“I don’t know about you, Mom, but that’s the best damn cornbread I’ve ever had.” I lean back and rub my tummy. I’ve got a food baby for sure.
“Tastes like they soaked it in honey butter,” I mutter to the dollar covered ceiling.
From my slouched position I see the waitress edging towards our table, fingers twisting a sable curl. She eyes me warily as she walks over and, reluctantly, I remove my hand from the button of my jeans.
“All done with this, ma’am?” The waitress, Linda, stares at my plate, nothing left but ribs bones, traces of barbeque sauce and half of one lonely fry.
Mom always says leaving a little something behind will keep me slim. She then eyes my mother’s meal, untouched minus one bite of brisket. Mac and cheese sits in a cold, unloved lump on the edge of the plate. According to Mom the neon yellow color of it was enough to know it wasn’t worth the calories.
“Yes, Linda, but I’ll have another Schlitz.” Linda pauses at the familiar way I use her name, not offended, just startled. I prod the moment along by pushing my obviously empty glass toward her.
“Of course.” She pauses, then asks in the queerest tone of voice I have ever heard. “May I take the ice tea too?”
She seems to not know where to look. A brief flit of eyes at me, then at Mom, then at the sweating ice tea glass before landing on the hokey red and white checkered table cloth. I feel like Mom and me are watching a hummingbird dart from feeder to feeder.
“There was sugar in it,” I say matter-of-factly. Between that statement and my lack of southern accent, she should be able to discern the problem.
I’d told Mom it was impossible to get unsweetened tea in the south, but she listens like a twenty-year-old stoner playing the new Call of Duty. Parents.
All of three minutes later Linda places an ice-glazed mug of beer in front of me. It must be a slow night.
The cold crisp beer slides down my throat too easily. We may have to uber back to the hotel.
Linda stands next to the table, shifting from foot to foot like a skittish colt before blurting out, “Is that your mother?”
I sit up straight, pinpricks flare under my arms, my tongue immediately turns to carpet. I gently sit the mug down, but my hand remains tight on the handle. If I can keep a grip on the mug, I can keep a grip on my emotions, or so I tell myself.
“Yes,” I say slowly, wanting to add more just not sure what that more was.
This wasn’t the first time we’ve had this confrontation. Mom’s appearance seems to offend a lot of people. I tip the glass in her direction out of habit and take another drink.
Linda lets out a sigh and sits on Mom’s side of the red vinyl booth.
“You are so lucky,” she tells me.
“I am?” My tone is belligerent, I know it, can’t help it. I’m a protective daughter. Finally. And I’m ninety-nine percent sure I’m the unluckiest jackass this side of Mississippi. Or maybe just the dumbest.
The verdict is still out.
“Yes,” she says firmly. “My mother disappeared seven years ago. She was on a cruise to the Bahamas with two other ladies. She disappeared right off the ship. No sign of foul play…but I know she’s gone. Dead. She’d never just leave us.”
“Damn,” is all I can manage.
“Yeah. We’d give anything just to be able to put her to rest. To get her back and put her in a forever place of her choosing. She liked the ocean but she loved the mountains. That’s where she’d want to be, and maybe being able to put her there would bring us a small measure of closure.” She stops there, grinding her teeth in an effort to gain control.
It’s a technique I’ve used dozens of times in the last month.
“Damn,” I say again, so at sea with this conversation I’ve lost my belligerence . . . and my conversational skills, apparently.
“Yeah, it’s been hard.”
The understatement of the year, I think.
“What’s your name?” She asks me, though she’s staring at mom.
“Allie. Alessandra, actually. I go by Allie.” I have always hated my name. It sounds so soap opera-ish. Today it seems like a pretty good name. “And this is Mom.”
I lay my hand on the simple cherry-wood urn sitting next to the wet ring of a never-to-be drunk glass of sweet, supposed to be unsweetened, tea. My throat closes up.
“Cheryl Ann to the world, Pixie to her friends. Why? I don’t know.” Now, I may never know. Why had I never asked her? Had she been of so little importance to me that I didn’t care how she got her nickname? A marching band of recriminations starts up in my gut, and again, I try to drown them in alcohol.
“Are you taking her somewhere?”
“Mom and me are taking a road trip to the southernmost point of Key West,” I say. Tears burn the back of my eyes. Though it is much too late, I am finally doing right by her.
“She never got to see the ocean, she never traveled, she...” For once, I don’t try to gain control. “She didn’t get to do a lot of things.”
There wasn’t time to describe how my mother singlehandedly raised three successful kids. How she’d had, and wanted, so little for herself. That to her a grand vacation was camping forty-five minutes from her tiny trailer. There was no time to tell Linda how, instead of seeing my mother when I was back home last summer, I had visited with friends until I had to catch my plane. And how three days later my mother died.
It had been eleven years since I’d last seen her. I ignore the tears tickling my cheeks. We humans waste too much energy hiding emotions when we should be embracing them. A revelation I’d only recently come to.
I continue on, a snotty wet mess, Mom deserved to brag about her last grand trip.
“On the way we’re stopping at every dive bar, barbeque joint and tourist trap Mom might have liked. We’re going to flirt with men with tattoos and cutoff sleeves, we’re going to drink and laugh and dance to syrupy country music. And we get to the beach, I’m going to blast Fleetwood Mac, wade into the ocean and see her off.”
When I picture this, I feel a peace inside that has been absent longer than the month mom has been dead. The marching band has put away their instruments, the crowd has gone home. Peace. Something I hadn’t known I was missing until I felt it.
“You’re thinking of following her,” Linda says, and I’m so startled, I jerk.
She’s right, of course. I’ve frequently thought about just wading in right behind Mom, swimming amongst the bits of bone and ash that had once been my mother. Swimming until I couldn’t swim anymore and let nature take its course.
“Yes-” I begin.
“You can’t!” Linda says, loud enough that several patrons turn to look at us. She seems not to care.
“I was supposed to have gone with my mother on that cruise. I cancelled at the last minute. I was in college then, and everything else was so much more important. For six months after she went missing, I plotted my death. I quit school, I drank every day, most days until I passed out. I couldn’t stop thinking about what if I had gone? Would she still be alive? Then one day, I was on a date and I was telling this guy something about my mother and I realized - just boom! - that if I wasn’t alive, who would have told this random stranger about her? If I’m not alive who’s going to share my memories of her? Who’s going to share my perspective of her? My brothers have their own memories and perspectives, they can’t share mine. Only I can do that. It’s up to us who remain to make sure the ones we love are never forgotten. It isn’t a duty to take lightly.”
All of this is said in a rush and I wonder how long she has needed to vent.
“One day, my kids are going to know their grandma as well as I do-or did-and that’s how I forgive myself for not being on that ship. So, you just can’t,” she finishes softly.
We silently stare at each other for thirty long seconds, both caught off guard by the emotions churning around us.
“I’m not going to,” I finally reassure her. “But I have thought about it. Instead I’m going to let her go, then trudge back to shore, drink a six pack, smoke a joint and cry myself to sleep right there on the beach. Mom would definitely approve of that.”
Linda stares at me so deeply I think she sees a lie I don’t know I’m telling myself. Then she nods like she’s confirmed something and stands up.
“Enjoy the rest of your trip. If you happen to come back this way, I’d like to hear how it went. Preferably when I’m not at work,” Linda says with a roll of her eyes towards the nosy Nancy’s looking our way.
For a moment, a brief time traveling moment, I see the girl she was before.
“It was very nice meeting both of you.” She hands me an order slip with her number on it, gives Mom a pat and heads to the back of the restaurant.
I finish my beer in slow sips, watching the sun slip its crimson self into navy sheets and, for the first time, visualize myself walking back out of the ocean.
There were people waiting on me to tell Mom’s story after all.