The dirt I’m sitting on is the red of clay. I feel the heat of the sun beating on my back as I comb my baby doll’s hair. She’s wearing a bubble gum pink dress, just like mine. I’m planted next to his feet, my eyes not quite reaching the top of his brown cowboy boots. The smoky smell of the leather is familiar, as is the dust all around me. A design is imprinted into the boots. It’s a swirly shape a lighter color than the rest. I let my finger trace the indentation, enjoying the movement of the maze. He reaches down and lifts me up from under my arms. He raises me high into the air and spins me, lifting me up and down, the pleats of my dress flowing and wide around me. I am weightless in his arms, giggling with delight. In my three-year-old memory he is holding me above him and the white rays of the sun block his face. His voice is soft and smooth. “I’ll miss you Sugar. You take care, alright?” Then he sets me down in the dirt again.
That is the only memory I have of my daddy. Memory is a funny thing; the way it takes a snap shot of one tiny detail, like the taste of dust in my mouth mixed with Kool- Aid, and keeps others hidden, leaving you to wonder if what you think you remember every really happened at all. That’s why you need someone to corroborate those early memories. Someone to wipe the dust off. I asked Lulu once if my daddy wore brown cowboy boots. In her fake southern accent she responded, “Sugar, I’ve known my share of cowboys. Lord knows I can’t remember the color of their boots.”
Lulu named me Sugar, just like she named herself. Her real name was Luann, but she made everyone, including me, call her Lulu. The only exception to that rule came during her late night crying jags when she would hold me close and I would nuzzle into her soft chest breathing in the sweetness of her baby powder perfume. She would say, slipping into her whiny Wisconsin roots, “Sugar, you’re my baby. I love you so much. Do love your mama?” And to that I would reply, with a sincerity I haven’t felt since, “Yes mama, I love you mama.” And I would lie in her arms all night feeling the wetness of her tears on my head and loving her the most.
Lulu moved a lot. Fresh out of High School she moved from Madison Wisconsin to Arizona. She had plans of becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, buts somehow she ended up in Phoenix Arizona knocked up with me. Four years later she was back in Wisconsin and we were moving from town to town, job to job. She told me she was going to become a country western singer, and I believed her. She looked like a movie star to me. She had big blond hair and shoes with heals as high as heaven. Her lips and nails were always painted the same bright red and she looked better in the tight, bright clothes she wore than any of the other mothers I had seen. When she was happy she sang all the time, in the car, at the grocery store while she cooked. Lulu was my mama, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Everyone has that moment, that memory that changes how you see the world. Mine came when I was seven years old, the summer before I started second Grade. Lulu had moved us to Waukesha Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment on a street called Sunset Drive. I pretended that Sunset Drive was a fancy street. That the rows of flat-faced fourplex apartments were really mansions and we lived in the best one.
The Fox River runs thorough Waukesha, and back in 1984 the park closest to Sunset drive still had marshland that led to the river behind it. I spent my summer days in Waukesha wading through those wet grasslands and playing on fallen trees near the river. Lulu never got mad at me. Not even when I would come home soaked from head to toe in one of the cute new outfits she had just bought me out of the tips she earned a waitressing at the bar across town. She would just laugh, pour herself another glass of whatever she was drinking, slap me on the bottom and throw me in the tub. Those first few weeks in Waukesha were good.
One day Uncle Ray showed up to stay. Uncle Ray was a friend of Lulu’s from high school. He would come stay with us for a while wherever we happened to be. Lulu called him Ray Ray and all they did was laugh. He would fix Lulu’s hair and paint both of our nails. He called me Sugar Drop, because he said I was a drop of my mama’s sweetness. I liked that. Lulu said that Ray Ray’s door swang the other way, if you know what I mean, which I didn’t, but I didn’t care. All I knew was that when he came to stay no other men stayed over and that meant that I got to sleep in bed with Lulu instead of on the couch, and I liked that.
Lulu had lots of men who came around. I don’t remember many of them, they all came and went so quick. But while Ray was staying with us in Waukesha she had one that was hanging around. His name was Steve. He drove a blue corvette and made fun of Ray’s brown Toyota. His jeans always looked dirty and he smelled of motor oil. Lulu would hang all over him when he was around and I was left alone with my dolls.
One night the three of them, Ray, Steve and Lulu, were all at our apartment. It was a hot night, I remember the hot pink little girl lipstick Lulu bought me at the store melted into the carpet. Our apartment was on the first floor so we had a sliding door that opened onto the patio. The three of them brought the kitchen chairs outside and sat there listening to Lulu’s country music on the boom box and drinking out of big plastic cups. I stayed inside giving each one of my dolls a bath in the kitchen sink to cool them off. I could hear the music, Lulu singing, and adult laughter in the background. I was in the middle of talking one of my most stubborn dolls, Rosy, into taking a bath when Steve came in. He set two of the giant cups down on the counter next to me.
“What you doing Sugar?”
“You playing dolls?” I didn’t answer. He could see my dolls right there. “It’s hot out there, isn’t it?”
“Yes sir.” I said. He laughed.
“You sound southern too, just like Lulu. But you aren’t, are you?” He was looking down at me with adult eyes that I didn’t like. “It’s not your fault, sweetie. What are you gonna do when your mom gives you a name like Sugar.” Then he laughed again and I felt my face turn hot. “Awe sweetie, don’t be so sensitive.” He put his hand on my shoulder before he grabbed an extra glass and started pouring things into it. “You’re gonna be as cute as her though, aren’t you? Here you go sweetie, you want some Kool-aid?”
I looked at him holding that cup, my cup, in the middle of my kitchen and wanted to slap it, hard, right out of his hand.I felt the heat of embarrassment steaming up from my belly turning into anger and took the cup and drank it down in three big gulps not stopping for air. “Slow down Sugar, your gonna out do your mom!” Then he slapped me on the back and went back outside.
My throat burned and my belly felt warm. I sank my hands into the soapy water feeling the tiny bubbles popping against my skin. I drank some more before I realized how dizzy I was. I dropped Rosy into the soapy water and made my way outside. I wanted Lulu.
“Lord, child what is wrong with you?” Lulu said when I sat down on the patio next to her chair and put my head in her lap. I tried to say something. I don’t know if anything came out. “You got into the booze Sugar!” Then she laughed so hard her body shook and my stomach felt sick.
‘She O.K. Lu?” It was Ray’s voice.
“She’s fine,” Steve’s said,” But I think we’re almost out of vodka. What do you say Lulu, liquor run?”
Steve’s dirty shoes were right beneath me. The smell of oil drifted in through my nose and settled in my stomach with the liquor. I didn’t even know it was coming until it did, red Kool-Aid color all over Steve’s shoes.
“Goddammit Luann! Worse than a goddamn dog!”
“She didn’t mean it, Steve . She ain’t feeling well.” As she stood up Lulu pushed me away from her legs. I sat there on the cement patio watching the world spin around.
The next thing I remember is that Ray carried me into the back of his Toyota and whispered, “You O.K. Sugar.” I tried to smile and he stroked my hair. “I’ll watch out for you Sugar, you let me know if you feel sick, O.K?” I nodded and laid my head on the soft, brown upholstered seat. I drifted in and out of consciousness and each time I came to the light from outside the car was getting dimmer.
The next thing I remember is hearing Lulu’s voice yelling. I opened my eyes in the darkness of the Toyota’s back seat. I pulled myself up to look out the small triangle window in the back seat and I could barley make out the three figures in the dark. Lulu was yelling and waving her arms around. We were parked on the grass; I think we were on a riverbank. Steve’s tall frame was standing in front of Lulu and he was yelling too. Ray was behind her trying to grab her, but she kept pulling away.
“Who is she?” Lulu screamed, “Who the hell is she?”
“Who cares? Did you really think I was going to marry your ass and adopt that little brat of yours? Dream on lady.” Steve’s frame began to walk away from Lulu, and she screamed louder, not words this time, just noise. I saw her reach down to pick something up, then throw it, and I think I saw Steve fall. Then it was quiet.
I ducked back down into the car seat and covered my ears. My tummy hurt and I wanted to go home. I wanted Lulu to hold me and Ray Ray to laugh with us.
“Shit Lulu, you really hurt him.” I could hear Ray talking just outside the car. I closed my eyes tighter and curled myself into a ball on the floor of the car. I began humming Kenny Rogers and pushed my hands against my ears with all the strength I could muster. At some point I must have fallen asleep like that.
I awoke to Lulu’s hand on my head and one hand under my nose but I didn’t open my eyes. “She’s fine, she’s breathing. Just take us home Ray.” The engine started and the bumps on the road hit so close to my belly it hurt.
“Shit Luann,” it was Ray’s voice,” what the hell were you thinking? You’ve got a daughter to think about too, you know.”
“What the hell do you know about anything?” I peaked up at my mama in the passengers seat. “Your just a god dam queer.” The streetlights flashed streams of light across her face. Dark lines of black eye make-up stained Lulu’s cheeks. The line of her red lipstick remains only around the edge of her lips. Crouched on the floor of a shit brown Toyota in the middle of the night, I saw the pretty smeared all over my mama’s face.
I pretended to be sleeping when Ray carried me into the house. He laid me in Lulu’s bed and whispered, ‘I’m sorry Sugar.” I heard the front door shut and Lulu crawled in bed with me. She pulled me close to her and whispered, “Sugar, you’re my baby, I love you so much.” I didn’t answer. For the first time I was fully aware of the stench of liquor and cigarettes under her baby powder perfume. I felt the sweltering heat of her grasp, and the black mascara tears she dropped on my head felt heavy. Her heat beat was too quick, her breathing too labored. I listened to the sounds of my mama, and I quieted myself, falling asleep in her arms without a word.
Kori Hennessy is a writer of fiction and non-fiction dealing with the ultimate in private conflicts. Her essay, “Keeping the Faith: Lessons in Raising an Atheist” will appear this fall in Atheist Voices of Minnesota: an Anthology of Personal Stories.
© 2012, Kori Hennessy