By Doug Crandell
Author’s note: The novel Mother Belle is narrated by Lance Bancroft, a man in his late twenties who has never used his Bachelor’s degree in psychology, which he doubts is of any consequence. He is in the throes of a divorce and custody battle over his baby daughter after having moved from Indiana to Georgia so his wife, Sherry, could attend a master’s degree program. In Indiana, Lance was employed as a crop duster and has opted to work at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport rather than use his psychology degree. In this story about the New South, Lance befriends an older man named George who himself is struggling with connecting with his troubled, adult daughter. Lance becomes embroiled in the life of George as well as his own attempts to stay in his baby’s life.
We close up the apartment; George wants me to turn the dead bolt three times to make sure it’s aligned securely. He makes certain his boat-of-a-SUV is properly locked up. He almost begs for me to listen to the nifty chirp his key chain makes when the doors are all securely battened down. I am getting less and less patient. He says with a look of bewildered astonishment on his face, “Can you believe what they can do these days with those microwave chips?”
I take the few boxes from the back of the truck and try to set them on the doorstep, but George won’t have it. Then I try to tell him I’ll just put them inside the apartment, but he insists that I place the junk, which most people wouldn’t pay two dollars at a garage sale for the whole kit and caboodle, inside his dealer-ordained, vehicular equivalent of a bank vault. This activity allows George to once again show me his high-tech key gizmo and honestly, I am starting to wear down. While George has helped take my mind off what I have come to conceive as the equivalent of legal boils seeping over the heater vent in my new place, I can now feel his same presence bringing me back down to the reality of my upheaved life. I have to be at work in Atlanta in less than two hours for the four to twelve shift, and I still have to make the crucifying drive with George from my place to his subdivision in Austell, a twenty minute drive, at the least.
We get into the truck as George mumbles something about a newly added item in his house. I can hear the words “Alice” and “Laura” and something about a wall and a photograph and his mother, but my mind is now too mired down in the worry of Marie to make much sense of what he is yammering on about.
Inside the truck cab, with no place for me to go hide, George is still rambling. He says, “Is that okay?” He is looking at me as if I need to give him permission to pass through some guard gate. He arranges his brow queerly, repeats his question. “I said, is that okay Lance?” I shake my head yes, but then think twice about it. There have been a few times where I’ve agreed to something George has asked of me only to wind up and find myself a few weeks later at one of his union ticket raffles where I’ve offered, unbeknownst to me, to be the dope sitting in a dunk tank.
So I say, “Now, what George? What did you ask?” He smiles as if only he can understand such a forgetful young man as me. He says, “I asked if it would be okay if we picked up mother on the way? You know she lives just right off Cobb Parkway, at Simon’s Personal Care Home. I want her to see it too.” I don’t ask what the “it” he is referring to is, and contrary to what George assumes I know, I am unaware of just exactly where it is his mother lives. I am sure he has told me so on a number of occasions, but right now I am not interested in the location, only the added time it will take to pick up the poor creature that had the unfortunate experience of pushing such a big lunk from her loins.
I stumble, “No, it’s not a problem. I mean, sure, we can pick her up.” George gleams, sits back into the bench seat of the pickup as if he can only now truly enjoy the ride. We backfire out of the parking lot and sputter up to the four-way stop to Atlanta Road. At the blinking red light George leans over and tries to turn on the receiver. He says, “Lancie? Is it all right if we get some tunes going here?” It’s another attempt at trying to sound hip and with it. “I like that station where the two fellas are always razzin’ each other ’bout how the other is always screwing up.” I don’t have the faintest idea of who or what he is talking about. I never use the radio in my truck for precisely the reason George is trying to get us on the same FM wavelength now. I prefer the CDs of Martin Zellar and The Smiths over the irritating, adolescent hogwash George is now having trouble poking into fruition via the digital controls. The receiver in my truck is worth more than the truck itself. When he can’t seem to get the radio to make him appear wise to the scene, he says, “I had that dealer write right in the sales contract that he’d put me in a radio with knobs. I said, ‘listen here greenhorn, I want a radio in that van.'” He pauses, trying to name what it is he drives.
“Or whatever you call it. Truck, I guess is what it is, anyway, I said, ‘I want a radio I can tune without having to go to computer school to learn how to operate it.” I can’t remember seeing the radio in George’s SUV but I make a point of it to look when I get the chance; I can only imagine the ancient piece of crap the kid at the dealership had installed in the old guy’s van or truck or whatever you call it. I feel sorry for George as I think about the jokes the salesman must’ve made at his expense as some burnt-out auto-techie installed a dinosaur of a receiver into his newly purchased SUV.
I lean forward at the same time George rares back from the radio, out of the corner of my eye, I can see a slight crease of defeat at the corners of his mouth. Beaten, he goes like a lump back against the seat. I don’t allow myself to shake my head. I punch the neon buttons until I can hear the talk show I assume he is referring to. He almost claps his hands when the two bickering voices begin to issue forth from the static.
He says, “You mind turning it up?” The request takes nearly all of my patience. George has again worn me down. I poke the volume up a few notches, only to see a glimpse of George still straining to hear, a look of rocky effort in his squinted eyes. At least I hope that’s what he’s straining from. Among all the other personal tidbits George has so graciously bestowed upon me there is one I hope is not the cause of his strained affect. He’s told me that from time to time, which in George speak means as frequently as daily, he encounters bouts of, oh shall we say, gassy disturbances that he claims can hit him like a ton of bricks. “Anywhere, anytime Lancie and I mean big time.”
As I steer the truck around slow moving semis of pine logs, a never-ending road hazard here in Georgia, I nonchalantly try to get a gander at George to see if I need to make a quick pit stop for him so neither of us will be any the wiser, but he looks okay, fine even, as I race to beat a yellow light going, once, twice, three times a lady. We zoom through the intersection; George is smiling at the guys blabbering on the radio but manages to comment on my daredevil antics. “You little pooper you. You could of got us killed. Gaul-lee!” The first part of the comment seems as if he has once again been inside my head; only a few moments ago I thought he was the one worthy of such an excrementally appropriate title.
We take a few more daring turns and illegal lane passes, through a winding side street in a neighborhood that looks remarkably similar to the one George lives in and I’ve left behind. At the last light, before we turn left into the personal-care home George has said he hated to leave mother in but had no choice, he speaks up, tries to turn down the radio, and asks me for some help. The truck cab is quiet now.
“I guess I should let you know Lance that mother is a little on the senile side.” He looks at me as if to apologize, like he’s sorry he can’t do something about aging, fix it or annul its effects. George thinks he should have an answer for everything that has seriously gone wrong.
“Okay George, but aren’t they all. I mean don’t most of the folks there have a few mental stumbling blocks.” I say it as a statement but George can’t hear it; he thinks I am asking him a question, which is fair, but as soon as the words have left my mouth I want them back. There is nothing more George enjoys than a person willing to ask his opinion on family affairs, on questions of the heart, or for that matter, on any subject whatsoever.
He says, “Well, yes, most of the elderly there do have problems remembering first names or their wedding anniversaries (another chunk of bait tossed in the pool of Lancie to tempt a bite) but what I am talking about here is more than that. Mother is diagnosed with old-timers.” He stares at the light along with me, makes his face scrunch up with the feigned effort of trying to give me a more intellectual, technical explanation for his mother’s problems.
He says, “Let me put it this way Lancie, you could say mother is a few bricks short of a full load.” At first I think he is talking about his confessed back door problems, that the brick analogy is something that runs in the family, but I force my mind to pay attention and realize he is talking still about her mental functions. I turn left into the parking lot, a yellow power company truck honks at the way our two vehicles miss one another by only a hair.
After I park the truck and turn off the key George says, “Lancie could you stay here and I’ll go get her?”
I am not sure why George is asking me if this is all right with me; it’s his mother. Does he think I could simply walk into the throng of senior citizens and pick out the old woman from the masses because I know her son?
I say, “Sure George, I’ll stay here. I mean I’d love to go give it a whirl and see if I can pick mother Kramer out of all the others, but somebody has got to stay and listen.” I point to the radio.
George laughs, unsure of himself, and then tells me, “No, I mean, could you pull the truck up to the back door?” Now he’s the one pointing. “She won’t come out the front.” He pauses and looks at me, his bulbous hand on the door handle, ready and poised to go get mother. After a few moments of George looking at me warily I say, “What are you talking about George?”
“It’s just that mother is not all there, like I said, and she, well she may, at first that is, try to fight me.” I raise my eyebrows, and surprise myself by non-verbally asking George to spill his guts. The guy will tell me more than I want to know about his ass problems with the drop of a hat but now is holding back, ashamed or scared to make me privy to the fact that his mother has trouble leaving her home. He takes my goading cue, swallows a deep breath and blurts out: “Well last time she thought I was Hitler.” He says this with relieved frankness; the release allows him to gather the energy to go on.
“She thought I was Hitler and she…” He stops, takes another deep breath and lets the ugly cat out of the bag. “She offered me sexual favors if I’d spare her from the death chambers.” I did not need to hear this, but George has taken the plunge; he is pulling up on the door handle, leaving the truck with me spell bound inside. Before he slams the door shut he says, “It’s nothing really. The nurses say it’s just her darkest fears rising to the surface.” He looks at me for assurance, but I can’t help him. I am trying to get some awful images in my mind’s eye to retreat. And just like he is so good at doing, George seems to loosely know my thoughts. He says, “You know the mind is a funny thing.” He leaves. It is a funny thing, I say in my head, as I watch monstrous George, Mrs. Kramer’s only boy, lumber across the parking lot toward the glass sliding doors of the home. I conclude he must look like a mountain man coming through the doors to most of the old people inside. I imagine a few of the little shriveled up ladies screaming and pointing as he barges in the entryway. In my head they are crying, “Good Lord, Good Lord Almighty. It’s the devil in red plaid himself come to take us to hell!”
The brief movie snippet in my imagination has helped keep me from thinking about Marie and the foul papers lying on top of the register back in my empty new pad, but now I have a silent truck cab to deal with and while it makes me wonder about my own sanity, I begin to get antsy for George and his crazy, old-bird of a mother to pile into the front seat. It hurts to visualize Marie as a name on a legal document. She is so much more; she is not just a “minor child” as the papers read.
I feel hot around the collar of my neck. I start up the truck and rev it good a few times; I can see the hot exhaust billowing out from the tail pipe into the cold afternoon air. I have come to like the weather in Atlanta with its few really cold days of the year amounting to no more than a full week at most, but there has been an uncommon string of bitterly cold days which seem to have no end in sight, according to George that is, which I’ve also come to rely on in matters of weather and the price of nearly everything under the sun.
I pull up next to a taupe colored door with no handle on the outside; it’s close enough to the dumpster that I begin to wonder if there might be another back door George had been talking about. I look at my watch and get an instant ache of dread when I see I will have to go straight from George’s place to the airport for work. It means I will have to spend my entire shift worrying about what the legal papers really say; I’d wanted to go back to the apartment and get them so I’d be able to try to make sense out of them on my breaks at Hartsfield, but now I’ll have to go cold turkey for eight hours, go back to George’s after I get off at midnight, and pick him up so he can get his SUV. He’ll act as if he doesn’t want me to bother when I leave him there at his house with his mother, but then will have me paged at work (I gave him that number too) and ask me pretty please will I please swing by the house.
As I wait, I wonder if he’s told me if his mother stays over night. I make myself try to recall past conversations or rather the past meandering, zigzagging familial philosophical waxing and waning George does with me to see if I can pick up on some fragment about him and his mother’s sleep-overs. The Hitler/sexual favors comment sneaks into my brain and I hate myself for what I am so easily able to do with it.
I am about to back up the truck and circle the building to see if there is indeed another back door hidden somewhere, when I see the door I am parked beside ease open. George peeks his fat head out of the ever-widening crack. He looks both ways and then gives me a thumbs up. Are we kidnapping this old woman? Does George even have a living mother? Has he completely lost it from fantasizing about the good ole’ days with his dead wife Alice and is now so goofy he is willing to snatch up any woman no matter how old to fill the void? And finally, will this kidnapping not do me any great justice when it comes to a custody hearing? Will my accomplice role in the theft of an old woman to soothe the pain of a widowed aging husband endear me to the judge or further serve to make me out to be the villain in Sherry’s daytime soap opera? These thoughts are like piranha at the lobes of my consciousness as I try for the life of me to figure out why George is not moving from the door but continuing to give me a contrived thumbs-up.
I peer out at him from behind the windshield, trying to get him to do something. Then, like a surprise he is shy about showing me, he pulls from behind him, into the gray dull light of January, a small, frail thing of a woman, dressed in a poodle skirt and a matching fuzzy angora sweater, wearing in her chromatic hair a pink and lavender bow so big it seems to make her head fall forward from the sheer load of it.
George ushers her gently to the truck door; I reach over the seat and pop the handle because it sticks from the outside. He again sticks his tremendous head inside a door, this time saying, “She doesn’t usually dress this way Lancie. The good ladies in there at the help desk threw them all a 50’s style party with costumes and everything. They don’t get to keep them.”
He looks at me with water in his eyes from the cold, as if I am supposed to be impressed to the point of clapping. The old woman patiently stands behind him as a furry but benign figure; she doesn’t seem like she could even muster up the strength to talk, let alone get her speech ordered to the point of seducing what she thinks is evil incarnated, but that happens to be her very large son.
“George, aren’t you the one from the 50’s. She should be dressed as a flapper if they’re trying to bring back memories of her youth. In the 50’s she had to be worried about you fornicating with a loose girl and disgracing the whole Kramer family.” I think what I’ve said is funny, the first time since I got the papers that I feel on top of my game with George and I am not counting the shower curtain scare. But he looks displeased, tries to shield his mother from my vulgar talk; it’s the Alice in him. After he doesn’t seem to want to “get a kick out of me,” something he says every time I mock or poke fun at his expense, I realize I need to hurry this abduction up, if indeed that’s way it is.
I say, “You gonna let momma in or just stand there and hope the cold air will keep her from making you propositions.”
He frowns at me in a way I know is how his wife did when he sipped a beer or told an off-color joke, which is to say it contained some awful word like “pee-pee” or “derriere.” George moves aside, goes behind his mother and begins to verbally coax her into lifting one leg up. When the talking doesn’t seem to work, the old woman as motionless as the embroidered black dog on her sunken chest, he starts lifting her limbs for her. From where I am sitting, the poor creature appears as if she is a marionette in a poorly done show: after all, you can see the puppeteer clearly, and he is obviously jerking the wrong strings if what he wants is to get the doll to look as if she really is getting into a truck.
After several attempts George manages to get mother into the seat, but it’s me who has to ever so gently pull her over so she is positioned squarely in the middle of the truck. George climbs in and we are off, out of the parking lot and back onto the roads, heading to his place to get me a mattress and show mother “it.”
As I drive, George is holding her head with his mighty hand; she has quickly drifted off to sleep and is now leaning on his shoulder snoring, or rather, making shallow clicking noises in and about her chest; I glance at her curled figure. It’s for sure, the noise is coming from under the doggie some place.
I do a double-take now. George sees me trying to figure out what I am witnessing; mother’s hair is coming away from her head. I can see the under weaving of the wig. There is a two-inch space between her downy head and the meshy material of the pinkish colored piece. George whispers, “It’s a wig Lancie.”
I keep driving, but slower than what I had when we were en route to pick her up. The truck seems cold so I flip on the heater. Mother stirs when she feels the waft of warm air under her skirt. She stops making the clicking noise and snuggles up to her son and I wonder if in her failed, bald head she is back eighty years, in a chair with her own daddy. Or if she has ceased to dream, saving all the drama and weirdness of sleep for her next awake stint, which, according to my watch, will be right about the time we hit George’s driveway.