Bahama Mama

    Jonathan Lowe

Funny how a story gets changed in the telling. It was that very morning, over Cokes in the break room, that I heard Randy's. I remember wondering if Randy had added to it like people telling stories always do. Life was just too boring, and people needed to pretend exciting things happened just so they could escape the same endless routines.

Randy nursed his can as he told the thing. Like he needed the energy to sustain the lie. "Something weird happened," he said. Sure enough, that's how he started. And after that he had the attention of all us bored post office clerks. In a nutshell, seems the friend of a friend--name of Nick--almost died on a deep sea fishing charter off Crab Key in the Bahamas. Nick was sole survivor when the boat took water and sank. As in the old shark movie genre, some behemoth with a stupid grin had a taste for flank steak a-la-Homo-Sapien. Of course the story didn't end there. Couldn't. And as for Randy's recitation so far, it was deadpan, but still way too plausible. So, imbibing more coke, Randy told us what Nick said REALLY happened on the boat--the thing he couldn't tell the authorities for fear of being fitted for a straight jacket. He said the incident with the shark was true, but that was a shark had not claimed everyone in the water. He said what got the others was the heat and then the cold--the abrupt and extreme changes in temperature.

"It had more to do, you see," Randy had declared, covering a burp, "with the Bermuda Triangle."

"Are you sure that's a Coke?" someone asked.

Alien influences, UFOs? Sure enough, he had us hooked then. Maybe he could be a writer, even. Like I once wanted to be, until I collected about a trunk load of those little colored preprinted notes from editors saying they were sorry for one reason or another. Until one of them had the decency to tell me the secret truth. "Truth is," he said, "there's about as many writers as readers." Not long after that I got a job at the post office, sorting bills and rejection letters for the masses, and I haven't looked back since. Until now.

* * *

Driving Momma home, I tried to decide if it was she I should tell Randy's story to. It didn't really matter. I just wanted to be rid of it. Like a chain letter. But Momma was telling her usual story--a litany of memory, complaint, and conjecture--and of course I never listened anymore. Every day, when I picked her up at 5:30, every day the same. And there we were stuck in traffic again, my blue Mazda sandwiched between a ponderously slow semi and an old Chevy pickup driven by a skinny man with a caved-in face.

"Just look at that guy," I said to test her. Momma looked over at me. I tapped the rear view mirror. "Guy back there in the pickup."

She wouldn't turn around, although it did seem to quiet her down. "What?" she said, pretending not to hear me. "What?"

Could I tell her the thing the way Randy had? It was pretty hot to be talking, since I couldn't afford new air conditioning. Looking past Momma, I reckoned by the look of the sun-scorched umbrella-holders at the bus stop that it was still in the triple digits. Would she even hear me? I wondered.

After an eternity the light finally changed, the semi's gears ground, and I saw we weren't gonna make it. The driver of the semi had just invited us all to play Samaritan by allowing some unseen subcompact to enter the highway from a parking lot. I could see the driver's arm waving the unseen car in, and from the hesitation knew all hope had been lost.

"When it's hot, things are supposed to go faster," I heard myself say.

"What?" Momma repeated her ploy. "What?"

"We'll be home soon," I said. Momma smiled uncertainly, wiping the sweat above her lip.

"Well, you can take a good swim, anyway," she told me.

The thing about Momma, she often went with me to some apartment pool, but then she'd just wait in the car. I could never get her to risk getting out. Instead she'd sit, sweating, with that resigned smile on her lips. As if she were getting even somehow, in spite of it all. And it made me feel guilty to see her swimming vicariously through me, too, and I wondered what might happen if I stopped the ritual all together and just moved away. The more often we went to some oasis in the heat of summer the more vividly I'd imagine her at home, sitting there drinking her Bloody Marys, thinking about me motionless at the bottom of the pool, a victim of our boring life. Just like me, she was unwilling anymore to read the stories that might break the monotony. It was that suspension of disbelief thing. If you stopped treading water, you drifted down into the cold depths. Into the silence of a darker reality.

"It's hot," Momma said as the light changed again.

"And I'm hunger," I added, significantly. Then as we got back into the flow of traffic, the wind moving a little now, she felt safe enough to start mumbling something about Mary so-and-so and what if I'd married, and what the Bible said about the End Times, and in what ways her clinic's doctor was upsetting. And so I almost forgot to stop at the 7-11 for our lottery ticket. But then, out of the blue, Momma said: "Twenty-two." She was silent for a few seconds, and then she added: "Eleven." And when the 7-11 came up on the right I pulled right in.

"Nine," said Momma, almost hypnotically, as I killed the engine.

Practically every Friday for years Momma and I have bought one lottery ticket at the same convenience store, and then watched the lottery man draw a different set of winning numbers that night on TV. She doesn't call it gambling, just like she doesn't call her drinking drinking. We sit in a circle of television light, which is often the only light in the room, and we wait for the one night which never comes. Never, as they say, in a million years. As the balls drop, I always watch Momma's face for disappointment, but it's never there. There's only a quiet resignation, as if she no longer believed we had a chance, but breaking the habit was too much like admitting defeat.

When we got home I was about to tell Momma the story, but from the end of the couch where she always sits she lapsed into her old rhythm, and I knew it was no use interrupting her. I didn't listen consciously, either. I'd heard it all before. There were, I knew, a legion of bored and otherwise ailing senior citizens and I imagined that they had a network--like a kind of clique--and that the sole occupation of this substrata of society was the calling of other members to share their fears about the future, which Momma shared with me. I had occasionally wondered at the rare chance meetings Momma had with these people on the street, and that although they seemed surprised and said how wonderful it was to see her again after "oh so long," they would invariably keep talking on and on about Medicare cuts due to too many people in the system . . . and like how Ethel Edmondson, divorced president of the Eastside Ladies Garden Club, died in line at an eastside clinic. Ever since Papa died, Momma had been sitting on that couch of hers and listening to their voices on the phone. The habit had done things to her, and to me. When she called the Psychic Friends network over the phone, I often found myself listening from the hallway, or while I tried to drift into sleep. It was odd, that whispering. It was like listening to a conspiracy or like talking of the Rapture at church . . . and we hadn't gone to church since Nancy killed herself with ice cream.

Nancy. That was another story. When my sister turned 40 she weighed 260 pounds. That was also when Momma stopped nagging her about losing weight and getting married. And something different about Nancy can be tracked from that moment. Not long afterward she started eating Hagen Daaz ice cream by the quart. The rich, creamy stuff came in many incredible flavors, but Nancy had preferred Vanilla Swiss Almond. It was like any addiction. She had been a secretary who never exercised, yet always complained of being tired. She had her heart attack carrying a bundle of packages up a stairway at a shopping mall. At her death she had weighed 335. She was forty-two.

"Are you okay?" I asked Momma when I suddenly noticed that she'd stopped talking.

Momma just stared at me. Almost, it struck me, in shock. I went into the kitchen then, but didn't find much left to eat in the cupboards. So I announced that it was time to shop for groceries, it being late enough by then that the traffic was limited to workaholics, early diners, and teens cruising for fast food and even faster relationships. (The bulk of the middle class was, I imagined, already tuning into Barbara Walters and settling for leftovers.) Still, it wasn't until we got in the car the Momma finally stopped staring at me. She stopped mumbling too, which made me wonder how much she'd been eating lately.

Maybe she'll feel better after she eats, I thought.

When we got to the store the huge yellow arc lights of the parking lot were just coming on. An eerie neon haze perhaps due to smog surrounded the twisted glass tubes which spelled out FOOD WORLD. Inside, I was struck again by the immensity of the conception: gone was the corner suburban grocery like the one that used to be here. In its place were massive warehouses like this, dwarfing the shopper and exhaling cold air from galvanized ducts, its enormous morgue-like aisles stocked skyward with dead food waiting in jars, in cans, in boxes, in crates. Almost as if they expected a global catastrophe. BUY IN QUANTITY AND SAVE! the red signs screamed. And I remembered Momma once yelling at us "clean your plate!" and reminding us of starving Chinese children while Aunt Rose advised us to "Eat! Eat!" the cholesterolic hazards she so innocently concocted from the saturated excesses of butter, cheese, and beef.

Momma looked around us at the Food World layout, her face a mask. Did she suspect it was all replicated somewhere else--that this wasn't the only Food World? As I followed behind her grocery cart I watched her pick up a jar of non-calorie mayonnaise and look at the price first. While reading the ingredients some mechanism in her brain seemed to calculate whether the one justified the other. It was an exacting process, since she was suspicious of labels and advertising. I tested it by putting a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of white bread into her cart. She put the bread back, choosing instead the whole-wheat variety. She put the peanut butter back too, and chose Jif. "Choosy mothers choose Jif," I said. But she didn't hear me. Instead she continued to make her little piles in the bottom of the cart. Stone ground whole grain crackers instead of Ritz. Cottage in lieu of cream cheese. Skim replacing whole milk. All down the line she attempted to avoid any fats or chemicals she felt were dangerous, along with most of the additives, colorings, and preservatives which, although approved by the FDA, she couldn't pronounce and therefore condemned. Except for right then, Momma was always telling me what to avoid. I resented it when I thought about her drinking, which was exempt from her scrutiny, but I couldn't eliminate the influence from my subconscious. Perhaps it was like a computer virus. A secret program which scolded me and foiled any real enjoyment out of life. I didn't hear what she said as we passed the long hazy coffin-like freezers stocked with ice cream, but maybe I wasn't listening. I was only 37, and besides, they'd long since replaced the fatty ice creams with non-fat frozen yogurt, although that was just about as bad for you.

We had the usual long wait at the checkout because only two lanes were open. The other twelve aisles stood empty, lined with the computer-enhanced faces of celebrities on the covers of tabloids. The pulp novels with their supposedly exciting but unbelievable plots. "It's cold in here," Momma said suddenly, and not to me. It brought no reaction. People in supermarket lines are bad choices for conversation, I've often noted.

"Is heaven cold?" I asked Momma, to distract her, to draw her back.

"What?" said Momma. "What?"

"If hell's hot . . "

I debated hooked her with part of Randy's story then, but suddenly I remembered something from a poem instead… "Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. . . "

I couldn't recall it exactly. Just that I was one of those who thought ice would be nice. IN mid-summer I certainly didn't prefer fire, and hungry as I was while looking around me then, I wasn't sure if I preferred food either. Bulimic, anorexics, story tellers and poets . . . didn't they all have that same world-ending obsession in common? Didn't we all go to extremes to escape the truth? Didn't we all have our addictions? If that was true, perhaps it had to do with denial. And we all want to believe, but we can't anymore. Not in a world where everything is hyped and packaged and price tagged. Not in the real world, where teenagers get pregnant because they're still young enough to believe all the lies, and where it takes forever just to cross town in all the traffic, although you don't know your own neighbors.

"Cold," Momma repeated, shivering for emphasis. "But a' course some folks are so heavy I guess they don’t notice."

I thought about that. If only I'd married just like Momma wanted, a fat little bouncing baby grandchild might have kept her occupied. But then the opposite sex had never really liked me much, either. Just as men preferred slender blondes with sculpted body parts, women seemed to be waiting for slim exciting men with perfect smiles and convertible cars just like the stars in People magazine. They waited in dead end jobs, listening to love songs on portable radios, or at home watching soap operas--and all the images had them hoping there's more to life than there is. Naturally their boredom also led to food. But where was the excitement here, in the real world, in places like Food World? They just weren't being logical. Or if the logic was there it had eluded me. Especially their logic in succumbing to ruthlessly charming men whom later beat them or ran off with checkout girls with big bosoms. Or both. And what about bosoms themselves? They were only fat, weren't they? Wasn't fat something you were supposed to avoid?

"I'll need two pieces of I.D.," the checkout girl with the fake bosom told the fat lady in front of us with the grotesquely real bosom.

* * *

On the way home I actually started telling Momma the story's hook in order to break the silence, but then I remembered that without thinking I'd asked Eddie: "What do I do? Every day is the same. Each and every day I take my mother somewhere, go to work, and go home again. Every night it gets too cold for my mother and she turns on the heat. Then it gets too hot and I have to go for a walk. The only things she touches around the house now are the thermostat and the telephone. Do I go to night school, take up videography?"

Naturally Eddie hadn't been listening to me. He only pretended to listen to me as he ate, because he was really listening to Randy. Randy, who sounded more convincing than Dan Rather in describing how his friend Jim had gone over to see the Bermuda Triangle survivor late on evening in June when Nick had called, nuts about the heat. Caffeine in hand, randy claimed that Jim said that Nick swore it was already 138 degrees--and that his car wouldn't start. Nick sounded insane on the phone, saying it was all because he should have died in the Bahamas, and now fate had caught up. Worried, Jim drove over to Nick's house, far out in the country, down this long dirt driveway. And as he drove toward the house he looked up and suddenly stopped his car. He stopped, then he put the car in reverse and the tires spit gravel for two hundred yards backward to the highway.

"Why?" said Eddie?

"Yeah--why?" I'd repeated, the boredom--for just that moment--as real as the emptiness in my stomach.

"Because," Randy had replied, pausing only for a sip of Coke, "it was snowing."

I smiled at that. I remember I smiled.

* * *

Over dinner Momma sat at the same end of her couch by the phone and stared at me as I ate. I tore at my food, stuffing it in my mouth, not bothering with the taste. I never ate for taste when I was actually hungry, anyway. It was all hype, those commercials. And besides, I'd decided to tell her the story, no matter what. Between bites I even started it up with "Something weird happened and I'd finished the setup before I realized Momma hadn't touched her muffin or baked potato--much less her Bloody Mary. She was staring at me eating as if witnessing an indecency. Now she looked down at her plate, holding her fork motionless, silent as ever.

"What's wrong?" I asked her, finally. "Did one of your friends die or something?"

Momma looked at me. "Maybe," she said, almost hopefully.

"What?" I said. "What?"

And then she repeated the story. But not the one I thought I'd heart at all. Because no one had called her all week. And they always called her, she said. Every day they'd called.

Every day without fail.

I sat on the stool in front of Momma for a long time, and when she didn't say anything else I set aside my drink and then I decided to tell her a story all my own. It didn't much resemble Randy's though. There were no outer space aliens, no vortexes and spaceships. The way I saw it two people were tortured by things that had happened to them, or should have happened. Fate and chance hadn't been kind with them, you see, and time was no longer on their side. So they decided to sail off into the Bermuda Triangle to test the Fates, mainly because all their bad luck was used up.

It would be our best vacation ever, we decided. Momma would swim in the ocean, and if we never came back, well, that would be okay too.

In Posse: Potentially, might be ...