People used to say I could sweet-talk the devil into going to church.
My mom, who was a librarian and English teacher and one of the smartest people I ever knew, said I was a misunderstood character.
She said people looked at me and saw a handsome young man—her words—with blond hair and blue eyes, who slept with a football instead of a pillow and didn’t make very good grades and assumed I traded on that to get ahead.
That’s where they were wrong, she said. Mom said talking to people and listening to what they said made me just as smart as any valedictorian. She said my brother John, who we all call J.R., is more serious because he’s older.
I loved my mom, but I’m not sure she’s right either. I just learned pretty quickly growing up in Fireside, South Carolina, one of the smallest towns this side of Charleston, I’d get a lot further with being nice to people than being shitty.
For example, when I was in fourth grade, Ms. Myrna was going to flunk me because I couldn’t analyze Stargirl to her liking. I just didn’t understand it. The girl was weird, and I get it, Leo was a nerd with no friends, but what was I supposed to be learning from this story?
What was way clearer to me was Ms. Myrna’s husband had thrown out his back working construction at the new development down on the coast, at Oceanside Beach. He was laid up in the bed for weeks, and I could tell by the tightness around my teacher’s eyes, it was wearing on her.
So maybe I couldn’t write an A paper, but I sure could mow her grass and cut that old vine off her back fence and hold the door for her when she carried too many books from the teacher’s closet.
Ultimately, she said if I could at least recite the plot of the story, she’d give me credit for reading the book.
What did that teach me? Getting in there is better than keeping people at arm’s length like my brother. It’s not manipulation. It’s simple facts.
Facts I never shared with my mom.
She was also the kindest person I knew. Laying in that sickbed, she would trace her fingers along my forehead as I knelt at her bedside, and I never wanted her to leave us.
The night she died, the man from church said heaven must’ve needed another angel. He said she was too good for this earth—something even I knew. He said it was fate.
Losing my mom was a truckload of bullshit. I’ve never felt anger so intense, burning so hard in my chest, it radiated up the back of my neck. It made me want to break things. It made me almost forget…
My life was like an Etch A Sketch Fate scooped up and shook hard. I hated that feeling. It sucked. I never wanted to feel it again.
J.R. and I were left with my dad to figure out what the hell to do with ourselves, so we did what we knew—football. Dad threw himself into work, only noticing us when we were in the backyard drilling, and when J.R. and I became superstars.
Then I was cast in a few school plays, and I discovered I could be somebody else. I learned all that anger and pain disappeared on the stage. People liked watching me, and when I made them laugh or gasp or cry, I felt like I’d done something huge.
I’ve only ever told one person that story, a girl in glasses I discovered at a junkyard, and she didn’t misunderstand. She wanted to know more.
Fear was my earliest memory.
I can still see my mom looking out the kitchen window at the horizon, her body rigid and her mind far away. Even then, she was planning her escape, and it scared me.
I’d go to her and tug on her shirt, but she wouldn’t pick me up. She’d exhale a noise of resignation and go back to hand-washing the dishes. Sometimes she’d break one.
Sometimes, when she was sitting in her chair, tearing the pages in one of dad’s old books, she’d tell me to forget about trying to be pretty.
“Smart is the only thing that matters,” she’d say. “No matter how pretty you are, it’s our fate to be alone.”
I didn’t know what she meant. I thought she was pretty. I can still see her hair shimmering like turned maple in the sunshine, rare and beautiful, and I was here.
She left us in late May. I don’t know what finally made her do it.
I was a junior in high school, listening to boy bands and wishing my stick-straight blonde hair would have the slightest bend. I had a crush on the cute boy in my Algebra 2 class, but he turned out to be a real dickhead.
“Don’t ever expect a man to put your dreams ahead of his.” Fear knotted my throat as I watched her slamming her clothes into the open suitcase. “Men are selfish, self-centered… You have to look out for yourself. Men won’t make you happy.”
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