Read an Excerpt
Making Room for George
A Love Story
By D. ELLIS PHELPS
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 D. Ellis Phelps
All rights reserved.
The day felt uncomplicated. Even the September sky seemed cooperative with its unending emptiness—the pureness of it, a kind of promise. I felt lucky.
I had just finished the first week of a new job. I sat in my grandmother's rocking chair. The dogs snuggled in under my feet. I kicked off my clogs, and sipped a tall glass of sweet iced tea.
This job will do it, I thought. Give me the autonomy I've always wanted but have never had, I meant. I flexed and pointed my toes, rolled my ankles in circles. I liked this kind of tired.
I looked around the living room: a family portrait on the mantel, yellow roses arranged with asparagus fern in a ruby glass vase, a framed needlepoint I'd found half-finished among Nana's things when she died. Rows of photo albums organized chronologically. I shook my head.
Twenty-five years I've spent tooling around in here, trying to please this family.
I looked at the most recent picture of Steve and me sitting on the end table. I leaned over and looked into his hazel eyes.
I'm still married to you, but I'm through kissing your behind! I'm going to make my own money and do whatever I want to do. You got it?
As I said this, I felt certain, determined. I'd done my job, raised our three kids, and made a home for us all. Now, it was my turn. The ice clinked in my glass as I sipped.
I decided to go outside. The dogs and cats followed me. In the garden, the Philodendron lifted its ears on the breeze, as if it could hear something arriving from a distance.
An uneasy feeling crept over me, thinking of the freeze that would level it soon. I've always been wary of seasonal change and storms—a fear of mine that nature won't be able to right things again. But that day, standing alongside the privet hedge, I pushed back at the uneasiness.
"Not this time," I said. "Get out of my head."
It was only four o'clock. I had an hour before I was supposed to meet Steve for dinner—Tex-Mex again at Sol Del Ciudad. The place was close and good, but I wished we'd eat out somewhere else for a change. I sat down in the wooden swing hanging under the Elm, my back against a carving in one of the planks that read: "Steve and Bet."
Steve had his tender moments. The swing had been a gift during one of them. I loved him in moments like that. I sank my toes in the St. Augustine. It felt cool. Beatrice jumped into my lap. I stroked her calico fur and she started to purr. Potter flopped and rolled onto my feet, nibbled my ankle and popped the hem of my skirt with his paws. I grabbed him by his orange ear.
"Hey! You don't have to tackle me! I can scratch both of you. Come on." I patted the swing next to me and he hopped up. The big dogs lay on the grass, stretching and licking, but the poodle whined.
"Hush! William!" I picked him up and set him on the swing too. I pushed off and lifted my feet. The gentle motion soothed me.
This was my place. I loved our little acre of Limestone Creek. The Tallow leaves flickered, and I remembered the day I'd found the tree, two inches high, coming up from seed. I could smell the purple Sage blooming. It reminded me of how the place had looked when we bought it—all rocks, Juniper, and Prickly-Pear. Now it was lush and green, an oasis, thanks to Steve's hard work and the sprinkler system. I smiled, thinking of Steve walking the property every morning in early spring, training each potato vine as it sprouted so that it would grow exactly the way he wanted it to grow. Steve loved the yard, the even expanse of lawn, riding the mower in perfect circles, watering by hand at midnight, shirtless and barefoot. And I loved that side of Steve.
But Steve had another side, thus, the resentment and the new job. You probably wonder, "Why a new job now, Bet? I mean, you have been with him twenty-five years.
I'd found an old journal, dog-eared and pale pink, hidden inside a gold jewelry box in the bottom of my closet. I'd forgotten about it. I don't remember why I rummaged in my closet that day. I guess I was looking for something. Well, I know I was. I have been. When I found the journal, it helped me realize what.
I'd drawn little girl-monkeys dangling from trees on its cover and flower doodles in every margin. My handwriting filled its pages—the perfectly slanted cursive of a child practiced at doing things right and keeping secrets.
I had sat in the floor in front of the closet, its doors gaping open and held the journal for a long time before I could open it. My hands turned to ice as I read the first entry.
August 12, 1960—They tell me I'm Irish. My mother's father's father came to America on a boat straight from Ireland. And I'm German on my daddy's side. The nearest I can figure the math, figuring cells not being the strongest cells in my brain, I'm something like one eighth Irish-German. That accounts for the red in my brunette curls and my temper.
Curls. Yuk! They grow ever which way they want and we never want the same way! So mostly, I brush them straight back and put them in a ponytail. I think you can train your hair. I'm making mine grow straight, at least the front part. I think it's working except for what Mama says is the new growth. That's the short, frizzy fuzz that sticks right up at the edge of my forehead on both sides. Makes me look like I have horns. Daddy says those are widow's peaks. He says it might stop growing someday and then I'll be bald there. That's what happened to him. So now he's only got a peninsula of hair in the front like Florida sticking out with the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic on either side only skin instead of water.
I hate my hair and my freckles! If it weren't for those stupid brown spots squatting on my nose, I might be an Ivory Girl someday. I can say the whole commercial in the bathroom mirror, but I like doing the Prell shampoo commercial best. I lather up my hair then mold it into a peak on top of my head with a little curl like an ice cream cone from Dairy Queen. I know I'll be a movie star someday. But right now I have a gap between my two front teeth and bruises on my shins. Daddy says, "You'll never be Miss America if you keep on bruising your shins that way."
I really do want to be Miss America. I practice answering all the questions and I can walk real straight with a book on my head. But practicing for the talent contest is the most fun. I sing all over the place. "I like Paris in the spring time. I like Paris in the fall. My, oh my do I like Paris! In any season at all." The shower is the best place though 'cause it's like you have a microphone in there. The one who won Miss America last year sang that song about Paris.
Someday I'll really go to Paris. And I'll smoke a cigarette in a long black holder with rhinestones. I'll have long, red fingernails and wear my hair up in a French-twist. I'll cock my head and bat my beautiful dark eyelashes and say, "Mai Oui!" all the time, 'cause I'll know how to speak French. But right now, I'm only a French girl or Miss America, or a movie star in the bathroom.
It's my bathroom. It has pea-green tile and only one cabinet I can reach. Plus there is a dirty clothes hamper built right in. I've lived in this house since I was three. It was brand new when we moved into it. I can hardly remember the new. But I remember the first day we looked at 1071 Rush Street. That's my address. I know it now, but I didn't then. It was cold that day and the potty wouldn't flush. Now I know that's 'cause it wasn't our water yet. People have to pay for the water in their house. And it wasn't our house, but I still had to go. So I did. But it wouldn't flush. I didn't like leaving it there like that. But I had to. There are lots of things like that. Things you have to do even if you don't like it. I know this now because I'm eight.
So now, that bathroom is mine. It's in the hall across from my room. No one else gets to use it. That's mostly because I'm the only child. Our family is Mama, and Daddy, and me. Daddy has his own bathroom. So there is my bathroom and Daddy's bathroom. It's like Mama doesn't have a bathroom 'cause we only have two. Sometimes Mama comes into my bathroom though, especially when she's sad. Sometimes we talk in there. We close the door and lock it. And when she cries, I act like the mama. I wash her face with a cool cloth and tell her, "Don't cry, Mama." But she has to. I think her heart is broken and all the pieces are falling out of her eyes. It's 'cause Daddy calls her bad names like Lard Bottom and Wide Ride and sometimes when she talks back to him, or even if she doesn't, he hits her hard. And then she cries 'cause she doesn't know what to do to make him stop.
From my pocket, my cell phone rang and I snapped back to the present. It was Steve calling. I felt nauseated. The air had chilled. The breeze whipped the leaves around in circles. I answered.
"Bet, we've got to go get my dad. He's in trouble. I'm on my way to Sol del Ciudad. Meet me there. Come now. I'll park the corvette and we'll go in your truck." It was a command, as usual. No "Hello." No "How are you?" I felt the skin on my back begin to crawl up onto my shoulders. I knew this tone. He was panicked.
"Okay," I said, clicking off. What now? No point trying to get information over the phone. I would know soon enough.
The sun was setting. I felt chilled, fearful—my body's barometer reporting a storm. Remembering the journal had tired and saddened me. So much for the natural high my first week at work had given me.
"Oh! Well. We have to go guys," I said to the dogs, ignoring my body. I settled William onto the back of the lounger in front of the picture window and grabbed a sweater.
As I pulled into the parking lot of Sol del Ciudad, so did Steve. He slanted his red car-baby across two parking spots and jerked the brake.
We we're going back to his old neighborhood where he'd spent most nights as a teen half-sleeping with a shotgun laid across his lap protecting himself from drug dealers and thieves. He had kept dangerous company and he'd almost died. Maybe escaping death as a teen had given him his sense of invincibility and entitlement. More likely, he was hiding behind it. Either way, it made him hard to stomach sometimes.
I left the truck running and went around to the passenger's side.
"Hurry up," he said.
I knew better than to try to get details. I'd wait for him to download when he was ready.
The westbound traffic coming out of the city sputtered and clucked along. In the grassy meridian, Gay Feathers ignored it, their blooms all purple and chucking in the breeze. I envied that ability—to ignore chaos.
A teenager had pulled over and lifted the hood of his Mazda. He held his cell phone to his ear, paced back and forth too closely to the road. I wished his father would hurry up and come. But I thought he probably wasn't calling his father. He was probably calling his girlfriend.
I probably know more about what's wrong with your car than you do, I thought. My dad had meant it when he said I'd know how to trouble-shoot a vehicle if I intended to drive one. I'd spent hours helping him, leaning over cars, shoeing brakes, and cleaning carburetors.
I studied Steve in silence, his sturdy build, the square line of his jaw. I watched him clench his jaws, squeeze the steering wheel. I loved when he flexed his muscles. Their strength somehow softened me, made me feel safe.
As we pulled into his dad's West Side driveway, I reached over and smoothed the stiff, blonde hair on Steve's arm.
"Whew!" He blew out a long, heavy breath. "I hate coming over here." He lowered his head and pulled off his shades.
"I know, Babe," I said. He turned, and for a rare moment, looked into my eyes, his—a well of pain. "I love you. We'll get through this," I said.
Abruptly, he put his shades back on, sucked air in through his nose, and stepped out of the truck. Moment over.
I did love Steve. What I knew of love anyway. His tall frame and strong air had attracted me to him at first. Now we had history together and my love for him had deepened. So had the pain.
And Steve loved his dad, even if he didn't like him much, but this next part wouldn't feel like any love we'd ever known. It would feel more like being disemboweled and laid out for vultures to consume.
Every other wood-framed, asbestos-sided house in George's neighborhood was occupied by someone retired, lonely, and bored. Mrs. Shaker, George's next door neighbor, was no exception. The thirty-year-old draperies covering her front windows had a permanent crease where the bent fore-finger of her liver-spotted hand held them ever-so-barely back to afford her vigilant watch over her neighbors' business. Mrs. Shaker, her frame bent, her hair—black cathedral spires—toddled across the thin strip of Bermuda grass that ran between the two houses and met us in the driveway.
"George hasn't been taking care of himself lately," she said without civilities. Her raspy voice rattled and shook. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the street like everything she told was a secret. Apparently, the thrill of her days was watching the goings-on up and down Westwood Drive. "And he doesn't feed Miss Kitty. She's too skinny. They both are."
She was right about that. Steve's dad had been living on cigarettes and coffee for thirty years, and it showed in his thin-as-rice-paper frame.
"I've watched that woman coming in and out of there at all hours of the night for over a year now. I knew there'd be trouble." She pulled her rose-pink chenille robe closer around her stooped shoulders. "But nobody listens to me. Then she moved all of her stuff in there, even had a damn Pit-bull puppy over there tied to a tree. It barked all night."
Mrs. Shaker scratched the head of her fifteen-year-old black lab that had followed her out into the yard and sat dutifully at her side. The dog had more scabs than hair. I cringed. It barely lifted one crooked leg and peed on the driveway.
I could smell the sweet scent of a neighbor mowing grass mingled with the aroma of fried chicken. It made me miss home. Kids squealed, played chase on the next street over.
"I've seen the police over there three or four times," Mrs. Shaker continued, her voice more strident than before. "Why, the other night, George came out of the house yelling at that big, black, man-friend of hers, waving a gun in the air. Telling him to 'get the hell out of here and don't come back.'" She smoothed her hair as if just remembering she'd neglected to brush it and lowered her voice. "That man makes three of George," she whispered. "What was he thinking inviting her to stay with him? Lord, I thought somebody was going get killed. I'm glad you're here."
Steve shifted his weight from one foot to the other bobbing his head in a tiny nod. The wind gusted, blew leaves up into a swirl. I shivered. Steve looked over one shoulder then the other.
He was about to bolt and I knew it. For all his bravado, there remained a five year old boy whose father, he thought, was away on military tour of duty, but who had arrived home without notice to find his son aiming a bow and arrow at his face in the doorway.
"It's me, son. It's dad," George had said.
"Is it him?" Steve had asked his older, but not much older, sister. Their mother had left them alone for the evening while she went out for drinks.
"Yes," his sister had said after a closer look, "It's him," so Steve had let George come in.
"Thanks, Mrs. Shaker. We'll take it from here," I said. I grabbed Steve's elbow and pointed to George who stood waiting on the front porch, plastic grocery bag in hand. The way he held that bag so close to his chest in both hands, I thought he looked like a preying mantis. I also thought that it made him look guilty, which of course, he was.
George rode with Steve. I didn't envy him that. I drove George's Volvo and taxied George's cat, Miss Kitty. She climbed my shoulder as I drove, and sat by my ear. In my feline genes, I understood the insistent, wacked-out, horrified, something-is-way-out-of-control yowl she made the whole way home.
It was all I could do not to join her.
We drove to our house and I let Miss Kitty out. She scrambled under the hedge of Nandinas hissing and frothing. I parked the Volvo and hopped into the backseat of the truck behind Steve. He didn't look at me. He hung his right arm over the steering wheel and texted with his left hand.
Even though I thought Steve looked sexy in the prescription, Oakley shades he was wearing, I hated them. They weren't just for seeing; they were for avoiding eye-contact. Right then, he was avoiding eye-contact with his dad. I figured he hadn't spoken to him the whole way home.
Steve had every reason to be angry with his dad. He'd questioned George, when George invited Felicia to stay in his spare bedroom, warned him that she was up to no good. George had insisted she was a friend. Never mind that she'd been arrested for prostitution, petty theft, breaking and entering, and writing hot checks. Never mind that her permanent address was the Oaks Motel Room 314. Never mind that she kept company with cross dressers and drug addicts.
Excerpted from Making Room for George by D. ELLIS PHELPS. Copyright © 2013 D. Ellis Phelps. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.