Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Are you ready for some fun? I hope so, because today I'm proud to be posting Chapter One from the very funny We Interrupt This Date by LC Evans.
Since her divorce a year ago, Susan Caraway has gone through the motions of life, feeling at best mildly depressed. Now she is finally coming out of her shell. Just when she decides on a makeover and a new career, her family members call on her for crisis assistance. First there’s her sister DeLorean who has come back from California with a baby, a designer dog, and no prospects for child support or a job. As soon as DeLorean settles in at Susan’s home, Susan’s son Christian comes home from college trailing what Susan’s mama refers to as “an androgynous little tart.” Then there’s Mama herself, a southern lady who wrote the book on bossy. A secret from Mama’s past threatens to unravel her own peace. But not before Mama hurts her ankle and has to move into Susan’s home with her babies—two Chihuahuas with attitude. Susan would like to start her new job as a ghost tour operator. She would like to renew her relationship with Jack Maxwell, a man from her past. But Jack isn’t going to stand in line behind her needy family.
And now, for Chapter One:
If I’d had the sense to say no to Mama, I’d be safely at work right now contemplating the passage of time on the clock over my desk. I’d be planning a quiet celebration of the one-year anniversary of my divorce from T. Chandler Caraway, cheater and emotional abuse expert. Instead I was clomping along the sidewalk of a busy Charleston street wishing there were such a thing as parental divorce.
“Walk more slowly, Susan. I do not have long legs like yours to take such giant steps. And please brighten up your expression. Do you know that if you smile when you walk it will automatically improve your mood?”
“Yes, Mama. I believe you’ve mentioned that before.”
A few thousand times. I wondered if fake smiles counted. Going by my current mood, I doubted it.
My mother hadn’t stopped talking about my shortcomings and my need to plunge back into the dating world since the moment we’d stepped out the door of her condo. And now we were on our way back to my car after a morning spent in her doctor’s office. I sidestepped a herd of tourists and pasted on my blandest isn’t-it-a-beautiful-day smile.
Mama leaned closer and traced one finger down my forearm, lighting up a thousand nerves. I jumped as if she’d poked me with a cattle prod.
“You’re already forty and not getting a moment younger. Shall I tell Stanley you’re interested?” She wore one of those mood-lifting smiles she was always recommending for me.
Resisting a childish urge to throw a fit, I increased my pace, nearly mowing down a touristy-looking couple trying to access the door to a trendy King Street restaurant.
“I declare, you are nothing but rude.” Mama lunged, caught the back of my blouse in her fist, and hauled me to a stop.
I yanked my blouse out of her grasp and ground my teeth so hard it felt like I was about to snap off one of my best molars. “Mama, I love you, but the answer is no. I do not need to energize my social life by going out with guys you dredge up for me. By the way, men named Stanley do not make good dates.”
“Stanley is a wonderful man. I met him at Sunday School.” Since her retirement a few months ago, Sunday School was my mother’s main social outlet. She’d already introduced me to two of her fellow Bible Studiers—a widower closer to her age than mine and Clive, a short, intense fellow who’d asked me if I thought pythons should be allowed as pets in apartment buildings.
“And Stanley is so kind, so devoted to his mama.”
“I’ll bet. Does he wear a polka dot bow tie and part his hair in the middle?”
“You are unfair and biased and plain silly. Let’s have lunch and we’ll talk about it.”
“Of course I am. Unfair, I mean. As well as biased against all men you find for me. And you, Mama, are taking your sweet time as if we have all day to spend discussing this person you found at church when you know I have to get back to work.”
I tried to nudge Mama forward. She displayed all the mobility of a two-ton rock, no doubt still caught up in her fantasy of me strolling hand in hand along the harbor with Stanley-of-the-church.
“I’ve so looked forward to a nice chat over lunch. Why do you think I insisted we park near East Bay, even though it’s so far out of our way?”
“I don’t know, Mama. To annoy me?”
“Don’t be hateful. You know Magnolias does those fabulous crab cake sandwiches and, I declare, their tomato bisque is exquisite.” Her eyes darkened from sky blue to twilight in the shade cast by the brim of the sun hat perched on top of her over-sprayed, apricot-colored hair. “My treat?”
“I’ve already made a lunch date with Veronica.” As it happened, my friend Veronica and I were meeting at SNOB, also on East Bay.
I’d no sooner gotten the words out, then Mama put a pincer grip on my arm. Her “my daughter is up to something” radar had a hair trigger.
“Veronica Howell? You haven’t seen her in months. What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” I pulled my arm out of her clutches and rubbed the circulation back. “So I haven’t seen her for two months. That’s not exactly dropping the friendship. Besides, we phone each other every couple of weeks. Don’t you like Veronica?”
Her liking or disliking Veronica was not the point. I was simply redirecting her thoughts so she wouldn’t keep trying to talk me into meeting this unsuitable person—Stanley--or, even worse, inviting herself to lunch with me and my best friend. Veronica had told me she had great news. Having news meant just the two of us, heads together sharing secrets and friendship. Definitely not the two of us plus my mother, the gossip queen of the Low Country.
“I do like Veronica, and God knows you need more friends. But it’s been a whole year--time for you to forget about T. Chandler and his flagrant immorality with that creature he dumped you for.” Mama shuddered like a lady who’d just spotted a bug in her soup.
“Yes, Mama, I’m a real slacker about diving back into the dating pool. I can’t imagine what’s wrong with me.” Biting my lip, I stared down at my feet. Wasn’t my marital split hard enough without my mother reminding me I was the dumpee instead of the dumper?
They said divorce meant freedom. They promised that from the moment my ex pulled out of the driveway for the last time, I was free to heave my cleaning supplies into the nearest trash can, toss my wedding ring out the window, and lounge around the house in pajamas stuffing myself with chocolates. The “they” who imparted these words of wisdom were my sister, my friends, and a divorce support group I attended for two weeks.
But certainly not Mama. Mama has made it her life’s work to keep me from getting too comfortable with myself.
As I recall, her words to me the day I announced my impending divorce were, “Why, Susan Caraway, I am shocked.” She’d swayed on her feet and then plumped down in the nearest armchair to lean back with a handkerchief plastered over her face like a mini shroud. “You are going to regret this hasty decision,” she’d added, her breath puffing up the handkerchief, so I’d broken into uncontrollable nervous laughter, which she had immediately let me know she did not appreciate.
But despite Mama’s take on things, there was nothing hasty about my decision. T. Chandler Caraway and I had never been meant for each other. We’d stuck things out for too many years before he decided he was moving on with someone else. I was only sorry I’d hung around so long he’d ended up being the one to make the decision, leaving me feeling rejected, unwanted, and just plain low.
No, freedom was not the issue. The way I saw it, if life were about nothing but freedom, there’d be no reason to get married to begin with. For me divorce meant just one thing—failure. And it was my own fault. No one had forced me to marry T. Chandler Caraway. Or bribed me. Or threatened to throw me off a bridge if I didn’t don a white dress and look starry-eyed while I chirped, “I do.” So who could blame me for deciding I’d take my time choosing someone else to share my life—or never choosing, for that matter. I was managing fine on my own for the first time in my life, if only Mama would stop trying to shove me back into couplehood.
“Stop squinting or you’ll ruin your eyes, dear.” Mama patted my shoulder and I blinked about half a dozen times to bring circulation back to my eyes, so she wouldn’t add, as she usually did, that I was courting retinal detachment. “Now about Stanley.” She shot me the same smile she used to use when I was a child and she wanted to convince me my medicine tasted like cherry candy.
Before she could tell me Stanley’s hobbies included turning water into gold and doing yard work, I cut her off. “I promise I’ll make time for you Thursday.” If I didn’t stop her now, she’d bring me a new man every week until my brain turned into a mass of quivering jelly and I gave in out of sheer exhaustion.
I glanced over my shoulder half expecting Stanley to materialize and announce in a nasal voice that his mother had said we could go out and there was a new sci fi feature at the movies. Déjà vu had gripped me in its own special vice from the moment Mama mentioned a fix-up.
The first time she meddled in my social life, I was sixteen. Mama and her best friend Cora Haymans got together and paired me with Cora’s son Hartley, a pudgy fifteen-year-old my mother referred to as “promising.” Enough said. As far as I know, the promise was a false alarm and Hartley now spends his days strumming a banjo on a street corner near the Marketplace.
Undaunted by my threats to lock myself in my room for the next forty years, Mama then set me up with Myron Lenley III. Myron was one of those boys who specialized in drawing skulls and motorcycles in their notebooks instead of working on algebra problems. After him, there were a series of other silent, mouth-breathing youths. Mama didn’t give up meddling in my social life until I left home for college and found my husband all on my own. Unfortunately, she made no attempt to fix me up with the one boy I really cared about—Jack Maxwell. Jack had moved away years ago, gotten married, and as far as I knew lived in New Jersey. So much for her matchmaking skills.
I put my hand on her elbow and steered her to the left. “Mama, your babies are going to worry if you’re late getting home.” The babies were her two spoiled Chihuahuas. I knew it was good strategy to remind her they were fretting at home.
“I told them I was seeing Dr. Frey this morning.”
The light on the corner changed and we stepped into the crosswalk. Mama hung onto my arm, weighing me down as if she had anchors fashioned to her shoes.
“Will you look at that?” She dragged me to a halt and nudged me discreetly in the ribs. “Joyce-Ann Frampton in the flesh, sashaying down the sidewalk in public, like three-fourths of the people in this town don’t know she cheated on poor Wade with that loud, overdone man. You know the one I mean. He used to be the governor of one of those big square western states. Or so he said. Personally, I never--”
“Mama.” I locked both hands around her shoulders and yanked her out of the way of an oncoming SUV. “I don’t care how many Joyce-Ann Framptons you see parading around Charleston. You can’t stand in the street and expect traffic to come to a standstill for you.” My heart was thumping wildly at the thought of how close Mama had come to getting flattened, and I had to suck in a couple of extra deep breaths.
“Why are you in such a hurry today? Pardon me. I must say, I am shocked. When a woman can’t ask her own daughter to carry her to the doctor, then it’s time to simply give up and accept the fact that the entire world has deteriorated into a hotbed of ill manners and selfishness.”
“What was that? You’ll have to speak up if you expect me to hear you over the traffic.” She cupped her hand over her ear.
“As you well know, I had to take time off work this morning to drive you to the doctor. I don’t dare come in late this afternoon.” Even if I had to miss lunch with Veronica, I couldn’t be late. Odell, my boss, had made that clear when I said I needed a few hours off, telling me he wasn’t running a camp for lazy employees. He seemed to be in a worse mood than usual, and I wondered if his wife had kicked him out again.
“Surely you can take time off for family emergencies. It’s simply a job we’re talking about, not a matter of life or death.”
“It’s the only job I’ve got and without it I have no way to pay my bills.” The sad fact was that a boring job working for a guy who still had the first dime he’d ever gotten for his allowance was all that kept me out of the homeless shelter. I couldn’t afford my house and my car on the measly check I got from T. Chandler.
“There are other jobs.” She stopped and held her hands out to her sides palms up. She lifted them up and down if she were weighing things on separate scales. “Job or taking care of your mother?”
I shrugged. If there were other jobs, I hadn’t found them and I didn’t expect I would. Hadn’t Mama read the feature article in Sunday’s paper about the rising unemployment rate and the shrinking paycheck? Hadn’t she noticed the classified job section had shrunk over the past year, so it wasn’t even big enough to wrap vegetable scraps in?
Not for the first time this morning, I wondered why I’d volunteered to take Mama to her doctor. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t have asked one of her church friends. Or one of the ladies from her book club at the library. Or one of her neighbors. I marched away and when I got almost half a block ahead she finally followed. I waited at the corner until she caught up in her own good time.
I forced myself to slow to Mama’s pace and not scream when she took seven whole minutes to walk the rest of the way to my car and another seven to take off the wide brimmed hat she always wore when the sun was out. Then ten more to get out in front of her condo when I’d finally fought my way through traffic to get her there.
“I’ll walk you to your door,” I said through tight lips. “The flu shot you had this morning might make you woozy.”
“I am not the least bit woozy and I know you’re aching to race away like a horse out of the starting gate. You’ve certainly made that clear.”
I would not react. I would not bring up the fact that she’d made me thirty minutes late for my first job interview because she kept changing her make-up. Fifteen minutes late for my high school graduation because she couldn’t decide which of her three favorite pairs of shoes looked best with her hair color.
Twenty minutes late for my wedding because her “digestion was out of sorts”—southern lady code for she had diarrhea. Given that I’d chosen the wrong husband, maybe it would have been a good thing if her digestive system had kept me away from my wedding altogether.
I escorted her up a flight of stairs. Mama doesn’t trust the elevator in her building since it got stuck once when the power went out. While she was still fumbling in her purse, I unlocked her door with the spare key she’d given me. I pushed the door open, and the Chihuahuas converged yapping from their plush little bed in the corner. They squirmed at her feet, fighting each other for position. She squatted to scoop the two trembling bodies into her arms.
“Babies, babies, give Mama some sugar.”
I tried not to gag. If sugar was the dog spit they were depositing on her face, she was getting plenty.
“I’ll call you tomorrow, Mama. Promise.”
She sniffed. “I wouldn’t want to be a bother to my daughter who has such a rotten attitude. I always said I would lie down and die before I’d become a bother in my old age. Though sixty-two is not old, goodness knows. Why, only yesterday Doris Leland told me I don’t look a day over fifty-seven.”
“No trouble at all,” I sang over my shoulder as I scurried back down the stairs.
Before I could get out of the building, Mrs. Barkley, Mama’s downstairs neighbor, planted herself in front of me at the bottom of the stairs. She was wearing a black chenille sweater that hung to her knees over a shapeless yellow housedress. The flip-flops on her feet were neon blue.
“Got a message for your mama. Man was here looking for her. Heard him pounding on her door and went up to check. You know I am all for neighborhood watch.”
“Thanks. Probably Fred from the garage to tell her he dropped off her car.” Why couldn’t he have brought it earlier, so Mama could have driven herself to the doctor? And why didn’t Mama’s building have decent security so people couldn’t just waltz in and pound on doors?
“Didn’t look like a garage man, didn’t have grease on him or anything. Tall, older fella. Dressed in one of those golf shirts and wore plaid pants and a gold chain around his neck like he thought he was somebody. Now, Mr. Barkley, bless his heart, he would never dress that way, especially not in public. Too flashy, he’d say.”
No doubt. I’ve met Mr. Barkley and the only thing I’ve ever seen him wear is a wife beater shirt and pajama bottoms, both beige in color. “Thanks, Mrs. Barkley. I’ll give Mama the message.”
I managed to slip past her and I broke into a trot as soon as I hit the sidewalk. Whoever had been looking for Mama--probably one of those people who sometimes handed out religious flyers in the neighborhood--would be back if it were important.
L.C. Evans currently lives in North Carolina with her husband Bob, their three or four Chihuahuas, and a grandson, the Boy. Taking on the care and feeding of the Boy has made her a born again minivan pilot, who suffers from occasional bewilderment over what kids like these days. Ask her what she said when the Boy asked for a skateboard that "shoots sparks" and goes up ramps "at about a hundred miles an hour."
When not wrangling the Boy and the Chihuahuas, L.C. writes. She is the author of four novels, including We Interrupt This Date. Visit her at her website: LC Evans or her blog, LC Evans Author.
Posted by Karen Cantwell at 6:05 AM