Forge, Volume 8, Issue 1, Summer 2014
The last time I saw my mother was at the Little Falls Café. The owner, Miss Betty, had agreed to hire me for the summer as a busboy, even though I was really a busgirl. She and my dad were good friends; he ate breakfast there almost every morning before going to the harbor. Miss Betty used to be friends with my mother too, but they hadn’t spoken to each other since I was little when we all used to go to the quarry to swim on Saturdays.
So it was a surprise when Mom told me she wanted to come have lunch during my shift on Friday. I was afraid of messing up. I had only been there for a couple of weeks, but Miss Betty told me not to worry, that I was learning the “ropes,” like how to carry a big tray of water glasses, clear plates, and deal with the tourists.
“Most of them are okay,” Miss Betty explained. “But there are some real doozies that come in off the ferry in the summer.” The Café’s menu was chalked in on a big blackboard that hung on the wall between the kitchen and the ordering counter.
“They just can’t order straight, the ones from New York in particular,” she said, pointing to the curvy letters. “They want everything backward: the lobster roll with the lobster on the side, coleslaw with no mayo, a fried haddock sandwich grilled.” She just shook her head and shrugged. “You do what you gotta do, right?”
There are two ways to get off the island; three if you count swimming, but on Vinalhaven that is just a joke. When I was like three or something, before I really knew anything, I asked my mom if it was true, did you really have to swim all the way to the mainland? I remember she laughed and pulled my braids but her eyes weren’t laughing. She looked across the bay at the coastline like it was Jupiter or Venus, like she really didn’t know how to get there.
The ferry comes here to the island four times a day, except on Sundays and holidays. During the summer it’s really crowded, filled with people on vacation, but there are also big trucks and supply deliveries crammed in there too.
The easiest way to get off the island is if you have a boat. My dad has one. He calls it the Jenny B, after my sister. I am Kid Number Two. That’s what he calls me.
“Come over here and sit next to me, Kid Number Two,” he says, pulling me next to him, rubbing his scratchy beard on my cheek. In the morning he smells like buttered toast and tobacco. When he puts on his jacket, the one he wears to work, he smells briny, like a pickle.
Before he leaves, he always gives me a big bear hug and kisses the top of my head with a loud smack.
Mom is never that lovey-dovey. Sometimes the way she walks and talks makes me feel like my teacher, Mrs. Cauley, is living with us, not my mom. She doesn’t say “I love you,” very often; maybe she did more when I was really little. But I tell myself that I am wrong. All moms are supposed to love their children. I asked my dad if he thought Mom loved me.
“She loves you too much, that’s her problem,” he said and got that Jupiter and Venus look in his eyes too.
I was setting tables when Mom came in. It was earlier than she had said and she had a suitcase. She gave me a little hug with her free arm. I led her to a table near the window, a “two-top,” which, I had learned, was a table for two. It had a pretty view of the reversing falls.
Mom looked different. She had on fancy clothes, like when we went to church or to a special party. But that was only a couple times a year; we didn’t go to church much.
She was wearing what she called a “shell top.” It was cream colored, with no sleeves, and showed off her tan and long arms. Her pink skirt looked new. It had small pleats, a tight waist, and stopped right at her knees. Instead of a ponytail pulled back tight, her hair hung loose, in soft curls and waves around her shoulders. She looked like a lady in a magazine.
Everyone said my mom was beautiful. It made me proud but also sad because I didn’t think I was very pretty. With my fat cheeks and frizzy hair, I thought I looked more like my dad. I was afraid that customers might make fun of me, laugh behind my back, or say something mean. So a few days before I was to start, I asked my dad what I should do about the situation. He told me to go talk to my mother.
“That’s her department,” he said.
I decided to do what he said, even though I was afraid of getting that twisted eyebrow look. But she didn’t give me the twisted eyebrow. Instead she told me to sit on the bed next to her, something we used to do all the time. She reached under the bed and pulled out a long plastic box, the kind we keep stuff in that won’t fit into our closets, and took out a thick red book. It looked old.
“This is my junior high yearbook. See, you look just like me.” She pointed to a small black-and-white photo.
“How come you never showed this to me before?”
“Well, that was me then, not now. Nobody knows the old me.”
“Not even Dad?” I asked. She shook her head.
In the photo she still had the same light-brown hair, only it was shorter, straight, and pulled back with a shiny barrette on one side. It was cut in a style that curved right under cheeks, which were plumpy just like mine.
“I had frizzy hair too when I was your age, so I used these to get it straight.” She got up and reached into her dresser and pulled out a hard plastic tube covered in sharp-looking spikes.
“Didn’t it hurt?” I asked.
“Yes,” she smiled, patting her head as if she was remembering what they felt like. She tossed the plastic tube back in the drawer. “Do you want to try them sometime, Nelly?”
“No, thanks,” I said. As much as I wanted to look pretty like her, I could almost feel those spikes.
I wanted to show my mother that I was taking my job seriously and I wasn’t just Kid Number Two. When she sat down I filled her water glass from a pitcher but spilled a little on the table.
“The menu is on the blackboard,” I said, pointing to the kitchen wall. That was dumb, I told myself. Everyone, even the tourists, know where the menu is.
Mom started to laugh, really hard, like the guys who work with my dad. She was laughing so much she could hardly catch her breath, but then she started crying, crying as hard as when the Coast Guard came to our door last summer and told us they had found my sister Jenny’s body in the cove. She and her boyfriend, Tommy, had gone out night-sailing and had had an accident.
“Mom, are you all right?” I put my hand on her shoulder and shook her a little. She was bent over, hiding her face in her hands, rocking back and forth. People turned around and stared at us. I saw Miss Betty take a peek from the kitchen door and then quickly go back in.
Suddenly Mom stopped crying, just like that, like a faucet turned off. She stood up, grabbed her suitcase, and headed to the door. I grabbed her arm. She stopped but did not push me away.
“Nelly,” she said in a voice that sounded like begging. Her cheeks burned red. Then she kneeled down and peered into my face, her eyes pressed tightly together, like when she’s looking at something in the oven.
“You’ll grow up just fine, Nelly,” she whispered in my ear. “You’ll see.” She straightened up and pulled me into a hug, her suitcase bumping against my leg. I wrapped my arms around her waist as tight as I could, digging my face into her chest. I wanted to remember the smell of her, like something I could trace.
“I have to go now,” she said, undoing my arms. It was her teacher voice now, so I did as she said and let go. And without looking back at me or saying a word, she walked out and started down the road toward the ferry.
I tore off my apron, and ran to the kitchen.
“Miss Betty,” I yelled, opening the door. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
Miss Betty moved quickly across the room and held me back at the Café entrance, squeezing my shoulders. We both stood there and watched my mother’s figure get smaller and smaller. She was walking hard and fast. If a clothespin could walk, that is what she looked like.
“Why is she leaving? I don’t understand, Miss Betty.” I started to cry.
“Well, sweetie,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
“But she’s not a tourist,” I said, thinking about what Miss Betty had said.
She looked at me strangely.
“Well, in a funny way, she was.”
And that was the last time I saw my mother.