Small Minutes

by Sally K. Lehman


part 1 of 4

In the small minutes of night I drive past the local graveyard going from my work to my home. I pass the places where the Dead are laid and I hold my breath. The Recently Dead in their wood boxes, the Long Dead awaiting their Next Lives, the Young Dead who cry for a Life Not Lived, and the Lost Souls of the Living.

“You have to hold your breath when you pass a graveyard,” my Grandmother used to say. “Or else you’ll inhale a spirit and they’ll have your life. They’ll leave you to wander the graveyard in their stead.”

Grandma said it, so I believe it, and as I drive past I hold my breath. I’m not willing to give up my body to some wandering soul.

I let my breath go in a puff of exhale, look at the halos that come off the street lights and traffic signals. When I was little I thought the halos were ghosts attracted to humanity like bugs attracted to candle flames. Ghosts were losing themselves into the red and yellow, the green and white lights that burn them away like moths.

* * *

There’s lots of stuff that Grandmas can tell you if you listen right. Like how you can catch someone’s dreams.

“Wait until night, because that’s when people dream,” Grandma said. “While they sleep, walk down your street and look into the core of a house, like the eye of a hurricane. Each house has its own core, so you have to look for it. Look into the heart of the place and the dreams will find you. Come into you and find a place to settle.”

I don’t live in a neighborhood where people think of the places they live as Home, but rather as Places to Stop Awhile. I have to run past so I don’t catch their nightmares.

* * *

My mother tells me that I’m not using the life that I protect when I hold my breath. She said it on March 3, 2006. It’s on an orange index card on the North Wall of my apartment. It’s where I go to when I need caustic comments for one of my stories.

“You’re wasting the life that God gave you.” — Mom, 3/3/06

My mother always says the word God with a capital letter, she booms the word out as though there are angels trumpeting behind her. She believes in her God with all that she is. Grandma said that there are many gods for many reasons, so none of them should have a capital while the others don’t. My mother only recognizes the one God, so she capitalizes.

* * *

I drive five blocks to get to a hardware store and buy blue masking tape. I could walk it and tell myself I’m wasteful. It’s a West Coast habit that we all fall into. Like turtles pulling into our shells before anyone can really see us.

At the store, they have pink masking tape this time. It lies in my hand for five minutes, heavy and round and pink, but so problematic.

Can the pink work for a story?

Can I get more of the pink if I need it?

I could ask the old man at the register. Could walk up to him and tell him to keep it in stock so it will always be here for me. Grandma would do that. My mother would do it. I could do it, but confronting the possible “no” that might cross his lips, the “this girl is nuts” look that might cross his face, the “who do you think you are” look that might cross his eyes. All the “coulds” make me nauseous.

I’m not my mother. Not my Grandmother. I’d rather make the trek back and forth to see if the pink masking tape is there still, has been replenished, can be counted on. I could risk it. Be ready to replace all the pink if I can’t find more. I could use the pink for special.

Still too many “coulds” for me.

In the end I leave the pink masking tape behind.

Can’t risk the consequences of it.

* * *

My mother believes in the Christian Bible. She reads some of it every night before going to sleep. Regurgitates it at me when we talk.

“Your Grandmother was a Sinful woman,” she tells me.

“Your Grandmother was guilty of at least five of the Seven Deadly Sins,” she tells me.

“Your Grandmother lived a sorry existence during her time on Earth,” she tells me.

I don’t answer. They’re not questions. Grandma always told me to never answer statements.

My silence says, “No comment at this time.”

* * *

At Dee’s, the diner where I work, the same people come in everyday. They sit in the same seats and drink the same drinks and order the same foods. They smile at me in the same smiles and say stupid things like “I’ve trained you well” when I remember what they always order.

I purposely stop remembering just to make a point after these comments.

Dogs are trained to repeat the same task again and again.

I’m not.

It confuses people when they come in again and I treat them like strangers. Maybe they see themselves as people I know. They come into Dee’s and say, “Hi, Peg!”

I say “Hi” back because it’s my job to say “Hi” back.

They see me in my polyester wrap skirt and comfortable brown shoes and must think I always wear these clothes, that I live my life waiting to take orders from them, to take care of them.

They don’t know me.

They don’t know that my name tag has the wrong name on it. Someone who left the diner had that name and I wear her name tag. At Work, I’m Peg the waitress who is sweet and perky. Perky Peg. At Life, I’m Audinita and I was named by my Grandma and my mother hates my name.

They don’t know it’s not my manner to take care of others. Not my nature to bring food to people when they come to my Place to Stop Awhile. If someone comes to my Place, I tell them to B-Y-O-Everything. I’ve got nothing to give up, wouldn’t give it if I had.

My Grandmother always said, “If a person must intrude on my space, they can take care of themselves once they get there.”

My mother says, “That’s selfish. Inhospitable.”

I’ve decided that I’m Selfish and Inhospitable. I claim the names with some dim sense of glee and possessiveness. They’ve become mine.

* * *

My mother always says the things that a mother should say. Things that start with “watch before you...” and “never do...” and “always remember...” My mother was raised by her mother who didn’t say enough things that mothers are supposed to say. My mother wants to make me normal like she is.

My mother told me not to listen to her mother. Told me that Grandma is too fanciful, flighty, lost a few too many marbles.

Maybe my mother has too many marbles.

* * *

In the small minutes of night I look out of my window and search for nothing and for everything.

The old woman across the street is looking out her window at me. We look at each other for two seconds. I look away and back. We look at each other for another two seconds and she looks away, closes her curtains.

I can see her eye peek out from between curtain panels.

I don’t look back anymore.

Searching for nothing is more difficult than searching for everything. Nothing is always more difficult to see.

“Nothing can only be captured through the edges of your eye,” Grandma always said. “It’s the impossibilities of the moment. The fevered thoughts of people, lost and forgotten, until they no longer exist. Those are the nothing you can find at night.”

These are the nothings I look for.

My right eye catches a forgotten lover standing at the window of a man across from my building. The lover’s longing stands sentinel over the window corners. My neighbor can’t see this man. My neighbor’s too involved with the idea of a new Latin lover with dark looks and a volatile temper. Things the forgotten lover never had.

The forgotten lover has gone from being a soft feeling of regret to a ghost of the desire never met. A nothing that floats the breeze.

The top edges of my eyes find another nothing lurking by the windows.

Above my window hangs the lost innocence of the girl living next door. It’s pink and small and delicate. And it cries. She held that innocence close when she came here five months ago from some small town along the Snake River, but five months and no job and poor Karma played against her. She sold that innocence to some man for the insignificant sum of rent and one hundred dollars a week spending money. Her innocence floats near our windows and moans to the tune sent up by her keeper in his throes of pleasure.

I hear the subtle thumps of the bed on my ceiling. I hear the girl’s corrupt savior’s voice boom through her floor into my Place. I hear that lost innocence quietly weep.

My home is very noisy when I look for nothing.

* * *

On the South Wall of my Place, I have the blue index cards which list all the Selfish or Inhospitable things I’ve done or thought. There are currently thirty-seven of these blue index cards that detail my smug acceptance of these acts and thoughts. My mother has never read these cards.

She’s not interested in my index cards regardless of their color.

She’s interested in my furniture.

“Why don’t you have furniture?” my mother asks whenever she comes over. “There’s nowhere for guests to sit.”

My unmade bed and my bright, plaid, Salvation Army armchair take up what little room is taken in my Place. My mother sits on the chair so I stand.

I shrug at it. At her. “I don’t have Guests.”

It’s a Blunt and Thoughtless answer. I can now claim the names Blunt and Thoughtless with the same grace that I’ve accepted Selfish and Inhospitable.

I go to my kitchen counter where the index cards are piled up, find two blue ones, write Blunt on one and Thoughtless on the other, then tape the cards on my South Wall with the average, tan masking tape.

Thirty-nine cards now. Thirty-nine cards and two new ways to describe myself. Thirty-nine cards that can list the many, many ways I’ve developed into the person I am according to my mother.

My mother watches me do this. She looks at those blue index cards on the South Wall. She’s not close enough to read them. She doesn’t move any closer.

* * *

My mother told me that Grandma couldn’t read palms. I don’t believe her. I know in my heart that when Grandma took my right hand into hers and peered into my future, she saw what I’ll be. That my long life line will take me safely past the local graveyard with my soul intact.

My mother says, “Your grandmother only saw your fingerprints.”

I stop sometimes and look at my palm. I see my fingerprints there. I see the lines that cross my hand in arches and chaos patterns. I don’t see all that Grandma saw, but I haven’t lived as long as she did.

Maybe it’s something you get with age.

* * *

“I’m taking you to dinner,” my mother says. “You’re looking so thin that a strong breeze could blow you over.” She laughs. She’s made a joke and wants to make sure her joke is properly noted with the appropriate amount of laughter.

Her laugh goes on for 4.5 seconds.

I don’t join in.

My mother makes clichéd jokes.

“Where do you want to eat?” I ask.

“What’s good around here?”

“Nothing,” I lie to her. The Chinese restaurant a block away is actually quite good. I eat Chicken Lo Mien when I can afford it. It’s not the kind of place my mother would like because there’s only one of it. My mother prefers places advertised on television throughout the country.

“How about The Olive Garden,” she says. She’s already made the decision that we’ll be eating there and just wants me to think I have input. “There’s one we can drive to in five minutes.”

According to my mother, everything is only five minutes away by car.

“I like The Olive Garden.” I’m lying to her again.

The Olive Garden is a blackhead on the nose of Italian food everywhere. I’ll go anyway. Free food is good food. Especially when you live on a diner salary. I offer to take my car, but my mother isn’t going for it. My ’75 VW Bug leaks water and stalls out a lot. I can’t get much of anywhere in five minutes.

It takes us thirteen minutes to get there. We park in a Handicapped Parking Only spot and my mother pulls out the placard she coerced out of her doctor.

Told him her knees get weak when she walks.

I’m not the only one in my family to lie.

Before five minutes have passed, before my mother could have driven anywhere else, we’re drinking Chardonnay and looking at a menu of too many types of pasta.

“What are you having?” she asks.

“I don’t know what I want,” she says.

“What do you want?” she asks.

My mother can have an hour-long conversation with herself over a menu and never discover that one perfect dish that is always the “thing she should have ordered.” I sip at my glass of white wine and wonder how her conversation with herself will end this time.

I order Manicotti and Minestrone and Merlot.

It feels like an ‘M’ kind of day.

My mother orders Fettuccini and Salad and a bottle of Chardonnay. It’s what she always orders.

“When are you going to do something with your Life?” she says.

“I do stuff,” I say back.

We’re falling desperately into one of the same conversations we always have when we eat together. Food seems to bring up either a conversation about where my life is or is not going, or a conversation about other food that we’re not currently eating.

“I mean something real,” she says and I knew it was coming. It’s her next line in our mother-daughter-script.

“I’m a writer,” I say because I always say it.

“Taping index cards onto your walls doesn’t make you a writer, Audinita.”

“Writing things on the cards before I tape them to the wall does.”

Now she’s supposed to say that my index cards won’t take me anywhere.

“Those index cards aren’t going to get you anywhere,” she says.

Close enough.

“The index cards are my stories. They’ll make themselves into books one day,” I say.

She picks up the wine bottle the waiter has just set on the table and refills her empty wine glass. The waiter delivers my glass of Merlot, so my mother takes what’s left of my Chardonnay and downs it in one shot. I’m impressed. She’ll be well into her second sheet to the wind before our food arrives.

* * *

“Don’t eat the bottom of bananas,” Grandma always said. “Tarantulas crawl onto the banana bunches and lay their eggs into the banana bottoms.”

I look at the banana I’m eating. Thank one of Grandma’s gods that I haven’t gotten to the bottom yet.

“And see those black dots through the banana itself?” Grandma said pointing with her chin at the half eaten banana in my hand. “Those are the baby tarantula eggs. They do that before they hatch.”

I lived the week worried I would belch out baby tarantulas. It would have played hell with my life. My mother doesn’t believe in abortion or adoption so I would have had to raise all those baby tarantulas myself.

My mother also doesn’t believe in tarantula eggs inside bananas. I would have been hard pressed to explain all the Grand-Spiders.

* * *

“Why doesn’t my mother understand the things you tell me?” I used to ask my Grandma.

Sometimes, the answer was, “because she’s damned stubborn.”

Sometimes, the answer was, “because she’s a hard-hearted bitch.”

The answer depended on whether my mother and my Grandma were arguing and what they were arguing about.

* * *

My mother told me to stop listening to Grandma and to make a plan for my life.

I’m not like the other people I went to school with. The perfect, blonde girls who had their little lives planned out by the time they were in Junior High. The overbuilt Adonis boys who lived and breathed their Sport of the Season.

How many of them had their plans come to anything in the end?

How many will breathe in at a graveyard and have their lives stolen away from them? How many have lost, fevered nothings glancing into their windows at night?

* * *

I drive from the hardware store back to my apartment and the Bug stalls out twice. I try to park close to my Place, but have to go two blocks away to find a spot. My protective turtle shell must be left behind me while I walk to my Place with my new rolls of masking tape. I pretend that the three people I pass on my way aren’t really there so I don’t have to look at them or talk to them.

With new rolls of blue masking tape, I face my East Wall. The stories on the East Wall need to be re-defined, separated, made focal to their plot lines. I’ve already removed the blue tape that once defined them.

I pull off an arm’s length of blue tape and set it horizontally below the yellow index cards, above the green index cards. Another blue strip is set vertical to the yellow index cards, separating them from the white index cards. One strip after another is carefully placed and each story becomes defined as itself. Regardless of color.

Soon the East Wall is fenced. There is blue masking tape left over and it worries at me. Is there more to do? Should I start over? What else needs blue masking tape? Where does it belong that I haven’t thought of?

I stand in the room for a quarter hour wondering what I might have missed. It all feels right for now, and the blue masking tape gets added to the piles of Writing Supplies on the kitchen counter.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Sally K. Lehman

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