting, focusing on people with a no-holds-barred hunger to infect. As if “catching” asthma was as likely as coming down with a cold. She was part of the clean and proper class of society, living in one of the better neighborhoods, Lakeside Park, in Spartanburg, South Carolina; or at least it had been until a development of stucco houses with imported tile roofs and a gated entrance had one-upped it a few years back.
Mama lived where landscaping was a must, where
the mailboxes came to life with hand-painted cardinals or hummingbirds, and every Saturday morning the whine of mowers and blowers joined a neighborly chorus of yard betterment and beautification.
In Maple Heights, lawns ran the gamut from well groomed to growing wild. Most were in between: tangles of ancient shrubbery and scattered weeds, random flowers, along with the occasional meticulously tended beds. What I liked best about this neighborhood were the houses with white window boxes overflowing with geraniums. It was as if each window had a wide red smile, a way of sizing life up and figuring the good outweighed the bad. I’ll bet the women in those houses were the cheerful, pie-baking types. Married to the men-who-don’t-try-to-kill-their-wives-at-the-BI-LO types.
“You’re 40 years old,” Mama said, “and starting over, living like a college coed in her first pitiful apartment with discards for furnishings. I tell you, Prudy, it is way long overdue—”
“Dee. It’s Dee now. And I’m 38.” She loved to add years to make a point. At 25 she called me an old maid, and at 30, she decided I was a middle-aged woman frittering away her fertility and all but asking for a child with Down syndrome. “You and Bryce need to have children before your eggs go bad,” she’d said daily, years before my ex-husband plunged into stark-raving lunatic madness. She’d mail me the most horrifying stories of maternal-age-related birth defects. All sorts of trisomies and broken chromosomes—cleft palates, intestines flopped outside the body, spines that didn’t close, brains that failed to form—and she’d say, “If the Lord didn’t want women to have babies early, he wouldn’t have given them their periods at 12.”
She licked the ball of her thumb and rubbed a smear of
something from my picture window. “You’re doing much better,” she said, “so don’t go getting me wrong. You’ve at least got a roof over y’alls heads, but I won’t give it much more credit than that. I’ll tell you, Pru . . . Dee, and I know you’re tired of hearing this, but it’s not good that you’ve skipped out entirely on one of the stages of healing. You’ve got to get mad at Bryce if you want to find wellness of mind. You’ve got to remember the ordeal from the BI-LO parking lot or you’ll never be right in the head till you do.” She took great pleasure in quoting my last and final therapist, the words on her tongue giving her authority.
Mama walked over to my vanity, the one decent piece of furniture I owned, and began messing with her hair.
“In addition,” she said, trying to resurrect a flattened sprig of ash blond bang, “you don’t seem to even want to remember that mess. I pray every night you’ll face that day.”
I try every night before closing my eyes to remember. All I can see is his face all red and bloated. Nothing comes into focus after that. Nothing but that scarlet face. That horrible sweaty red face and his right arm, high in the air, ready to strike, the weapon he clutched so small I never saw it coming.
Mama began emptying the garbage cans in the kitchen, den and bedroom. She was not one to sit still. “I want you to know that other than this here gloomy, semi-trashy rental unit, your poor old mother loves you and is proud of you as I can be. Just think about running over to Dillard’s and seeing about the makeup counter job. At least you could get free mascara and all sorts of goodies. Whatever you do to make payments on this . . . this . . . dinky rental will be fine, I’m sure. I’ll be proud even if you have to sell McNuggets, sugar pie. You just don’t realize how proud you’ve made me and your daddy.”
I thought about this carefully as I stared at the ceiling, noticing the brown outlines of past storms looping their circular calling cards in the plaster. Proud of what? That I could finally get out of bed and open a can of Campbell’s by myself? That I could drive to the store and buy toothpaste and tampons or fill out the paperwork to rent an apartment, sign my children up for school? That I could, on most days, walk without a cane or even so much as a blatant limp?
She sighed, only with vocals, like a series of monotoned yoga groans. “One thing I’d like you to consider and get to quickly is the business of finding those kids a new daddy now that theirs is in prison till he’s old enough for swelling prostrates, or however you say it, and clogged arteries, and for death, which I look forward to coming premature if you want perfect honesty. I know it doesn’t sound very Christian, but that’s how I feel and I can’t help it.”
She peered once more out the window, her eyes on the May sky, a diluted blue that seemed overpowered by the intensity of a South Carolina sun, a sun whose violent heat would hold us hostage from now through late September. I knew to let her keep talking; no point interrupting or it would take twice as long.
“Jay’s nearly 7 and Miranda’s pushing 4. That’s two years with no daddy. Lord, I’d have thought you’d at least have a prospect, a decent respectable man to give those children an example. Even most widows I know only wait a year before getting back into the swing of things. The men widows are worse. They chomp around all lost and hungry, wearing wrinkled clothes and those fallen down faces. Not a month or two later, and most of ’em get a replacement wife before the first one grows cold. Remember Paul the fellow that runs the hotdog place downtown? He married Ann Trotter three weeks after Linda died. Did you know if a boy child grows up without a daddy, he could end up a homosexual?” She whispered the word, as if it were a sin just to say it.
I’d heard this for more than a year since the trial ended and my ex, the Rev. Bryce Jeter, got his 25 years and the kids and I changed our last names back to my original, which sounds so much prettier than Jeter. This was when I decided instead of being Prudence “Prudy” Jeter I’d go ahead and become Dee. Bye-bye, Prudy Jeter. Hello, Dee Millings.
Mama believed that once the proceedings were over and my injuries had healed enough, divorce papers signed and sealed, it was then proper and advisable to tiptoe back into the dating pool.
However, that did not include sexual relations, which she was dead set against before marriage. And quite possibly even afterward.
“Recirculate,” she’d said, rotating her hands. “You’re a beautiful girl, just like a Lane Bryant model before they started using those skinny ones. Lose a few pounds . . . or maybe not. Come to think of it, at least a few men find large fannies an asset. ’Course I keep telling you to cut off all that long hair you wear like you were an aging Hollywood star. I don’t know . . . you have a lot to offer and at your age you can’t afford to just sit around like deli turkey waiting to spoil. Every one of us has ourselves an expiration date. Be it with the Maker or in seeking out a proper mate.”
I wasn’t sure I was ready for a new man and figured I’d already tested fate with my expiration date. It was my goal just to live on my own again, get a job, find a program for Jay who just so happened to be a bona-fide genius. It was enough just to step out of a bed when the sun made its morning announcements, trying to be the best mother I could under such extreme circumstances. Recirculating wasn’t foremost on the agenda. A job was. And going to nursing school. How in the world I majored in psychology and still married a psycho is beyond me. Kind of rattles a girl’s confidence in herself and future choices.
I needed to bring in $550 a month to pay for this rented roof over our heads and another $500 or so to feed the three of us and put gas in the car and electricity in the lights, water in the faucets. Oh, and hook up the phone, cable and Internet. Then there was the issue of spending money for entertainment and camps, maybe some new clothes.
Most importantly, it was my goal to get through a day with more smiles than tears and to be able to hold my children without breaking down and feeling I had failed them. Miranda may not remember the gruesome event, but Jay does. He has nightmares weekly, which I finally dealt with by letting him get into bed with us. Three of us. All in the same bed. I should have rented a one-bedroom apartment to save money, but Mama insisted it’s against the laws of common decency for a brother and sister to share a bedroom and certainly against the laws of nature for a mama to bed down with her young children once they got past a certain age, say four months tops.
She slowly walked over to my yard-sale-bought chest of drawers, tapped on the wood, then wiped her hands on the front of her pale pink Levis of the dirt she imagined was accumulating in my “rental.” What a striking woman she was. Even at 60 she had the same figure and bone structure of Linda Evans in her Dynasty heyday, even wore her hair the exact same way. Her nose was small and delicate, her face thin and cheekbones high enough to hold age at bay far longer than women of lesser genetic fortune. She stood 5 feet, 10 inches in bare feet and always wore modern and fashionable shoes that lifted her above most creatures walking this earth. She meant well. Only I wasn’t well enough for what she meant.
“Your Aunt Weepie said there’s a boy her husband met at work that she’d like to fix you—”
“Do you want some lunch, Mom? I’ve got some tuna or I could make a grilled cheese. I don’t have to get the kids for another hour or so.” Anyone Aunt Weepie knew I wanted nothing to do with. I wasn’t in the mood to discuss a possible blind date, especially some guy my mother’s funeral-crashing older sister had dug up from God knew where.
“No, honey, Weepie and I are going over to the Red Lobster for some shrimp. We like to go at lunch ’cause it’s cheaper and we can get us a Bloody Mary. Actually, she’s taken to drinking two of them. Last time we went she insisted on tootling over to the Red Cross, where she gave them a pint of her Vodka’d up blood and promptly passed out and threw up all over my new Town Car.”
Soon as Mama got Weepie home she wouldn’t let the poor woman in the house.
“Stripped me and hosed me down like livestock,” Aunt Weepie had said, retelling the story about once a month. “Threw me a dingy—and stained, I might add—piece of shit night shirt to put on, then called 911. I’ll never forgive her, I don’t care if she is my sister. No woman wants to enter the ER in Mee-Maw panties and a housedress.”
I led my mother out of the apartment and walked down the dark, steep stairs, gripping the railing, determined to keep from limping despite the shooting pains in my right leg. I shouldn’t have taken a place with stairs, but the rent was affordable, provided one was employed in some capacity, and the rooms were huge, with high ceilings and thick plaster walls carved with built-in bookcases that I’d immediately fallen in love with.
I imagined filling the shelves with Brontë and Austen, all the classics on the upper shelves, newer authors in the middle, then all the books I’d try to read to my children— The Absolutely Essential Eloise, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Shel Silverstein’s collections and the science and solar system books for Jay. I would take them from the cardboard boxes and wipe off the dust, stack them with their straight and strong spines, and maybe I’d feel the same joy I’d felt buying them, the happiness of a normal and sane mother who had children without wretched pasts and daddies in prison.
In addition to the bookshelves, another plus for the apartment my mother believes is pitiful is the bathroom with its floor swirls of creamy pink tile and the grout surprisingly clean. Along the back wall, beneath a curtainless window I’d covered with a swag made from an old scarf, sits a clawfoot tub. A completely wonderful, big deep tub where I could escape for hours listening to Elton John or Allison Krauss, the Dixie Chicks or Miles Davis on the small Sony CD player I’d filched from home after the attack.
I could light a couple of candles, pour in lavender, ginger or jasmine oils and almost forget the rent was due and I was jobless. At least I was finally getting out of bed in the mornings. That was progress, I wanted to tell Mother. First let a woman learn to wake up and make oatmeal. Then she can worry about finding another man or a gig glopping on makeup.
The truth was I didn’t want another man. It wasn’t that I hated them, it’s just I didn’t trust my instincts after what had happened. He seemed so normal. How many times have I said this to myself and others? Normal normal normal.
* * *
For a while after the near-murder and the trial, I hid from mornings, slept right through them, until the wooden blinds in the bedroom offered nothing but a purpled dusk that eventually turned to blackness before I could ever move. I’d become nocturnal, the woman who awoke after dark with matted hair and a ragged, uneven hunger. I’d stuff a bowl of dry cereal into my body then wander into my children’s room, crumbs falling from my damp T-shirt, and listen for their heavy, steady breathing, watching their eyes dance beneath transparent, vein-laced lids.
I’d touch their faces, cheeks always cool even in the bathwater air of a South Carolina summer night, and their breath would catch, then settle once again into the rhythm of a peace I couldn’t find. Many mornings I’d wake up in their beds, clinging to them as if they were the mother.
Back then, I needed them; now they needed me.
* * *
Once we were outside the house, Mama turned and glanced at the place as one might stare at a filthy child. We stood on the sidewalk, the Carolina heat building while we said our goodbyes. She held out her arms and I hugged her, feeling the softness of her sleeveless summer sweater against me, inhaling the ammonia of her Miss Clairol hair dye, realizing she must have freshened her color earlier today. She gave me her usual wet lipstick kiss on the cheek and stepped back to check me over. “Your eye bags are better,” she said. “They don’t look like they’ve given birth to another set.”
We both laughed, and I thought at that moment I could live through anything as long as she was alive, as long as she would appear on a daily basis or call with a proverb and tenacious willingness to lead me into a life I was trying like hell to invite back.
I knew she couldn’t help herself. She was from the generation that believes a man would cure everything, and what I needed to get over this hump, this unfortunate tragedy of a very bad choice, was nothing more than a new and improved choice, a man with thicker wiring and no chance of short-circuiting.
It was now or never for me in the dating department, she and my Aunt Weepie would say, trying to be casual though the message was clear. At my age, according to all the magazines that scare us post-30 women to death, beauty begins slipping until it becomes a steady falling off, a sloughing of firmness, time cupping its cruel hands and blocking any sort of youthful glow.
Mama focused on two things: finding me another husband and paying back the first for the evil he’d unleashed.
“By the way,” she said before heading toward her car. “I sent Satan’s Twin another letter today.” She hissed out the
pet name she calls my ex. “Mailed it to his prison oasis on my way over here to this rented hovel. ’Course he left you penniless, every little dime he had going to God-knows-what but certainly not to God, to hear his congregation tell it.”
She walked to her car, me following behind, and craned her long neck up and down the road, right, left, assessing. Always assessing. “A lot of good families grew up here before it became so run-down and full of hippies,” she said, facing the house once again. “After that, the blacks began moving in, but lately, I’ve begun to realize they have much more class than most whites. You rarely see a black on Jerry Springer, not that I sit home and watch it . . . but you just don’t. They have more couth than to stoop that low.”
I ignored her comments on my neighborhood and the racial observations. I was thinking about her mean letters to my ex and all the threats she’d made to him the past couple of years. “You know those corrections officers don’t give him your mail,” I said. “You’ve been warned and warned.”
“This letter wasn’t so threatening. I didn’t promise I’d rent a Greyhound and aim it right at him.” Oh, but she would if she knew Bryce had been writing to Jay that first year post-rampage when we were still in Asheville, North Carolina, a mountain city about an hour or so from Spartanburg. She would if she’d seen the letter he’d typed and addressed directly to me shortly after the first anniversary of the BI-LO showdown. Thank God, the letters had stopped when we moved in with Mama, and now there was little chance he’d find us in this neighborhood. Little chance. Please, God.
Mama wrinkled up her pointy nose and unwrapped a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum that I could smell from where I was standing. “I simply clipped out a movie photo of Freddy Krueger. You know him? That hideous old creature with the blades for fingernails and that horrible face? I wrote down at the bottom, ‘I’m on my way. Prepare yourself, you old wife killer.’”
“You didn’t,” I said, knowing full well she had, and I was grateful for every scathing letter she’d sent.
“I used an extra stamp with one of the old presidents on it. Gosh, I hope it was a Democrat ’cause I’d hate to desecrate a fine Republican. Well, anyhow I colored it red and black with horns and a beard and little pitchfork. Turned my 40-some-odd cents into a message from Hell.” She smacked her gum like a bored waitress might, though she’d never chew gum in public, only at my trashy rental unit. She tends to adopt whatever type personality suits the environment. At the Spartanburg Country Club, she sits stiff as a queen, regal nose tilted just enough to let people know she’s a woman of great manners and breeding. She speaks in a low, quiet voice, barely audible, and holds her shoulders as rigid as if they were encased in a brace.
Take her to Waffle House and she’s an entirely different woman. Loose jointed and laughing, hee-hawing and even accepting toothpicks after the meal. God forbid.
Mama held her hands up, gazing at the manicured nails and rolled her head around, delivering her “Whatever are you going to do with your mama?” pose. She fluttered her fingers in a flirty goodbye wave, eased into the Town Car and slammed the door. I watched her fiddling with buttons and mirrors, rummaging around in the car’s interior. It seemed to take her forever to crank the shimmering Lincoln and steer out onto the road. She reminded me of those women who seem to enjoy wasting half a day exiting a parking place while others grew restless waiting a full five minutes just to be 15 feet closer to the store’s front doors.
* * *
Being on my own for the first time in so many years felt scary, and the last thing I needed to add to the mix right now was a man. Why is it some women seem to think a man is the best cure since the polio vaccine?
Women in my shoes, not that there are many, need friends, jobs and handlebars to the future. They need to rebuild, one small success at a time. They certainly don’t need to hear the line of b.s. my doctor loved to spew.
“You know, Prudy, if you pick poorly once, statistically you’ll do the same thing,“ my therapist was fond of saying repeatedly.
“I think that’s a load, if you’ll forgive my saying so,” I told her. “I’m just not gonna buy it. To think I can’t learn from a mistake is dooming me forever to live a life with no-goods and ne’er-do-wells.”
“That’s what’ll happen if you can’t or simply choose not to remember what you suffered on that awful day.”
She was as upset as the other three therapists I’d endured that I couldn’t piece together most of the details about the afternoon my ex tried to kill me with his church van and mini screwdrivers as he roared into the BI-LO parking lot like some kind of possessed Dale Earnhardt. But I see no point in reliving a death scene. None whatsoever, I told her, unless you’re one of those freaks who must wallow night and day in the drama. I was glad I didn’t remember everything. What I did remember was enough when combined with all that gruesome testimony, courtesy of on-the-scene BI-LO shoppers and gawkers.
“You need to remember what it feels like when death rings a doorbell,” the counselor had said the last time I sat in her office.
“Some of us don’t want to answer such a doorbell,” I said.
“You aren’t going to progress until you allow the full memories,” she warned in a somber tone, thumping at one of her huge front teeth, freshly capped and so white I couldn’t look at them.
“I’d rather find someone ten years my junior and take him to a pink motel for an afternoon,” I said, knowing this wasn’t nice. “Look, I know you mean well and I realize you’re a lot smarter when it comes to the mind than I am, though I do have a bachelor’s in psychology for what it’s worth. The truth is, my mama’s making me do this therapy stuff when I think shopping might help more.”
She shook her head and sucked at those teeth, making sounds like hungry seagulls. “That’s called temporary distraction.”
Her body tightened and she held her arms to keep them from reaching for those new teeth her lips had trouble stretching to cover. She was growing weary of hearing this. She did what she always did when I wore her down and she ran out of answers. She removed a book from her shelf, another self-help book, this one called Claim your Rage, which I took with a smile and would never touch except to return by mail.
“Don’t worry,” she said, pretending not to glance at one of her hidden clocks. She took out her receipt book. “It will happen for you when you’re ready. You’ve got a long way to go, Prudy. I’m really beginning to get worried about many things I’m seeing. Trouble’s coming if you can’t face that day. You can only bury something for so long, and then it will infect you and rattle your core.”
She stood, my cue to leave. How dare she stop the session with a cliffhanger: that she was beginning to worry about a lot of things? What kind of infection? What kind of rattling?
How little she really knew. Cliffhanger or not, I wasn’t going back in time. I could buy a nice tube of pink lipstick for my troubles or go sit in a cold movie theater and eat a giant tub of buttered popcorn, crunching all I wanted, feel my feet stick to the syrupy floor while enjoying two hours of mental relief. I wondered why more people didn’t do that instead of sitting on microfiber tan couches, lost souls trying to dog paddle their way across life’s great waves and riptides.
“Fleeting affairs are never the answer,” she said in parting.
That’s all I want, I felt like saying. String a few temporary distractions together and one could avoid her own slipping down state for quite a while. One could pretend she wasn’t growing older with no prospects, two fatherless kids, a bad leg, an ever-widening ass, a trashy apartment, a crazy mother, her nut-job older sister . . . and worse . . . no employment, not officially. But I had an idea.
Since moving into the pathetic apartment, I had a plan for work: two jobs, if only I could convince the people to hire me. One of them, I prayed to God, would be easy. The other was nothing but a bit of office work to supplement the bills. Being the wife of a preacher certainly teaches a girl to type—all those church updates and announcements—and smile sweetly.