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Copyright © 2003 by the Vanda General Partnership
Once when we all had a quiet moment, when no one was demanding anything of us and our punitive chores were completed, we sat and watched the sky turn from deep blue to mauve and turquoise.
A sparrow landed on the top rail of the horse corral and tapped about for a moment before settling and staring at the three of us. Teal was the first to notice.
“I wonder,” she said, “if birds who live in cages ever wonder why they are in cages.”
Robin looked at her as if she were going to say something sarcastic to her and then she looked at the bird and her face softened.
“I suppose we could pretend to be confused about that ourselves,” Robin said. “Couldn’t we, Phoebe?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m not confused. I know I don’t belong here.”
“Phoebe, we’re all so good at lying to everyone else, we’re even good at lying to ourselves,” Robin replied.
“She’s right, you know.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m telling you, Phoebe. We don’t need to be told or shown why we’re like caged birds. We each know why we’re here.”
“I know why I am. Let me tell you,” Robin said.
And then she began…
Jerked into the Night
“Wake up, Robin!” I heard my mother say. I felt myself being rocked hard.
At first I thought the rocking was in my dream, a dream so deep I had to swim up to consciousness like a diver from the ocean floor. Each time my mother shook my shoulder, I drew closer and closer to the surface, moaning.
“Quiet!” she ordered. “You’ll wake Grandpa and Grandma and I’ll have my hands full of spilt milk. Darn it, Robin. I told you what time we were headin‘ outta here. You haven’t even finished packin’,” she said.
My suitcase was open on the floor, some of my clothes still beside it. Mother darling had insisted I not begin until after I supposedly went to bed last night. My mother said I couldn’t bring but one suitcase of my things, and it was hard to decide what to take and not to take. She needed everything of hers because she was going to be a country singing star and had to have her outfits and all her boots and every hat as well as half a suitcase of homemade audiotapes she thought would win the admiration of an important record producer in Nashville.
I sat up and pressed my palms over my cheeks, patting them like Grandpa always did when he put on aftershave lotion. The skin on my face was still asleep and felt numb. My mother stood back and looked at me with her small nose scrunched, which was something she always did when she was very annoyed. She also twisted her full lips into her cheek. She had the smallest mouth for someone who could sing as loudly as she could, but most women envied her lips. I know that some of her friends went for collagen shots to get theirs like hers.
Everyone said we looked like sisters because I had the same petite features, the same rust-colored hair, and the same soft blue eyes. Nothing she heard pleased her more. The last thing she wanted to be known as was my mother, or anyone’s mother for that matter. She was thirty-two years old this week, and she was convinced she had absolutely her last chance to become a singing star. She said she had to pass me off as her younger sister or she wouldn’t be taken seriously. I was sixteen last month, and she wanted everyone, especially people in show business, to believe she was just in her mid-twenties.
Although I was closer to one of her idols, Dolly Parton, than she was when it came to breasts, we did have similar figures, both being a shade more than five feet five. She always looked taller because she hardly ever wore anything but boots. She wore hip-hugging tight jeans most of the time, and when she went out to sing at what she called another honky-tonk, she usually tied the bottom of her blouse so there was a little midriff showing. Grandpa would swell up with anger, his face nearly breaking out in hives, or just blow out his lips and explode with biblical references.
“We taught you the ways of the righteous, brought you up to be a churchgoing girl, and you still dress like a street tramp. Even after… after… your Fall,” he told her, and swung his eyes my way.
That’s what I was in his way of thinking: the Fall, the result of “the grand sin of fornication.” Mother darling had been sexually active at the age of fifteen and had me when she was only sixteen.
Grandpa, despite despising the situation as much as he did, would not permit even talk of an abortion.
“You abide by your actions and pay for your sins. It’s the only path toward redemption,” he preached then, according to Mother darling, and preached now.
I remember the first time I was arrested for shoplifting. The policewoman knew my grandparents and asked me how I could behave so badly coming from a solid, religious, and loving home. Wasn’t I just a self-centered ingrate?
I fixed my eyes on her and said, “My mother didn’t want me. My grandparents forced me down her throat, and she never stops throwing that back at them. How would you like living in such a solid, religious, and loving home?”
She blinked as if she had soot in her eyes and then grunted and went off mumbling about teenagers. I was just barely one. It was two days after my thirteenth birthday and the first time I was arrested. I had shoplifted a number of times before, but I was never caught. It amazed me how really easy it was. Half the time, if not more, those machines that are supposed to ring don’t; and the employees, especially of the department stores, don’t seem to care enough to watch for it. I practically waved whatever it was I was taking in front of their faces. Many times I threw away whatever I took almost immediately afterward. I couldn’t chance bringing it home.
Grandpa placed all the blame on Mother darling, telling her she was setting a very bad example for me by dressing the way she dressed and singing in places “the devil himself won’t enter.” He would rant at her, waving his thick right forefinger in the air like an evangelist in one of those prayer meetings in large tents. He made me attend them with him when I was younger, claiming he had to work extra hard on me since I was spawned from sin. Anyway, he would bellow at Mother darling so loudly, the walls of the old farmhouse shook.
Grandma would try to calm him down, but he would sputter and stammer like one of his old tractors, usually concluding with “Thank goodness she took on your mother’s maiden name, Kay Jackson. When she goes singing in those bars, I can pretend I don’t know who she is.”
“You don’t have to pretend. You don’t know who I am, Daddy,” my mother would fire back at him. “Never did, never will. I’m writin‘ a song about it.”
“Lord, save us,” Grandpa would finally say and retreat. He was close to sixty-five but looked more like fifty, with a full head of light brown hair with just a touch of gray here and there, and thick, powerful-looking shoulders and arms. He could easily lift a fully grown Dorset Horn sheep and carry it a mile. Despite his strength and his rage, I never saw him lift his hand to strike my mother or me. I think he was afraid of his own strength.
My grandparents owned a sheep farm about ten miles east of Columbus, just outside the village of Granville. The farm was no longer active, although Grandpa kept a dozen Olde English Babydoll sheep that he raised and sold.
Before she went anywhere, Mother darling would practically bathe herself in cologne, claiming the stench of sheep and pigs permeated the house. “It sinks into your very soul,” she claimed, which was another thing that set Grandpa on fire, the farm being his way of life and his living. Mother darling had the ability to ignite him like a stick of dynamite. Sometimes, I thought she was doing it on purpose, just to see how far he would go. The most I saw him do was slam his fist down on the kitchen table and make the dishes jump so high, one fell off and shattered.
“That,” he said, pointing to it and then to her, “gets added to your rent.”
Ever since Mother darling quit high school and worked in the supermarket and then began to sing nights with one pair of musicians or another, Grandpa insisted she pay rent for her and for me. It wasn’t much, but it took most of her supermarket salary, which was another justification she used for her singing, not that she needed any. She was convinced she could be a big star.
I knew she was saving up for something big. Suddenly, she was willing to work overtime at the supermarket and she took any singing gig she and her partners at the time could get, from private parties to singing for an hour or so in the malls in Columbus.
Then one night, she slipped into my room, closing the door softly behind her. She stood with her back against the door and looked like she had won the lottery.
Her face was that bright, her eyes seemed full of fireflies.
“We’re leavin‘ this trap tomorrow night,” she said in a voice just above a whisper.
“What? To where?”
“I’ve got a job in Nashville with a three-piece band my old boyfriend from high school, Cory Lewis, runs. He’s the drummer and they lost their singer. She ran off with a car salesman to live in Beverly Hills, which I’m sure was just an old tire which will go flat before they get close. Not that I care. It’s become an opportunity for me. We’re going to play in places where real record producers go to listen for new talent.”
“You don’t make it in country music if you don’t make it in Nashville, Robin. Now here’s what I want you to do. Quietly pack one suitcase. It’s all I got room for in the Beetle.”
Mother darling had an old yellow Volkswagen Beetle that looked like someone with a tantrum had kicked and punched it for hours. The car was rusted out in places so badly, you could see through to the road beneath, and it had a cracked window on the passenger’s side.
“But isn’t Nashville very far away?”
“If you attended class more often, you’d know it’s only a little over four hundred miles from here, Robin. Four hundred in actual distance, but a million in dreams,” she added.
“That lawn mower you drive won’t make it.”
“Just shut your sewer mouth and pack,” she ordered, losing her patience. “We’re leavin‘ at two this mornin’. Very quietly. I don’t want him on my tail,” she said, nodding toward Grandpa and Grandma’s room.
“How long are we gonna be there?” I asked, and she shook her head.
“Girl, don’t you get it? We’re leavin‘ here for good. I can’t leave you with Grandpa and Grandma, Robin. Believe me, I wish I could, but they’re too old to be watchin’ after you, bailin‘ you out of trouble every week. And it’s now or never for me. I’m gettin’ nowhere singin‘ in the honky-tonks here. It’s nothing for you to leave the school, so don’t make like it is,” she warned. “You’ve been suspended a half-dozen times for one thing or another. They won’t miss you when the new year begins and you’re not there,” she reminded me.
“And don’t try tellin‘ me you’ll miss your friends, Robin. Those nobodies you hang out with just get you into more trouble. I might be savin’ your life the same time I save my own. Be sure you’re quiet,” she said.
Despite her bravado, Mother darling was still frightened of Grandpa.
“If we’re lucky, he won’t realize we’re gone until it comes time for him to collect his rent. In his mind that was a way of imposin‘ penance on me for havin’ you. Pack,” she ordered, then opened the door quietly and slipped out as fast as a shadow caught in the light.
I couldn’t help but admit surprise at her courage. For as long as I could remember, she talked about picking up and leaving Granville. But it was certainly one thing to talk about it and another to actually do it. Despite Grandpa’s monthly rent and his ranting and raving about saving our souls, we had a home.
Grandma cooked our meals, and even though Mother darling and I were supposed to do our share of the household chores, Grandma usually did them for us. She had them to baby-sit for me when I was younger so she could pursue her music career, even though Grandpa thought it was “coddling the devil” to perform “half-naked” in “slime pits.” He talked so much about the devil and hell that I used to believe he had been there and back. One of these days, I thought, he will bring out some pictures to show me tortured souls.
When the farm was active, he tried to get Mother darling to work, feeding and caring for the variety of sheep he raised, as well as miniature Hereford cattle. On purpose or not, she was more trouble than value to him, always wasteful when she was shearing. He finally gave up on her, which couldn’t have pleased her more. By the time I was old enough to be of any use, he was retreating from the business and there wasn’t much to do. He let all his help go.
Anyway, after she had awoken me, I splashed some cold water on my face and finished packing. Of course, she had promised to buy me a whole new wardrobe when we got to Nashville and she had earned big money in the music business. I couldn’t deny she had a nice voice and looked pretty up on a stage, but it just seemed so unreal to think of her as actually making records and being on television or singing in front of thousands of people. I didn’t tell her that. Nothing would set her off as much as being told she didn’t have what it takes. Actually, I envied her for having some sort of dream at least. The only thing I looked forward to when we left was a cup of strong coffee.
She was at the door fifteen minutes later.
“Ready?” she asked.
I had the suitcase packed and closed and I was sitting on my bed with my eyes closed. I was falling asleep again, hoping it was just a dream.
“I’ve already got all my things in the car,” she whispered. “C’mon, wake up, Robin.”
Impatient, she picked up my suitcase. It was obviously heavier than she expected.
“What did you take?”
“Just what I needed,” I said.
She grimaced and led the way. Grandpa always kept his hallway lights low to save on electricity. The weak illumination, the heavy thick shadows following along the wall, all made me feel it was still a dream. It was mid-July, but nights and mornings were cold to me. I shuddered, wrapped my arms around myself, and followed Mother darling down the fieldstone walkway to the car. A partially overcast night sky provided minimum starlight. The whole world looked asleep. I felt like I was sneaking into a painting.
The car doors complained when we opened them, metal shrieking. Mother darling started the engine without putting on the lights and drove slowly down the long driveway. I was still in a state of disbelief, groggy, my eyes half closed.
“Good riddance to this,” she muttered. “I’m gettin‘ out. I’m gettin’ away, finally.”
I turned and cuddled up as best I could with my head against the window and the top of the seat. I couldn’t crawl into the rear because she had her guitar there resting on a pillow she wouldn’t let me use. Nevertheless, despite the bumps and turns, I fell asleep.
I woke up to the screaming shrill sound of a tractor trailer as it passed us by on the highway. We were already on I-71 South heading toward Louisville. The driver in the tractor trailer sounded his horn again.
“Donkey,” Mother darling called him. I groaned and sat up straighter, stretching my arms.
Suddenly, it all came back to me.
“I thought I was dreaming,” I told her.
“No more, Robin. Dreams turn into reality now,” she vowed.
I saw the road signs.
“I don’t see why we have to go to a place where people call people Bubba and Sissy,” I complained. Mother darling knew how much I disliked country music. I told her it was soapy and full of tears.
“I told you—it’s where you have to go to make it in country music,” she said.
“Country music. You’ve got to chew on straw and be barefoot most of the time to like it.”
She practically pulled off the highway, jerking herself around to yell at me.
“You’d better keep that stupid opinion to yourself when we get there, Robin. People in Nashville have been known to hang rock-and-rollers like you by their ears for less.”
“Yeah, yeah, right,” I said.
“I don’t see how you can afford to make fun of anyone anyway, Robin. You’re sixteen and you’ve already got a criminal record. You should be happy I’m takin‘ you to a place no one knows you. You’ll have a chance to start new, make new friends.”
“Friends. You never liked any of my friends and probably never will, no matter where we live. In fact, you never liked anything I’ve done.”
“What are you talking about now?”
“When I was in that school play in seventh grade, everybody else’s mother or father was there, but not my mother darling. My mother darling was strumming a guitar in some sawdust-floor saloon instead.”
“Damn, you never let me forget that, do you? I do the best I can, Robin. It’s not easy bein‘ a single mother, and my parents never helped us all that much. You know Grandpa took my money, even though he condemned me for the way I earned it. You know what he says, ’There’s no such thing as dirty money, only dirty people.‘ He’s been punishin’ me ever since I got pregnant with you,” she reminded me.
“You should have run off and had an abortion. I wish I wasn’t born anyway.”
“Yeah, right. That’s easy for you to say now. Bein‘ a girl out there alone in the world is no picnic with or without a baby, and it’s not been a picnic for me livin’ with my parents and hearin‘ Grandpa complain about you all the time, blamin’ me for every stupid thing you do.”
“Don’t worry, Mother darling. I’m not complaining about your not leaving me back there with them. I’d probably have run off anyway.”